by Kara Heinrichs of Ann Arbor Alpacas
Throughout the United States, alpacas are generally shorn once a year. Because of the high summer heat and humidity common in the Great Lakes region, most Great Lakes breeders shear in April, May, and June. Alpacas are fiber animals and are being bred up every year to exhibit denser fiber so heat stress is a very real and deadly danger for them. Barrel cuts can be OK (clipping only the fiber around the middle of the animal), but most Great Lakes breeders prefer to remove all or most of the fiber if possible. When shorn, each animal yields 5 to 10 lbs of fiber per year (2.5 to 7 pounds of prime fleece and 2.5 to 4 pounds of seconds).
Some owners do their own shearing, but many hire professional shearers to come to the farm. Different owners and shearers also have different shearing preferences. Alpacas can be shorn laying down (much as sheep are shorn) or standing up (much as llamas are shorn). Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages. The real key is to do whatever creates the least stressful experience for your alpacas (especially pregnant females) while producing the highest quality clip with the highest yield and lack of second cuts.
The clip is sorted and bagged and then either stored for later processing or sale or sent directly to a fiber co-op or mill. Sorting the clip involves separating the blanket, also called the prime (the fiber from the sides and back of the animal, which is the highest quality), from seconds (neck and bib fiber generally, which can be shorter and/or coarser than the blanket) from thirds or discards (the fiber from the legs, tail, and belly, which is generally not usable in garments and is discarded by many breeders or used in other ways).
Care and preparation of the animals prior to shearing is the key to getting good quality fiber off of the alpaca. Each animal has a genetic potential for producing fiber of a certain quality and color, but the specific fiber production (actual quality and quantity) is directly affected by nutrition, climate, and overall health. The value of the fleece is additionally affected by its cleanliness, especially the absence of vegetable matter like sticks and straw and dung.
Most breeders don't wash animals prior to shearing (unless someone has had an especially big roll in a mud puddle). Unlike sheep, alpacas don't have lanolin or other heavy oils in their fiber which means that it's usually enough to shake out the dust and pick out any debris from their fleeces before shearing. It's also uncommon to brush animals before shearing--brushing pulls out fibers and disturbs the "lock structure." Instead, various means like vacuums or cool blowers or beating wands are used to shake or pull out dust and as much debris as possible. Since most animals will only put up with this sort of prep for so long, the fleece can be futher picked clean once it's removed from the animal. Many breeders use skirting tables (mesh surfaces that dust and debris can fall through) to lay out the fleeces and finish the cleaning.