Improving Alpacas - Selection Intensity
We strive to better our game each and every season.
Therefore our goal is to continually improve desirable traits of alpacas with every new generation. Like improving your golf swing, this is something that requires a near obsession with the details, a tremendous amount of study, and a great measure of persistence. Selective breeding and improvement is a quest for perfection.
The first question is... what are the most desirable traits?
It's all about the fiber
Alpacas are fiber animals by nature, so a primary focus of improvement would be to increase the quality of their fiber production. Through selective breeding, the goal is to increase density and length of fiber (known as "staple") while also decreasing the fiber diameter (measured in "microns") to produce a finer and softer fleece. Those traits are commonly referred to as density, staple length, and fineness. They are the primary benchmarks of an improving herd. A second tier of traits that are also important characteristics of fiber improvement are a reduction in guard hairs, uniformity of staple length, increased crimp, and increased luster or brightness.
- Fineness - Diameter of individual fibers as measured in microns
- Density - Number of fibers per area of skin
- Crimp - A visual indicator of fineness and uniformity
- Uniformity - Consistency of micron count and color results in a more marketable fleece
- Staple Length - The staple measures length of fibers
- Brightness - A bright fleece takes dye evenly and looks more luxurious
But conformation is important too
Not only are we breeding for improved fiber traits, but there are physical traits, known as conformation, that we also hope to advance. Many of these are related to the improved health and viability of alpacas. For example, conformation traits such as head shape, proportions, and bone density are intended to favor alpacas that will be healthier and live longer. As production animals, a longer and healthier life translates into greater fleece production. Therefore, those traits are extremely important to improvement. Note that many conformation traits are often more easily identified when the alpaca is shorn.
How we improve our game - Selection Intensity
When pairing a male and female alpaca, the eventual genetic makeup of their offspring is known only by our creator. However, through measuring, collecting, and analyzing for the traits we want to improve, we can stack the decks in our favor and greatly increase the odds of improving those traits with each new generation. This is accomplished through intensely selective breeding. When making selective choices for breeding, the most critical point of analysis is consideration of previous offspring from a given parent, known as progeny testing. This allows selection of a parent that is proven to pass certain genetics to their offspring.
Just as small companies are known to be more nimble than larger ones, our smaller herd size allows us to more closely track and better analyze desirable traits. This leads to highly individualized breeding decisions that will help us to accomplish our goals. Likewise, our small herd size means that we partner with farms around the country to identify those ideal mates needed to make specific improvements. Rather than settling for a small improvement found within an individual herd, we are seeking substantial improvements found within the best of a nationwide herd.
This is an awesome part of our family adventure. We get to meet many other experts and top breeders from across the country while working to improve upon each generation of our herd. Along the way, we continue to learn valuable insights and make lifelong friends that will help us to educate and support farms approaching us for guidance.
Improving Alpacas through Nutrition
The performance and observable traits of alpacas are more than fifty percent dependent on environment and nutrition.
Like top athletes, our alpacas need proper nutrition and care to reach their full potential. However, renowned Alpaca expert, Dr. Norm Evans, has said that "one of the most common management errors that I see is in the area of feeding."
To the untrained eye, a nutrition related management error might appear as a genetic fault. For example, crooked legs in alpacas are known to be caused by a vitamin D deficiency that results in rickets. Meanwhile, the quality of fiber can be negatively impacted by both a lack of nutrition and by a diet with unnecessarily high protein levels (for example by feeding alfalfa hay).
Having said all that, Alpacas are surprisingly easy to take care of. In their native country of Peru they can thrive without any human intervention. However, the artificial environments created on our farms do not provide all the nutrients needed, so we must be intentional about their nutrition and care. Just as any serious golfer will tell you, poor nutrition compromises your ability to excel.
Most of the work involved in care and nutrition is gaining the knowledge necessary to help your animals thrive.
How we improve our game - Nutrition
- Testing, testing, and more testing: You know the old adage that "knowledge is power". When it comes to nutrition, knowledge empowers you to get it right. Testing of water, soil, hay, and pasture protein aids in feeding plans that allow alpacas to reach their full potential.
[For affordable testing of all these, contact Holmes Laboratory, Inc.]
