What to look for when breeding Alpacas

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.

  1. 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”.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Brightness or Luster: Pretty self-explanatory. We want the fiber to be as shiny and glowing as possible.
  5. 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.

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After a good morning and early afternoon selling Christmas trees with our 4H club, I came home and started back up working on the website. I noticed a couple days ago that my traffic pattern had started changing, but I hadn’t had time to look into it. With Kim upstairs working on the new yarn stock (see it here) I took the time to start researching what was going on. I have been watching and noticing that many of the visitors to the site were looking for Glittens (which we are working on getting more in stock as soon as possible). This was a major change from the Friendship Bracelets being our most popular item. This got me to thinking that there must be something up Google so I started looking there first. Sure enough, we aren’t on the main page for Friendship Bracelets any more like we used to be. So I started digging into the various tools and couldn’t come up with anything that had changed from my perspective. All of my products were still being accepted by the new Merchant Center (which replaces Google Base for most things) and I didn’t see anything in the Webmaster tools that said there should be a problem with site. Went back to the search results and started digging in a little deeper and noticed that the three Friendship bracelets on the main page were now from Amazon, Overstock and Target. Seems that Google may have done a little adjustment to the how it presents ads for the holiday shopping season, and I am sure they aren’t getting any kickbacks for it too…riiiiight.

I was able to find my listing in the shopping results, especially if I sorted by price, because we still have the best price listed in the Google shopping results. I just need to figure out how to get back on the front page again. I started looking at some of the reasons I may have been demoted and could only come up with one that really made some sense. Instead of a single product for the Friendship Bracelets, we now offer several different options for purchasing them, and according to Google, this may appear as us trying to manipulate the search rankings by posting duplicate content. While I don’t deny that I am trying to push the Friendship Bracelets I really only created the new ones to give more options for purchasing them that better fit with the restrictions of my current shopping cart software. Hopefully, when the new site redesign is ready, and the new shopping cart along with it, it will have better options for what I want to do with selling and I can fix the issues with Google search for my products where we have many options for similar items.

On another note, I got an invite for Google Wave yesterday and so far I am still trying to figure out how to fit it into my daily alpaca life. It is a pretty neat tool, if you have people that you want to communicate with in that fashion. I have some invites if you would like to start trying it out with me, please let me know. If you already have it, also, I would be interested in knowing if you would like to be added as a contact with me and we can use it together.

I was also poking around my Google Merchant account today and noticed that there was a new feature allowing me to link to my Adwords account. So, I linked the two. Why not, right? Expecting some cool new feature to magically appear in Adwords that I couldn’t ignore and I would have to start paying Google again. Well, I looked around my account and didn’t see a change. I created a new campaign and ad group and kept looking for anything that would let me easily select a product (like maybe a Friendship Bracelet?) from my Merchant Account and use it for marketing through Adwords. After poking and looking and clicking and searching, I gave up and hit the help button back in the Merchant Account and discovered a single line in there that said in essence, “You suck as a Merchant. We have better people testing this feature. Someday, after the others have made a million dollars, we may let you have the same feature as the cool kids.” I may have misread it, but either way, I don’t have the feature in my Adwords account, so I guess I don’t have to give Google any more money there. If you have ever really tried Adwords, I would be interested if you got any useful traffic from it. I think I got one sale after spending about $100 on it, on top of the $50 free. Maybe I just don’t know how to market my products right. I will say that they have some much nicer features in there than when I first tried it, but the click fraud was so apparent when I used it, it really left a bad impression for me.

I do use many other Google tools, like Gmail, Adsense, Checkout (need to get that fixed…), Feedburner, and Custom Search, so I can’t say I hate Google. I really think they generally have some good products and uses. I’m just a little frustrated with them today because they directly affected my bottom line and it seems pretty apparent that the big guys get all the traffic.

Thanks for listening to my rant.

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Volunteering during the holiday season

We have officially entered the holiday season. I don’t care what anybody else says, the holiday season will never start before Thanksgiving in my book. Many people associate the holiday season with giving and receiving presents. While this was my main focus for many years, I have gone through a transformation in recent years about this time of year.

For many of the recent years I haven’t enjoyed the season because I haven’t had the extra money to get people the kind of gifts I would like to get them. Many people in my life had to go without, with my sincere apologies and best wishes for a happy holiday. We have always managed to get the kids something they would like and usually need, and something special.

I have decided that rather than stress out about presents this year, since it is again going to be a year of little cash, I am going to focus on the good things in my life and doing good things rather than buying things.

One of the things we are doing this year that is a first for us, is donating our time with our 4-H group to sell Christmas trees. The 4H group gets all of the proceeds from this sale. It should be a lot of fun for us.

Share your holiday good deeds with me. Would love to hear about them.

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Alpaca Breeding – Breeding up

One very important aspect of the alpaca business, if you are a breeder anyway, is the concept of breeding up. Put simply, this is taking a lesser quality female and breeding her with a supreme quality male to get a cria (baby) that is better than the mother. Hopefully, this is a female that you can then breed up again and after a few generations have a very high quality cria that doesn’t really matter whether it is a female or a male as you will have a good breeding quality adult in a couple years.

For many beginning alpaca ranches, this is a good route to start into the business. Take a couple lower quality females, and breed them up until you have a decent sized herd with high quality off-spring. You can then sell the off-spring for more than you have put into the females and then start making money. You do need to have a pretty good business plan to accomplish this though as you will not have the income from the sales in the first few years. If you know this going into the business with a solid plan, this won’t be an issue down the line.

