Alpacas belong to the camelid family and are descendants from the ancient camel which developed 3 million years ago. The so called Old World camelids are the Asian Bactrian Camel with two humps and the North African Dromedary Camel with one hump. Camelids migrating to South America became the New World camelids and can be divided into four species, the wild Guanaco and Vicuna and the domesticated Llama (Lama glama) and Alpaca (Vicugna pacos). All four are native to the Andes Mountains and are primarily found in Peru, Bolivia and Chile.
Alpacas were bred and domesticated thousands of years ago and became a part of the South American lifestyle and treasured by the Inca Empire. The luxurious alpaca fleece was reserved for clothing royalty and was called the "fibre of the Gods". Sadly alpacas and llamas were almost totally eradicated, together with the rest of the Inca civilization, by the Spanish Conquistadors in the 1500’s. The remaining stock was pushed to higher grounds, to the high Altiplano of the Andes, where it fell into the hands of peasant farmers. The alpaca adapted to sparse, low value vegetation and to extreme fluctuating temperatures with little or no shelter.
Both alpacas and llamas were used for meat but they also had more practical uses in the harsh mountain conditions. Alpacas provided clothing from their fleece while the llama was used as a beast of burden. Both animals became an essential part of the Andean everyday life, as they are hardy and easy to handle and care for. After a long and slow recovery process, the South American alpaca population is up but in other countries the numbers are still low.
Alpacas can successfully be kept and enjoyed by somebody with minimal farming experience. They are gentle, quiet animals who do not challenge barriers, hence there is no need for intricate fencing or yards. A standard fence is adequate and barbed wire or electric tape is not needed. Handling is made easy as alpacas are submissive animals and only weigh on average 60-80 kg.
Alpacas are herd animals, inquisitive and gentle creatures quickly becoming used to their human handler. A common question from people is if alpacas spit. They do sometimes, but generally not at people. When they spit it is usually over food and a display of dominance between the animals and not aimed at us. However, a person might be unfortunate enough to be in the line of fire but this occurrence is rare.
The Huacaya is the more common of the two alpaca breeds making up approximately 95% of the alpaca population in the world. Huacaya is characterized by a thick dense fleece growing at right angles to the body similar to sheep. see picture
Good huacaya fleece is dense, has a soft handle, brightness of sheen and frequently has a defined crimp. Huacaya fleece has amazing thermal qualities, is lightweight and incredibly soft making it ideal for hard wearing, warm garments with a luxurious feel to them.
The suri is the rarer of the two alpaca breeds, only 3-5% of the alpaca population in the world. This creates a higher demand and higher value for the suri compared with the more common huacaya. The main difference between huacaya and suri is the fleece, which on the suri hangs in defined pencil thin locks. The locks part along the backbone to form a “silky” curtain which can reach the ground if the animal is left unshorn. see picture
Suri fleece is known for its superb handle, beautiful lustre and soft silky feel. Suri fleece is ideal for processing and the result is a product with exceptional drape and lustre with a fine soft feel
Alpacas are hardy animals and require minimal care on a daily basis. The best way to care for your alpaca is to get to know them by observing their individual characteristics and to spend time with them in the paddock. This way you will know when something is out of the ordinary and can identify the anomaly before it becomes a serious problem.
Alpacas can be farmed quite intensively with 4-6 animals/acre depending on the quality of the pasture. With higher stocking rates more attention must be paid to under nourishment, internal parasites, communicable diseases and possible mineral and vitamin deficiency.
Due to the nature of the alpaca, they do not suffer from problems and diseases like other live stock. Alpacas have soft padded feet with nails on top, which eliminates foot rot that is often seen in sheep and goats. They are not susceptible to flystrike as there is no lanolin in their fleece. Daggy bottoms needing crutching or tail docking is another common problem with sheep but not so with alpacas, as they lift their tail and have a clean rear end. Alpacas also tend to concentrate their toilet habits to certain communal areas (dung heaps) where they leave the grass and do not graze, thus minimizing the risk of worms and parasites.
We can not stress enough the importance of this simple technique to check the condition of your animals. By feeling along the spine on the back of your alpaca you can easily determine if they are skinny, overweight or “just right”. The overall condition of your animal can have a huge impact on fertility or susceptibility for disease.
