These notes are based on our alpaca experience since 1994, supplemented by anecdotal evidence and advice from other breeders. They are not intended to take the place of veterinary advice.

Feeding

Alpacas are reasonably hardy browsers, more akin to goats than sheep in their grazing habits. In general, pasture suitable for lambing ewes is ideal for pregnant alpacas. Males - unless they are working hard - and wethers can easily put on excessive fat on good pasture. Alpacas like quite a wide variety of grasses, as well as rather unusual items like eucalyptus leaves and occasionally pine needles, etc. If they are chewing on tree bark they will be looking for minerals that are missing from their diet. They won't lick mineral blocks, but will chew on them if they need to.

It can be difficult accurately assessing body condition from a distance - especially with more than 3 months fleece growth. So unless they are weighed periodically it's important to monitor the fat score of at least a good proportion of the herd by feeling the fat under the skin around the spinal area. On a score of 1= very thin and under-nourished to 5= excessively fat, the ideal is 3 for males and 3+ for pregnant females. This score should enable the bone to be easily felt without protruding too much, and some fatty tissue should be felt on either side of the spine.

Prenatal

At about 320 days gestation pregnant females are moved to a "maternity" paddock that is easily visible for monitoring them. As a result of some unfortunate experience with an occasional mother whose immunity had not lasted as long as the average and who didn't pass on the antigens to her baby, we now prefer to give a 1 ml '5 in 1' subcutaneous injection about 2-3 weeks before the due birthing date.

Birth can occur between as early as 300 days and as late as 375 days, but is normally in the range of 335 to 345 days. We always ensure pregnant females are on a rising plane of nutrition over the 10-12 weeks before birth. We monitor mainly by weighing, but checking fat score is 3+ to 4 along the back line is sufficient.

Signs of Impending Labour

The female will often increasingly 'hum' to herself and appear restless over a few days prior to birthing. And nearer to term she will start using the dung pile more often and in some cases will roll more than usual. Watch for some dilation of the vulva in the last 24 hours, often, but not always, accompanied by swelling of the udder as it prepares for milk production.

The first sign of impending birth will be the female straining (often over a dung pile). This can occur for some period before the birth. It is common to miss seeing her 'waters break', which will occur as her first stage labour starts.

Our experience is that 90% of births are trouble-free, and 95% occur in daylight, almost all between 7 AM and the early afternoon.

The Birth

It's important that the final stage of labour from the sighting of the cria to its delivery be completed in not more than 20-30 minutes. The first thing to normally appear will be the birth sac, followed shortly by a nose and then two feet. In a normal birth the cria will progressively appear under periodic straining muscle movements from the mother. The cria will often hang for a while at the shoulders, which allows its lungs to drain, before finally dropping.

Should the feet or nose disappear from view, intervention and assistance will probably be necessary, If only one foot should appear the other can sometimes be crossed under the neck and the foot will be found behind the first foot to appear. After ensuring hands and fingernails are clean, use some obstetrical lubricant or warm soapy water to check the situation, and try to get both feet out together. Wait for a lull in the mother's contraction to move inside, and only pull the baby's legs when she is pushing.

The cria will sometimes hang up at the shoulders. If this occurs and the female appears unable to progress further after a couple of minutes, first check the cria is able to breathe by breaking the membrane around its nose and clearing any mucous from its mouth and upper throat using fingers. The cria should then be gently turned through 30 to 45º (the pelvis is shaped such that the widest part is at 45º), while supporting the head. If the birth progresses quickly the cria may need to be held up for a while by the back legs to allow fluid to drain from the lungs and breathing passages.

After the birth

As soon as possible, move away from mother and baby to ensure there is no disruption to the essential bonding process, also closely linked to her vital production of colostrum. This is the very rich milk only produced during about the first 24 hours that provides essential antibodies against infection, as well as nourishment for the cria. Normally the cria will sit up within 10 minutes, stand in 20 to 30 minutes, and be looking for the teats within 30 - 40 minutes. If the cria appears weak, very small or in cold conditions, rub its central back line area vigorously with an old towel to encourage heart and lung function. (Never wash, clean or cover the head or tail area to ensure there is no interruption to its scent for bonding.) We always put a cria coat on in very cold conditions. (Bubble packing wrap secured under the belly by duct tape is a good, cheap substitute.) Soon after the birth, we usually inject the female with 1ml of oxytocin (intra-muscular or subcutaneous). This helps the uterus to contract to expel the afterbirth, and the milk to come down. (It's also used for humans and other animals!)

