Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Making Feeding Manageable

This past Saturday, we woke up to a bright, sunny Autumn day.  I naively thought that I would have the day open to myself - probably catching up on a few chores and then just finish my book I had been working on for the past couple of weeks.  At 8:45 AM, the phone rang.  The hay was ready and would be here in 45 minutes...

We put down our morning Jo and walked out to the hay yard.  There were about 100+ pallets in various stacks, as well as a large pile of curing compost on the south side of the fenced in yard.  We started in on the pallets, moving them out of the area, and then began shoveling the compost into nine gaylords (5' x 5' x 5' boxes), to store the compost for the next few weeks.

The farmer was right on time, bringing in twelve 1310 lb bales at a time.  With his large tractor, he easily stacked the bales in tidy rows as we tossed pallets underneath to keep the hay dry and off the ground.  Our tractor is maxed out at one bale alone.

When we were done, we had 50 tons of hay back on the property, ready for the inevitable winter months ahead. 

Back in the day, when we only needed twenty tons of hay, we used to pick bales out of the field, James and I taking turns tossing bales in the back of the truck and horse trailer.  Brutal work.  Then, we would break open a bale or two every morning and night, scattering the feed around the walls of the barn so all the alpacas would have access to the hay. 

Over the years, our energy resources have dwindled, and thus we became smarter with our feeding.  We now use large feeders to set our large had bales in, feeding every 2 or so weeks depending on the weather.  Our skid steer / tractor picks the bales up with the forks or our new hay poker and gently sets them in the feeders.  On the feeders, which are approximately 9' x 4' x 4', one of the sides is hinged and is removable, enabling the entire half ton hay bale to be set into the feeder.  What used to take 5-6 hours of manual labor to feed now takes about 2 hours.  This also allows more feed to be accessible and thus edible, instead of sitting on the ground and being wasted.

Large bales are not for everyone, and they do take extra equipment to move.  However, they are so much easier to manage than smaller bales with less time in the snow and on the ground.  Plus you are not having to feed in the evenings or mornings because alpacas will not over eat.  Even if you do not have feeders, put hog wire around them so the alpacas can pull the hay out while keeping the bale in tact as long as possible.  Instead of using a hay poker, we used to wrap the bale up in a large cinch strap and lift the bale up and place them in the barn, in a feeder, or on the stack of hay.  Any scraps and stems from the hay are given to our horses.  Thus, we are about 99% efficient on hay utilization.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Urethra Blockage In Male Alpacas and Llamas

Urethra Blockage In Male Alpacas and Llamas:   We are not vets or trained in medicine, so please do not rely on this information for diagnosis or treatment.  Rather, consult your vet.

While blockage seems to be few and far between, we know of 21 animas who have been affected by urethra blockage.  Of these 21 animals, only five have survived and one of these is in treatment.  Communication with those who would share information has led us to the following general conclusions, which we want to share.  This is not a scientific or medical study; rather, this is a simple summary based on facts and experiences provided by a few ranches.

1.  Cause:  the specific cause for a particular animal is not certain, but it is most likely a stone formed by the concentration of minerals (often silica) due to that animal not drinking sufficient water to keep the minerals diluted and flushed from the system.   The alpaca and Llama urethra is so tiny that even a very small crystal or stone will cause complete blockage and death.  There is no indication that herd health practices, feeding or other conditions on a particular ranch are a cause.  As in humans with Kidney stones, urethra blockage impacts only random animals on any particular ranch.  Seldom have we found a ranch that had more than one incident.  There is no reason whatsoever to move animals away from that particular ranch.  Cases seem more frequent in the Western states than other parts of the USA.

2.  Symptoms and Identification:  Urethra blockage can affect weanlings or older adults.  If not caught and treated very quickly, death will result. Death will be painful and results from bladder rupture and infection.  An affected rancher should consult with his or her vet, but realize that some vets and colleges are not aware that treatment for this is even possible.