Sales of animals have been slow in the alpaca business the past year or so along with the economy, so our herd, like many others, has been building up some very nice quality animals that are ready to breed up to some awesome quality animals. We have also brought in some new bloodlines to the farm in our males to make our breeding offerings more complete. If you have been considering getting into the alpaca business, now is a very good time to make the move. Prices have come down for some very high quality alpacas and it appears the economy is starting to make a recovery so the prices of the quality alpacas will start to rise again.

You don’t have to have property to own alpacas. Most farms will board, or agist, your alpacas. They will take care of the day to day herd management for you, while you make the decisions about the breeding and sales of your animals. How much involvement with the actual alpacas is up to you. I still believe in the investment potential of these wonderful animals because I believe the fiber they produce is such an ideal product. I believe that as we breed alpacas for better fiber quality, and other traits, they only make more sense as a business opportunity.

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Holiday Sales

Starting into the holiday season now and attending more sales with our products. So far though, it has been much slower than anticipated. We have taken a pretty good selection of products along with us and people seem to enjoy looking at them and feeling them, especially the teddy bears and other stuffed animals, but they just aren’t buying the products like they were in the past. We haven’t raised our prices, but I have heard people say that we are expensive. If they only knew that our prices are much lower than that of other alpaca products on the market in most cases. We can’t come down any more than we already have. I think it is just a sign of the times that people are being more selective with their purchases. Maybe we aren’t hitting the right sales, but we are working on that. We will be attending more sales during this holiday season and hopefully we will get more people interested in alpaca products, and maybe an alpaca too.

Doing the sales is fun too in that we get to tell people about our animals and educate them on them and what they are and why we raise them. We get lots of good questions about how they are different from other animals, like sheep, and how difficult are they to raise and what the difference between an alpaca and a llama. Making the answers different while still providing the same information is what makes the fun and challenging to answer.

Hopefully the market will pick up over the next couple of weeks as we start attending other shows.

I would be interested in hearing of other people’s experiences with selling alpaca products during the holiday season.

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Compost Series – Part IV – Other things

Sorry it has taken for this the last in my Compost Series. There were Internet problems, personal problems, and other problems that have been plaguing me over the past several weeks. Anyway, this will attempt to cover some of the other composting methods out there, but it I can’t claim to know all about every composting method out there.

There are several other methods of disposing of household and small farm wastes that are interesting to consider. Please read on to discover some of the cooler things that can be done and what some uses for the compost created.

Lasagna Garden:
Named for the layers used to create your garden bed, not for the food. The basic principle in a Lasagna Garden is that you take your greens and browns and layer them on top of a bed of cardboard or newspaper, with a layer of sticks to provide a bit of air flow at the bottom. While you can start a lasagna garden in the spring, fall (like right now) is the best time to let it cook over the winter. We started our garden last spring with our cardboard layer, then sticks, a layer of shredded paper from 10 years of old documents (my poor shredder!), a layer of fresh cut grass, a layer of dead hay, a layer of alpaca poo and finally a layer of fresh soil since we needed to give the seeds a good start while the compost was getting going. We had an awesome garden this year. Last weekend, we closed up the garden and put in a fresh layer of dead hay and topped it off with alpaca poo and covered it up for the winter.

For more information on lasagna gardens a quick search on the Internet will reveal a wealth of information, much more than I can provide here. Take a look at the Google results: http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&source=hp&q=lasagna+gardening&aq=7&oq=lasa&aqi=g10

Worm Bin:
A Worm Bin is, as the name implies, a container that holds worms that is used to dispose of household food wastes. Our worm bin is made from two plastic storage containers with a couple of small butter tubs at the bottom to allow for drainage at the the bottom of the bin. The worms are put to bed in a mixture of shredded paper and wet leaves and then food scraps are occasionally added for the worms to eat. In about three months, window screen is set on top of the worm bed and new bedding material is added. The worm’s new food is added in the upper layer while they complete the feast in the lower layer. In about another three months, the top layer is lifted using the screen and the bottom bit is harvested as completed vermi-compost. The top layer becomes the bottom layer and the process starts again by placing the screen on top and new bedding material.

The worms are called red wigglers with a scientific name of  “Eisenia Foetida”. They are the best worms for the job and you can usually purchase enough worms to start your own bin for about $25 or so. I attempted to harvest the worms myself for the process and quickly discovered that at about 1000 worms per pound, and you need about a pound to get started, buying them from someone else was much faster, easier, and more reliable, as I wasn’t sure I got all the right kind of worms from my compost pile.

Worms LOVE

Worms HATE

Breads & Grains
Coffee grounds & filter
Tea bags
Dairy Products

Again, for more information on worm bins, the Internet is a wonderful place: http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q=worm+bin+&aq=f&oq=&aqi=

Pet waste:
This is one thing that we don’t do here personally. However, you can put a bin into the ground and compost your pet waste there. Do not put pet waste on your garden or down the drain! Here is a step-by-step process copied from the following address: http://www.plantea.com/dog-waste-compost.htm

  1. Take and old garbage can and drill a dozen or so holes in the side.
  2. Cut out the bottom (A keyhole saw works great for this.)
  3. Dig a hole in the ground, deep enough for the garbage can.
  4. Toss some rocks or gravel in the hole for drainage and position the garbage can so it’s a little higher than the soil level.
  5. Place the lid on top (you might want to paint it with something like Dog Waste Composter.)
  6. When you scoop some poop, put it in the hole and sprinkle in some septic starter (available at hardware stores) and add some water.

I hope this series was interesting to someone, and I apologize again for how long it took to get it completed.

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