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Breeding Coloured Alpacas ? My thoughts

Tim Hey


I was delighted to be asked to write a few words about my passion for breeding black huacayas and to share the knowledge I have gained. I began by thinking about the major lessons that I have learnt over the years. The common goals most breeders of this fantastic animal share, is to breed an alpaca that is fit for function and carries as much fine fibre as possible. Breeding for black is no exception. However, we still know little about breeding up the quality of a coloured alpaca that has, until very recently, rarely been selectively bred.

I feel that in order to visualise where we are going with black alpacas, we need to look back and explore the history of coloured alpacas in the UK. I think then we will be able to understand where the coloured stock has come from and why they are the quality they are.

In the early 1990?s two large imports arrived in the UK from Chile. These imports contained a significant number of black females and some black males. At the time of these importations, Chile had a population of approximately 200,000 alpacas, fairly evenly distributed in most colours. The lack of a large textile processing facility meant that Chilean alpaca owners were not been able to sell their fibre for a significant sum and therefore there was no incentive to selectively breed up and improve the productivity and predictability of their alpacas. This meant that nearly all alpacas in Chile had been used by family groups for fibre, hide, fuel and meat. Even today it is common to see a family herd of alpacas, ranging in all colours, running alongside and sometimes breeding with llamas. It was only when a shipment of alpacas left Chile bound for Australia and the USA that some of the Chilean breeders recognised an opportunity to begin breeding up the quality of their alpacas in order to entice the ?Gringos? to buy their stock. In fact over the last ten years we have seen an increase in the quality of alpacas both in family groups and in cooperatives in Chile as a result a little more predictability has come in to their stock.

The alpacas that formed the basis of the black population here in the UK were very variable in style and quality. Some alpacas were black with white faces, some had white socks. The fleece characteristics also varied, some were approaching 40 microns with a 13cm staple and cut 3kg of fleece, others were as fine as 20 microns with a 5cm staple and cut 0.5kg of fleece.
The introduction of screening by the BAS meant that finer fleeced animals were selected and imported and this has continued through to the present day. However, it was not until the early to mid noughties that we saw imports arrive from Peru, Australia and the United States. These alpacas were selected with more knowledge and from breeders who were focusing on breeding black stock with a combination of strong frames and finer denser fleeces.

When I came to England in 2002 I was presented with a national herd of black alpacas that was predominately Chilean coupled with a small number of sires from more developed alpaca industries. It was the starting point on which to begin breeding black alpacas with the aim of improving quality in the same way that the Peruvians, Australians and Americans had done with white and fawn alpacas. It was a massive challenge. We were starting 15 years behind the white and fawn breeders and there was a lot of catching up to do!

The first objective I set for my herd of black alpacas was to address and correct the lack of colour predictability. It is extremely common to see black females running around the paddock with a brown or fawn cria at foot (Fig 1). The reasons for this are that unlike the whites and fawns the foundation stock that we have here in the UK has not been bred to the same colour for enough generations in order to fix the colour genetically.

My breeding program is set so that I only cover black females with black males. Some people might say that using this breeding strategy it will take longer to breed the quality into the black stock. I have to agree but I think that the resulting black herd will be more predictable in the colour of its progeny and the fleeces produced will be less likely to have colour contamination. We are extremely lucky as a few elite black sires rivalling any in the world for quality are now available for black breeders in the UK. By using these sires we not only are improving the quality of our blacks but also the colour at a genetic level.

The second goal I set for Inca was to improve and set good conformation in my herd. By collating and analysing data of all conformational traits I could then begin to breed selectively. This would enable me to breed out undesirable traits and breed in good conformational characteristics.
I found that the following traits had relatively high heritability values:

- Head type
- Leg angulation
- Jaw Alignment
- Proportion
- Bone weight
- Fertility

Identifying these traits helped me to understand first hand just how important it was to choose a herd sire that was 100% correct in its conformation and style in order to maximise the health and value of the herd. I found that it was nonviable to sacrifice conformation for improved fleece traits. Initially I used a sire that had a fine fleece, with a medium weight frame. The alternative at the time was a sire with a heavy frame, good fibre coverage but a very coarse fleece. This is the trend that seems to be similar the world over.