One procedure all alpaca owners should be familiar with is to give injections, both intra muscular (IM) and subcutaneous (SC). Your local vet will show you how to do it the first time and with some practice it is an easy task. Always keep good records of when you give the various injections.
Vaccination 5 in 1 – A multi vaccine which protects against Tetanus, Black Disease, Malignant Oedema, Blackleg and Pulpy Kidney. Crias should be vaccinated between 4-8 weeks, with a booster 4 weeks later. Adult alpacas should be vaccinated every 6 months.
Worming (i.e. Dectomax) – is normally given every 6 months.
Vitamin A, D and E (i.e. Hideject) – can be given every 6 months with an extra dose during the winter months for crias and pregnant females.
Other Routine Tasks
Toenails need clipping every so often as they do not
wear down on our softer pastures. Light coloured animals seem to grow
their nails quickly while darker animals might need lesser attention.
Clipping can be done when regular inspections are carried out.
Some owners do dung collection while others leave it up to nature. In most cases it will depend on the size of your paddocks and the number of animals, or if you object to bare patches at their communal dung site. The dung is easy enough to collect and it makes an excellent fertilizer after composting.
Compared to other classes of stock, alpacas are very low maintenance requiring minimal work. Routine tasks are easily carried out leaving lots of time to simply enjoy these wonderful animals. To give alpacas the best possible care the following should be considered:
The heavy fleece of the alpaca makes it difficult to assess the animals condition by just looking at it. A hands on examination is required and it is called body scoring. Feeling along the backbone and comparing with the score chart provided by the AANZ will give a good indication of the status of the animal. An overweight alpaca is undesirable but probably in no immediate danger. However, having a "skinny" underweight alpaca is in most case a sign of a more serious situation and should be further investigated without delay.
Alpacas are classed as "opportunist browsers" which means they are likely to try most things. They are incredible converters of low grade forage and thrive on harsher, poorer quality grass and pasture. As a matter of fact, a diet high on protein will produce a coarser fibre in most alpacas than in those on a poorer quality diet. Supplementing with hay, lucerne chaff and hard feed such as pellets is only necessary in the winter months for females and newly weaned cria. Supplement feeding is in most cases more to interact with the herd than out of necessity.
There are several toxic plants that can be harmful to stock and care has to be taken with alpacas. The AANZ have a comprehensive list of toxic plants but a local breeder or farmer can also help. Oleander and Rhododendrons can be fatal if eaten even in small quantities, so extra care has to be taken if such plants are grown in nearby gardens.
Rye Grass Staggers
To reduce pasture damage by the Argentine Stem Weevil, an endophyte has been artificially introduced to most rye grasses planted in New Zealand. The negative effect of this endophyte is the production of a toxin that effects the nervous system in animals, causing them to tremor or in more serious cases "stagger". Some alpacas are more susceptible to staggers than others while some are not effected at all. A slight head wobble is usually the first sign in which case the animal should be taken of the pasture and given non rye grass feed. The toxin pass through their system and a quick recovery is common. However, care should be taken with returning them too soon to the pasture as the symptoms might come back. If detected and acted upon in the early stages a full recovery is possible, while long term exposure to the toxin can leave permanent effects.
Facial Eczema or FE
This seasonal problem is brought about by a mycotoxin produced by a fungus in the grass during the warmer, more humid periods of the year. Facial Eczema or FE is more of an issue on the North Island where the summers are hot and humid. The conditions and spore levels can vary widely, even on the same property, but in general a warm ground temperature, humidity, light rain or accumulated dead matter at soil level provides the ideal environment for spore production. The fungal spores are digested or inhaled while the animal is grazing and effects the liver in most livestock. Alpacas are particularly susceptible to FE and the risk should be taken seriously by the breeder. The risk of FE can be controlled and minimized by pasture spraying, monitoring spore levels and by supplementing zinc by feeding special alpaca zinc pellets.
What is a homozygous suri?
Homozygous or homozygote is from the Greek "Homo" meaning the same and "Zygote" meaning pair. The biological definition is "a diploid organism that carries identical alleles at one or more genetic loci".
