February 08, 2011

By: Carol Karsten

Getting Started in Alpacas

Selecting Foundation Stock

There is nothing more important than the selection of your first foundation female alpacas, and no one will know exactly what you need better than you yourself will. That being said, I encourage you to visit as many farms as you possibly can squeeze into your hectic schedule before you buy one single alpaca! Get your hands on animals, get to know what a straight topline actually feels like, what straight legs and proper carriage is all about. Watch an animal that catches your eye walk around, follow its movements. Make sure, if you are not offered it, to ask to see the bite on an animal. Learn as much as you can about fiber -- attend seminars that will help you learn about the industry and about fiber. You still need to be thrilled with what you buy and as educated as you possibly can be about the female or females you are considering – and you need to have a clear idea of what your breeding goals are as well. I strongly encourage prospective new breeders to keep looking and asking questions of the breeders they are visiting, until they are confident enough in their own ability to stand in a pasture, look at fifty females, and point to one, two or three and know those are the ones they want to examine more closely. Over time, you will develop in your mind's eye, if you take the time to learn as much as possible and observe well, a picture of your personal alpaca ideal. In an industry which, rightly or wrongly, does not have a breed standard it is important that you develop one of your own. At the same time, be prepared to get all the necessary information to ensure that your budget will not only provide for the animals but for their proper care and accommodation.

As anyone engaged in livestock breeding will tell you, there is only one time when you can select for multiple characteristics, and that is when you are acquiring foundation stock. Once you bring that animal home, you are challenged to select for one specific characteristic. Thus, the more you know prior to selecting foundation stock, the better equipped you will be to make informed decisions that can affect your breeding program for many years to come! After all, if you bring young females home, they will be in your pastures (unless you sell them) for twelve to fifteen years. I have females I selected as weanlings back when I started out that are in their teens now, and those tried and true-blue females still produce elite, banner-winning results for me.

Bottom line, I would suggest starting out with bred females, or young maidens that have reached the age when they can be bred -- that way, you can actually select the breeding, particularly if you are buying from someone who has a variety of top-quality stud males. Now, when buying bred females, pay close attention to the stud male used to breed them. Is he available for view? Does he have cria on the ground that prove his ability to throw quality? Show ribbons are nice, but there is nothing like living examples to afford you an opinion as to the ability of this male to reproduce his type and improve on the females presented to him. Does he have any particular faults that are also present in your female -- in effect, will waiting the eleven plus months make sense? Some traits are more heritable than others, too. Conformation (or correct physical structure), for the most part, has a very low coefficient of heritability, so if you cannot breed for it, the best you can do is ensure that your females and the males to whom they are bred all possess correct physical structure. Even if an animal possesses a certain positive trait, being able to see his offspring will give you some idea of whether or not he can reproduce that trait. I consider genetics offered by the male a very important element, but remember, the very best "upgrade male" in the world will only be able to do so much. I like to tell new breeders to buy a female from which they would be thrilled to have a male. Then, add an awesome male into the mix that complements all the good aspects of your female and has areas of strength that your female lacks, and you are doing the best that you can -- this is livestock breeding after all, and there is an element of surprise, both good and not so good, involved. Time becomes one of the biggest costs to alpaca breeders -- there is nothing free about a "free breed-back" if it is to a male that does not have strengths to counter the weaker points in your female. Believe me, all females, no matter how ‘elite’ they are, have weak aspects that can be improved. When seeing the male, you should ask the owner what he/she would change about him. Here again, no matter how celebrated, there is no perfect male with nothing that could be changed! With respect to males, I do counsel new breeders to really defer on purchasing a stud male -- the economics is simply not there at the outset. A lot of people tend to buy a male the minute that first adorable cria hits the ground, if not before that. It is understandable not to want to see that cria disappear onto another farm for a two-three month period during its "maximum cuteness phase," but a lot of us that own numerous stud males are offering drive-by breedings and are set up with proper biosecurity in place to accommodate that, and also are prepared to do mobile breeding as well. Find out what top genetics are available in your neck of the woods -- with all the ownership participations in top quality males that abound, there is no doubt you will find local breeders that have genetics that will enhance your herd.

Independent pre-purchase exams are absolutely recommended for any purchase, in my opinion -- if you are buying a bred female, the pre-purchase exam should include re-confirmation of the pregnancy, preferably via ultrasound. Some breeders offer this as part of the purchase but, even if they do not, if you carefully read most purchase contracts, you will see the wisdom in having a pre-purchase exam performed. Too, in order for the pre-purchase exam to be independent, it should be performed by a veterinarian that has no conflicts of interest with respect to buyer or seller. You also should be paying for the exam for the same conflict of interest reasons!

If you are still searching for a farm or have a barn to build, or fencing to put up, the breeder should be able to work with your schedule and offer some partial free agistment.