To travel on the altiplano is always an interesting experience, no matter how many times you may go there. You are always surrounded by ever changing scenery of spectacular beauty, you are constantly faced with hazards on the road, you are always trying to mitigate the discomforts of the terrible roads and every journey seems to take forever. If you can choose your travelling companions to ensure interesting conversation then your journey passes more quickly and becomes even more memorable.
Of late I have done a number of journeys in this wonderful part of the world and have had the privilege of being introduced to, and allowed to work with, some of the most interesting, influential and successful breeders of alpacas in Peru and it was on one such very long journey that I had the pleasure of the undivided attention of Guillermo Tijera, a third generation alpaca breeder from the area between Cusco and Puno.
We had been introduced to the Tijera family’s Koricancha herd by Dr Julio Sumar, known throughout the alpaca world as one of the most knowledgeable and highly respected authorities on every aspect of the camelid. He had told us of Koricancha’s success over many years in the show ring and that the Tijeras were one of the most highly respected breeders on the altiplano.
We were now travelling together with Guillermo to the Koricancha farm high on the altiplano, at a breathtaking 4,700 metres, and about three hours driving from the nearest tarmac road. It was a wonderful opportunity to find out some of the story behind their success and to learn how they had achieved so much over the last 60 years. I am not well known for my grasp of the Spanish language and so I was very lucky to have in the same vehicle Dr Monyka Portocarrero, our veterinary consultant. She not only speaks excellent English but with her lifelong experience with camelids was just as interested in the conversation as I was. Her powers of translation were to be well tested on our journey.
Like many Peruvian families the Tijera family is a large one. Guillermo and his sister, Alejandrina, are two of nine siblings, but it is on their shoulders that the bulk of the responsibility for Koricancha now lies. They are both well educated, highly intelligent and in their mid-thirties and have great ambitions to continue the family tradition of breeding ever better animals. I had met their parents on a previous visit and so I knew just how much this was a family affair with both Mother and Father taking a very active part in the day to day life of Koricancha, but it was this younger generation who were the ones who were planning to carry their reputation to new heights of success.
In November 2003 at the Arequipa Alpaca Fiesta, which as the most prestigious show in Peru was attended by nearly every major national breeder as well as hundreds of overseas breeders, they had won Grand Champion Huacaya with a six year old macho called Hugo. The prize for this had been a computer and this was now being set up with a complete database of their herd of over 2,000 animals as they knew only too well the importance of being able to keep records of bloodlines and breeding histories.
But what I wished to find out was more of the background of their success and how they had achieved their current high ranking position amongst the best breeders in Peru. Early in the conversation, as we set off up the poorly graded and bumpy mountain road, we covered line breeding. I asked Guillermo if he had ever carried out line breeding on his herd. He explained that only 100 years ago most alpacas in Peru were running freely with Llama, Guanaco and Vicuna. He felt that much cross breeding between the species had occurred in this time. He added that in-breeding had also taken place. Guillermo felt that the genetic make up of the modern alpaca in Peru was, to a large extent, still not true, and carried too many foreign genes that caused genetic faults and primitive fleeces. He suggested that he would like to progress his bloodlines a little further in order to fix more uniform and desirable traits in his stock before commencing line breeding. He mentioned that some of his lines were almost ready for such crossing to occur.
This I found fascinating as only recently I had visited a breeder whose stock were the result of many years of line breeding. There we had found animals with some wonderful qualities in the fleece but whenever we looked more closely we found serious genetic faults running throughout the herd. The goals of the line-breeding had been limited to improving the fineness and density of the fleece and consequently some very poor genetic qualities had been passed on down and exacerbated. In the short term this would hardly matter if the only goals were for the quality of the fibre, but in the long term what was this doing for the health and well being of the species?
This confirmed Guillermo’s view that line-breeding was potentially very dangerous unless you were patient and very thorough in ensuring that the qualities of the herd were ready for it. Therefore it was safer and more reliable to breed out using selective breeding techniques in order to constantly get nearer that goal of the ‘perfect alpaca’.
So how, I asked, did Peruvian breeders select and manage their herd sires? After all they do not have the luxury of being able to have a mobile stud service from the top males one weekend, or to hop in the car and take two females up the road for a ‘drive-by’.
As our driver smoothly swerved to avoid an oncoming truck on a suicide mission on a blind corner, I was told that when they select, they buy a macho outright, and use him over many females in their herd. Guillermo explained that his grandfather had purchased eight young males many years ago to use on a selection of his females. He had selected them on phenotype alone and proceeded to cover certain lines with certain males, all the while ensuring that they knew which male had covered which herd of females. From those eight males they discovered that only two were able to pass on their genetics and impart the desirable characteristics they desired. From that point onward his family changed their breeding programme to ensure that all females were covered by males that had been selected from proven bloodlines only.
Guillermo went on to explain that the family would travel the country to find the best males possible. He added that they mostly selected two to three year old males that were phenotypically correct for the characteristics they wanted to introduce into their herd but, most importantly, they only selected those where they were able to view the sire and the dam and many siblings of that male. They also preferred that the sire and the dam be over a certain age so that they could see the long term genetic potential held in those animals, in other words if at the age of 8 or more both sire and dam were still producing fine dense quality fleece then they felt more confident that they had the right genetic strengths for long term quality fleece production in the progeny.
They chose young males because they wanted to be at the forefront of breeding. He explained that if he left it until the male was 5 or more when he purchased him then he had missed out on three years breeding from that male and therefore he could have been three years further down the line. The young males he now selects come from lines that hold the fleece characteristics that Guillermo looks for from animals well in to their teens. He felt this point was of major importance as his family’s livelihood depended on their alpacas’ fibre production and the ability of his stock to produce a commercial fleece for the duration of their life.
Koricancha income also relies heavily on their ability to sell stud sires to other breeders in Peru. They know only too well how many poor quality alpacas exist throughout the national herd and are very keen that other breeders should have access to better stud males. In this way the reputation of alpaca fibre, when competing against other fibres, will continue to get better and thus attract more demand from the textile trade and the eventual market for alpaca garments.
Eventually having crossed through two very high passes we came to the river adjoining the Koricancha property. Monyka broke in at this stage to tell us as we started down the bank that it was this river that some years ago had defeated the driver of Dr Sumar and the great man had been forced to get out and help push them clear of the water. Fortunately this time our Toyota and our driver were more than equal to the task as at this height the water was only a few miles from the glacier from which it had come and would only be just above freezing. Also at this height I did not really relish the physical effort of having to push.
It had been a fascinating journey, not just through some of the most interesting landscape in the world but also through 60 years of alpaca breeding which had progressed from some very basic record keeping and selective breeding to a point where the complexities of the breeding programme would benefit hugely from the newly won computer database. This was truly the new generation building on the experience and knowledge gained over three generations. Sitting in their homestead later I was to meet the fourth generation. Sitting on my lap was one year old Milo, the son of Guillermo, and already destined to become part of the family business.
Throughout the journey it had not been a one sided conversation. One of the really humbling but impressive aspects of meeting this family is their wish to learn how things are done in our world. They know that although alpacas have only been bred outside of Peru for a relatively short time there is a huge amount of technology and research available from other countries. Not least they appreciate the cross fertilisation that is available from the experience of breeding other species.
For me it had been a unique experience to have the opportunity to discuss so many aspects of the business of breeding alpacas with someone who had so much knowledge and experience gained from three generations, tempered by education, enthusiasm and ambition for the future of the business.