Tim & Laurel Shouvlin 3617 Derr Rd. Springfield, Ohio 45503
ALPACA HUSBANDRY (care)
The purpose of this part of the website is to give folks an introduction to the care of alpacas. Be forewarned that this page is very lengthy. It is our goal that at the end of reading this section, you will have a fairly realistic understanding of what managing alpacas entails so that you can better ascertain whether or not this is something you are willing and able to do.
First and foremost, you should consider all of what is written here, as solutions and systems that have worked for us. Do not assume that these methods will automatically work for you. We want to provide readers with a spring board to find what is best for the owner and their alpacas in their particular situation. In the case of medical advice on treatment protocols for alpacas, you should always consult a veterinarian in your area. In fact, before your alpaca sets foot on your land, you should already have a veterinarian lined up to care for your animals in case there is a need.
Secondly, it is very important that owners have at least two alpacas, never just one. These are herd animals and they will not do well if they do not have another alpaca companion. If you can only afford one female, then at least purchase a gelded male to keep her company. You may even be able to borrow an animal from the farm you are purchasing from, just to guarantee the companionship they require.
If you visit farms across North America, you will find that many alpaca owners employ many different methods to accomplish the same thing. This does not make them right or wrong, only different. Housing, pasture, feeding, worming, and inoculations will vary depending upon the individual circumstances, as well as by region. For instance, grazing management here in Ohio will be very different from the milder and wetter regions of the Northwest, or the dry and sparser areas of the Southwest. While heat and humidity are a concern at our farm, they may not be a problem for those raising alpacas in Maine.
Part of the wonder of the alpaca is its ability to adjust to most of the climates found here in North America, perhaps with a little bit more human intervention in areas of extreme. Below we offer information about several topics that are important to the care of alpacas. Because alpacas are relatively new to North America, much of the information available is not backed by research studies, but rather comes from the every day experiences of alpacas, their owners, and their veterinarians. It is important to keep this in mind as you think about how these ideas will work in your individual situation.
Shelter can be anything from a straw bale structure with one side open to the elements, to a barn with heated floors and heated, automatic waterers. You should allow a minimum of 20 to 30 square feet of space per alpaca. For two years we used what are known in our part of the country as Amish barns. These are the small, barn-like, portable structures that people often purchase or have built for their lawn equipment. The advantage to these is that they can be moved with heavy equipment such as a tractor, and because they are not considered permanent buildings, they are not factored into property tax (at least this is the case in our area, check with an accountant before you assume this). They are also much less expensive than a permanent barn and yet can be safely electrified.
In this photograph you can see what we call an "Amish" barn. We have found that these barns are well built, can be ordered to specific sizes and moved from pasture to pasture if needed when equipped with skids. They are very affordable when compared to permanent housing and yet "feel" permanent with their excellent construction. Our first alpaca housing was one of these barns and though we have a newer barn that serves us well, we still make excellent use of these barns and sheds.
Many have attempted to find the perfect flooring for barns. Some prefer dirt, others concrete, and some even use wood. Often availability and expense are the determining factors. Many frown on the use of sand flooring for it may get into the fiber, lowering the fleece quality. We chose concrete for its ease of cleaning and permanence. It seems to help keep the alpacas cool during the summer, but may not be as comfortable to lay on as sand, dirt, or other flooring choices might be.
It is almost guaranteed that the alpacas will pee and poo in the barn and many an owner has tried to come up with ways to keep their animals from doing this. The concrete allows for easy clean up, but no drainage of urine, while the dirt or crushed stone floor requires periodic removal of urine soaked gravel. There is no perfect solution. We have found that putting a layer of wood stove pellets under the straw bedding will help absorb some of the urine and its odor.
In the winter, the barn floor is covered in straw. Straw, with its hollow stem, serves as a great insulator. A deep bed of straw will do a great deal to keep the alpacas very comfortable during the worst cold spells. Except in extremely cold temperatures below freezing, the barn is always open to allow the alpacas to move in and out freely. The thick straw bed helps provide insulation for their lightly fleeced stomachs, while their insulating fleece keeps them warm on top. Wood shavings and sawdust generally are not used by breeders for they have a tendency to get caught in the fiber, compromising the quality of the fleece. I have only closed the alpacas in at night during weather extremes when the temperatures have fallen below zero, in degrees Fahrenheit.
