My dad used to tell me that “an alpaca herd was like a baseball team” and if we wanted to field a winning team we would need “someone to hit some home runs.” Your herdsire has to be the big hitter. The males you choose as sires will contribute 50% of all the genes in your cria. If you have ten females in your herd any one of them will contribute only 10% of the genes to your annual crop of cria.
I cannot emphasis enough the importance of selecting for stud males that have a proven record of producing high quality cria. By using a potent and proven stud you also have the advantage of creating a more marketable pedigree for your cria. Strictly speaking prepotency is the superior power that one parent has over the other in determining the character of the offspring.
The only way to determine the potency of a male is to inspect its progeny. If the male’s offspring are uniformly superior then the male is prepotent. For a thorough discussion of progeny testing please read Alpacas: Synthesis of a Miracle and Ideal Alpaca: From Myth to Reality.
Alpaca breeders often look to acquire “bloodlines” by purchasing animals sired by a wide variety of males. I believe they would make more progress if they concentrated on purchasing animals sired by a few prepotent males. By narrowing their selection they would insure that their herd would be populated by the dominant genes that were being passed on by superior males. The process of creating superior animals involves concentrating the herd’s gene pool so that it includes a maximum number of elite genes and eliminates the inferior genes from the mix. This should be every alpaca breeder’s goal.
Alpaca breeders can not change Mendel’s laws, alter the number of genes which make an alpaca, or affect their interrelationship. They can not change the expression of dominance or the negative effects of some recessive genes. That leaves only two ways for alpaca breeders to control the heredity of their animals. First, they select the alpacas which make up their herd. Second, they decide which alpaca will mate with each of the alpacas in the herd, and how many offspring each parent will have.
The second group of decisions they make – selecting whom to breed to whom and how often – is every bit as important as the breeder’s initial selection decision. A breeding program integrates your selection system – how you choose the traits to breed for, and how you choose the animals you will breed: by pedigree, phenotype, or progeny testing – and your mating system – choosing which animals to mate to which. Today, most breeders practice some form of selection when they purchase and breed their alpacas. However, many of them substitute their concept of selection for their breeding program. But a breeding program must be a combination of both careful selection and a well-chosen mating system.
CREATING A BREEDING PROGRAM
To understand the process of creating a breeding program, study the following steps:
- There must be a goal to drive the changes in the animals being bred. The establishment of a goal for your endeavor is critical. I farm alpacas with the expectation of a profit. My goal is to produce animals that I can sell at a profit on an annual basis. Profit can be viewed in a number of ways: per female, per labor unit, per acre, or as a percentage of capital invested.Everyone’s goal might be a little different. Some breeders may want to produce show animals, some production females; others might want to produce stud males for sale. One farm’s goals might include white suris while another would specialize in colored huacayas. If you do not have a goal or a specific breeding program any road you take or any breeding you make will get you there. But I would suggest that if you do not have a goal for your farm, stop what you are doing and get one!
- Goals must be translated into breeding objectives. A breeding objective must include a list of selection traits that will help you reach your goal. Once you have identified the traits you are selecting for they must be prioritized. Since one of my goals is profit, I select for ideal type (See, Ideal Alpacas: From Myth to Reality.), fine stylish fleeces and high fleece weights. Type sells, fine fiber is more valuable and the more of it there is the more the fleece is worth.Alpacas that have low micron counts sell for more money. Alpacas with superior type sell for more money and alpacas that have dense fleeces sell for more money. If I can meet these objectives, I will meet my goals. A breeder may want to include color or luster or crimp or size in their objectives. In the end your breeding program should be driven by objectives that will help you accomplish your goal.
- The objective dictates the selection criteria to be used in your program. The selection criteria I use include low micron, crimp style, lock structure, brightness and luster, fleece coverage and density. Finally, I like big bold, well conformed animals.The average micron count of the American herd is 26.3 to 29 microns for huacaya and 27.1 to 29.8 for microns for suri. (Data source: Yokum-McColl Testing Laboratories.) I strive to breed animals that average 21 microns at two years of age and that stay below 26 microns as they age. I have selected stud males that produce cria with low average micron counts that tend not to blow out as they age.Crimp style is an important selection criterion if your goal is to raise finer huacaya. My experience tells me alpacas with 8 to 10 crimps per inch tend to be finer fleeced and more uniform. Animals with broader, less frequent crimp tend to become coarser as they age. Well crimped huacaya grow bundled staples that form dense fleeces that cut high weights.Suri that exhibit tightly twisted locks tend, in my experience, to be finer and exhibit more luster. The animals with thick substantial locks tend to be dense. Huacaya and Suri alike are more valuable in the marketplace if they exhibit leg coverage and have a typey head. Larger animals have less birthing problems, tend to carry more fleece and do well in the show ring.