The following are the symptoms reported:

  • A few reported that the male was walking "stilted" with his back legs a bit "stiff"

  • All reported male standing over the dung pile straining, but with no urination

  • The straining over the dung pile was for long periods (up to 20 minutes) and frequent

  • Pooping was reported to be normal for those who noticed it

  • The affected males continued to eat

  • Temperatures were normal, with no fever reported

  • In later stages, indications of sever pain and distress

3.  Cure:  For alpacas who survived, all used a specific protocol of drugs, including Acepromazine, pain reducing drugs and antibiotics.  Recognition and treatment must start promptly, or there is a serious risk of bladder rupture and death.  Few university vet schools and veterinarians seem to know of this procedure or, if they know about it, they are reluctant to recommend it.  It is not without risk.

4.  Prevention:  Various people have suggested possible cause-effect relationships, but none seems clearly to be the case.  High levels of minerals in drinking water, silica up-take in alfalfa and some grasses as well as over-loading minerals have been suggested, but are not shown to be consistent among the affected ranches we know of.   Rather, the veterinarian who was involved with all of the animals who survived has concluded that the major, if not the only prevention one can take is to assure that alpacas and Llamas are drinking large quantities of high-quality water.  Adding salt to the diet, he suggests, is the primary method.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Can Alpacas Swim?

Can Alpacas Swim?

We recently were faced with this question when we put our alpacas on a pasture with a large irrigation ditch crossing through the middle.  If the incentive – or curiosities - were great enough, would they cross?  At first sight, our girls were more than a little apprehensive to look at it, let alone wade in the cool waters.

When it is hot outside, our ladies love to be soaked by the hose.  We stand with the water full blast as they bounce, flail and run through the cool water, making sure never to get their faces wet.  Because alpacas dissipate much of the heat from their bellies, we will often provide wading pools to enable our alpacas to reduce their body temperatures.  The paw and splash in it, taking their time as they others wait their turn. The problem with allowing alpacas to “swim” is that it tends to rot their fiber if done too much.

Our fear was that the babies would go in and, while the slow moving ditch water is only 12-24” deep, it is easy enough to imagine that they could be swept away.

To avoid any temptations, we kept wading and drinking pools easily accessible.  Not a single one ventured near the intimidating water.

By the way, through my research, I found that alpacas can swim.  Luckily I have yet to see it.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Pricing Your Stud Services

How should stud owners decide on the difficult question of pricing stud services?  A good-looking male with lots of presence, good conformation, and good fiber who has not yet bred is obviously a lower-priced commodity than a national champion who has many splendid crias on the ground.  One quick way to price the services is to look around and see what other comparable studs are commanding.  If you have a National Champion stud, you are in a different league from most breeders, and can hit the ground running with a fee to command attention.  However, for the rest of the breeders, the start-up is usually a bit more of a challenge.  
Maybe $500 to $750 is a good starting place for an unknown but promising male who is breeding age, who has the testicular measurements to breed, has really good fiber and conformation and who has the desire to breed.  Check your local area for comparable studs and their fees and use that as a guide.  Remember, most breedings are local and that means that your competition is local. 

Now, you have to convince some dam owners to breed with your new stud.  He has to prove that he can settle dams consistently.  Eventually, he has to prove that his crias are something to admire and who will win show ribbons on their own.  But getting started with a relatively unknown stud is a difficult proposition. Of course you can breed him to your open dams, even if he is not exactly what you would have chosen for them in terms of fiber, color, or other criteria.  This demonstrates to others that you have confidence in him and that he can settle a dam.  You can also shop around among your nearby fellow breeders and offer them a good deal.  One deal that works really well is to offer him to a few select breeders for FREE. This is a powerful incentive.  It gets him breeding, it gets crias on the ground sooner, and it costs you absolutely nothing.  Now you can advertise him as having settled dams and as having been selected by someone (other than you) for their breeding program. This is a win/ win.  I know a breeder who has done exactly that – and it worked.

Once he is up and breeding, make sure that you stay in touch with the dam owners to collect information on the crias he sires.  That is valuable information for future advertising.  Put in the breeding contract – the dam owner will inform you of date of birth, sex, color, name, ARI # when assigned, and also provide you with a cria photo.  Most dam owners will be delighted to oblige.