In the summer, even in the worst heat and humidity, you will find the alpacas out lying on their sides in the full sun. Your first reaction is that they have died from heat exhaustion, but they are simply sunning themselves. In the summer it is important to offer shade for them to escape the heat of the sun if they need to. A breeze is also very helpful, and if you have the luxury of building your barn, you may consider situating the barn and its openings to enhance air circulation. Otherwise you may have to use fans. Some breeders offer shelters without walls to allow maximum air movement.
Caution must be used when purchasing fans. Many available fans are designed for homes, not barns. Their housings are not designed to keep the dust that is generated in a barn, out of the motor compartment. This makes them very susceptible to burning up and starting a barn fire. Farm stores and catalogs offer fans that are more appropriate to the barn environment, and though more expensive than those offered at a department store, their safer design is money well spent.
For added cooling effects, in the drier regions of the country, misters, similar to those used to keep vegetables fresh in a grocery, are placed in areas to provide evaporative cooling, but here in the Ohio Valley, they are less effective. Some will provide sprinklers or soaker hoses for the alpacas to cool themselves with. Another technique is to soak a patch of sand to allow the alpacas to cush (lay down on their bellies) for cooling. Beware of allowing access to ponds or other deeper water. Repeated soaks can cause the fiber to rot and break off of the alpaca. There are also parasite and disease concerns in some areas of the country, with fresh bodies of water being a vector. Also water matting the fiber down actually interferes with heat dissipation and can cause problems. Standing water in a pasture also can be a hazard in the winter, for alpacas can fall through the ice and drown.
Converting older barns for alpaca use is always an option, but for the beginning alpaca breeder, it might be helpful to have a knowledgeable breeder come and advise you on how to renovate the barn to meet the needs and safety of alpacas.
This is a photograph of our relatively new barn with recently shorn alpacas in front. There are also two mounds of dirt which the alpacas love to play on, young and old alike. They have their special version of "king of the mountain".
There are two overhangs on the north and south sides of our barn allowing the alpacas to get out of the weather or hot sun. The other end looks identical, but opens into a parking area and the end doors are wide enough to drive a tractor through. The barn also includes a vet room, bathroom (highly recommended), office, and feed/tack room.
Fencing & Protecting Alpacas
Optimally, it would be best to have extra pastures to rotate your animals onto, so that pastures can have recuperative periods and to prevent overgrazing. If you plan on taking your alpacas to shows, or if you plan to have alpacas moving on and off the farm, it might be wise to set up a quarantine pasture to prevent spread of disease. Obviously, money and space will determine what is best for your farm and animals.
While fencing is constructed to keep the alpacas in a designated area, breeders cannot ignore the reality of threats from predators. At our farm, the greatest threat is from stray or loose dogs. We have, but don't worry about coyotes. Some areas do have to worry about coyote, puma, bears, and/or wolves. Many of the farms in our region have experienced injuries or even death of an alpaca (or llama) from either the "dog next door", or strays.
For this reason, we have constructed our fence with the primary focus to keep predators out. Unlike the west, where ranchers worry about pumas and bears, we, fortunately, only have to worry about dogs and coyotes. Our fencing, called non-climb, is 5 feet tall, and very sturdy. Two electrified wires run along the outer perimeter at 6 inches and 24 inches above the ground. These wires are there to prevent a predator from either digging under or climbing over. The small spacing between the fence wires, 2 inches by 4 inches, helps protect animals from getting their legs or necks caught. It also makes it more difficult to climb. You can click on the image to make it larger. It is recommended that the non climb fence be woven fencing as opposed to welded. The woven fence is sturdier and will last much longer, but, of course, costs more.
