Raising Llamas: More Than a Just Pretty Face

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The llama is lovely but can have a willful disposition.  
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A llama standing proud and aloof.  
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Llamas possess dainty yet strong legs.
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When raising llamas, you'll find they're very social animals.

I spotted the pastured animals before I pulled into Harlan
Harris’s driveway. And that first glance was enough to
alert my senses to the strangeness of the beasts.
Their slim legs appeared too frail to support the thickly
wooled bodies … and — as I pulled off the road
for a better look — the herd, acting in choreographed
unison, lifted their long necks and turned their graceful
horse-like heads to get a better look at me .

The animals posed — motionless as statues —
until I came close to the fence … whereupon, still
acting as one, they exploded across the field. I was amused
to notice that the peculiarity of the creatures was
maintained even in flight, as their sprinting gait involved
lifting both feet on a side simultaneously!

The mysterious beasts were, of course, llamas (Lama
glama
). Natives of the South American Andes, they’re
rapidly gaining popularity in the United States in
the eyes of livestock keepers who use them as pack animals,
raise them for the wool they produce, or simply are
fascinated by the beasts’ personalities! In fact, the
purpose of my journey was to visit a gentleman who
has become so adept at raising llamas he supplies them to such eager buyers … Mr.
Harlan Harris from Tacoma, Washington.

From Humble Beginnings…

Harlan first became interested in llamas some ten years
ago, when a friend brought an aged animal back from a trip
to Las Vegas. Harris borrowed the beast to lend a bit of
life to his Christmas nativity scene … and he was
astounded when 25,000 passers-by stopped to see and ask
questions about the gentle “actor.”

It seems that Harlan was fascinated by the elderly llama,
too … because it wasn’t much more than a year later
that he purchased two young animals for his own ranch.
Today he maintains a herd of about 18 llamas (the number,
of course, fluctuates as new animals are born and others
are sold).

Made for the Mountains

Most of the folks who purchase llamas, Harlan told me, plan
to use them as pack animals … a purpose for which the
South American natives are well suited. The hemoglobin in
their blood has an unusually well-developed ability to
absorb oxygen — a trait which makes the animals at
home at high elevations — while their deceptively
slender legs are fully able to support hefty loads over
steep, rocky terrain. (A 200-pound male llama is capable of
carrying up to 130 pounds, and covering up to 20 miles a
day when doing so. Folks who “pack” the animals regularly,
however, usually try to load the beasts with about half
that weight.)

The little load-haulers are intelligent as well. In fact,
Harlan estimates that the average llama can learn enough to
begin functioning as a pack animal after about 20
minutes
of training!

Nobody’s Perfect

There are, of course, a few small problems that you should
know about before setting out to establish a homestead
llama herd. For one thing, the first meeting between a
horse and one of the “humpless camels” is often a traumatic
event. While the llama will probably be unaffected by the
encounter, the larger animal is likely to spook at the very
sight of the “peculiar” South American beast. (But once a
llama and a horse become accustomed to each other’s
company, they’ll usually get along fine!)

As a general rule, llamas are loyal and gentle. They do,
however, have their limits and — like camels —
are capable of hissing, kicking, and spitting to show their
anger. Fortunately, the animals seldom use such “talents”
on humans … reserving them, instead, to show their
displeasure with other members of their flock.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: Some llamas will spit at people when
angry: A breeder we know passed on a simple solution to the
problem, though. He just dresses in old clothes

since llama saliva can be pretty
rank-smelling
and then lets the animal
“have at” him, without reacting to the “insult” at all.
Alter an hour or two, he reports, the llama will become
bored with the game … and the habit will be broken for
good!]

More often than not, a llama will show any dissatisfaction
with its master or mistress (usually as a result of being,
according to its standards, overloaded or worked
too long) by lying down. A beast of burden that protests in
such a manner won’t likely budge until the problem is
remedied … and no amount of cajoling, begging,
swearing, prodding, or pushing will affect the animal’s
decision.

Gathering Wool

Of course, a llama keeper who raises his or her beasts for
wool is less likely to be faced with a balky animal than is
a person who’s concerned with the creature’s pack-carrying
ability. And llamas do produce a high-quality wool. When
sheared once every other year, each adult animal can be
expected to yield 6 to 12 pounds of thick, light fleece … which is (at the time of this writing) worth around $1.40
per ounce (retail, cleaned and carded).

The animals have two-layer coats … an outer fleece
composed of (relatively) long, coarse hairs and a softer,
finer underwool. Furthermore, you can gather the valuable
fibers either by shearing or by combing your
llamas. Sheared wool will contain both outer- and
underwools. On the other hand, should you choose to
“harvest” with a comb, you’ll obtain mostly the downy
underfleece … which is similar to that produced by such
fine wool sheep as Corriedales.