Now that the stud has started generating revenue, you have to decide when and by how much to increase his breeding fee. There is a lot of satisfaction in having a high-price stud, but be aware of the pitfalls along the way.  There is an economic measurement which is called Price of Elasticity of Demand.  In brief, it measures how the demand responds to a change in price.  Increasing the stud fee will price someone out of the market for your services.  You hope that you will attract at least as many customers as you lose, and with an increased breeding fee and the same number of customers, you make more money.  However, be wary of increasing the fee by to large amount all at once.  Having once set a higher price and finding that the demand no longer provides you with the revenue that the former price did, in it difficult to advertise, “Whoops, I made a mistake , the breeding fee has now been reduced…” People ask themselves (they never ask you), “So, what’s wrong with the stud?”

There is one school of thought that proposes to raise the breeding fee to purposely reduce the number of breedings.  The thinking behind this is that with fewer crias on the ground, each one will be more valuable and you won’t flood the market with this stud’s crias.  The counter to this is that with more crias at a lower breeding fee, there is more chance that some of them will garner multiple national awards and support a future higher price.  My own strategy is to get more crias on the ground and hopefully into the show ring as winners.  Others have a different opinion.

The times to increase the fee are:
·        When he has settled some dams
·        When he has crias on the ground so you can pass around baby pictures
·        When his crias have won significant show ribbons and he has some Get-of-Sire credits
·        When you check the competition in your breeding area and see comparable studs commanding (that means getting, not just advertising) a higher price.  That of course means getting on the Internet and checking prices, keeping track of print advertising and knowing your competition.

Since you now have a valuable breeding commodity, you can do breeding trades.  You would typically do a trade in your stud’s price range.  This is a really valuable benefit of having a good stud, since you will have to breed his cria to another stud anyway and you may have a dam that needs some special characteristics from a stud your stud can’t provide (color, fiber, coverage, etc.). Expensive outside breedings now become dirt cheap.

Breeding trades brings up another wrinkle in pricing your stud.  You may want to trade a large number of breedings with studs which are priced substantially higher that yours.  You can offer a 2-for-1 breeding trade to even it out or you can raise your price to be more like theirs and take your chances on losing breeding customers.  Raising prices for breeding trade reasons alone is a really risky proposition and I would not recommend it, but it gets some casual conversation on breeding discussions occasionally so you ought to be aware of it and form your own opinion.

The bottom line is to have a plan in mind and have a solid reason for your pricing decisions.  Keep track of your competition.  Research the Internet and print advertising (Alpaca Magazine).  Look for ways to increase the stud’s value to potential customers.  Stay in touch with your customers – they are a great source of references and feedback for you.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Finding the Right Male for Your Breeding Program

Upbreeding to a good alpaca male is essential in order to progress your fiber - staple length, softness, crimpiness, curb appeal, color, conformation and all of the other factors making up the next generation of alpacas.

A good place to start is to define the goals of the dam to be serviced.  This will limit the search time and focus attention on the breeding plan.  Instead of fixating on a well-advertised name stud, focus on breeding goals which will keep you on track with your real objectives.  Here are some things to factor into the search.

Location - How far and at what cost are you willing to transport your dam (and cria at the side) for a breeding?  How comfortable are you leaving dam and cria for at least 60 days or more a t a remote location that you may not have even visited?  Once the dam is bred, you have the reverse trip, now for a newly pregnant dam and cria.  How risk tolerant or flexible are you for this transport stress?  If you the perfect Mr. Right Stud is located 3,000 miles away, you might want to consider a closer Mr. Almost-Right Stud.

Characteristics - if you are looking for a particular color, that narrows the choices.  If you have a fiber goal in mind ( a low-micron dam who needs fiber density in a stud), that also narrows the choices.  If your dam is a bit smaller or larger than you would prefer, you might consider stud size.  Find things to be improved from the dam to the cria and look for the male to provide the improvement.