Occasionally you will hear about an alpaca or llama getting caught in traditional cow or field fencing. By cow fence, we mean the woven wire that is 4 feet tall and has smaller holes on the bottom, gradually getting larger to 6 by 8 inch spaces as you move up to the top of the fence. These spaces are large enough for the alpacas to put their heads through. Their long necks allow them to stick their head back through another hole and they are trapped. This is a relatively rare occurrence, but if we were to put up new fence, we probably would avoid using this type.
Another type of fencing that has become popular for livestock, is high tensile or New Zealand fencing. This is simply horizontal strands of especially strong wire strung between posts. There are no vertical wires and the space between the horizontal wires can vary, as can the number of wires making the fence taller or shorter. The wire can also be electrified.
While High Tensile is very reasonably priced, and relatively easy to install, it is less accepted by many raising livestock because of the risk of entanglement. We have personally had to cut a white tailed deer out of our garden fence after it became entrapped and was slowly electrocuted to death. The longer necks of the alpacas make them even more vulnerable, and therefore, we strongly discourage using this type of fencing. If you do have high tensile, it is imperative that you check the tension to insure it being taught, to help minimize the risk of animal injury. Many have used high tensile very successfully for alpacas, but we would strongly discourage its use. Pictured to the right is a horse killed in hi tensile(very graphic).
A fence height of 5 feet is generally the rule with alpacas because they do have the ability to jump, but many folks use a 4 foot height. Some dogs are capable of going over a 4 foot fence, but it is very unusual that they could go over a five foot. Usually it is an amorous male that has the tendency to test fencing in search of a "date". Board fencing is, without a doubt, the most aesthetically pleasing, but does little to guard against predators. It is possible to use board fencing to divide interior pastures and use a more secure fence to form the perimeter. When money is not an obstacle, board fencing with more secure fencing lining it is a pleasing compromise.
To boost security, many breeders have acquired livestock guardian dogs. These are breeds of dogs that have been developed through the centuries to protect flocks of sheep and goats. There are quite a few breeds from around the world and some excellent sites on the internet to explore their use and training. In the spring of 2006, after photographing the coyote pictured above, we decided to acquire 2 livestock guardian dogs. Actually we did this more in response to dog attacks that we had heard about. Here are our two Great Pyrenees puppies. One needs to do thorough research, though, before you decide on a breed and learn how to train them. It isn't as simple as just going out and buying a member of the breed, for they must come from good stock to guarantee their success. Also, it will be a year or two before you can count on the dog to be an effective protector, unless you purchase an adult with livestock guarding experience.
Here is a picture of our "guardian goat". Actually he was not a guardian, but a pygmy who was a stray, rescued off of the side of a country road. We were so nervous that the alpacas would hurt him, that we went to great lengths to protect him in a separate corral. He immediately escaped into the girls' pasture where he proceeded to order them around. We then called him Sergeant Major or Sarge for short. You can tell from the photo that he was not taken very seriously by our girls. Sarge left us for the great pasture in the sky several years ago, but thoughts of him still make us smile.
Some breeders also use llamas as guardians. In our opinion, using llamas to defend or protect alpacas is unfair. Llamas have an advantage of size over the alpaca, but even one dog can place a llama at a terrible disadvantage. While llamas can make excellent sentries, we can not encourage their use as sole guardians. You will hear of many success stories, and perhaps their size has a great deal to do with this, but there are many stories of disastrous results, where llamas have been placed in this role. If you are interested in using llamas in this way, please be sure to find a reputable breeder who is knowledgeable about guard llamas. Not every llama has the personality to be a guardian, so please do not assume that all llamas will fill this role. A knowledgeable llama breeder will be able to identify those llamas in their herd that they feel will suit this purpose.
The feed we use is made and sold by Custom Milling, a mill located in Georgia. After doing a great deal of research, we began to make arrangements to have this feed shipped from their mill, even though shipping is such a large portion of the price per bag. This is a fixed formula feed, which means that one batch is identical to the last because they utilize the same ratio of the same ingredients each time they make the feed. Many feeds are mixed on a least cost formula basis which means that they use the cheapest ingredients to come up with the right nutritional content. You can read more about this feed on our Alpaca Nutritional Products page.
