As the birthing season approaches, there are a number of things that both the beginner and experienced breeder alike can do to ensure that all goes smoothly. Some of the following suggestions are relevant throughout the year, whereas others represent preparatory measures to take to help you prepare for the birthing season itself. The best advice that I can give you is to BE PREPARED and ready to deal with any potential problems. Make sure that you are signed up with a local vet who will be able to assist you if you have a difficult birthing. Don?t wait until you are in a panic situation! Courses are available to help you prepare yourself mentally for birthing season so try go for one of these ahead of time. And make sure that you have the necessary equipment and products in stock (and that you and all your staff know where they are) in case of emergencies. Keep accurate records of when females are due to give birth and ensure that someone is always around to watch out for any problems. Try to avoid going away when you know females are due or arrange for a suitably qualified individual to cover you in your absence, ensuring that they also know who to call and where to find birthing kits if necessary in an emergency.
When breeding alpacas and llamas, the goal is obvious - to produce a healthy cria year after year. It is important to remember that female camelids are pregnant for a long time (on average 343 days) and that it is not just the actual periparturient period when problems can occur. Monitoring the pregnant camelid throughout pregnancy to ensure that she remains pregnant, that she is eating well and that her body condition is optimal are vital components to alpaca husbandry.
This may seem obvious, but confirmation of pregnancy status is the first step in management of the pregnant camelid. You would be surprised how many people wait for births that will never come because a female was never pregnant in the first place, or lost her pregnancy at some point along the way. Pregnancy testing should be done throughout gestation to confirm maintenance of pregnancy. This allows a pregnancy loss to be identified early enough that rebreeding can occur sooner. If a pregnancy loss is not detected early, long periods of time can be wasted with an animal ?open?. Non-pregnant animals managed as pregnant animals can put on a lot of excess body weight since they do not need energy resources for a developing foetus. Obese females can have trouble rebreeding.
Behavioural tests of pregnancy can be done at any time from 14 days, but remember that a ?spit off? only supports a diagnosis of pregnancy and is not confirmatory ? an ultrasound with direct visualisation of the foetus is the only really diagnostic test of pregnancy. I advise doing this at 30 and 60 days, as well as at four and seven to nine months. The earlier you are able to detect pregnancy loss, the less time you are going to waste with a female being open. Note that some vets may not have the equipment to perform pregnancy diagnosis via rectal ultrasound at 30 days, or may not be comfortable doing so. By abdominal ultrasound the earliest that you are likely to detect pregnancy is 45 days.
The key to caring for pregnant females is body condition scoring. The importance of this as a management tool cannot be emphasised enough. It should be done regularly throughout pregnancy ? at least monthly and preferably every two weeks during the last trimester. Body condition scoring is a very valuable technique to learn and can allow you to identify animals that are dropping condition. This is most likely to occur in the last third of pregnancy when the foetus grows exponentially, but also during the first few months if the female is lactating simultaneously. Detection of a loss in condition allows correction of the problem before clinical diseases, especially those due to negative energy balance, can occur. Ideally combine routine body condition scoring with weighing ? for this you will need a decent set of scales. Camelids are graded on a scale of 1-10 with 1 being a rack of bones and 10 being positively obese ? rarely seen fortunately. Feel over the backbone and along the rib cage. The ideal body condition score (BCS) for an adult female at any stage of lactation/gestation is 5.5-6. With this BCS there should be no ?dishing? of the muscles either side of the spine ? they should be very slightly rounded ? and you should be able to feel the ribs relatively easily but they should not stand out. Never estimate an alpaca?s body condition by observation ? always put your hands on the alpaca as the amount of fleece can create an impression of good body condition until they are really very thin. Remember to keep records and preferably have the same person doing the evaluations on each occasion as different people will tend to score differently. This does not matter as long as each person is consistent.
Group females according to stage of gestation. Females later in pregnancy will have higher energy requirements and may be less competitive for food when heavily pregnant. Nursing females will also often experience a sharp drop-off in body condition in the first couple of months after parturition and these females will also need extra feed especially if they are a little thin at parturition. However, pay attention to social interactions as separating two animals that are particularly friendly may cause stress.
