Mehlhaff’s llama-like alpacas welcome S.D. winter weather

Mehlhaff's llama-like alpacas welcome S.D. winter weather
They look a little bit like a miniature version of a llama. For good reason.

Dr. D.C. Mehlhaf's small herd of the animals, which live in a small fenced-in lot at at Alice Peters' home in Meckling, are related to the larger, hump-backed desert dwellers.

Unlike camels, however, alpacas grow thick coats of wool. The nip in the early morning air that has accompanied fall's arrival here doesn't phase them; they are even impervious to winter's chill.

Mehlhaff owns 15 of the animals, counting a herd made up of male, female and baby alpaca. Two of his animals, he added, will be sold soon.

"I didn't have any place to go with them, and Alice said if I put up the fence, I could bring them here," Mehlhaff said, "so I put up the fence."

Alpaca fans raise the animals primarily to produce breeding stock they can sell to others who want to diversify their alpaca herds.

The owners also experience a positive fleecing each year. Alpaca fleece, common termed fiber, is a valuable commodity.

Alpacas are considerably smaller than llamas and unlike them are not used as beasts of burden but are valued only for their fleece, used for making blankets and ponchos in South America, and sweaters, blankets, socks and coats in other parts of the world.

The fleece comes in more than 22 natural colors.

"I got into raising them to enable my kids to have some pets to enjoy, and to help fill up their time and teach them some responsibility," Mehlhaff said.

He's interested in breeding the animals in order to have the opportunity to raise young alpaca, but he has no plans to enlarge his herd.

"I want to sell off the babies as soon as they become available," Mehlhaff said. "I've got six breeding females, and that's the number I want to keep the herd at."

Alpaca, like camels, are members of the camelid family, he said. "Camels and llama and alpaca are related, and alpaca are native to Peru, Chile and Bolivia.

"The high altitudes of the Andes Mountains is there natural habitat," he said. "Winter is not a problem, cold is not a problem, but summer heat is a problem, so your shear them once a year."

The thick coat of Mehlhaff's alpacas are shorn usually in early May, to help make summer's warm temperatures more bearable for the the animals.

The herd has an incredible resistance to cold weather.

"Twenty below (zero) is no problem for an alpaca," Mehlhaff said. "During the summer heat, you have to provide them shade, and you have to provide a shed for them because they don't like rain, either."

They may not be as large as camels, or be strong enough to serve as pack animals, but they and there larger relatives share other characteristics.

"They can go without food for several days, and they can go without water for several days," Mehlhaff said. "Overfeeding them will make them sick."

They do best with a low protein diet, primarily of grass hay. Occasionally, the herd is fed alfalfa hay, but if they munch on too much of that, they can become ill.

"We have a baby that's two weeks old, and another one that's seven weeks old," Mehlhaff said. "And we have a third one that's probably about nine weeks old."

Adult female alpaca can only bear one calf a year, and the gestation period is 11 months.

"So your herd doesn't multiply very fast," Mehlhaff said. "You're only getting one baby a year, and you have such a long gestation period."

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