We feed this ration once a day, however, some will feed twice a day, morning and evening. We provide more to our ladies that are in late pregnancy or are nursing and less to the boys. Special attention is given to the weanlings as well, to make sure that they are getting adequate amounts of food in light of the recent loss of milk in their diet. Some will provide the weanlings with a creep feeder. This is an area only accessible to the young alpacas so that they do not have to compete with the larger alpacas to get their food. It is usually a small corralled area with a narrower and shorter gateway to keep out their older friends.
Alpacas are similar to the true ruminants cattle, goats, and sheep. Their stomach has 3 compartments (instead of the 4 chambers in true ruminants), and they chew a cud. This digestive design makes them fairly efficient at food utilization. In other words, they are "easy keepers" and can easily be over fed and become pudgy. Diet should primarily consist of forage either in the form of pasture or hay. Except in times of stress such as late pregnancy, illness, or extreme cold, the hay is usually comprised of grasses with very little in the way of legumes (alfalfa or clover). They do not require the higher proteins that the legumes provide and will become overweight if fed too much of them. There is some concern that feeding alpacas and llamas too much in the way of grains and concentrated feeds may lead to problems such as obesity, liver disease, and gastrointestinal obstruction.
Caution must be used in the case of pelleted and ground up pelleted feeds. While these are excellent for providing alpacas with a specific measure of vitamins, minerals, and nutrients, their ability to expand in size when combined with water can lead animals to choke. "Choke" in alpacas refers to clogging of the esophagus or the tube leading to the stomach, not blockage of the wind pipe (trachea). It is a medical emergency though, and sometimes requires veterinary intervention to relieve it. Sometimes the alpaca can dislodge the food, or the breeder can massage the esophagus externally to move the blockage on. If not relieved, the alpaca will be unable to swallow their food and the saliva that they secrete in copious amounts. This can quickly lead to aspiration and pneumonia. Choke is easily identified by the repetitive regurgitation of saliva with some food particles mixed in. Sometimes the alpaca can fix the problem themselves, but if it is not relieved in a few minutes by the alpaca or the manager intervening, a veterinarian needs to be called.
In our area, orchard grass is the preferred grass for both hay and pasture. The alpacas find it very palatable, and it is readily available. Different areas of the country have better luck growing different grasses, though. It is always best to consult with experienced breeders in your area, as well as with extension agents about forage material that might be best suited to where you live. Even within a county, soil conditions can differ enough to warrant the use of different grasses, so take advantage of your extension office by consulting them.
There are two grasses that should be avoided. The first of these is rye, which when eaten, may cause a disorder known as rye grass staggers, where the alpaca appears to be drunk or wobbly. This usually occurs during growth spurts of the grass such as in spring or fall after dormancy has been relieved with rain. It is caused by a chemical imbalance in the alpaca after ingesting too much of the rye. Denying access to the rye will provide cure.
The second grass is tall fescue, which can be responsible for fescue toxicosis. A fungus growing symbiotically with this grass, is toxic to cows, alpacas and llamas. It can cause abortions, poor milk production, and other problems. Unfortunately fescue is a very hardy grass that has been used extensively in the United States for pastures. The following web site has a great deal of info on fescue toxicosis and includes information on where you can get your fescue tested for endophyte presence. Varieties of endophyte free fescue are available for pasture use, but you must be sure to acquire it from a reputable source. Again, your local extension office should be able to help you find what will best suit your particular conditions
The other variable is in the hay itself. Each growing season will affect the quality of hay, as will the fertility of the soil it is growing on, and the timing of the cutting. Many breeders actually have their hay tested for nutritional content, because protein, fiber, and other nutrients can vary tremendously. We have found it very helpful to establish ourselves with an experienced hay farmer who is very conscientious about the hay they sell. This type of farmer often will have analysis of the hay they are selling for you to inspect, and they may have several different types and cuttings which provide different nutritional options. We prefer second cutting hay for it is less stemmy, and is preferred by alpacas 10 to 1 over first cutting which is less palatable.