At the same time as the oxytocin is given, it's a good idea to check the mother's udder. The teats can occasionally be plugged with a waxy deposit, which should be removed by rolling between the thumb and forefinger. We also use a cheap plastic umbilical clamp as a precaution against infection through the cord stump. Some owners like to put a few drops of Betadene antiseptic on the cria's umbilical. Always check that the afterbirth is dropped intact within two hours. Ensure oxytocin is given if it isn't passed by then, as retained afterbirth will cause severe infection of the uterus and later sterility if it isn't treated promptly. After checking all the afterbirth is passed intact, remove it using an inverted plastic bag to pick it up, as the mother will ignore it and it could attract predators.

The cria should be up and suckling within 1 to 2 hours. Attempting to help is often unproductive and frustrating to both mother and helper! It is normally better to let nature take its course for the first two hours or so. If the cria is too weak to get up and drink by then, it needs to be helped with plasma or glucose, using a large syringe or small teat on a bottle. This provides instant energy, and plasma also provides some antibodies for the cria. The cria will normally obtain these antibodies from the mother's colostrum, but its stomach can only absorb them for the first 12-15 hours - and even then on a diminishing basis, hence the importance of it getting colostrum early and often. It would be advantageous to have some frozen plasma on hand for emergencies. This can be spun off from blood donated by an adult, or commercially produced plasma can be obtained through your vet. As an even better substitute we try to keep a small quantity of frozen colostrum milked from a placid older mother.

We try to weigh the cria on the day of its birth - after it has initially bonded to its mother. We then check weight gain regularly. Standing on bathroom scales with the cria is one easy way. If by day 4 it isn't gaining 200 grams a day, supplementary feeding will be necessary - but this is very rarely a problem. We use Di-Vetelact, but a number of other good products are available. Weight gain will normally reduce to about 100g /day from 1 month of age.

At 4-6 weeks of age it is important for the cria to be inoculated subcutaneously with 1ml of '5 in 1', and again 4-6 weeks later. We find this easiest to do this by one person holding the cria in the arms while another gives the injection in the bare inner thigh area, using a 21 or 22 gauge needle. We recommend further 5 in 1 inoculations for all alpacas at 6 monthly intervals.

Selenium Supplementation

Alpacas need greater levels of selenium than is available in most of Australia's soils. Lack of selenium can cause fertility problems, and anecdotal evidence is that an extra dose of selenium given to females having problems getting pregnant has helped. We supplement selenium every few months. Please note carefully that over-dosing selenium can be fatal, so always double-check the dilution instructions. We use a product called 'Selenium Oral Concentrate', an oral drench that MUST BE DILUTED BY 1 PART CONCENTRATE TO 9 PARTS WATER. The dose rate of the diluted drench is 0.1 ml (1/10th ml) per kg live weight. Thus for each ten kg body weight use 1ml of diluted drench.

Vitamin A, D & E Supplementation

The main reason for giving these vitamins is to supplement Vitamin D. Vitamin D is absorbed through the skin from sunlight. Also, alpacas have adapted to the high altitude Andes where UV radiation is stronger and there is a lot of sunshine, so many breeders believe they are chronically slightly deficient in southern Australia, especially in locations where cloud cover is frequent. In latitudes south of Sydney we inject A, D & E intra-muscularly to our cria at about 3 to 5 months of age. There is no general agreement about how often to do it. We adopt a flexible approach, paying careful attention to any sign of leg growth/conformation (knock-knee) or gait problems in young cria and giving 1 ml per animal to such youngsters - especially through the winter - but not more often than every 2-3 months. A, D &E is a thick oil, so use an 18 or 19 gauge needle.

We also use "Natrakelp' seaweed extract as a useful natural source of supplementary minerals and vitamins, sprinkled every month or so on feed in their feeders.

Drenching

We do not routinely drench for worms, preferring to do a faecal egg count about twice each year. However, if alpacas are run with sheep, goats or cattle they'll pick up worms from the droppings of these animals. They may also be at greater risk of internal parasite build-up if they are run in restricted paddocks or yards with limited natural feed, or when they aren't rotated through paddocks that have been rested for a few months. When run with other animals they should be drenched at the same time, using the equivalent sheep dose by weight. Cria are not drenched until after weaning. Animals should always be moved to a fresh paddock after drenching.