Better yet, llama wool doesn’t contain the oils that sheep
wool does, so — while one can expect a 30 to 40%
weight loss after washing the fiber produced by a flock of
ewes — llama fleece doesn’t lose any weight when it’s
washed! What you shear (or comb) is what you get … and
it’s all usable!

The Andean animals occur in a rainbow of colors, too
— including reddish brown, a mottled pattern known as
“moromoro”, snowy white, butterscotch, and velvety black
— so it’s seldom necessary to dye their wool before
using it in home spinning projects. (Once spun — and
lightly twisted — the yarn must be washed in warm
water, with a mild detergent added, to set the “twist” of
the cord and remove any “wet dog” odor.)

Llamas as Personable Pets

Young llamas are possessed of almost insatiable
curiosity, and make very beguiling pets. They’re friendly
by nature, too … quickly attaching themselves to other
animals and to their owners. They’ll even “chum around”
with dogs! (But, I’m told, there’s nothing more
pathetic than a lonely llama … and, for that reason, some
breeders will sell their animals only in groups of two or
more.)

Harlan’s herd belongs to an “extended family” that includes
Mediterranean miniature horses, pygmy goats, and dwarf
Sicilian donkeys … and — as far as the llamas are
concerned — all of the animals are “close as kin”
(except for one particularly ornery billy goat, which they
view as a pest).

Because of the breed’s ability to make friends with other
creatures, an “only child” llama will usually be just as
happy with attention from its owner and “different” pasture
mates as it would be in the company of another of its own
kind. (Male llamas, in fact, will fight to establish
dominance when kept together … though an unlimited
number of females — with a single male, if offspring
are desired — can be kept together without problems.)

Care and Keeping

In their native South America, llamas obtain the bulk of
their food by grazing on the coarse grass found in the
semi-mountainous regions they prefer. Therefore, the beasts
will be more than satisfied with almost any pastureland you
can make available to them. Harlan supplements his animals’
foraged diets with an alfalfa (75%) and orchard grass (25%)
hay. And such “extra” rations would be absolutely necessary
in areas where the available pastureland is under snow
during the winter months.

On the other hand, llamas don’t need expensive
grain (although they enjoy having it as a treat once in a
while). Aside from forage, hay, and plenty of water, your
woolly charges will require only a few sticks to chew on
(to keep their teeth from growing too long, especially
during the cold months when the animals might not have
other access to such “chewy” fare) and a minimum of
shelter.

In mild climates, llamas can often find all the weather
protection they need underneath a grove of trees. A simple
three-sided shed will increase the animals’ comfort, though
… and a more or less permanent structure will be
necessary in areas that typically experience wet, snowy
winters or very hot, dry summers.

Finally, a llama keeper should be certain to vaccinate his
or her animals against “blackleg” (Clostridium
chauvoei
), and to worm them (check with your vet to
determine the appropriate anthelmintic) twice a year.
Otherwise, the “South Americans” are hardy and easy to care
for.

Worth the Wait

As you’d imagine, the fact that llamas are valuable and
versatile animals is reflected in the price that they can
bring on the market. The cost can be as variable —
according to Harlan — as is the length of the wait
between ordering one of the beasts and actually taking
delivery. Prices range from $400 to $1,000 for males and
$2,500 to $3,000 for females. (The latter, of course, are
more valuable because of their ability to expand the herd.)

Since it’s now illegal to import llamas from South America
— and because the demand for North American-raised
animals is steadily increasing — it can take as long
as two years to obtain a llama (especially if your
requirements of color, age, sex, etc. aren’t flexible). In
many cases, however, it’s possible to acquire an animal
within several months.

The limited availability of the beasts is due to a simple
lack of supply. Although a female llama can be bred at
three years of age, you see, the gestation period is a full
eleven months, only one kid is typically born at a
time, the little one will have to nurse for at least
four months, and the youngster will have to
remain with its parent for another four to six
months after weaning before it can be sold. As you can
imagine, then, several years can be required to even double
the size of a herd. (However, llamas live for 20 years or
more, so once your herd is developed, it’ll be around for
awhile!)

Of course, not every homesteader or ranch owner
will have a use for these strange-looking animals. But
folks who need reliable, sure-footed pack beasts … who
want to grow their own unique wool … or who simply want
to raise the animals to sell could hardly go wrong by
obtaining a llama or two. (As far as I’m
concerned, it’d be worth owning a few just to
watch them!)