You will find as you read more information elsewhere, that sources will rarely offer information about the number of alpacas you can have on a per acre basis. This is simply due to all of the variables involved. Generally you may keep 6 to 10 alpacas per acre, but the quality of your pasture will influence how much extra hay you may have to provide, if any. The greater the crowding, the higher your concern about parasites, over grazing, and destruction of the pasture.
Mineral supplementation is also important. Most livestock require minerals, usually administered in the form of salt or mineral blocks or granules, and offered free choice. Again, different areas of the country lack different minerals such as selenium, copper, and zinc to name a few. It is important to speak with a veterinarian or alpaca breeder in your area to determine what you may require for your animals. In our area, there is a mineral mixture available to make up for what our area naturally lacks. The following minerals are the most commonly deficient in alpacas: Calcium, Zinc, Selenium, Copper, Iron, and Phosphorus. Care must be taken not to give too much of these for excesses can be harmful as well. Again, speak with a local veterinarian or breeder about what may be necessary in your area.
We shear annually in April or May to harvest the fiber and also to help the alpacas cope with the heat and humidity of the summer months. As you look at alpaca pictures in magazines or on the web, you might see various "hair styles" on the animals. In some areas of the country, complete shearing is not necessary to tolerate the warmer months, and breeders will leave some fiber on their animals to demonstrate the fleece quality. "Poodle" or "lion" cuts, where only the blanket or prime fleece around the trunk of the alpaca is removed, are fairly popular.
Sometimes to provide a window for the heat to escape, only a belly cut will be done. In this case only the fiber on the abdomen is removed. Shearing makes the alpacas look absolutely silly and it is always a shock for the first week or two after shearing to see them in the pasture without their clothes on. It is important for those who show their alpacas to know that barrel, lion, and poodle cuts are no longer allowed in the ring.
About half of our fiber is shipped to the Alpaca Fiber Cooperative of North America. Sometimes we will sell fleeces directly to spinners and hand crafters, or have it processed at small mills here in North America. The possibilities are numerous and exciting.
As the male alpaca reaches sexual maturity, he develops canine teeth. We have never heard of any incident where a breeder has been bitten with these, but, we suppose it may be possible. These are found in pairs on the top and bottom jaws in anywhere from one to 4 pairs. The males will use these as they spar, in an effort to emasculate each other, so they must be removed. Again a general anesthetic may be used and the canines are cut off using any of the above mentioned methods. This is only done once or twice early in the male's life after reaching sexual maturity. Gelded males usually do not grow canines, but this is dependant on when they are gelded. On occasion, females will grow canines, but since they do not fight like the males do, they are left alone.
As alpacas age, wear and tear on their teeth can cause unevenness that will demand attention, for it can cause eating problems. The procedure is called "floating" the teeth and is often done on older horses. Again some anesthesia is typically required and the molars are filed by the veterinarian to even their surface and eliminate this problem.
Some regions of the country use an "8 Way" vaccine that offers CD/T as well as 5 other components. Others may want to add a rabies vaccine and in states such as Ohio, this can only be administered by a veterinarian. There are some other inoculations that may be appropriate to different areas of the country, so it is wise to check with a qualified local veterinarian about this or, at least, an experienced local breeder.
Any of the medications used to treat alpacas and llamas are considered "off label". This means that the use of these meds has not been studied and approved for alpacas. It takes a great deal of research money to move medications and their dosages into an approvedstatus, so dosages are extrapolated from their use in other species, especially sheep and goats. Trial and error over the last 20 years has improved our knowledge tremendously and veterinarians recommend using certain wormers without hesitation. Typically the dosages guidelines are the same as those for goats or sheep, and determined by the weight of the animal. It is imperative that you check with an experienced camelid Veterinarian or knowledgeable breeder before you implement a worming program, or administer any other medications.
