Llama & Alpaca History

Lamas (single “L”) include the Llama (double “Ll”), Alpaca, Guanaco, and Vicuna. Originating in the Central Plains of North America in pre-historic times, the lama’s predecessor migrated to South America. Their cousin, the camel, relocated to the Middle East and other regions of the world. The end of the Ice Age marked the extinction of the camelid in North America.

Llamas were domesticated in the Andean highlands of Peru thousands of years ago and are among the world’s oldest domestic animals. While primarily a beast of burden for the native herdsmen, llamas also provided them with meat, wool, hides for shelter, manure pellets for fuel, and became sacrificial offerings to their gods.

Similarly, alpacas provided fine fiber, meat, and manure pellets for fuel. There are two distinct breeds of alpaca, the “Huacaya” and “Suri.” The Huacaya’s fleece is very crimpy or wavy, while the Suri alpaca’s fleece hangs in pencil-like locks. The wild guanaco is a common herbivore of the arid lands, and the endangered wild vicuña is a fine-fleeced camelid of the high Andean mountains. Private animal collectors and zoos began bringing our present-day llamas to North America in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In recent years, llamas and alpacas have been imported from Bolivia, Peru, Chile and Argentina. Today there are an estimated 7 million llamas and alpacas in South America. Check with the information provided by the International Lama Registry concerning current numbers of lamas in Northern America.

Llama & Alpaca Uses

Llamas have international appeal, with countries such as New Zealand augmenting their fiber industry with llama and alpaca wool. As in ancient times, the llama today is important to the agricultural economy of the remote highlands of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, and Peru. In North America, the llama and alpaca industry is recognized as a viable agricultural entity. In the United States, llamas are used for light draft, fiber production, show, and companion and guard animals. Alpacas are used for fine fiber production and show. Llamas are great working partners and family pets. They have predictable, calm responses to new situations. Llamas are trustworthy. Their intelligent, gentle nature allows even small children to interact with them. The fiber of llamas can be spun and woven into sweaters, blankets, hats, and the like. Llamas are used in animal facilitative therapy because of their calming effects. Families can get involved with llamas in 4-H, Scouts, and other youth groups.

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The camelids are not ruminants, but they do ruminate. They have some differences from true ruminants: they have a three-compartmented stomach instead of a four-compartmented stomach; they have slower stomach motility; and their stomach movements are in the opposite direction. However, they should be fed and treated as ruminants rather than as non-ruminants (such as horses). The camelids are better at feed conversion than true ruminants. This means that it takes less to feed a llama than it would a sheep.


Llamas efficiently digests a variety of plant materials including: grass, leaves, bark, twigs, and grain. One acre of Wisconsin pasture can support four to five llamas. One small bale of hay will feed one llama for about a week. Forage (pasture and hay or browse) should be the main source of energy in the llama’s diet. At certain times, such as lactation, late pregnancy, early growth and during Wisconsin winters, grains (corn, oats, barley, etc.) are used to provide supplemental high energy sources.

An adult llama can do well with a maintenance diet consisting of only 8 to 10% protein. Growing weanlings, nursing moms and advanced pregnant mothers require 10 to 12% protein. The maximum daily dry matter intake for a llama is approximately 2% percent of body weight. Llamas may also require a vitamin and mineral supplement depending on their feed source. Selenium supplementation is required due to the extremely low levels in Midwest forages. Consult a livestock nutritionist or veterinarian for your area and feed sources. Fresh, clean water should be available at all times, however on the trail, one good drink a day can suffice. Daily water intake varies from 5 to 8% of body weight (2 to 3 gallons/ 300 lb. Llama).


Lamas have discreet bathroom habits. Their pelleted droppings, similar to a deer, are virtually odorless and are generally deposited in the communal dung pile. This neatness minimizes parasite contamination, reduces fly problems and makes cleanup easier for the owner. A lama’s effective digestive system also helps to eliminate introduction of noxious weeds into the environment. Llama manure is great fertilizer.