- Monitor, collect, and analyze: Tracking animal health through monthly weighing and body scoring aids in identification of nutrition issues. Having a scale and keeping records are vital.
- Follow directions: Simple but important ... always supplement per feed tag directions to avoid toxic levels of copper, selenium, etc.
- Manage parasites: It's critical to stay on top of parasites by monitoring fecals and treating appropriately. In the best case, parasites have the potential to rob alpacas of needed nutrients, and in the worst case they can lead to death.
- Never stop learning: Taking classes, reading books, and networking with other alpaca experts continually provides new insights in raising and breeding alpacas that reach their full potential.
[The top resource for alpaca care and nutrition is "The Alpaca Field Manual" by C. Norman Evans, D.V.M.]
Improving Alpacas through Training
Alpacas, like golfers, are better able to maintain quality of life and achieve full potential if provided with consistent training.
For both alpacas and golfers, that training can literally mean the difference between living a long healthy life or a shorter more stressful one.
Alpacas are often described as amazing, intelligent, and inquisitive. They are peaceful and calming in both demeanor and the audible humming they use to communicate. However, because alpacas are prey animals and have no defenses, no matter how much we enjoy being around them, their natural instinct is to avoid close contact with humans. A tremendous amount of stress can be induced in cases of forced contact where the handler is attempting to help the animal with routine maintenance like shots or nail trimming. Repeated stress can even impair their immune systems. Therefore, it's helpful to halter train alpacas and get them used to being safely managed by handlers. Through the use of proper technique by handlers and training of the alpacas, routine maintenance can be stress free for all involved.
The result of routine training for halter and handling is a relaxed alpaca that complies with health maintenance without stressing and causing handlers to rush. Many consider training to be unnecessary, but reduced stress and a stronger immune system will result in a healthier alpaca.
Owners need training too
There are different types of training involved in alpaca ownership, but none is more important than training of the owners themselves. This training spans a diverse range of subject matters such as taxes, business, marketing, farm design, pasture management, and even animal veterinary care. Because alpacas are still relatively new to the United States, experts in fields related to those topics will not likely have the experience needed to make decisions on your behalf. An owner needs to read books, take classes, consult with experts, and learn from others in a quest to gain knowledge specific to their alpacas.
This is why it is so important to purchase your alpacas from a knowledgeable farm willing and able to help you get started. Many talk about mentoring but it's tough to teach what you don't know. So when you partner with a farm, you're not just partnering with the farm owners, but you're also partnering with the people they purchased from, their contacts, and their network.
How we improve our game - Training
Not only are we dedicated to continued growth through research and reading, but every year we attend classes and seminars to keep up on the latest information that might not be "in the books" yet. Through our network of friends, mentors, and consultants, we collaborate and gain valuable insights to address real world issues. One thing is for sure, now matter how much you know, there is always something new to learn. We continue to evolve and grow ourselves as we navigate this amazing adventure of life with alpacas.
Improving Alpacas through Competition
Preparing for and attending a show can be an awesome part of the alpaca adventure.
For some it's a chance to compare their progress against the efforts of others. However, everyone has the opportunity to meet wonderful new friends, learn from one another, attend seminars, view other alpacas from around the country, and even shop for your next alpaca with the best from every local farm represented at the show.
One of the most enjoyable parts of the alpaca adventure is the vibrant community of alpaca owners who work together, sharing information and helping one another on this almost magical journey. It's like a giant club for people who have discovered a life they had never dreamed of, with something new to learn almost every day.
As an exhibitor you'll have an opportunity to speak with visitors from outside the industry who are interested in learning more about alpacas. It helps to be prepared with specific facts and interesting stories to better inform those who are new to alpacas. Handouts and business cards are a must for both networking and to aid followup conversations.
If showing animals, you'll want to make sure your alpacas are halter trained. This is a big part of bringing your "A" game. The entire experience will be more enjoyable for you and your alpacas if they are trained appropriately. It's also important to keep the following tips in mind:
- Only registered alpacas can be entered in shows.
- Health papers are required to travel across state lines and a recent certificate of health from your vet, showing negative BVDV result, is required to attend most shows.
- All alpacas should be micro-chipped with the chip number indicated on the health certificate
- Don't forget to bring water, hay, and grain from home to feed your alpacas during transit and at the show.