In our area, the biggest and most dangerous parasite threat to alpacas and llamas is the meningeal worm. This parasite has its life cycle shared between the white tailed deer and slugs or snails. Alpacas can also be infected and while it is not a problem in the deer, it can be fatal to alpacas. The alpacas ingest the eggs of the meningeal worm by accidentally consuming a snail or slug while grazing. Eventually the matured worm will travel to the spinal cord of the infected animal and nibble away at the membranes and nerves. This can obviously lead to problems with the neurological system. There is treatment once diagnosed, but infection can still be fatal, or the alpaca can show the effects of infection even after cured. To the right is a diagrammatic representation of the meningeal worm life cycle from www.llamapaedia.com.
From Dr. Stephen R. Purdy, DVM - Chester, Vermont: Meningeal Worm - Diagnosis, Treatment, & Prevention
From Dr. David Anderson, DVM - Ohio State University Meningeal Worm - Infection In Llamas & Alpacas
Throughout the summer months, we treat to prevent this parasite, but usually supplement the worming program with another wormer at the end of the seasonafter a good freeze, inorder to eliminate the worms that the meningeal worm medication doesn't affect. As with the administration of any medication, it is best to check with your Veterinarian first to guarantee that your parasite program will be effective.
Fortunately, alpacas do not seem to be prone to external parasites as much as sheep and goats are. Lice and scabies are not typically problems, but there are parasitic controls for them and these come as injectables or topicals.
In our area ticks are also a problem from spring to mid summer. Tick paralysis is a reaction to the anticoagulants present in the tick saliva. This will cause nervous system symptoms and can ultimately cause death if untreated. It is important to try to control ticks in your pastures by keeping deer and other wild mammals out and brush down.
Flies can be especially annoying to all livestock, and alpacas are no exception. Pictured here is an "Amish" fly trap weighted down with stones to keep it from blowing away. A liquid bait mixture rests underneath the wire mesh box. A piece of mesh shaped like a pyramid with a how at its peak makes the floor of the pyramid. The flies attracted to the bait fly upward and then crawl through the hole and become trapped. As we hope you can see from this photo, they are very effective at capturing flies, and we like this method as opposed to using insecticides.
Breeding Alpacas One of the most important decisions an alpaca breeder can make is the selection of a herdsire to whom they will breed their female or dam. One of the best pieces of advice we have heard for beginning alpaca breeders, was to buy the best female they could afford and to delay purchasing a herdsire and breed to the best herdsires they could find. Often owners will sell a breeding or bred female and be willing to "throw in" a gelding as a companion, or at least sell one at a much lower price.
Any breeding program should always be attempting to "breed up". This simply means that with each generation, the herd should be improved in its conformation and fiber. Of course, this is the intent, but often the best laid plans do not come to fruition, since we cannot control exactly what will "pop out", but the breeder should always be striving to improve the faults they see in their dam by breeding to a herdsire that counters those weaknesses. There is no perfect alpaca, and we can always improve either fleece or conformation. The key is to come up with a specific plan and stick with it.
The alpaca gestation is 335 to 365 days. Once a female is bred, she usually delivers at the same time each year for the remainder of her life. Different farms prefer different delivery times. At Bluebird Hills Farm, we try to keep to a schedule where all of our females are bred to deliver in mid to late spring. This gives better weather for the delivery itself with the cria growing while its Mom is on the best pasture of the year. The sun is at its most intense to help with the creation of vitamin D which, in turn, aids in the absorption of calcium for strong bones. Additionally this prevents the mothers from being in the later stages of pregnancy during the hot summer months.
Alpacas are induced ovulators. Either penetration of the cervix or chemicals in the male's semen stimulates a ripened follicle (cyst on the ovary containing an egg) to break open. This is called ovulation. The alpaca does have a cycle of waxing and waning follicles, but she will not actually ovulate without this stimulation. She conveys her willingness to be bred, by cushing, or laying down on her stomach and allowing the male to mount her. Successful breeding will usually take 15 to 60 minutes.