What We Know About Suri Genetics
1. There is a single gene that decides if an alpaca will be suri or huacaya.
2. The suri gene is made up of two alleles - one is passed to the offspring by each parent.
3. The allele that gives a suri fleece type is usually referred to as "S" or big S.
4. The allele that gives the huacaya fleece type is referred to as "s" or little s.
5. Suri (big S) is dominant over huacaya (little s).
6. If an alpaca has two little "ss" it will be a huacaya. A huacaya mated to a huacaya each can only pass on a little s so the offspring will always be a huacaya.
7. If an alpaca has two big "SS" it is a homozygous suri. A "SS" suri will always pass on a big S so the offspring will always be a suri as the big S is dominant.
8. A heterozygous suri has a big S and a little s (Ss) and on the outside (Phenotype) is not able to be distinguished from a homozygous suri as the big S is dominant over the little s.
9. A heterozygous suri will pass on a big S allele 50% of the time and a little s allele 50% of the time.
How To Use It
A knowledge of suri genetics is important for suri breeders, especially when trying to breed the elusive coloured suri as most will have huacaya in their background somewhere.
Homozygous suri sire (SS) crossed with a huacaya dam (ss) is a common breeding decision made by people wanting coloured suri and creates what is known as a first cross or F1. All of the offspring are heterozygous suri, the gene contains both big S and little s.
A backcross suri is created when a homozygous suri sire (SS) is crossed back over a F1 female (Ss). Again the resulting offspring will be phenotypically suri. There is a 50% probability they will be homozygous (SS) and 50% they will be heterozygous (Ss).
If a homozygous sire is continued to be used the probability of the offspring being homozygous rapidly increases. In the case of a second backcross the probability is now 12/16 or 75%.
Finding a Homozygous Male
The most simple way to confirm a sire is homozygous is to mate to huacaya females. The more suri offspring that are born the greater the chance the sire is homozygous. However, as soon as a huacaya cria drops you can be 100% certain the male is heterozygous.
The New Zealand alpaca industry is growing, with currently about 25,000 animals. Big steps and development has already taken place in countries such as Australia, USA and NZ. By sharing knowledge, plus being armed with great vision and support from our own AANZ, a truly high quality New Zealand Alpaca industry is being established.
What dictates the high price of alpaca?
The short and simple answer is low numbers and slow reproduction rate, but there is more to it than that. The high quality fibre is the real reason why the alpaca has a serious future in New Zealand with growing number of breeders. Take a closer look at the various factors.
Female alpacas are induced ovulators, which require a male and the act of mating to trigger the ovulation. This way there is no natural breeding season and the breeder can decide when in the year to have a cria (baby alpaca). Gestation is 11 ½ months and single births are the norm as twins are extremely rare. Artificial insemination is still at the experimental stage while embryo transfer (ET) is an expensive method making it unrealistic for most breeders. The natural way of reproduction maintains a slow growth rate.
The Alpaca Fibre
Alpaca fibre is superior to sheep wool and commands a higher price. Alpaca is warm, lightweight and incredibly soft, yet tough and hard wearing. Its superb handle, lustre and silky feel ensure it is sought after by high-end fashion for use in luxury knitwear and high quality textiles. The alpaca industry in New Zealand is growing and demand for fine quality fibre increases all the time. Alpaca has been appreciated by home spinners and the craft market for a long time and the New Zealand textile industry is waking up to this superb product and the potential it offers.
The “Pet Market”
Alpacas are mainly bred for their high quality fibre but also as unusual and interesting stock for the more adventurous landowner. The “pet market” is growing as people search for exclusive pets and recognises the beauty of alpacas. Alpacas are intelligent, inquisitive and gentle creatures and they soon charm their new keeper. They are very hardy animals and easy to care for, making them an ideal choice for the lifestylers or the small block farmer.
Alpacas in general do not challenge barriers thus make them easy to confine and handle. There is no need for intricate fencing or electric tape. However, some thought and planning should go into when setting up your alpaca enclosure. Many people new to the industry might not have previous experience with livestock and a few hints can make handling of your animals so much easier.
A standard seven wire fence is sufficient and there is no need for battens, as alpacas are not escape artists like goats or sheep. In general they do not challenge barriers and a higher fence is only necessary for stud males who might be in close proximity to females. If females are out of view the stud males will usually be fine in a normal paddock environment. Barbed wire or electric tape is not needed and should be avoided as it can cause more problems than its worth. With their thick fleece alpacas do not easily feel the tape and get frightened by the chock. Electric fencing puts unnecessary stress on them and there is even a risk of death if they get tangled in the tape and can not get free.
