Time for the first post of 2018! (Whew!) Since it's the first, might as well make it a doozy, right?
I appear to be a big fan of controversy when it comes to alpacas. I guess it's because I care so much about them. This post generated an awful lot of controversy, as did this one.
This one is bound to stir up even more.
It started out as a reply to a Facebook post, and then got WAY too freaking long.
The original post (which I can't seem to figure out how to link to) was in response to some comments that were, in turn, in response to an article (confused yet?) which discusses the state of the Australian alpaca industry and how it is maturing. The article also mentions the meat aspect of the industry. As usual, a few voices had to come out in opposition to using alpacas as meat.
On particularly vocal opponent is Starr Cash. Starr certainly has done more than most to promote alpaca as a genuine livestock animal in terms of her extensive work promoting and organizing the fiber side of the industry. For this, I have a great amount of respect for her – alpacas are a fiber animal, first and foremost, and Starr was one of the first in the industry to recognize and vocalize the need to promote and focus on this fact. However, she and I have never quite seen eye-to-eye as far as the trajectory of the industry is concerned. In a nutshell, Starr is one of those breeders who is vehemently opposed to any promotion of the meat side of the species by the industry as a whole.
One point that Starr made is one that I found particularly interesting. She wrote:
“Lastly, we accidentally positioned Alpaca as a "huggable investment". I know, I hear you ALL groaning and gagging out there. But, it is my opinion that this could be looked at as a gift instead of a curse. We already have this established market base - an audience - who thinks we LOVE our alpacas like pets or children. They are vegans with trust funds and millenials with jobs that I never heard of but that they make 6 figures working at. The ones with the disposable income who can indulge their "green" cred with sustainable fashion statements."
I wanted to address this particular point, because I actually can appreciate that argument ... However, as someone who happens to be pretty in touch with the hipster millennial side of things (1985 model, here) … I also think that I am perhaps uniquely qualified to refute it.
Sooo, here's my newbie arrogant millennial perspective.
I bred chinchillas for 10 years. I loved my herd and I was very proud of it. I never did begrudge those who raised them for the original purpose for which they were imported into this country -- that is, fur -- but I could never bring myself to do it, and it never made economic sense to me, and it was just something that I never chose to pursue. What I did pride myself on was raising chinchillas that held up to my own personal standard: pretty to look at, in my eyes (mine may well have been show-quality, based on what I know of the standard, but I never put any before a judge); super healthy and robust; and, above all, calm and friendly. At the end of the day, my primary client base was the pet owner. I was raising them for the pet industry, which is very often demonized by the show people and the fur industry alike, but you know what? ...
I believed in them. I believed in them as pets. Unlike so many small mammals which are really best suited to serious hobbyists, chinchillas make AWESOME pets for a lot of people. They are quiet, and produce very little odor and mess; they will often bond with their humans, and a pair of chinchillas is just endlessly entertaining to watch. I've owned just about every small mammal pet under the sun, and that was the one I chose to raise, because I believed in them.
... Funny enough, it was another South American species that I settled on for my livestock animal of choice: the alpaca. I wouldn't raise alpacas if I didn't believe in them.
It was socks that first sold me. I think that socks have probably sold a lot of people. I mean, seriously. Alpaca socks kick ass. They are extremely warm, durable, and very, very comfortable. I don't think I've met anyone who has tried on alpacas socks and not been totally wowed.
... Then, once I got alpacas (a goal that I never thought I'd achieve, given their prices when I was in school) and I realized how neat they are, how unique and entertaining, and also how easy to care for, and hardy, and easy on the land -- I was sold.
Oh, also ... The person I got my first two pets from also gave us some ground alpaca meat (after first determining, carefully, after numerous conversations, that we weren't the sort of people who would scream and slap her in the face). I'm a picky eater, to put it mildly, so the fact that I liked it (and don't like goat, or mutton, or lamb, or really even beef all that much) – well, THAT was the other thing that sold me.
... Because I came from the "Pet Industry." I'd seen what happens to the Unwanted [fill-in-the-blank animal], and it often isn't pretty. I also had come from a brief stint in the performance horse industry that REALLY drilled that home.
I can kinda maybe sorta see the “huggable luxury,” argument, I think. Maybe. The industry COULD consist of a handful -- a few thousand, maybe -- head of ULTRA high end, beloved animals, all belonging to very small farms, that produce super valued, luxury fiber that would be worth a boatload due to its rarity. The end consumer knows that the animals are loved and pampered, and that enhances their products' value. They'd be the Kobe beef of fiber.
I could see the appeal of that angle, and maybe that was the goal of the industry leaders back in the late '90's and early 2000's … But that wasn't what happened. Instead, the animals got Tulip Bulbed. (Speculative market, and all that.) When a commodity – including a living commodity – fetches a particularly high value, well, it's just plain human nature to want to produce lots of that commodity and cash in on the craze, regardless of the repercussions for a future market. Not every investor did this, of course, but enough did so as to seriously affect the market – and the public's perception of the species – for a long while.
