Chapter 4

Selecting Your First Alpacas


So  you’ve done your homework about alpacas: read everything you could, visited  several farms, attended a halter show, and ran it by your financial advisor.  Alpacas look good to you.  You’re convinced you want to buy a couple of  them and get started.  Now comes the  scary part: which ones do you pick?

        You’re  probably already leaning toward either huacaya or suri.  In many ways, this seems like a decision  purely based on your personal tastes, but there are some practical  considerations to weigh before you plunk down your cash.  What’s the climate in your area?  I live in Florida, the only state with far more suri  than huacaya farms.  We deal with heat,  humidity and parasites year round.  While  many responsible breeders successfully raise healthy huacayas in Florida, the open fleece  of a suri handles those three environmental factors better than the closed  quilt of a huacaya.  I love suri’s, but  if my farm were in my home state of Alaska,  I would most likely own huacayas.  My  point is not to argue for one breed over another, but to ask you to think  through the task you’re facing.

        These alpacas will be your learner set, so you  want to minimize your problems.  Many  people begin with a couple of bred females to start a breeding herd right away;  others want a pair of maiden females and perhaps a junior herd sire to learn  how to care for the animals before they tackle birthing and breeding; and some folks  just want a couple of pets to add dash to a small hobby farm.  Think about why you want alpacas because that  should strongly influence your purchasing decisions.  A good, proven, breeding female may cost  anywhere from $10,000 to $20,000 and more, whereas a nice, gelded, fiber boy  will typically go for between $350 and $1000 and make a perfect barnyard pet.

        First,  shop the local market.  You need to see  and feel potential purchases.  On the  Internet or in a magazine, you can somewhat “see” alpacas, lots of them, but  you cannot touch them.  Watch a judge at  any AOBA-sponsored alpaca show.  That  judge is hands on.  Yes, the judge trusts  his or her eyes to a point, but every judge knows the hands will find things  about an alpaca the eyes cannot.  For  example, an alpaca may look to have a dense fleece, but you can’t be certain  unless you take hold of that blanket.  Density  is called ‘handle’ for a reason.   Moreover, shopping locally will give you opportunities to see and feel  the same alpaca on more than one occasion.   As you study more and more alpacas, you’re training your eyes and  hands.  Inevitably, you’ll notice things  that second and third farm visit that you did not appreciate or flat missed the  first time.  That’s more difficult to do  with a photo or a jerky Internet video feed, but with practice, you will get  better at it.  Still, you will miss  things in the best photograph simply because you can’t touch the animal.

        There’s  an even more important aspect to shopping local farms for your first  alpaca.  You’re also shopping for your  alpaca mentor, and believe me, a good mentor will save you from a whole  barnyard of problems.  Sure, a reputable seller  in another state may take your calls at all hours of the day and answer your  emergency emails within minutes, but that seller cannot drop what he or she is  doing and rush over to your farm.   Shopping locally allows you the time to get a good idea whether a  potential seller has the patience, knowledge and desire to teach you how to  raise, breed and sell alpacas.  Particularly  at the start, you need a good local mentor with the inside scoop about local  veterinarians, feed stores, climate, zoning and a hundred other things no  outsider could possibly know.

        And  you do not have to buy your first alpacas from your mentor.  My wife is a case in point.  Several years ago, a woman contacted our farm  for a visit—she wanted a starter package of at least two breeding females.  Previously, she had raised goats and horses,  so she had livestock experience. However, at the time, our herd was small.  Selling a female meant immediately replacing  her with a female of equal value, so our females were priced accordingly,  putting them out of this woman’s price range, but she liked the way we ran our  farm and bonded with my wife.  So she  hired my wife to be her consultant for her first purchases.  Sheila helped the woman sort through local  and Internet starter packages, steering her away from those bargain suri-huacaya  crosses and a gelded former herd sire that one longtime seller swore would make  a fine companion animal for bred females.   Without a mentor, how would this woman have known that most breeders do  not think highly of F1 suri-huacaya crosses or that putting a gelded male who  had previously been used for breeding in with bred females was a recipe for  disaster?  Eventually, with Sheila’s  help, the woman bought a package of three nice suri females with a blue ribbon  junior herd sire thrown is as a deal sweetener.   Along the way, Sheila taught her about no-climb fence, clipping  toenails, giving shots, drum fans for the hot season, parasites and Florida pasture  grasses.  The woman was very happy with  her starter herd and confident that she had a knowledgeable mentor to guide her  through the inevitable problems.  A year  later, she was even happier when we bought the first outside breeding to her  now fully mature, beautiful herd sire.   This is often the course of a good mentor/newbie relationship.  The mentor knows the newbie and therefore  often becomes a customer.  The alpaca  world is built on those sorts of networks.   We sell to people who have come to trust us, so we end up buying from  those same people because we have come to trust them.

