Llamas are wonderful creatures. They are completely unlike any other type of livestock. Whether you raise llamas, are thinking about purchasing a llama, or would just like to learn more about these great animals, please read on. Once you realize how unique they are, you will wonder why you weren’t interested earlier.
Llamas originally are from South America; mainly the countries of Bolivia, Chile, Argentina, and Peru. They are related closely to the domesticated alpaca, and the wild guanaco and vicuna. They are distantly related to the camel. Llamas are much easier to care for than most other types of livestock, and provide many more rewards. They are also nice for the farmer that prefers not to butcher their animals because they are easily used for companionship and fiber. They can be used for many things, including breeding, fiber, packing, therapy, guarding, showing, and cart driving. They have been imported into the US since the late 1800s. They became very popular during the 1970s, and their presence has grown tremendously. Contrary to popular belief, well-behaved and trained llamas don’t spit on people or kick. They are much less dangerous than other livestock.
Llamas require relatively little care. Daily care includes: watering, feeding hay (in winter or when there is little grass), and possibly feeding grain/pellets (only for growing/working/breeding llamas). Every few days their pasture should be cleaned (pick up manure) to prevent health problems and parasite infestation. They need to be vaccinated once a year and wormed depending on the location and size of your herd. They also need to have their toenails trimmed every few months. Llamas are also fairly easy to house. They need some type of shelter (a 3-sided shed works for hardy adults in mild climates; more elaborate horse-type barns work great for all types of llamas), and pasture to graze. Intact males should never be housed with females, open or bred. Castrated/gelded/neutered males can be housed with females or intact males with minimal problems. About 4-5 llamas can be kept on one acre of land, provided that it is capable of producing good grass. Most fencing will work, but avoid electric or barbed-wire fence. Llamas are very respectful of fencing, but you may need to worry about keeping dogs and coyotes out of their pasture. Llamas also need fresh water and a mineral mix all year long. Winter is pretty easy on adult llamas. Crias may need more attention so that they don’t get too cold (cria coats/blankets are great for this). Care should be taken to make sure that water buckets aren’t frozen and that hay is always available. Summer, however, is harder on llamas. Fans are absolutely necessary if the temperature is over 75 degrees. Fresh, cold water is also important. All llamas should be shorn in the summer time to prevent heat stress. It is also helpful to “hose down” the bellies and legs of llamas when the temperature is over 85 degrees.
Llamas are fairly hardy. They need to be vaccinated once a year and wormed depending on the size and location of your herd. A common vaccination is Cd/T (clostridium plus tetanus), and common wormers are Dectomax, Ivomectin, Panacur, Safeguard, Strongid, and Corid. Their toenails should also be trimmed every few months. They need to be shorn at least once a year to prevent heat stress. A good quality grass or hay, free-choice minerals, and a grain (if needed) will keep most llamas in good condition and healthy. One of the most important things to do for your llamas is to find a good vet that is experienced or at least willing to learn about llamas. This could be the deciding factor in a life-or-death situation. If a llama does get sick, it is very hard to tell. Most of the time the llama is very sick before anything is noticed. It is necessary to learn how each of your llamas act to be able to easily tell if something is wrong.
Breeding & Birthing
One common use of llamas is breeding. Smaller farms usually have one or more breeding females that they take to outside farms for breedings. Larger farms usually will have their own herd sire (intact male) to use with their females (and outside females). Female llamas are normally bred around 3 years of age; males around 2-4 years. Some breeders breed their females earlier, but I feel that these females are too immature to carry a healthy cria. Some breeders also wait until the female is 4-5 years old, but I also feel that this is un-needed. By 3 years of age, the female is physically and mentally mature, and can carry a healthy cria. When deciding which female and male llama to breed together, make sure to compare the conformation and other traits of each to come up with the best possible match. Llamas are induced ovulators, which means that a female can be bred at any time. Depending on your climate, it is best to breed in March-May and September- November. During these months it is cool enough for the dam (mother) to be comfortable and warm enough for the cria (baby) to be comfortable. Breedings are most easily done by “hand breeding”. During this, the female and male are brought into a small pasture or pen to breed. This way, the breeding can be observed and a due date can be determined. The gestation of a llama is 345-355 days (11 1/2 months). They can easily go a month either way of this date. When the due date is getting close, the dam’s udder may swell, the vulva may enlarge, and she may go off by herself. (I use “may” because these things don’t always happen. It can be very hard to tell when the female is going to deliver.) Most crias are born between 11 am and 3 pm. Most of the time the dam will need no assistance (if you are lucky), but be prepared to help or call the vet if needed. The cria’s birth will normally last between one and two hours. Twins are pretty rare with llamas, but they are becoming more common. Once the cria is on the ground, it should be dried and weighed. Most crias weigh between 22 and 32 pounds at birth. You will also want to make sure that the placenta (afterbirth) has passed and that the cria has nursed. If one of these things has not happened within 6 hours of the birth, call a vet. Crias are definitely the best part of raising llamas, but they can also be the most devastating.