If the female has ovulated with a previous breeding, she will not cush and will spit at her suitor when they are brought together a second time. This is called "spitting off" andimplies that she has, at least ovulated, and potentially conceived. The female must be teased several times over the next several months to confirm the pregnancy, though. This is done by bringing a male in to her to check her receptivity. Most breeders will also confirm pregnancy byat least doing a blood check of progesterone levels, or even an ultrasound.
A typical breeding regimen would be something like this. Introduce the open female to theherdsire and allow breeding. Wait 48 hours from that breeding and reintroduce. If she is receptive, allow her to breed again. Wait one week from the last breeding and recheck receptivity. If she is willing, allow to breed. Except for the initial two breedings, you do not want to breed more than once a week, for the cervix may get damaged and resultant scar tissue could interfere with future conception.
The breeding dam spends most of her life pregnant. She actually likes it that way, and will flirt at the boys' fence until she is pregnant. There are different breeding management styles. Some folks will field breed. In this scenario, the herdsire is put into a pasture with several open females and allowed to do his thing. This is very similar to the natural way of breeding in South America. Unfortunately, it makes determination of due dates a bit "iffy".
Hand breeding is much more specific. The male and female are brought together to breedand then separated. The female is checked for receptivity 2 days later and, if willing, she is bred again. One week later, the female is again teased with a male. If she refuses to breed, she has probably ovulated and could be pregnant.
Progesterone testing can be done at 21 days and thereafter to confirm pregnancy. This is a blood test and can produce both false positives and false negatives. Ultrasound is a very effective means of detecting pregnancy, but is a little bit pricey and not all Veterinarians own the equipment. It may be used by inserting the probe into the rectum (transrectally) from day 16 to 45. It can also be performed transabdominally after day 45, but gets more difficult as the pregnancy progresses. Interestingly, transrectal ultrasound (actually inserting the ultrasound probe into the rectum) is usually better tolerated by the alpaca than transabdominally (on the external surface of the abdomen).
Males are capable of breeding at age 2 to 3 with many settling females at even younger ages. Some claim males as young as 6 months have sired a cria, which may be a good reason to remove the male weanlings from the girl's pasture as soon as they are weaned. The usual practice is to use a male no more than once a day, but this can vary between farms depending on the number of females to be bred. Not many farms are large enough to require a male so frequently. More frequent breeding can lead to lower sperm counts in the ejaculate which may decrease the chances of fertilization. Exposure to excessive heat can also decrease fertility, so it is important to keep active studs cool.
Age to first breed females is another topic of concern. At Bluebird Hills Farm, we will not breed a female until she is 2 years old. Breeders use many different criteria to determine the age at which they will breed their females. Some will use weight as a guide, others will use age, and some will use behavior (flirting at the fence).
In South America, it is likely that the alpacas girls are bred at one year of age. Here in North America, we expect our animals to live longer and breed longer. We anticipate them living and breeding perhaps as late as age 20. The alpaca does not actually reach its full adult stature until it is between 2 and 4 years of age. Just as I would not want my 12 year old daughter to have a baby, I do not wish an immature alpaca to go through the stresses of pregnancy, birthing, and motherhood. It is our belief that even though they may be willing and able, in the long run, it may not be best. In order to guarantee that all of our yearling female's energy goes to their own structure and bone growth, we keep our girls open until age two. In other words, they complete growing themselves before they start growing and sacrificing for the growth of a cria. The extra months spent attaining adulthood are considered an investment doing as much as we can to guarantee a long and healthy life in sound body.
There is much more to be written about alpaca care. This "short course" is a simple effort to provide a quick overview of the basics so that those new to alpacas or those considering alpacas can acquire a bit of information to help them with their decisions. There is nothing better than to attend alpaca related events or courses to really obtain the best and most current information from breeders and veterinarians.
The chart to the right demonstrates the heritability of certain traits such as fleece and conformation. It illustrates that fleece traits are highly heritable and easily changed from one generation to the next, while conformational traits such as leg set, topline, and tooth alignment are less heritable and therefore more difficult to improve.
Tim & Laurel Shouvlin 3617 Derr Rd. Springfield, Ohio 45503