Poor nutrition in the dam can have various adverse consequences: premature birthings, pregnancy toxaemia, low birth-weight crias, poor colostrum (leading to poor immunity in crias) and milk quality. In addition, thin females may have difficulty breeding back. Pregnancy toxaemia is basically when an animal doesn?t eat enough to supply its energy requirements, and it will start to mobilise body fat in order to make up for the deficit. This fat is transported to the liver so that it can be used for energy: in pregnancy toxaemia, this fat mobilisation overwhelms the liver?s capacity to convert it into energy, and fat is deposited throughout the liver so that it cannot function properly.
Obesity may cause poor appetite in late gestation and this again can lead to pregnancy toxaemia. In hot weather, lethargy may cause animals to lie out in the sun and get heat-stressed. Dystocia (difficulty birthing) is common in overweight animals due to fat that becomes laid down in the birth canal. Also, fat animals are prone to poor milk production: this is especially true of maiden females who will have good size udders but they are mostly made up of fatty tissue rather than mammary tissue. In fat maidens, be sure to check their milk at the time of parturition and check the cria?s IgG too to ensure adequate transfer of immunity. Do not attempt to starve an animal to reduce body condition in late pregnancy due to the risk of pregnancy toxaemia.
Keep accurate records of breeding dates and due dates.
Group females together that are due to give birth in the next 6-8 weeks for observation and feeding purposes. Pasture them conveniently for monitoring purposes. Use the cleanest pastures for birthing females so that crias are born into a clean environment and will be less likely to get sick. Try to have at least two areas that you can rotate around for birthing so that one can rest while the other is in use.
Monitor feed intake of late term females ? hang around at feeding time and watch each animal to make sure that all are eating. Watch out for signs of colic (rolling, looking uncomfortable, straining) that could suggest uterine torsion or pregnancy toxaemia.
Try to avoid performing routine herd health procedures during the first and last 60 days of pregnancy if possible. This includes shearing, vaccinations, de-worming, transportation and major herd changes. All these cause stress and can result in early embryonic death, abortion or premature birthing. In some situations these may be unavoidable, especially with shearing, but you need to be aware of the consequences.
Have a clean/dry ?hospital? area, a stall or penned off area of the barn, ready for use in case a cria is born in bad weather, if the cria is ill for whatever reason, or there are bonding issues between dam and cria. A newborn cria will not survive long in cold wet weather. It needs to be able to dry off and get nursing as early as possible to give it the best start in life. If you argue that they have to deal with cold conditions in the Andes, calculate whether up to 50% mortality is an attrition rate that you are happy with.
Traditionally, vets have always recommended vaccination of pregnant cattle and sheep 6-8 weeks prior to parturition in order to ?boost colostral immunity? that is passed on to nursing neonates. This can also be done in alpacas, although my experience is that in alpacas that are not used to handling, the stress of catching the female to give the vaccination can actually induce abortion or early parturition. Therefore, I recommend following a different strategy, as per Dr David Anderson, in order to avoid these stress-induced losses. ?Lambivac? offers protection against Clostridium perfringens B, C and D toxins as well as tetanus. I recommend giving Lambivac at two to three days old, then repeat two weeks later. Only vaccinate healthy crias: vaccinating a sick cria will only give its immune system more work. Crias have been shown to develop an antibody-producing response to vaccination at this early stage (provided the second dose is given). You will later follow-up with a seven or eight-way clostridial vaccination in weanlings. Dams can be vaccinated post-partum and re-breeding.
The Birthing Itself
There are some behavioural signs of impending parturition that suggest that it is likely to take place that day. These include:
- Separation from the rest of the herd
- Lack of interest in coming in to feed with the rest of the herd, or in grazing
- A change in temperament
- Spending a lot of time at the poop pile, standing over it and straining more frequently.
Some females will give absolutely no warning that they are going into labour. Therefore, it is very important to monitor your females closely as their due dates approach.
There are three stages of labour. During the preparatory phase, Stage 1, the female will separate from the rest of the herd, will be restless and may make frequent trips to the poop pile. If straining over the poop pile continues on and off for more than one hour without progressing to Stage 2 labour, you should call your vet to come and evaluate the female. Females will not necessarily progress into Stage 2 labour, particularly if there is a breach presentation or uterine torsion. It is vitally important that this is recognised as early as possible in order to save the cria. The female should not be rolling excessively or spending a lot of time cushed looking depressed. If she is, again, call your vet.