Now, the industry is digging out of that. I've seen some pretty cool articles recently touting the virtues of alpaca fiber that suggest that we're digging out rather nicely. Not only are consumers starting to realize that the fiber itself is pretty great, but all of those benefits that have enhanced alpacas' value as a livestock commodity – easy on the land, high feed efficiency, etc., etc.. – make the fiber an especially appealing option to many consumers, because it is very sustainable.
Yes. Yes, there's that buzzword that so many millennials – and so many others – are so very on about. Sustainable.
The only way that the alpaca industry will be truly sustainable is if it embraces the terminal market option. Period. The end.
An industry in which the livestock animal must be fed, sheltered, and cared for long after its useful productive life has ended – and in which those individuals whose production qualities are not adequate to begin with must, likewise, be fed and accommodated – is not sustainable. Farms will very quickly run out of capacity to house and care for these non-productive animals. Such a model makes a great hobby, sure, but in a practical sense, it is not sustainable. In a practical sense, it could be viewed as downright wasteful.
Now, please don't misunderstand me. I am not for a moment claiming that an individual farm who chooses to house and care for their B-grades and retirees is doing anything wrong. That is each individual farm's choice. That farm may choose to view their alpacas as pets, and that's perfectly acceptable – I love pets. Pets are great!
As an industry, though … As a commercial industry that wishes to present itself as the ecologically-friendly, sustainable alternative to fine wool and cashmere, well – I think that the industry, as a whole, needs to have a better option for what to do with those nonproductive animals that's a bit more sustainable and ecologically friendly than keeping them around and using valuable resources to keep them alive just because we feel bad for them.
That doesn't mean that we have to be brutal about culling. It doesn't mean that we have to put nonproductive alpacas onto barren feedlots. Quite the contrary; the terminal market represents another opportunity to present alpaca as an ecologically friendly, sustainable resource, this one of humanely raised, sustainable meat. In addition, due to the meat's high protein content, excellent flavor, and, yes, its great rarity (nobody in the alpaca industry is suggesting that we focus on making the alpaca a primary meat animal, and least nobody that I'm aware of; that idea is, indeed, kinda silly) – it should, with the proper marketing, be a very high-end by-product indeed.
… Because in my experience, hipster millennials are, on the whole, pretty okay with the idea that livestock animals die to make food for humans. We just aren't a fan of intensive (“factory”) farming, of extreme breeding practices that harm animal welfare, of farming practices that are unsustainable. And the “huggable investment” idea is, well … Kinda unsustainable.
… And vegans? Vegans won't wear alpaca regardless of how it is harvested. Vegans won't use any animal products at all. Period. No need to worry about their opinion because no matter what any livestock farmer does, a vegan will still believe that it is wrong, because vegans believe that using animals to produce anything is wrong.
So, in summary: Yes, I do believe that the alpaca industry can, and should, promote and capitalize on the “green,” sustainable, small agriculture angle. I think that developing and promoting the meat side of things as a healthy, humanely-raised, sustainable by-product is one of the ways we can do it.
My 'blog posts have fallen a bit out of joint with my Facebook posts lately. Our latest fleece shots were posted on Facebook on the same day as the 'blog post about them. Then, someone asked to see the rest of Caine, and a discussion ensued as to whether or not Caine qualifies as a harlequin.
A website dedicated to explaining and exploring the harlequin appaloosa gene in alpacas is one of my many back-burner projects, so for now, let's go through a review of what it means to be a harlequin alpaca.
First, the pictures of Caine. This is the first picture that I posted, and people were skeptical, understandably. He is not spotted, not even on his face.
Here is his half-brother, Renegade, who is by the same (harlequin) sire. Everyone agreed readily that this one is definitely a harlequin appaloosa.
... Caine, however, is not immediately recognizable as a harlequin, even amongst affectionados of harlequin alpacas. So, I am often asked, "What makes him a harlequin?" To which I invariably respond that I define harlequin as a phenotype (appearance) that derives specifically from the action of a certain gene. Harlequin, to me, is more about genetics than coloring, though the coloring is, obviously, the end-goal.
The logical next question, which I have not yet been asked, is: "What makes you so sure?"
... In some cases, I'm not. If I'm not, I don't call it a harlequin. In the case of the fawn "possible harlequin" crias we had born this year, neither of them have yet changed color or developed spots, so I have to assume that they are, genetically, just regular old fawns.
In a case line Caine's, I'm pretty danged sure. He started life looking like this (photo by Spring Grove Alpaca Ranch):
... And after his first shearing, he looked like this:
... He totally and completely changed color.
That sort of dramatic color change is so indicative of the harlequin gene that, even if he didn't have a harlequin sire, I would have to believe that one of his parents was a carrier of that gene somehow. Many alpacas change color after their cria shearing, but a dramatic change from fawn to dark grey pretty much tells you this is a harlequin.
