Breeding For Improvement

Breeding for Improvement

An article written for the British Alpaca Society Magazine (2019).

Barbara & Paul Hetherington of Beck Brow Alpacas have been breeding alpacas for 10 years, and now own a well-regarded and highly successful herd based in Cumbria. Here Barbara shares their journey and provides advice on achieving continuing herd improvement.

When we purchased our first alpacas, the idea of breeding goals had never entered our heads, nor had the idea of having even an outline of a business plan. Our main basis for selection was measured on a cute-o-meter. These were to be our pets. Of course, that changed very quickly, as I soaked up as much information as I could absorb. I attended BAS courses, went to the halter shows, visited other farms, and researched genetic lines until my head had room for little else. This meant that our next purchases were very well considered. We bought females of high quality, with a depth of proven genetics, sound conformation and advanced fleece qualities. Our goals at this stage were still limited by our knowledge, we knew about fineness and density, but fleece length and uniformity of micron were not yet to make our list of breeding goals.

Even given this amount of research, there is still an element of good fortune. For us, that was buying a top-level pregnant female, who produced for us our first stud male; Beck Brow Explorer. Explorer was our sixth cria to be born on farm, so very early days. Although at this point we knew we had a good alpaca, we did not recognise quite what potential he really had. He, of course, went on to become a multi-championship winning male, who has produced numerous supreme championship-winning progeny. A male who is leaving his imprint consistently on his off-spring. However, it took a few years before we knew this for certain.

What we did realise very early, was that when buying stock with very fine fleece statistics, they quickly jumped a few microns (became less fine) when they were introduced to our lush Cumbrian grass. This environment impact was very evident in our fleece graphs. Thus, at this stage, ultrafine fleeces were not to be our goal. We were happy with fine cria fleeces (20 microns or under). Instead, we concentrated on density and consistency of micron across the fleece. Sometimes breeding goals become based on what we have to work with. It was very early in our breeding that we realised that whilst the high nutritional value of our grass may add a micron or two, it was also likely that it would optimise the genetic potential for density.

Our other obvious asset was Explorer. Here we had a male with exception fleece length, good density and with great uniformity of micron even to the extremities of the fleece. He himself had, had a first fleece MFD of 18 microns, so fine not superfine.

What we did next was to look for females who would complement Explorer. We looked for low SD (uniformity within the fleece sample tested), density and fineness. Explorer always puts in good fleece length and brightness, so these proved not to be crucial. This approach of purchasing females for specific males has worked well for us, but it does take some progeny testing to be sure that the male is going to be pre-potent in delivering the traits that he himself has.

Whilst new goals are continually made, our focus on density and uniformity has resulted in fleeces not only with those qualities, but with the vast majority of our light coloured cria fleeces measuring 15-17 microns when tested at a year old. The science tells us that when a fleece is very dense and uniform, that ultra-fineness is likely to follow (you can only pack so many fibre follicles into the skin before they have to get smaller in diameter). Of course, we also have to thank the breeders of those top-level females for helping us reach our first goals. We never underestimate the value of a high performing female in our herd.

Our constant striving for continued improvement means we now look at five-year plans. We always looking to add that special male or female to complement our herd, and hopefully, with the correct matchmaking, produce our next level of progeny. It takes time and vision to keep your goals focused.

We have reinvested our income from stud services to bring in new genetics both from overseas and the UK. Our aim is to breed the best alpacas we possibly can, irrespective of colour. We mainly focus on the Huacaya breed but also have a small coloured Suri herd.

For some new breeders, the goal is to first focus on a specific breed or colour, and this can certainly make setting and achieving goals more achievable. My advice when setting out is that less is more. We all have to stick to a budget, but aim to buy the best you can within that budget (that may not always mean the most expensive).

For many new breeders buying their own stud male becomes an early goal. However, the purchase of a male too early in your breeding plans can often prove to be a costly mistake. The male will soon become related to the majority of the females in a small herd, and one male rarely fits all. Investing in quality stud services is, I believe, the most cost-effective way to make herd improvement initially (and might actually produce you a stud male over the right female).

My final piece of advice would be to ask the question; just because it is a female and it is an alpaca, does that always make it a breeding female? Over the years we have removed a number of females from our herd. These females are now happily living as stock/poultry guards or as pets. Amongst these females; have been those who are poor milk producers, those who lack perfect conformation and those who have fleece qualities we no longer regard as desirable. We could have bred from these females, we could have received a better return than selling them as pets, but this would have done nothing to improve our herd, or indeed that of others.

In conclusion, continuous herd improvement is rarely down to random decisions. If this is your aim, then I would advise that the first step is to gain as much knowledge as you can. This will help you make informed decisions about your purchases and breeding plans. Set goals, both long and short term. A short term plan might be to breed appaloosa alpacas, a long term plan might be to breed appaloosa alpacas with specific fleece qualities and patterning.

Goals and ambitions may be based around what we have at hand to work with, be that stock or environment. It is not necessarily about the biggest budget, but making the best investment with what you have.

The perfect alpaca has not been born. But the challenge for many of us is to get as close to that ideal as possible and to see improvement year on year. Reaching out towards whatever challenges we may have set for ourselves.