Awards - Many dam owners want studs that have multiple awards from AOBA certified shows with different judges.  Having a stud that also has prizes in Get-of-Sire competition is also sought after.  This helps in selling the dam or her eventual cria, but prizes are not absolutely necessary to get a really quality stud.  Price will usually be higher for prize winners and their crias may be more valuable, but many other studs have very good qualities.

Breeding fee - If price is no object, skip the next paragraph.  On the other hand, most of us have limits on price and that limit should be one the criteria.  There are some very nice, very expensive studs available, but if your goal is to get the best available stud at a certain breeding fee, you can find some splendid studs for less $2,000.

With a shopping list of requirements in hand, the search can begin.  Talking with fellow breeders is a good place to start and may just turn up the right stud for you.  However, I would also recommend some independent research.  The Internet is a great place to look.  It's cheap, offers instant information and it is time well worth spending.  Check the listing of your local and surrounding alpaca associations and visit the web sites of the listed farms.  Take notes and keep on looking.  Another, faster way to look is search one of the sites that breeders and organization use to post their alpacas.  These sites usually have an efficient search engine that you can use to search by your criteria.  If you haven't tried it, you may be amazed by the amount of quality information there is available, all without leaving the house.

The posted information needs to be verified once you have honed in on a few possible select studs, but at this point you have come a long way.

Don't neglect the Herd Sire edition of Alpacas Magazine. The advertisements are a great source of information, plus the pictures are clear and give you a great visual impression of the advertised studs. 

Having spent this much time and effort at it, you still need to take the last step, especially if the stud is relatively unknown - you need to get hands-on with the stud or studs.  Go to his home farm. 
  • Feel his fiber
  • Ask for a histogram,
  • Ask questions about his breedings
  • Judge his temperament
  • Check his teeth
  • Check his testicles for size and texture
  • Run your hand down his spine all the way to the end of his tail to check for misalignment
  • Look at any available cria and the dams they were bred to to produce the cria.  If you need multiple breedings, ask for a discount for two or more breedings.  (Can't hurt to ask.)
  • Ask for a copy of the stud's breeding contract and the terms - take time to read it off the farm
  • Get a copy of his ARI certificate
Look around at the stud's farm and ask questions about how the dam is going to be agisted, see how clean the agisting area is, how the owner maintains the property, how well-kept the alpacas are, and ask if there have been any health problems recently.

Ask the breeder what the breeding plan is - breed one and then again on the second day?  Breed once and then again on the third days?  Seventh or eighth day?  How will they preg test - through spitting and/ or blood draw and/ or ultra-sound?  Who will pay for it?

As the last step before deciding on your dram match, go to the ARI web site and look at information about the stud.  Look in particular at  his cria list.  If you are suri breeder, see how many huacaya crias he has through and if there are huacayas in his background.  Check the color of his crias, when they were born, male or female, etc.  Also do a sanity check on how long he has been breeding and how many crias are registered.  If he has been breeding for three years and has only a few crias listed, that s something worth looking into.

Follow the trail of the ARI numbers to check out his antecedents and see if there are any common family members with your dam.  The more you know about the stud, the better. 

There isn't a formula in deciding on a stud, but the better informed you are, the fewer surprises you will have and the better you are equipped to make the next decisions for your breeding program on the way to success as a knowledgeable alpaca breeder.

Monday, September 10, 2012


There is a great deal of ongoing discussion about breeding white to gray alpacas. Our understanding of genetics is always ongoing and rarely absolute in the results. The following is some basic information to consider with various color combinations when breeding alpacas.
Ideal Alpaca Breeding
All breeders want to avoid cria defects. If you are just starting to look into alpacas, you may not have heard about blue-eyed all-white alpacas. Most often they are born completely deaf. The often make a great fiber animal as they have excellent fleece, but a new breeder should avoid putting one in their breeding program. Just keep them with a herd if they are deaf so they can pick-up on visual cues from their herdmates. Otherwise, they live out a healthy life as any other alpaca.

What does a blue-eyed all-white alpaca have to do with grey alpacas? Now we're talking genetics.