Llama fiber is one of the best uses of llamas, but it is one of the least common. Llama fiber has some very interesting characteristics, which is why it is so nice to use. It contains no lanolin (the oil found in sheep’s wool), so it is not greasy and is hypoallergenic (people are only allergic to the lanolin). An annual fleece grows about four to six inches per year, and weighs around three to seven pounds. The fiber from a llama can be used for anything that one would use any other type of wool or fiber. The best fiber comes from the barrel of the llama. The fiber is made up of two coats: the undercoat and the guard hair. The undercoat is soft and downy, and is what most people use. It provides warmth for the llama. The guard hair is coarse and is normally removed during processing. Guard hair provides protection from the elements (rain, snow). Any more, people are breeding llamas with very fine guard hair that is barely visible and doesn’t need to be removed. The fiber can be used for many things, including wet and needle felting, weaving, knitting, crocheting, and spinning.
Llamas are a wonderful alternative livestock breed because they can be used for many things. The most important part of purchasing a llama is deciding what you want to use it for. Each use has a particular “style” of llama that is best. You will want to get the best possible llama for your use. It is also very important to do a lot of research and visit many farms before purchasing the first llama. Llamas are herd animals, so they should never be alone (with the exception of guard llamas). It is best to have at least two llamas of the same gender to house together. Castrated (neutered/gelded) male llamas or females make great starter animals. They are more calm and manageable than an intact male, and they can also be pastured together. Once you have purchased your first llama(s), you will want to make sure that you have adequate pasture, water, and shelter before bringing them home.
Llamas make wonderful show animals. They can be shown in 4-H and open shows around the country. Most counties have 4-H clubs for llamas, and can be contacted through your local extension agent. There is also a national show organization, the Alpaca Llama Show Association, or ALSA. They host many shows around the country and also have regional and national shows that you and your llamas can qualify for. Llamas make great show animals because they have good personalities and are easy to train. They can be shown in a variety of classes, including halter (conformation), performance (agility), cart driving, and fiber. In a halter class, the llama is judged on how it is built and how straight its conformation is. In performance, the llama negotiates a series of obstacles and is judged on how it reacts and negotiates the obstacles. In cart driving, the llama pulls a cart and is judged on its training. In fiber classes, the shorn fleece of the llama is judged. Through ALSA, llamas can earn points from shows and receive awards.
Llamas make great guard animals. Most have a natural guarding instinct, and want to protect their herd. When frightened or threatened, a good guard llama will make an alarm call (a weird high-pitched scream) and go to investigate. Some will move the herd away from the danger and then go to investigate. If the llama feels threatened by something (such as a dog or coyote), it may stomp or kick the animal. Several have killed the intruder to protect the herd. If an adult llama is placed with smaller livestock (sheep, goats, alpacas) and allowed to bond, the llama will protect the other animals. They can also be taught to work with guard dogs and/or donkeys.
Llamas also make exceptional pack animals. They are easy to train to accept a heavy pack and follow a person almost anywhere. They can carry up to 100 pounds and can follow a person anywhere that the person can walk on two feet. They have a very minimal impact on trails (less than a human’s hiking boot) and don’t damage forage or trees. They are less-easily spooked than horses, and aren’t as dangerous. Small children can also ride a llama on the trails.