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Raising ‘fascinating’ alpacas flourishing in Macon County

Mar 09, 2024

Deena C. Bouknight – Contributing Writer

While cows and horses grazing in fields are a commonplace sight while driving throughout Macon County, less ordinary is a pasture full of alpacas. Yet, the long-necked, fleece-laden, animals are being raised by an increasing number of individuals. One reason is because many people find them to be quiet, adorable, and fascinating creatures; another is that their fleece brings income. However, long-term alpaca owners – including Liza McArthur of Alpacas of Merritt Farm in Otto – counsel newbies that much more is involved that just placing alpacas on a grassy field.

In fact, Alpaca Owners Association (AOA), Inc. offers an “Alpaca Owners Guide” that is filled with information about everything from nutrition to behaviors to shearing, selling fleece, and breeding.

At one time, McArthur owned 78 head of alpacas, which are part of the camelids animal kingdom family and are smaller than llamas. She started off with five back in 2000 – four females and one male. The retired police officer had always been interested in working with fiber, and owning her own alpacas would give her an opportunity to not only acquire plenty of yarn for projects, but also to sell it to other spinners, knitters, and fiber artists.

She learned quickly that she did not need to have a male alpaca early on because its focus on mating was not only a distraction, but she was also not ready to establish a breeding program. Yet, she immediately began reading everything she could get her hands on about alpacas. She attended alpaca conferences, lectures, discussion groups, and networking sessions locally and at universities specializing in alpaca programs.

Eventually, McArthur became knowledgeable enough to begin a breeding program, and she joined AOA, which provided ongoing, helpful information. She helped start the Carolina Alpaca Breeders Association, aligned with AOA, but offering regional assistance. Additionally, she showed her registered alpacas, which achieved ribbons in various categories focusing on the animal’s characteristics, including their fleece.

For the last 23 years, McArthur has taken a sustainability approach to raising alpacas on her 10 and one-half acres.

“All of the fleece is used,” she said. “I even use the discarded fleece in my garden to naturally keep out weeds. And their manure is turned into compost.”

Plus, she has raised alpacas with the approach that a healthy, happy herd results in the finest fleece – shiny, durable, and super-soft to the touch. She makes sure the alpacas are fed quality feed and hay, have their toes trimmed properly, wormed when needed, vaccinated annually and sheared each May.

The two main breeds of alpacas are huacaya and suri, and McArthur has always owned the latter. “Suris have silky, long tendrils, while huacaya have fleece that is more crimpy, like sheeps’ wool. And when you see the suris running in a field with their fleece waving, it’s such a beautiful sight.”

An adult alpaca weighing about 150 pounds will produce between 2.5 to 10 pounds of fleece (fiber), depending on the type of alpaca, and it takes the skilled McArthur around 10 minutes to sheer one of her alpacas. She collects hundreds of pounds of fleece before she sends it off to a fiber mill. Often, she has it spun into natural yarn, or the mill might add color or glitter to some yarns. The weight and thickness of the yarn depends on what is requested. With thicker yarn, for example, McArthur has woven durable, soft rugs.

Currently, McArthur owns only five alpacas, babies that she has raised, and she no longer breeds. In fact, she has only males, with the youngest being 14. Alpacas live to be 20-plus years old if they are well cared for.

She has pared back because she has been raising her 13-year-old granddaughter, Eleanor, a student at Rabun Gap Nacoochee School and a dancer with the local Dance Arts Co-Op. McArthur plans to homeschool her granddaughter beginning the 2024-25 school year, so she has brought her alpaca herd down to a more manageable level to free up time.

“We both love them [the alpacas] because they’re darn cute,” said McArthur. “Eleanor and I work as a team. She is a great help and does a good job around the farm when she’s not dancing.”

McArthur expressed that although raising alpacas has many rewards, including their interaction, curiosity, and child-friendliness, keeping them safe from predatory dogs and coyotes is challenging – and she has experienced losses. Plus, alpacas are herd animals and do not thrive alone.

Visiting the meticulously organized and cleaned alpacas of Merritt Farm barn just a few weeks after her “boys” were sheared, McArthur calls each by name: J.D., with white fleece; Jackson, with brown fleece; Remington Steele, with both gray and white fleece; Dooley, considered a rose gray; and, Blaze, a beige color. As she enters the barn with a visitor, the alpacas’ eyes widen and their necks stretch to observe the stranger’s intrusion; but McArthur said when she and/or her granddaughter are in the barn and pasture, the alpacas interact with them in a friendly but respectful way – because of the time and attention taken with the animals since birth.

For more information about Merritt Farm, raising alpacas, or finding products made with alpaca fleece, visit Alpacas of Merritt Farm on Facebook or email McArthur at [email protected].