        With  or without a mentor, you still need to know how to evaluate an alpaca yourself.  Start with good conformation—the animal’s  basic physical structure.  ClementineLook at the animal’s top  line—the backbone.  You want a nice,  straight spine, but a em>slightly/em> domed  backbone is not a serious fault.  I’ve  even heard a few knowledgeable alpaca breeders argue that a female with a  slight dome to her back might more easily carry a pregnancy.  What you don’t want is an exaggerated dome,  or worse, a sagging backbone, commonly called a sway back.  A sway backed animal can present all sorts of  problems with reproduction, pregnancy, birthing, nursing and gait.  It frequently is an indication of other less  obvious but more serious skeletal problems.

        Study the hips.  You want broad hips for easy birthing.  Narrow hips mean a narrow birth canal.  Female alpacas are about the same weight as  human females, but their babies, crias, are usually twice as large as human  babies at birth.  I have one alpaca with  nice wide hips that gave birth to a twenty-four pound cria—popped that monster  out as if that cria were no bigger than a peanut. Peanut & Sundae

Take a good look at the  animal’s legs.  Viewed head on or from the  side, the ideal front legs should be straight, not bowed, knocked, canted  forward over the toes or angled backward over the pasterns.  Viewed from the rear, the back legs should be  straight, not bowed, or cow hocked; but from the side, an alpaca’s hind lower leg,  called the cannon, should angle forward from the point of the hock about 20  degrees leading into the fetlock (ankle).   If the rear legs do not have this angle, but appear straight from hip to  fetlocks the animal is said to be post-legged,  a serious skeletal fault.  If the angle  of the lower leg leading into the fetlock is much greater than 20 degrees the  animal is said to bestrong> /strong>sickle hocked or down on its pasterns, again a  serious skeletal fault.  Remember that a  photograph can make a good alpaca’s legs look bad or cover up a serious fault.

        Look at the animal’s tail.  It should hang straight without any  kinks.  Eyes should be bright and dark  for breeding animals, but blue eyes are just fine for non-breeding pets.  Ears should be long and elliptical, but not  curved (unless of course the animal is a llama where banana ears are just what  you want).  When standing, the alpaca’s  feet should fall right under the hips and shoulders, not splay out or cant  inward.  Although in loose sand or mud,  the toes may be slightly spread for better footing, on normal ground, the toes  should point fairly straight ahead.  Take  some time to watch the animal walk.  The  back feet should “track” directly behind the front feet without dragging.

        Look at the  alpaca’s teeth.  The front teeth, its incisors,  occur only on the bottom jaw and should meet the front edge of the hard upper  jaw palate.  Satin teethMany front teeth  problems can be corrected with a good trimming, but seriously bucked or  undershot permanent incisors present lifelong problems because the animal uses  its front teeth to crop grass and hay.  Behind  the incisors, alpacas have premolars and molars on both top and bottom  jaws.  Keep in mind that alpacas have  both baby teeth and permanent teeth.  The  transition from baby teeth to permanent teeth usually starts around a year old,  but some permanent teeth might not come in until the animal is six years  old.  This transition period may give false  impressions of the alpaca’s permanent teeth position.  Males also develop fighting teeth starting as  early as a year and half--four on the top, two on the bottom.  They look like a dog’s canines and need to be  trimmed close to the gums to prevent males from seriously hurting or even  killing each other.  Some females develop  fighting teeth as well, but they are generally much smaller, rarely presenting  a problem.

        Examine  the alpaca’s genitalia.  An adult male  should have two testicles symmetrical in size about as large as good sized walnuts.  On a female, the labia should be clearly visible  and have a distinct vertical orientation.   A female’s udder should have four distinct teats.  While someone holds the alpaca, run your  hands all over the animal.  You’ll often  find that a young male that appears to have only one testicle will upon  physical examination prove to have two good ones.  Stress will often cause them to retract  partially one or both.

        While  you’ve got your hands on the animal, check its body score.  Cup you palm around the spinal column at  several locations.  You want your hand consistently  to form a distinct C.  If it consistently  forms a narrow V, the animal is underweight.   If your palm has trouble forming much of a C, the animal is overweight,  and if your palm usually lies flat or nearly flat, the animal is obese.  Either seriously underweight or overweight  spells major problems.  Both can ruin a  male’s sperm count or a female’s fertility, among a host of other problems.  However, with pregnant females, keep in mind  that a late term female may look and score as overweight, even fat, while a  nursing mother with a two to four month old cria will often struggle to  maintain her weight.

        In  your physical examination of the animal, save the fiber for last.  Why?  Satin fleeceAs a general rule, you can improve fiber faster than you can  conformation.  You can often dramatically  upgrade the crimp in a huacaya herd or the luster in a suri herd within a  single generation, but it usually takes several generations to see dramatic  improvements in knocked knees, swayed backs, buck teeth and most other conformational  faults.  Start your herd with a sound  conformational Boomerbase.