Historically black alpacas have basically come in two models:

Type 1: Heavy frame well covered in fleece which is coarse but grows a good staple length. (Fig 2)

Or

Type 2: Light frame, poorly covered in a fleece which is fine but that only grows a short staple length. (Fig 3)

There are, however, exceptions but they are very rare!

I guess that these two types of black alpacas have descended in this form from the vicuna and the guanaco. All I knew was that somehow I had to combine these two types and breed an alpaca that not only had a heavy frame that I could hang a heavy fleece on but would also grow a fine fleece with high density and length.

So what fleece traits did I see in these two types of alpacas?

Type 1: (Fig 4)
- High brightness
- Long staple length
- Poor to average handle
- Frequent colour contamination (white fibre)
- Low to medium density

Type 2: (Fig 5)
- Low to average brightness
- Short to medium staple length
- Good to excellent handle
- Low level of colour contamination (white fibre)
- Low to medium density

The third goal I set for the herd was to begin to understand how fleece traits were inherited and expressed in the alpacas I was breeding. I set out the following fibre traits that I felt were of great importance for my herd:

Overall fineness
Density (the use of skin biopsy analysis is a useful tool for assessing density)
Staple length
Colour
Brightness
Fine primary fibre - reducing guard hair
Uniformity

When I started in alpacas we were all told that in order to breed up the quality of the alpaca we needed to select a herd sire that would improve the traits that our alpacas were lacking. For example if I had a female with a light frame, poor fibre coverage, low density but fine fleece, the advice was to mate her to a sire that had a heavy well covered frame with higher density, even if the male had a coarse fleece. The idea behind this theory was to breed the desirable traits into the female one or two at a time. This was the way that many people in Australia bred their alpacas and they found that it did improve the next generation. At the same time, however, they discovered that they also introduced huge genetic diversity into their herds making the quality of progeny very difficult to predict.
Breeders using this method struggled to improve the productivity and quality in their herds.

I was lucky enough not to adapt this breeding system for my herd of blacks. Instead I decided to find a herd sire that was as close to my perfect black alpaca as possible and use this male over every black female that I owned. I have continued to use this policy for the last five generations. My thinking has lead me to believe that if I keep using sires that are very similar in conformation and fleece type each year then after 5 generations I should have a herd of females that mirror the five herd sires that have made them.

One of the most valuable pieces of advice I feel I can give to new alpaca breeders is to identify the sire that best represents their ideal alpaca and as long as it has proven to pass on the quality to its progeny use it over as many of their females as possible. Even if the service fee is high and you have to drive many miles to get a stud service the rewards you will receive from using top herd sires will make it all worthwhile. A wise breeder of stud stock once told me that ?the best is always cheap?.

Some people may ask ?well what if the male I like has no progeny on the ground?? My answer to this question is to ascertain whether or not the sire in question has parents that are similar in style (conformation and fleece characteristics). I have nearly always found that if a young sire has parents that are of the same quality and type, then the young male usually produces uniform progeny of similar quality. If the sire that you are looking for has no progeny or the parents cannot be viewed then my advice is to wait until the sire has cria on the ground so that they can be assessed and use a current proven sire in the meantime. This method will give you as breeders the lowest risk of producing low value progeny.

I feel very privileged and proud to be part of an industry that allows me to improve a breed through the actions and decisions Tracey and I make. Breeding black alpacas is not easy and there are many disappointing moments, particularly when a fawn head is showing at birthing! However, when a black cria arrives and then grows into a fabulous weanling, all the sacrifices that have been made in order to provide correct nutrition and husbandry coupled together with well thought out breeding decisions are truly worth it.

(Fig 6) Herd Sires selected at Inca