- A breeding scheme must be designed to facilitate the change. The objective of any breeding program is to facilitate change in a predetermined direction. The breeder decides which animals will become parents, how often and with whom. The animal breeder has arbitrary control over the reproduction process.You will need to make decisions about who to sell and which males to geld. You will need to determine which females you return as replacement stock and which males you reserve as studs. You may decide to use outside males to service your females. All of these decisions need to be made with your goal in mind and with the intent of changing the qualities of your herd until their characteristics are consistent with your ideal. To do this you will need to adhere to the principles of genetic change, selection accuracy, generational interval, selection intensity and genetic variability. (See below.)
- A mating plan must be established. Once your breeding scheme is operational and you have selected the animals that you intend to mate you must settle on a mating plan. There are five animal mating systems.(Click here for diagram)Each of these different plans will have predictable results. (See Alpacas: Synthesis of a Miracle.) You will need to choose the system that will accomplish your purpose and avoid the plans that will hinder your progress.Economic analysis must be used to evaluate progress and assure that the breeding objective is being met. The final step in the implementation of a breeding program is to evaluate the results. Is the plan economically feasible? Are you paying too much for breeding fees or are the animals you create for sale worth less than the cost to produce them? How long will the breeding scheme that you have embarked on take to create the results you expect? You must decide if changes are necessary. This analysis should be used to sharpen your goals, refine your objectives and provoke change in the subsequent generations of cria that you produce.
WHAT QUESTIONS SHOULD A BREEDING PROGRAM ANSWER?
To create an effective breeding program, selection is used to identify superior animals, and then a specific mating system is used to consolidate and perpetuate the gains made from selection. Understanding this relationship, together with a thorough knowledge of how various mating systems operate, will guide the creation of a breeding program and allow breeders to answer difficult questions, such as
- Should I use a wide variety of males or a select few?
- Should I use proven older males or unproven younger males?
- How important is pedigree?
- Should I buy replacements or breed them from my herd?
- How many replacement females should I save?
- Should I outcross, line-breed, or mate like-to-like?
- Is corrective mating important?
A breeder must understand the basic mechanisms of genetic gain if they want to develop a breeding program to improve their herd. This knowledge must then be injected into a plan that sets goals, objectives, uses selection and a sound mating system. Then the results of the plan must be measured and assessed to determine whether the original goals are being met.
This is not as difficult as it may seem. Let’s begin with a short review of what factors drive genetic gain.
There are four basic genetic prerequisites for rapid breed improvement: 1) genetic variability, 2) selection intensity, 3) selection accuracy, and 4) generational interval. Genetic variation is extremely important to the rate of gain. The more variation for a particular trait in a population, the more potential there is for change. If breeders have a wide variety of animals to choose from–such as those with high or low fleece weights–they can select alpacas with very different traits and breed for those traits. If those animals have high breeding value for the trait, improvement in the herd will be rapid.
Selection accuracy is important if any improvement or gain is to be made. This means the traits you select for must be heritable. Accuracy says that we have the ability to separate superior and inferior animals. If you select for a heritable characteristic, such as fleece weight, you must identify superior stud males who historically have produced offspring with higher than average fleece weights to insure the trait is passed to the offspring. The same goes for fineness, crimp, staple length, etc.
Breeders should also understand that selection accuracy costs time and money. The cost to progeny test 10 dairy bulls runs into the tens of thousands of dollars. Fleece histograms for alpacas are expensive. And finally, selection accuracy can cost you the time it takes to assess the animals selected as breeding stock and as Dr. Dorian Garrick, of Colorado State University says, “Genes don’t get better with age.”
Selection intensity means being highly selective of the progeny produced by the high-quality parents you have chosen for foundation stock, and retaining in your herd only the offspring that exhibit a superior expression of the heritable qualities for which you are selecting. This ensures that breeding values will remain high and that each generation of offspring should improve: The higher the selection intensity, the higher the rate of genetic gain.
Generational interval affects the rate of genetic change simply because the more rapidly one generation replaces the previous one, the faster the potential gain. Mice reproduce more quickly than humans, producing 150 generations in the time it takes humans to produce one. (This makes it much easier to effect change in mice than in humans. And improving people is also a problem because there is very little culling undertaken.)
Generational interval is determined by the average age of the producing males and females in a given herd. Alpacas have a generation interval of four to six years for females and approximately five years for males, although this interval will vary from herd to herd. The shorter the interval the faster the gain.
Animal breeding is the process of change. You cannot stand still and succeed. If you have a herd of females, breed them each year and sell the offspring your herd will never improve. In this scenario you are simply a producer or manufacturer, not an animal breeder. A true breeder spends their waking hours trying to facilitate change in the direction of their vision. Good luck and may your herd improve from year to year.
Reproduced with permission from:
Alpaca Breeding Farm: Northwest Alpacas : raising suri and huacaya alpacas for sale, alpaca investment, and alpaca business plans for alpaca breeders and owners worldwide. Find more useful information at the Alpaca Library.