This is a very complex subject and there have been books written on the subject. I am going to go over just some of the basics and if you want more information about anything specific, or if you disagree with me, let me know. I am not above receiving constructive criticism. I also know that some of these ideas are subjective and a particular breeding program may not think all of these characteristics are important, and may have others that I forgot to include here. These are not in order of importance, because what may be important in one breeding program may not be as important in another.
Fiber Quality: Alpacas are generally considered a fiber producing animal and thus we want to have the highest quality fiber we can get from our offspring. Quality is measured several ways.
- Fineness: This is the measure of how large around each individual hair is. This is measured in microns and a lower number is better. Alpacas can get lower than 20 microns, which is a very fine feeling fiber. Sheep are generally in the 30 micron range. A human hair, for comparison, is generally in the 100 micron range. For a garment that is to be worn next to the skin, it is best to have as many as possible of the fibers below the 30 micron count. Anything above 30 microns are what catch on the skin and cause the “itch factor”.
- Uniformity: We want all of our alpaca fiber to be as close to the same across that animal’s fleece as possible. When talking about uniformity, we are talking in micron count, color and staple length. We don’t want much variation in any of these as they make the fiber more difficult to grade and process.
- Style: We refer to the characteristic of style in terms of the crimp of the fiber. Crimp meaning how “wavy” the hairs are. As a wild generalization, the wavier the better.
- Brightness or Luster: Pretty self-explanatory. We want the fiber to be as shiny and glowing as possible.
- Lack of medulation: Medulation, or guard hairs, makes for a less fine and itchier garment that can be more difficult to process. Guard hairs are thicker, straight hairs that help keep some vegetative matter out of the fleece, but for our needs of the fiber, they are a bad thing.
Size: Most farms are breeding for bigger animals. Bigger animals have more fiber and thus generate more income from the fiber processing each year. There can be some drawbacks to this though. If the breeding dam isn’t large enough, breeding for a large cria can cause issues with the birthing process that has could include the death of mom and baby, although this is very rare. For some farms, the larger animals can also be safety concern during the normal handling, especially if they aren’t handled on a regular basis.
Fiber Coverage: As with many things in life, more is better. If there is more usable fiber on an alpaca, the more they are worth each year when it comes time to make products from their fiber. The main areas we look at are the legs and the head, since the rest of the animal is going to be covered with fiber pretty much guaranteed. We also consider the type of fiber in the coverage when looking at it, meaning how much guard hair it has.
Fiber Density: Put simply, this is how close the hair grows together. The denser the fiber, the more we can get from and animal at shearing time. The more we get at shearing time, the more we can make from the animal. The more we make, the more money we make. There are tests that can be performed to tell the exact follicle density of each animal, but a quick look at a full fleeced animal can give a pretty good indication of the fiber density as well. You can see how “packed together” the fibers are, and when the alpaca moves, how it “cracks” as the follicles become stretched.
Color: You are looking to breed for the color you want; that you think will sell the best, or will provide with the best look for your cria. This is not a science. You can not guarantee that what you breed for will be what you get. You can breed two solid white animals and end up with a black and brown pinto. You just never know. There are some fancy studies that have been done that try to help predict the colors you are more likely to get, but you just never know. This is actually part of the fun in having these animals. When birthing time comes around, the color is always a surprise! But once you see the color of the cria, that is pretty much the color the alpaca will remain for the rest of its life.
Pattern: Basically the same as color. You never know what you are going to get until the cria hits the ground. There are some patterns that we are trying to avoid as breeders due to their link to health issues. Specifically the white spot and its relation to breedings resulting in Blue-Eyed White animals, which can be deaf, but can also have some of the most impressive fiber attributes.
Personality: Many breeders don’t take this into consideration as their animals are simply livestock. Many other breeders care about this greatly as they consider the alpacas as pets, as well as livestock. This is a very difficult and subjective trait to breed for as well, but with a little practice and knowledge of your breeding animals, you can end up with some very personable alpacas.
Conformation: This is the overall body structure of the alpaca. The alpaca should have straight legs when viewed from the front or back. The legs also should not be positioned too close together. The legs should be similar in length to the neck and back. You want the alpaca to look proportionate. Good bone density is important in reducing or preventing other health problems down the road like arthritis. Looking at the mouth of an alpaca you will notice that it does not have any top teeth in the front, only a hard palate. The palate and the front teeth will meet up in the ideal alpaca. The bite of an alpaca can, and will, change as the alpaca ages. Just because an alpaca has perfect bite at two years old, does not mean that will remain true at six years old. Many alpaca owners will modify the bite of their alpacas in the interest of better foraging for food for the alpaca. Just be aware of the practice, ask questions, and know to look for some of the signs of an adjusted bite, like teeth that have been obviously cut to match exactly. Conformation is one of the most difficult characteristics to explain, and there are many books devoted to the topic. You can also attend alpaca shows to gain more knowledge on alpaca conformation.
Health: This of course is just a good practice. You don’t want to breed an animal that has chronic health issues, as you are likely to pass on the same issues to the offspring. The key here is chronic health issues. Some health issues are caused by environment and may not be an issue in the cria. The trick is determining the difference, or just play it safe and be sure that you only breed healthy animals.
I hope this helps explain some of what we look for when we are attempting to breed our alpacas. There are many ways to slice and dice the above information into a breeding program and in the end; it is the individual breeder’s choice how they rank these, and any others that I may have missed, to create their vision of the ideal alpaca.