Structure / Housing

Llamas are environmentally sensitive, intelligent creatures. Their feet, comprised of soft pads with two toenails, impact the environment less than the boots of an average hiker, yet llamas are strong. A conditioned llama can carry approximately 25% of its body weight, making a llama as strong, if not stronger, than a horse relative to its size.


All of the camel family has a bad reputation for spitting. What experience has shown is that this behavior was developed for their interactions with each other, not as a way to relate to people. When lamas are appropriately raised and treated, they never spit in anger at people, only for fear of what a handler might be doing.


Lamas are gentle, quiet, sociable herd animals. They prefer the companionship of other lamas.


Lamas communicate by humming and clucking. They also use their ears, body position and tail to express themselves. Lamas can make a distinctive alarm call to alert fellow herd mates and human keepers of the presence of foreign creatures which they perceive as a threat. Male lamas also make an “orgling” noise during breeding.

Owning & Housing

Generally, there are no special permits to own llamas and they are easy to house and fence. A three-sided shelter can be adequate to house llamas even in northern states. A variety of barns, including old converted dairy barns, can provide excellent shelter. Appropriate ventilation is important, especially in the summer. Additional fans may be required to prevent heat stress, which can be fatal. When llamas are content with their companions and pasture they generally respect standard 4-foot fences used for other livestock.

The breeding males may require 6-foot fence when shared with or in sight of females. Llamas are quite athletic and agile and can easily jump 4.5 feet or crawl under a fence if they so desire. A small catch pen (10 x 10 feet) is often helpful for haltering and training. In some locations peripheral fences must be dog-proof, due to free roaming domestic dog packs, which can kill or injure llamas. With care, llamas can be kept with other livestock including sheep, goats, or horses. A single adult llama can be used with livestock as a guardian to protect them from coyotes.


Lamas are easily transported and generally ride sitting down, in the “kush” position. They can ride in a trailer, mini-van or truck. Some young or smaller lamas have even ridden in cars! Lamas are clean passengers and prefer to stop for potty breaks on longer trips

Physical Facts

Life Span: 15 to 29 years
Height: Alpacas 28-30″ at the shoulder, 4′-4’5″ tall and Llamas 36-47″ at the shoulder, 5′ to 65″ tall
Weight: 250 to 450 pounds, Alpacas on the low-side and Llamas on the high-side.
Average Gestation: 350 Days

Physical Differences Between Llamas & Alpacas

The llama is considerably larger than the alpaca and can further be distinguished by its flatter back, higher tail set, and larger, curved ears.


A llama may be solid, spotted (appaloosa), or marked in a wide variety of patterns (from tuxedos to paints), with wool colors ranging from white to black and many shades of gray, beige, brown, red, and roan in between.


Llamas produce fine, soft, lanolin-free wool that is light-weight and warm. It can easily be spun into yarn or felted. The yarn is strong and feels similar to angora or cashmere. The fiber can be harvested by shearing, similar to sheep, or by brushing. A full-grown coat can yield 5-10 pounds. Lamas are also shorn to keep them cool in the warm, humid Wisconsin summers.

Reproduction, Birth, & Babies

Females are first bred at approximately 24 months of age. Llamas do not have a heat cycle; they are induced ovulators (ovulation occurring 24 to 36 hours after breeding). Llamas can be bred at any time of the year and have an 11-month gestation. However, it is wise to avoid delivery during very hot or very cold months to reduce stress on mother and baby. A single baby (“cria”) is usually delivered from a standing mother (dam), normally without assistance. Most births occur during daylight hours, which is better for the cria and most certainly more convenient for the llama owners. Twinning is a rare occurrence. Normal birth weights are between 20 to 35 pounds, and the cria usually stands and nurses within 90 minutes. Depending upon the cria’s size and the mother’s condition, the baby is weaned at 4 to 6 months.

Health & Basic Medical Needs

Because their ancestors evolved in the harsh environment of the Andean highlands, North American lama owners have found them to be generally easy to care for. The recommended primary care of yearly vaccinations, routine wormings, and regular toenail trimming help llamas remain hardy and healthy.