Thursday, October 23, 2014

Form and Function: Channeling Your Inner Alpaca

Brillanta

Brillanta

Now that I know we have a classic Nor’easter bearing down on our neck of the woods, I have some time to commit some of those thoughts I have always had about alpaca breeding to virtual print form.

I always encourage prospective new breeders to keep visiting as many farms as they possibly can fit into their schedule, and you might ask why. I sincerely would hope that people that take up alpaca breeding in all seriousness develop a set of “must haves” that would make up that ‘total package alpaca’ before they plunk down hard-won money to buy their initial foundation herd. Put another way, I think any serious breeder needs to be able to visualize, in his/her own mind’s eye, the ideal animal of whatever livestock they breed. I have written this before, but there is only one time that a breeder can select for a multiplicity of variables, and that is when he/she is acquiring breeding stock! Once those animals are in his/her barn, it may be possible to upgrade one to two traits through breeding – and obviously, we are talking about dams here. Males are a topic unto themselves.

Now, there are many business models being developed in the alpaca community, and many of them will not be dependent on developing an eye for what one views as an outstanding alpaca. Fiber production farms may desire an animal with good physical structure so that it is functional for the long haul, but the primary focus will be on fleece characteristics that meet their demands for end-product. There are agri-tourism-based alpaca farms now where the alpacas are part of a pleasant distraction for visitors touring the farm. Each alpaca business model is founded on a set of strategies and goals. There are yet other hybrid alpaca business models.

My ideal alpaca is more compact in frame, but even if larger in frame, the alpaca will possess smooth, fluid movement and a certain elegance of proportion that conveys an overall balanced, aesthetically pleasing appearance. I like an alpaca that looks solidly rooted on terra firma – excellent “chi.” I look for what I call good circumference of bone, if you like, since to my knowledge no one has performed extensive bone density studies in camelids. In the scheme of things, headstyles may seem unimportant, but a deep broad but short muzzle and a head with a dense woolcap happens to be a preference of mine. I look for the neck to be an organic extension from the chest, upright set to neck. I suppose humans must find 90 degree angles pleasing, but I do like a topline that is straight and remains so when the animal is in motion. Head/neck, trunk and legs viewed from the front should be as close to 1:1:1 ratio as possible. Visualize the length of the head/neck imposed on the topline and it should be no more and no less than 2/3 of the length of the topline. I like broad chests, excellent spring of rib and a straight plumb-line to the legs. Angulation of rear legs at the hock is important. I watch an animal track from behind and pay close attention to see that hocks do not rub while the animal is moving and, of course, if an animal rope-walks in the rear, that is highly undesirable. Bear in mind that conformation has a very low coefficient of heritability. Some people will say that, in that case, one cannot breed for it. My view is that, to do the best job possible as a breeder, both sire and dam should have excellent conformation. Okay, I should say a little about bites here. Some believe one cannot breed for correct bites, but I do believe one can and should try. There is more to a bite than the incisors that are the focus of the show-ring. The side bite must knit together properly, or the alpaca is compromised as to its ability to chew a cud. Incisors should be at a 45 degree angle and I actually prefer them to be just shy of the bite plate. Such a bite usually requires no maintenance.

Fleece is, of course, a very important element. I feel my first order of business is to produce alpacas with uniform average fiber diameter fleeces as, without a goal of uniformity, grading of fleece for proper end-use will be more of a chore. Fineness – and in particular lasting fineness – is an overarching goal as well. Now, I also seek out a certain fleece architecture that includes very little cross-fibering between the individual staples – and the smaller the staple the better, but it still must feel like something when pressed between thumb and finger. I prefer a crimp style that I call “crimp squared,” as frequency and amplitude are both high. The more organized the fleece, the brighter the fleece can be and ease of parting the fleece “like a book” is enhanced, or so it seems to me. Now, there are many fiber statistics that can be brought to bear and these are useful. I challenge people to learn to gauge grade of their alpacas’ fleeces. I look for a cohesive fleece that you can shake out of doors in a gale force wind, and it remains in one piece. Density is a very key component, but I view staple length as possibly the most important variable in improving overall fleece yields. Unless I build to suit from my own program, I tend to acquire males that are five years or older that still have fleeces that could be shown. I am less likely to breed to that newest multiple champion male if I have the option to breed a female to his sire. So, okay – if I produced him in my barn, you better believe I will use him!

Pedigree does matter in my program. I will say very little about it here, except that it is a starting point for me when I am researching an animal. There are very few true impact sires in the alpaca breeding business, and only a few males have more than 100 offspring. It begs the question whether or not we know all that much about even some of the most well-known males in the US and their true abilities – and if we do not know what some of those well-known males could do, imagine how little we know about the dams!

Breed standard(s) again are a topic of discussion among the alpaca breeding community. What is old is new again, as they say. I believe that, regardless of adoption of a breed standard, a concept of one’s ideal alpaca is a vitally important aspect in developing a breeding program and grounding one’s strategy. You may never find your ideal alpaca, and you may also find that ideal alpaca changes with time.
Casanova, Dually, Pundit

Casanova, Dually, Pundit

Dually Noted

Dually Noted

Accoyo Goodfella

Accoyo Goodfella

Bonhommie

Bonhommie