Try to get a flow between the paddocks either by directly connecting them or by using a central race. Another option is to design several wedge shape (like a cake) paddocks with a distribution pen in the middle. Always put gates in a corner of a paddock so you can herd the alpacas along a fence line towards the gate opening.
Yards and Pens
The gentle submissive nature of alpacas makes them easy to handle and there is no requirement for intricate ramps and yards. You can keep it simple by forming a pen in the corner of their paddock with two gates. However it does not hurt to have a small yard and a couple of pens set up as it can have very useful applications. Pens keep alpacas confined for mating and yards keep them and their fleece clean before shearing. A small yard or pen can also come handy if you need to separate a sick animal from the heard or have them under closer observation.
Again try to establish a flow through the various pens and make it possible to open them up into bigger pens. Making your set up versatile is the key for effective and easy herd management.
Sheds and Shelters
Alpacas do not need a lot of shelter. Being used to harsh climates they can cope with most type of weather and temperatures. If you have some contour to your land you will find it being sufficient in most cases as they will find a sheltered spot somewhere. However, it is recommended to make sure there is some kind of wind break for them and also shade in the summer. Again that can be natural in form of a shelterbelt or trees, or it can be purpose built. There is no need for intricate buildings, as you will most likely find the alpacas not using them. Alpacas do not like feeling trapped and they avoid enclosures or low rooflines. If you build a shed make it as large and light as possible or you will find it empty most of the time.
Each paddock or pen should have at least one fresh water supply as alpacas can drink a fair amount especially during the hot summer months. Together with some shade the water supply will make sure your alpacas wont suffer from heat stress. You might still notice one alpaca hogging the water supply on hot days, in which case some extra water buckets might be needed in the paddock for the other animals. There are a number of useful water sources for cooling from sprinklers to paddle pools.
If possible, talk with other breeders before you set your place up. It is amazing how much easier ideas flow when there are two heads involved. Everybody has slightly different views and success with shelters and pens, but there is always something to learn or improve.
The main goal for all alpaca breeders should be to constantly improve on the animals, which not only benefits the owner themselves but the whole alpaca industry in New Zealand. You should ask yourself where you want to go with the breeding and where you, as a serious breeder, want to be in a few years time. How quickly your stock can and will improve depends on several factors.
-First you have to consider the quality of your females, as they provide the base for your breeding program.
-Then you have to consider the genetic traits of a stud male and match him with one of your receptive females.
-Finally you have to decide if previous progeny has improved, in which case the procedure is repeated.
The truth of the matter is that most females will be used for breeding. In an ideal world we would only use perfect females, but with normal breeding we can reduce and many times eliminate the undesirable trait and improve on the progeny. What is important is to identify both the desirable and undesirable features on your female and use that knowledge when selecting a stud male. Be critical when looking at your animal but also be patient as some things might take two or even three generations to fully change.
Males and Stud Selection
The next step is to choose a suitable male, which can be confusing given the number and choice of sires among breeders. Do not just settle for any male, instead try to find one that will positively contribute to your female and improve their offspring. Remember that 50% comes from the female and 50% from the male and you want to achieve the best possible mix of the two.
If your aim is to breed animals with a certain colour, it is important to look at the family tree of both your female and the possible male of choice. If the stud has mainly light coloured parents and grand parents he is more likely to throw a light offspring. Find out about previous females he mated and their colour and see which combination produced what coloured cria. It might not be an exact science but it will give you a good indication of what you can expect. Colour genetics can be a complex and sometimes confusing field but some excellent research has been done by Elizabeth Paul in Australia.
Improvement of the fleece quality should always be a priority (we find that more important than colour) and the following can be an example of how to achieve this. If you have a female with dense fleece coverage but her microns might be a bit on the coarse side you need to find a male with a finer fleece than hers. If the male has good micron, crimp and a dense and even coverage, he will most likely produce a cria with an improved fleece quality over your female. By doing this every time you mate your females you are slowly but constantly improving on the quality of your herd.
Males and Wethers
In the alpaca industry only the best males will be used for breeding. As mentioned earlier most females, if healthy, will be used for breeding and mated with a male to improve the offspring. With males however, we should be more selective and only take the best of the best. There is no point of breeding from a male unless he will positively contribute to the females’ genes.