There is something called a "white-spot gene" that certain alpacas carry. These alpacas have a white spot anywhere on the animal. In otherwords, they're not a solid color. They may have a small white spot that is hidden between toes or in the ear canal or they may have white faces, a tuxedo look, white legs, pinto coloring, etc.
The grey color is thought to be from a combination of a merle gene and the white spot gene. Merle genes are linked to deafness, blindness, and sterility. All of these problems are associated with grey alpacas.

When a cria gets the white-spot gene from both mom and dad, they are born all-white and blue-eyed with a high probability of being deaf.

The incidence of deaf blue-eyed whites is linked to grey alpacas being bread to white-spot animals.

You can avoid this by breeding your grey female to a solid colored male. White is a solid color you say? True, but an all-white alpaca might have the white-spot gene, you just can't see it because they are solid white. Breeding white to gray alpacas therefore is probably not an ideal breeding program.

Very few solid grey alpacas exist. It is not know if breeding a white-spot grey to a solid grey will reduce your chances of a deaf alpaca.

When mating alpacas, you should choose a true (make sure there are no hidden white-spots) solid black or dark bay color to breed to.

The advantages of breeding your grey female to solid dark are:
  • You will avoid blue-eye all-white deaf animals.
  • Your grey female will have a better chance of live birth success.
  • You have the same chance of producing a grey alpaca with a solid color as you do with whites with far less risk to offspring.
Can you successfully breed to an all-white animal with your grey female? Yes, we have, but there is an inherent risk.  We have never had a problem breeding our grey males to solid or white-spotted girls. We usually avoid breeding our grey males to solid or primarily white females unless there is a strong amount of color in their lineage.

There's more to breeding than just getting two alpacas to mate. Genetics is fascinating and should be something you study to understand what kind of herd you are producing for the future.

In conclusion, breeding white to gray alpacas is skirting the risk of blue-eyed all-white deaf alpacas. Better to breed to a solid color and avoid the defect. Your breeding program will be better if you follow this tip.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A Mink on the Counter

Although most of my writings are dedicated to alpaca care taking and husbandry, I thought our brief encounter last night with the wilds of Montana is worth a quick note.

Sitting at the neighbor's house enjoying coffee, we heard a high pitched shrill and dogs barking, their nails frantically clicking the pavement in pursuit of their prey.  Our neighbor opened the door to barking as a relatively large brown flash scurried by his feet, the dogs legs not quite as gracefully bounding through the doorway. As one person grabbed the dogs, the rest of us ran to the couch so see who else had entered the house. 

With eyes glowing in panic, a furry little face peered out at us from the innermost depths of the sofa.  With cat carrier in hand, we quietly flailed about, trying to get the frightening mound of fur into the uninviting carrier.

Eventually, we succeed, all of us a little worse for wear.  The poor little guy had saliva along its back, indicating that it had been in at least one of the dog's unforgiving mouths at one point.  We jumped in the car and brought the cage home.  There, we set the mink on the counter.
We looked at him through the grate and he looked back. The cat was less than impressed and glared down from the top of the stairwell.  Balled up in a corner, it was hard to tell his size.  We decided to just let him be for an hour and let him catch his breath.  After his body seemed to relax a bit, we cautiously dropped in some raw hamburger.  Nope.  Grapes?  No way.  Then came the raw chicken.  At last, the insults were over.  He ate and ate. At first he hissed when the food was dropped.  By the end of an hour, he pulled the meat out of our hands (through the grate).
As his eating slowed and after a few long drinks of water, he stretched out to the length of the cage.  His belly fully, his eyes began to roll back in his head.  He would try to stay awake, only to yawn and close his eyes once again.

His body was about 18" long not including the tail.  Dark chocolate in color, he had a beautiful shiny glow to him.  As he yawned, we could see his white baby teeth - little fangs and molars.  As he began to get more comfortable with us, his little feet began to twitch during his sleep and he eventually rolled over on his back showing a broken line of white starting on his chin and throughout his belly area.  We put him in the bathroom to keep the cat from teaching him a lesson in the middle of the night.

The next day, he was ready to go with energy.  James took him to a remote stream, far away from roads, dogs and people.  As James approached the water, the little mink became super excited and within minutes he was on to his new home.