So should we breed our females this late in the year? What are the consequences if we do and are we adding unduly to the risks? My experience says I don't think so, but there are some lessons that have been learnt on the way.
We would all like our cria to be born in the late spring or early summer. Why? just because it is easier for both of us - that is mum, the new cria and those of us who have to manage the delightful duo. However, it is not always that simple. FMD forced a number of us to accept late matings last year and let us not forget, female cria that are born mid to late summer will be ready for their first matings in the following autumn or early winter. Should we blindly continue without regard to the winter elements or should we wait until the worst is over, accepting delays to our breeding programme.
For very large herds the sheer scale of the operation might dictate a different answer. But for the majority of us the answer lies really in how much time we have and what facilities are on offer on our holding. For the last few years we have run a policy of mating and birthing all year round. There has been no difference in the health of the animals. Cria have arrived and grown on normally.
Now, I do concede that we are located in the south where perhaps it can be tropical compared to further north. We don't have deep long lying snow but it rains an awful lot down here. Dry cold never seems to be a problem for these animals provided there is enough soft hay, drinking water is freely available and some snow free area is there for them should they wish to use it, probably as a dung pile. Driving rain, well, we all find this hard to cope with.
The answer is how much time do you have and is there suitable indoor accommodation for an overnight stay. So let's assume you answer lots and yes to these questions and we will look at the complete cycle.
We have our open female. Perhaps she is a maiden up for her first mating. Perhaps a girl who for some reason best known to herself has decided to absorb her previously confirmed pregnancy or aborts a five month foetus and it is now winter time. Whatever the reason, our animals (yes, the male as well) need to be in good condition. They have been getting enough of the good stuff, their body score is correct and they are looking fit and healthy. They were shorn before the end of August and a quick look under the tail confirms things look normal. So we proceed with the normal pen mating routine and subsequent testing (see Alpaca Sex, AWM Issue 1 or available on our database at www.alpacaworldmagazine.com)
Along the way
As we proceed though the summer, checking periodically that we still have a pregnancy, shear as normal. Our winter birthing will need the mum in good shape so we must ensure she has sufficient fibre growth, and it is of course so much easier to see her general condition and perhaps the odd kick from the (female, of course) cria once this is done.
Getting ready for birthing
Gestation period is 11 1/2 months but I am sure we are not the only breeder who can recount tales of early and late births. For us between 10 1/2 months and 13 months so far. I pride myself on keeping accurate breeding records, but sometimes these guys really make you wonder if you have made a mistake.
Our wet newly born cria must dry off as quickly as possible. A pneumonia or hypothermia (cold stress) can be fatal. So this is where we must be on duty. Bring all ten month pregnant females down to a paddock where continual observation during daylight hours is possible. This is also the time to boost the girl's immunisation with a 2ml shot of your clostridial vaccine, usually Heptavac, unless your routine herd jabs have been done within the last three months.
It is not always easy to predict a birth. These alpacas can be very deceptive. Coming down to the feed troughs in the morning as per usual, nothing unduly different. You turn your back, answer a phone call and the next time you look a head and two legs are there. So observation on a continual basis is called for. Now, if it is a lovely dry day, winter sun shining down, you can spend longer at the shops. If it is cold, damp, and raining, you should be standing by.
Once the cria is on the ground she (or he) should be towelled off. Not on the head or tail area. These are the scent areas which mum will be using to establish bonding. Spray the navel area well and fit the cria coat. Never use a previously used coat without washing first. The wrong scent will interfere with the bonding process and mum is quite likely to reject her cria. If you are in any doubt about the weather turning or the cria is not looking too good, bring both of them into the stable. Pick the youngster up and walk. Mum will follow. If she starts to lag behind, stop and let her take a few sniffs, then continue. If mum is objecting to your intervention walk quicker or run… Leave them together in the stable and let nature take over. If the weather brightens let them out and mum will proudly show off her new cria to the rest of the herd. Watch their progress as you would normally, ensuring nursing has commenced.
If the mum is seemingly stressed on her own a companion with her in the stable usually works.
So you have arrived home to find a new and soaking cria lying in the paddock, and things aren't looking too good. Take it immediately into your stable area and get to work. Blood temperature is vital to maintain, hypothermia or cold stress is serious. Thermometer in, look for 100-102°F (37.7-39°C). If it is down in the nineties or below 36.8°C heat is needed urgently. A cold stressed cria will be like picking up a limp rag. Three options are available. Heat lamp, electric fan heater or straight into a warm bath (40.5-45.5°C). Monitor the temperature and start to reduce the external heat input once you get to a degree or so of normal. If you used a bath, a hair dryer is a good way to dry off afterwards. Another excellent method to warm a slightly cold cria or maintain temperature is to place the cria in a plastic toy crate packed with alpaca fleece and perhaps a hot water bottle. Once things are stabilising, revert back to normal. Spray the navel, fit a coat and then retreat to allow mum to bond and hopefully she will allow the youngster to suckle. Colostrum intake is essential within the first 12 hours so like insurance, always ensure you have enough to cover.
A word about glucose. Weak, possibly slightly hypothermic cria will probably benefit from some added energy intake. Similarly a cria which is not standing after three hours or so will also benefit. Two teaspoons of glucose powder in 60ml of warm water should be given. This can be especially important if there is any doubt about levels of nutritional intake prior to a hypothermic presentation. Application through oral drench or bottle (large hole, please) if a sucking reflex is evident. Failing this reach for the stomach tube.
Should you need to bottle feed for a few days, use a ewe milk replacer. Work on around 10% of body weight per day. So for a 6kg cria, expect to feed 600ml over 24 hours at 4 hour intervals. A teat with a large hole will work best and encourage weak cria to drink. Head up and back as though they are nursing off mum.
Watch also for scouring. Loose normal colour dung is probably all right and needs nothing other than regular attention to ensure it corrects naturally. If you see a sandy colour or yellow loose dung, you should treat for an E-coli infection. We have found that a three to five day liquid antibiotic course of Apralan has always worked. Prolonged scouring will need electrolytes. Give Lectade or similar for 24 hours before returning to normal.
So, the panic is over and our cria is looking much better, temperature has stabilised, cria coat is on, and a feeding regime has been established. Monitor the progress over the next few days and weigh weekly. Weight gain should be at least 1kg per week once normal activity has resumed.
Winter births also present the growing cria with low levels of sunlight. Vitamin D is an essential ingredient for bone growth and will need supplementing. ADE Forte administered IM every six weeks from four weeks of age will ensure those legs remain straight and strong.
Happy winter birthing. Observe, observe, observe and if in any doubt always consult your vet.