That does not mean that fiber is unimportant.  Whether suri or huacaya, alpaca fiber  possesses unique qualities that make it heavily sought in the fashion industry.  You want to look carefully at the fiber on an  alpaca.  The most important quality is  consistency.  In a huacaya, you want consistent  crimp, and then secondarily consistent brightness.  In a suri, you want consistent luster, and  then secondarily consistent lock.  There  are many different styles of crimp in huacaya, and at least five different  styles of lock in suri, according to the AOBA Suri Breed Standards.  What ever crimp and brightness or luster and  lock an alpaca has, you want consistency.   The same applies to an alpaca’s handle and staple length.  Handle is an alpaca’s density, the number of  fiber follicles per square inch of flesh.   Staple length is the length of the individual fibers.  These can vary widely across an alpaca, so  you want to select alpacas with fiber that has a consistent crimp and  brightness, or luster and lock, handle and staple length—especially across the  animal’s blanket.

        Fineness,  the diameter of each individual hair follicle, is another important  quality.  This is measured in  microns--the finer the follicle, the smaller the micron.  Scientific studies have repeatedly shown that  high quality alpaca fiber is finer than all other natural fibers, except  silk.  So ask for a micron count.  Not all alpaca breeders want the expense of  getting micron counts on their animals, and if you’re just looking for barnyard  pets, fineness need not be an important Jena Histogramfactor in your  decision.  However, if you’re looking to  start a fiber herd or a breeding herd, fineness is an important quality, and  since you’ll be paying good money for top fiber animals or breeding females and  herd sires, you have every right to expect a seller to provide you with as much  information as possible.  Fine huacaya  fiber should feel smooth and warm, but fine suri fiber should feel slick, almost  greasy, and cool.

        When  you like the look and feel of an alpaca, that’s the time to ask about its  bloodlines and show records.  Don’t let  pedigree or ribbons prejudice you for or against an animal.  Let them confirm what your eyes and hands  already like about an animal, and if you don’t like the look and feel of an  alpaca, why even bother with its genetics or ribbons?  What pedigree can tell you about an animal is  how likely it is that the animal will pass on its conformation and fiber to its  progeny, but pedigree and championships cannot guarantee that the animal’s  progeny will match or excel its parent.   Many people have bought into the hype about alpaca country of origin,  and even into a bloodline’s descent from a particular South American farm or  two.  But the AOBA show ring confirms  that the further we get from the original importations, the less relevance that  connection has.  The Accoyo bloodline  became world renown because Don Julio Barreda established very strict  guidelines for his signature herd.  An  alpaca had to have at least 200 follicles for every square inch of skin or Don  Julio culled it, which usually meant that animal was served up on his dinner  table.  The Accoyo herd became justly  famous for its extreme density.  However,  very few farms in the United    States that sell full Accoyo alpacas count  their animals’ follicles per square inch, but that won’t stop them from touting  their animals as full Accoyo.  Remember  pedigree and show records are useful guides, not guarantees.         Ask  to see an alpaca’s health records.  You’re  looking for two things: has the alpaca received good care and does it have a  history of repeated problems.  You  certainly don’t want a herd sire with a low sperm count or a dam with a series  of problematic births and little to no milk.

Clem & AustinAnd that brings us to our last area of  concern—temperament.  As a new owner, you  want a calm, even tempered alpaca, not a nervous, high strung problem  child.  You are going to learn how to do  many things to this alpaca: trimming toenails, giving shots, worming, weighing,  haltering, leading and so forth.  These  are a lot easier to learn if the alpaca has a forgiving temperament and a lot  harder if the alpaca is a diva inclined to kick, spit, scream and run at the  slightest touch.  You don’t want either a  jumpy, stressed out alpaca or an aggressive, pushy animal.  Above all, you don’t want the alpaca that  immediately cushes  and refuses to budge.  You’re looking for  a self-confident alpaca that stands calmly while you look it over and for the  most part tolerates you touching it.   Many of these alpacas will like to have their necks rubbed.  These are the ones you see in the huggable  investment photos, but don’t expect an alpaca to come bounding up to you like a  dog.         A  calm, even tempered alpaca is more likely to take the stress of travel and  shows. It’s much more likely to breed and birth well.  Believe me, somebody has to remain calm at  that first birth on your farm, and you’re not a likely candidate, so the alpaca  better be.  A calm female alpaca is much  more likely to be a good mother with lots of nutritious milk than a nervous  dam.  A high strung herd sire is more  likely to have performance problems with females or be more interested in  fighting other males than breeding.  Inevitably,  if you intend to become a breeding farm or have a large fiber herd, you will  have to learn how to handle jumpy, nervous, cantankerous alpacas, but why start  with them?

        Right  now, you’re dreaming about owning beautiful, gentle alpacas.  If you force yourself to take the time to  find the right starter animals, you’ll be well on the way to living your dream.               


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Now, that you have a bit more to consider with your first or next purchase, call us (352-628-9980 or   727-244-5522) or email us to   schedule a farm visit. We look forward to showing off our herd and talking alpacas with you.