Weaning

Cria are weaned at 6 months of age or around 30-35kg, whichever comes first. Cria weights are monitored every week until 1 month and then every month. If the cria is not gaining weight as it should it needs supplementary feeding. Low weight gain can be a problem during severe droughts.

If a cria is still underweight at 6 months, there is no point leaving the cria on the mother. It is best to remove its dependency on mother's milk, thus encouraging it to forage for itself. Weanlings often improve condition markedly after weaning for this reason.

Mating

A female has been recorded pregnant at four months of age, and a young male has successfully impregnated a female when he was just less than 12 months old! As well, a mature male we know got a female pregnant in 10 seconds, after he had just done two other 20-minute matings! These facts mean that you must be very careful to keep all males separated from all females after weaning of both sexes. Also, take care when using males for spit-offs, unless it is the male you wish to mate her to.

Maiden females are normally first presented at 12 months of age to a male, providing they are at a weight of at least 50 kg. If the female will not sit, try again at 2-week intervals. There is no point in forcing a young female down as she will not ovulate until she is ready, but a maiden may need encouragement to assume the cush position for the first time after she lets the male mount her.

Mature females are normally mated 14-22 days after giving birth, unless there were birthing complications.

Pregnancy Checks

It's a good idea to first 'spit-off' females 7-8 days after mating. A haltered male is presented to the female, preferably in a confined yard. Depending on the individual, if she is pregnant she will:

  1. spit at the male (the handler should be ready to avoid the line of fire!), or
  2. kick at him, and/or
  3. attempt to run from the male, and/or
  4. adopt an aggressive stance toward him, i.e. head, ears and tail up.

A spit-off at seven days after mating indicates the female has ovulated - but doesn't necessarily indicate pregnancy. She should then be spat off again at 14 days. A positive result here indicates the pregnancy has taken. If not, she is re-mated and the process repeated. It is preferable to spit-off at 14 day intervals until an ultrasound pregnancy scan is done, or she is otherwise assumed pregnant.

Ultrasounds

If you have paid for an external mating it is wise to have ultrasound confirmation of the successful mating at 50 to 70 days. (Spitting-off is considered 90 to 95% reliable.) If the ultrasound is negative and the female is spitting-off, this would indicate a retained corpus luteum. In such rare cases veterinary advice should be obtained for corrective hormone treatment.

After females are assumed to be pregnant, it is wise to carry out further spit-offs at about monthly intervals. As in all animals, a very small number of pregnancies are lost for unexplained reasons. At 300 days the female is moved to the maternity paddock and the breeding process continues. In 2003 our foundation alpaca Peggy, originally imported via New Zealand in 1988, gave birth to her ninth cria at about 18+ years old. While she remains in excellent health we will probably mate her again - but only after the cria is weaned.

Health Issues - Poisonous plants

Alpacas are generally 'smart browsers' and will normally, but not always, avoid dangerous plants. However, especially if they are restricted in choice of food, fatalities have been recorded when alpacas have eaten oleander, rhubarb leaves, azaleas, camelias, rhus and some of the lily family. These plants are poisonous to all animals - including humans.

Although the common capeweed (dandelion) and Patterson's Curse (Salvation Jane) are also poisonous, provided there are plenty of alternative grasses in the paddock small quantities of these don't seem to cause any problem.

Some older rye grass species cause toxicity known as Rye Grass Staggers under particular weather conditions that causes a fungal growth on the leaves. Similarly, under humid weather conditions in some areas sporodismin toxicity may be a problem. Check with your local vet or stock agent to see if this may be a problem in your area. If animals appear to be affected, it's important to immediately move them off the paddock to a yard and feed hay until vet or local expert advice is obtained.

Finally:

Alpacas, like all members of the camel family, are very hardy and adapt well to local conditions in Australia. (Remember how well camels released into the wild have prospered in the outback.) Males especially are very stoic, and will often conceal health problems until very late.

Learn to regularly 'really look at and see' your alpacas in their paddock, watching carefully for any unusual signs. For example, one ear turned down is not normal, and probably indicates that a barley grass seed has lodged in the lower ear canal. If this isn't removed it could cause a serious abscess infection. A limp could be simply the result of a minor kick from another alpaca, or something more serious like a cut foot or a leg bone injury. And always run your hand over the spine of the alpacas you are handling in the yard to check their fat score. FS 3-4 is fine, and anything above or below this indicates the need for attention to feed.

Good luck, and enjoy these wonderful animals!