Pregnancy test spitt-offs are usually done with stud males but some breeders keep a male intact as a dedicated spit off male. Being a spit off male is an ungrateful task but he can be a valuable asset on the farm. By having a spit off male and by using him regularly on pregnant females any dropped pregnancy will be discovered early. A good spit off male is gentle with females, a loud orgler and one that takes being spat at with good humour.
The other boys not making the stud selection will become pets or pure fleece producers and in most cases wethered when old enough. We suggest waiting with the castration until about 18 months as we have seen cases where the male has grown into a tall gangly alpaca when wethered too early. Having said that, waiting too long can bring its own problems such as fighting. Wethers are equally lovely animals and make great role models when it is time to wean the young.
It pays to understand the mating process of the alpaca and the effective way of managing and maintaining pregnancies. Regardless if you are a big stud or only have a couple of females, a good mating program is essential for successful breeding. Visually, little is seen on the female indicating her pregnant until the last month or so. Therefor, a lost pregnancy can go undetected for many months resulting in a big delay if you do not have a “follow up” program in place. Here are three steps to easily manage your breeding program.
The female is said to be ready for mating a couple of weeks after giving birth and certainly there is no reason to wait if her previous pregnancy and birth was normal. After all, she will not sit for the male unless she is ready. However, some studies show that 18 days is required for her to return to normal, which is why we (at Paqocha Alpaca) usually wait three and sometimes closer to four weeks before we re-mate our females. As the females’ follicles develop on the ovaries she is sexually receptive and this state can remain for up to 12 days. Ovulation may be induced by the act of mating if mating occurs during this time.
Young females, maidens, are introduced to males between 12-18 months of age. Some maidens sit at once but some are slower to learn the art of mating. The first introduction can be frightening to inexperienced maidens and most probably they will be reluctant to sit. If you can have them in sight of males and even seeing and hearing other matings it might give them an idea of what to do.
In general, you would have the female in a small pen and introduce the male to her. If she is in the receptive stage she should "go week at the knees" and drop into cush almost instantly, ready to accept the male. Sometimes she might need a bit of encouragement from the males orgling and a short chase around the pen. However, if she is reluctant to sit she is obviously not receptive. Instead of forcing the issue the process should be repeated the next day and continued like that until she accepts the male. Once she sits the mating is pretty straight forward and can last for as long as 40 minutes.
The act of mating triggers ovulation which normally occurs between 24-72 hours afterwards. If ovulation occurs progesterone is released in the females’ body, which causes her to spit off the male. However, if she does not ovulate the progesterone is not released and she will be receptive again after the 72-hour period.
Spit Off Test
We spit off test our females after seven days to make sure she has ovulated. If she sits and accepts the male, she is not ovulating and we will let them mate again. On the other hand if she spits at the male and try to get away it means her progesterone level is high and a good indication that she has ovulated. This first spit off test indicates ovulation but not necessarily that she is pregnant.
We will then perform a second spit off test after another seven days (14 days after mating) to check pregnancy. The progesterone that was released at ovulation is gone from the system after a 12 day period if she is not pregnant, which means the female will be receptive to the male again. However, if the female still spits at the male at the 14-day test it is a good indication that she has conceived.
The level of progesterone will remain in her body during the pregnancy, which makes it easy for us to check by further spit off tests. We will continue to check our pregnant female at 14 days intervals until we can confirm the pregnancy with an ultrasound. If our female sits for the male during the spit off tests we re-mate her at the time and the process starts from the beginning.
Ultrasound and Continual Management
An ultrasound can be performed as early as 35 days but in some cases it can be difficult to determine fetus development. We would also highly recommend a later ultrasound around 90 days to further confirm pregnancy.
Once you have a positive ultrasound it is advisable to continue with spit off tests on a regular basis. Once a month is a good guideline. If at one of those spit off tests the female sits, we might perform an ultrasound to check the condition of the foetus. If it shows that she has lost the pregnancy we will re-mate her and start again.
With continual spit off tests it is easy to manage pregnancies and you can confidently look forward to a new cria after 11,5 months.
© PAQOCHA ALPACA
Queenstown, South Island, New Zealand
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