Breeding camelids can be very interesting, as they are induced ovulators and unlike most of the species with which we are more familiar. They are unique to my experience, and that of most owners. There is limited space to go into all aspects of breeding here, but I would like to talk a bit about age. Females are capable of conception at quite a young age. At RCF, we always wait to breed until they are at least 18 months old, and prefer to wait until 24. It depends on the animal and the circumstances.
Waiting a bit allows the female to achieve most of her growth before facing the demands of producing a cria. Long-term prospects for the animal are greatly enhanced by waiting a few more months before breeding. We not only refuse to breed at a young age, we will not purchase females that were bred at a young age.
When we first got into the business, we were informed that males would not breed before 3 years of age. We bred our first male at 28 months and thought we were the cat’s pajamas! Now, I understand that some breeders are routinely breeding at 18 months. Hmmmmmmmm. This requires skill and knowledge on the part of the breeder, whereas if you wait until after 2 years, you can usually count on the male to do his part without your help!
Crias generally nurse until about 6 months of age.Care of the newly born cria can vary considerably and is too involved to go into here. However, I would like to stress the importance of not upsetting the mom. The dam and cria need to bond with minimal interference and as little stress as possible. Occasionally we have had to supplement the mom’s colostrum with cow colostrum during the first 12 hours. But even trying to get that colostrum down must take a back seat to allowing mom and baby to bond. Typically, we find that the dams are perfectly capable of taking care of the cria. Our job is to disinfect the navel and to keep a sharp eye out that all is proceeding normally. It can be a bit nerve-wracking, but often the best thing an owner can do is to “sit on his hands”
We clear out all the other alpacas and leave mom and baby in a separate area for several hours, sometimes with an experienced female to serve as auntie. If it’s a pleasant day, you might put them in a small paddock for a little sun, preferably in view of the rest of the herd. It is always nice if the herd can meet the newcomer through the fence, as they seem to be anxious to greet and welcome the crias. These gals know how to tend their young and do a good job of it.
Some owners wean the crias at 6 months of age. As with most livestock, weaning is stressful for all involved (including the farmer). Many alpaca owners allow for natural weaning, which often happens when crias are around 9 months old.
Alpacas are shorn once a year. Some shearers specialize in alpacas, and sheep shearers won’t necessarily do the job. Many owners learn to shear alpacas — which is considered easier than shearing sheep or angora goats.
Their toenails need to be clipped. You can get special alpaca toenail clippers, but many people simply use garden shears, or sometimes hoof nippers or nippers designed for ceramic tile.
Camelids use communal piles of droppings. This makes it easy for farmers to collect and compost the manure. In barns, peat moss or bedding can soak up the urine. The ease of collecting droppings leads to a secondary income source — ‘paca poo.’ Because of its relatively low nitrogen level, the raw manure won’t burn plants. However, before being used on edible plants, the manure should be composted to destroy potential pathogens.
Alpacas are susceptible to many of the intestinal parasites that affect ruminants. A serious parasite is the meningeal worm, carried by whitetail deer, slugs and snails. The parasites are controlled by the same dewormers used in goats and sheep. Also, some ranchers apply diatomaceous earth (DE), a nontoxic powder, around the pellet pile. Bovine viral diarrhea (BVD) virus, which is carried by cattle, can cause health problems and abortions in alpacas. All new breeding stock should be tested for BVD virus before coming onto the farm.