How Do You Know Which Sire to Hire?
by Katy Spears, Psy.D.
Know Your Breeding Goal
As a new breeder, I usually selected males for my open females based on how attractive they were. My idea was to choose a male that I would like my cria to look like. Often the sire’s owners would make suggestions, but I was never clear exactly WHY they were suggesting that particular male. Back then, all alpacas were lovely and if the male had a few ribbons, a few nice cria on the ground, and the price was reasonable – then it seemed like a good choice. Today, with more experience under my belt, breeding decisions require more thought. Let’s look at some of the steps to take when choosing a herdsire.
Assess Your Female
When you purchase females, it is a good idea to ask the Seller about the female’s strengths and weaknesses. (Like people, alpacas have both.) This is a good starting point. If your female was born on your farm and you are new to alpacas, you may experience “barn blindness”. This can happen to long time breeders too so don’t feel bad. But when starting out, most of us think that all our alpacas are wonderful and we can be blind to their flaws. A more experienced alpaca breeder can help you determine the strengths and weaknesses of your little darling. Ask an alpaca friend, expert, or the herdsire’s owner to help you assess your girl.
Another way to have your alpaca assessed is by entering her in an AOBA sanctioned alpaca show. Halter shows are a great way to meet other breeders. Watching the show will help you learn about the best alpacas in your area. Listening to the judges discuss their placements will teach you more about what makes an exceptional alpaca. Consider both fleece and conformation. Ask to look at the Champion and Reserve Champion alpaca’s fleeces as they exit the ring. This can teach you a lot about what the alpaca industry is breeding towards.
For assessing fleece, nothing is better than an AOBA Fleece Show. You will have to skirt your fleece beforehand. Some shows allow you to mail in your fleece. This is one way to get a judge’s opinion of your alpaca’s fleece without the extra expense of hotels, transportation, and missed days of work. Your alpaca will receive a scorecard with various scores on different aspects of her fleece. While winning ribbons is great, even if you do not win, you will receive feedback from the judge that will be valuable as you prepare to breed your female.
Now you have assessed your female. Let’s say that her legs are a bit cow hocked in the back. She will need to be bred to a male with very straight back legs. Maybe her bone is a bit light (skinny little legs). In that case, she will need to be bred to a male with very heavy bone structure. When it comes to fleece, maybe her fleece scores were good overall, but she didn’t get a lot of points for fleece weight. Then you want to choose a male who is very dense and has a heavy fleece weight or a high follicle to square millimeter of skin ratio from a punch biopsy. Maybe your girl has lots of medulation or guard hair so you will want to choose a male with almost no guard hair. This can be found in a male whose secondary to primary fibers ratio is high. It you examine the male and you can see lots of guard hair on him, this may not be the best choice for your female who shares that weakness. The goal is to find a male who will improve your female’s weaknesses. At the same time, you should not sacrifice any of her strengths. For example, if density is your female’s best strength, by all means find a male who is at least as dense as she is but who improves her in other areas.
The Role of Color
How do you know what color male to choose? This is a decision based on your personal preferences and your breeding program. However, there are some guidelines that many breeders follow. If your program is mostly light you may want to stick with mostly light colored males. Some light colored males (beige, fawn, even some white) throw color out of colored dams. If you are looking to improve the colored fleece in your herd, you might research some of the lighter herdsires and see what colors they throw when bred to dark females. The ARI database is an excellent resource for this. Some light colored males consistently improve the darker colored alpaca’s fleeces and let the dark color come through. If your female is a rich, dark color you may want to choose an exceptional male who is also dark in color to maintain the strong dark color genetics.
Grey is a tricky color. It is actually more of a pattern than a color. White with black fibers make up silver grey and white with brown/fawn fibers make up rose grey. Owners of black and grey alpacas often breed these colors together. Many people stay away from breeding greys to whites or pintos because they fear getting a blue-eyed white alpaca as the result. In white animals with blue eyes, the blue eyed trait is linked with deafness, and anecdotally, often seems to result in above average fleece. Other breeders are not very concerned about blue eyes.
We all see the ads with the Championship banners and the listing of Blue Ribbons. They are flashy and impressive. Just how important are show awards? That depends on your breeding goals. A male with numerous Championships from AOBA Shows certainly must be an awesome male in most regards. Look at his lineage, his fleece, and determine if he is a good match for your female and your breeding program and your budget.
What about the guy who hasn’t won a lot of awards? There are some wonderful males out there available for breeding who have not been in the show ring. There are also some males who may have placed lower in the show ring, but who have produced cria better than the male(s) who placed highter inside the show ring. The real test is in the progeny, or offspring of the herdsire.
Look at the award winning male’s fleece. Is that what you are looking for in your herd? Often I have looked at a Champion fleece and thought it was lovely but not exactly right for my breeding program. When you see a fleece that speaks to you, remember it and write down the name of the male and his farm. Breeding is something of an art as well as a science. Sometimes you just know it when you see it!
A male who consistently produces himself or better is considered to be prepotent. This is what we are all looking for in a herdsire. Look to your potential herdsire’s offspring for clues as to what you might get from his genetics. Are those the type of cria that you would like in your herd? Look at the sire’s family. His parents and siblings give you a piece of the genetic puzzle that you will be adding to your alpaca family tree. You take more of a gamble on an unproven male, but sometimes a male’s phenotype and bloodlines combined with a low introductory price make this a good bet.
When researching a sire’s progeny, I also like to know how often the cria are spectacular. Siring one amazing cria out of 20 is different than siring a star once every three breedings. Also, find out what type of female matches up best with him? Often, the sire’s owner will know the answer to this question if asked. Many males can produce exceptional cria when he is given high quality females to begin with, but what does he do with your average female? Some males are better than others at improving the average gals.
If a sire is not proven, be prepared to wait. Some alpaca males are late bloomers and leave a dance card of dams waiting for them to settle females. Be aware that you can risk losing valuable production time when you go with males who are new to the breeding process.
There’s nothing like the feeling when the cria that you bred comes into the world. Enjoy!