During Stage 2 labour, the cria is born. This stage of active labour typically lasts only 20-30 minutes but may take up to an hour. Stage 3 labour is the expulsion of the placenta. In a normal birthing, the cria is delivered head and front feet first. If the head and both feet are seen to be coming in this normal presentation, as described above, then delivery should take place normally without assistance. On many occasions, you will see one foot and the head appearing and the other foot will come out shortly afterwards. If the female is pushing and you just see one foot, and she continues to strain without progress (other foot appearing) after about 10 minutes, you should perform a vaginal exam to check if one foot is back, or there is elbow-lock, or obtain veterinary assistance. If there is an abnormal presentation of the cria, i.e. not head and two feet first, or if there is no progress of the birthing process despite the female visibly pushing for more than 15 minutes, this warrants investigation. This may initially be by yourself and an assistant to hold the animal or by your vet.
Have on hand a birthing kit that is ready to go and easily accessible whenever the need might arise. This should include:
- A clean bucket reserved for obstetrical use: not used for feed.
- Clean bandage to tie the tail out of the way (6-inch wide non-sticky bandage is ideal ? you can wrap the tail and tie it up to the base of her neck to keep it out of the way).
- Bottle of washing up liquid for cleaning the vulva area.
- Cotton wool [place several hand fulls in a bucket of warm, clean water to use for cleaning the vulva area].
- Sterile lubricant (KY jelly from the chemist is ideal).
- Sterile gloves (available from your vet). You want to try and avoid introducing any bugs into the uterus and using gloves along with sterile lubricant really helps to reduce contamination.
- Iodine tincture for dipping the navel of newborn crias.
- Towels for rubbing down newborns if conditions are inclement.
- Syrupy solution (syrup, honey etc): can be smeared inside the mouth of a ?flat? cria ? may be lifesaving if hypoglycaemic from not nursing.
- Weigh scales suitable for weighing crias ? both at birth and subsequently.
Once you have caught the female, bandage the tail up out of the way and proceed to clean the area of the vulva so that you are less likely to introduce contamination into the uterus. Make sure that you remove any jewellery or watches, and put on a sterile glove or at least make sure that your hands and forearms are very clean. Use lots of lubricant and slide your hand in through the vulva to see what you can feel. Some key points to remember when dealing with a difficult birthing are:
The cria is being delivered in an abnormal position. The challenge is to figure out what presentation the cria is trying to be delivered in (e.g. hind limbs first, breach birth etc), and then help to rectify the problem.
Only assist if you have been trained in these techniques, and only do what you are comfortable with and are competent to do. Some malpresentations are relatively easily corrected and a bit of knowledge here helps you to help your females quickly. Knowing how to assess the female in dystocia helps you to decide whether or not you?ll have to call in the vet to help, or whether a particular problem is one that you can resolve alone. It takes time and experience to become comfortable with these techniques. If in doubt, call the vet!
Be very gentle ? you can rupture the uterus, or tear the uterine arteries if you are over-aggressive with any manipulation.
Use lots and lots of sterile lube. You cannot use too much. And try to use sterile gloves where possible in order to reduce the potential contamination of the uterus. Contamination may result in subsequent uterine infections.
DO NOT RUSH delivering the cria. The largest part of the cria is at the level of the shoulders. The cervix needs adequate time to dilate in order for the cria to be delivered. The cria?s head is often out as the shoulders reach the cervix, and the cria often looks as though it is gasping at the point. Do not panic here as the cria is actually still breathing through its umbilical cord! If you pull the cria out too prematurely, the cervix will not have time to dilate properly, and may be torn. A torn cervix is irreparable and may result in subsequent infertility.
When should you call the vet?
If you don?t have the experience/confidence yourself to palpate.
If you can?t figure out what?s going on.
If you?ve tried for 10 minutes, and cannot correct the dystocia. The vet will have the ability to give an epidural and this will reduce all the straining that the female will automatically do as soon as you try to palpate her. This will also reduce the likelihood of rupturing the uterus.
If the head is not presenting normally, with the neck bent back.
If you feel a tail and no feet (breach presentation).
If the female is straining excessively and you cannot properly move your hand inside the female to try and correct the dystocia ? an epidural will be necessary.
If the female is in distress (flared nostrils etc), and no progress is being made.
At the end of the day, you can never be 100% prepared for every eventuality, but if you take steps to at least cover the basics as suggested above, then the battle is half won already.