As to why he doesn't have those tell-tale spots like his brother does, that I am less certain. One possibility is that Caine is a harlequin appaloosa without the appaloosa. We know that there are harlequin appaloosas without the harlequin -- appaloosa alpacas from known harlequin-producing lines, who are clearly expressing the "harlequin-associated" appaloosa gene, who never change color and become grey. Our boy Kubota is an example of one. His mother is a classic grey harlequin (and grey fleece champion at one of the Southwest USA's largest shows, by the by). Kubota is clearly an appaloosa, but he shows no indication of darkening to grey. Here he is at age two:
Here is another harlequin appaloosa without the harlequin. This one's name is Hali. Her sire is a (very funky) grey and fawn harlequin. She does not show any indication of darkening to grey.
Most harlequin appaloosas start out as fawn, beige, and/or brown appaloosas like Kubota and Hali, but many change and darken to grey. Here is Tia, daughter of our boy Mr. Butterscotch, as a weaning (Tia is not ours - photo by Linda Bat of Delphi Alpacas). She has dark brown spots on a fawn base coat.
After shearing, however, she looked like a totally different animal: a solid grey one. However, you can still see her spots. Tia is what I consider to be a classic harlequin appaloosa -- she has lots of spots, with a base coat that darkens to grey after their first shearing.
So, one option is that Caine is a harlequin appaloosa without the appaloosa.
Another option is that Caine is an example of variable expressivity. Most alpaca breeders know about the "white spot" gene, which can result in pinto coloring and which causes the blue-eyed white phenotype when bred with tuxedo grey. Most breeders also know that the white spotting gene can range anywhere from a classic pinto -- cow-spots and all -- all the way to one single tiny spot that is smaller than a dime. This is an example of variable expressivity. The loud pinto and the tiny white spot on a black alpaca both derive from the same gene; it's just that they are expressed differently in different animals. It's possible that Caine represents the harlequin appaloosa equivalent of a "white spot" alpaca with only a teeny, tiny spot. (He does, in fact, have a very small spot on his groin which is actually visible in the shorn photo.)
It is clear that the harlequin appaloosa gene can manifest in an extreme variety of ways. We have solid silver harlequins, classic harlequins, classic appaloosas, extreme (leopard) appaloosas, and all sorts in between. In all likelihood, some of these are distinct variants of the gene's expression that are caused by the effects of other color genes. Some are likely due to variable expressivity.
So, that is why I am confident that Caine is a harlequin. He also has an absolutely bitchin' fleece, and that is really what the gene is all about.
This is a little bit of a follow-up to a post I wrote (coincidentally, almost exactly a year ago now) on Huacaya alpaca Breed Standards. The original post was posted on a popular Facebook alpaca forum, and it generated quite a bit of controversy (as intended).
A bit more recently, I posted this tentative outline of a commercial production-based Huacaya alpaca breed standard on the same forum. It, too, generated quite a bit of interest, though the response was surprisingly positive. Interestingly, the thing that the most people disagreed with was the line, "The only permissible color is white." I stand by that statement. Introducing color only muddies the water when to majority of production-based alpaca breeders wish to focus on white, and it's hard enough to breed for pure white as it is.
Recently, I have been thinking about our farm breed standard, and how I keep meaning to write it out to post on this website. I haven't gotten around to it yet, but it reminded me that I never did post that production-based standard on this 'blog.
In case the above paragraphs don't already make it obvious, I want to emphasize again that this is not the standard that we breed for at Howling Hill Farm. The production standard posted below is intended to maximize yield of white fleece for commercial purposes, with a minimum of grower input. Period. That's all. No aesthetic considerations are given, either to the animal or the fleece produced.
I also wish to note that this standard is incomplete (note the question-marks). It was intended as a thought experiment, originally for myself. I don't normally publish my writing with question-marks intact, but in this case, I felt it was time to pass the thought experiment on to others.
So, without further ado: A prototypical commercial production-based Huacaya alpaca standard, for your viewing pleasure..
American Production Alpaca
Overall: The American Production Alpaca is a hearty, mid to large framed animal that has been selected for the primary purpose of intensive fiber production, with attention paid to the utility of sunset and cull animals. It is not a dual-purpose animal per se, given that the alpaca species is a poor candidate for a primary meat animal due to its slow growth and long reproductive interval. However, the Production Alpaca does have a relatively fast growth rate, large frame size and good carcass yield for the species. It may or may not be an aesthetically attractive animal, having been developed for production rather than the show ring, but its disposition is quiet and easy to work with.
Disqualifying faults: Aggressive, difficult demeanor; slow growth rate (<80 lb at one year of age); small frame score (<150 lb at maturity).
Head: The head of the Production Alpaca should be balanced and functional. Most critical is that the bite is level and that the angulation of the incisors is such that they wear down readily with no need for human intervention to correct overgrowth.
The Production Alpaca has a clean face, free from wool obstruction of the eyes. The eyes must be large, bright, and clean.
Major faults: Wool blindness, minor overbite, minor underbite, or high-maintenance dental angulation.
Disqualifying faults: Major under or overbite; wryface; entropion; extropion.
Body: The body is balanced, with a level topline. The tailset may be high or low. The animal should have a modest to excellent spring of rib, and the chest should be moderate to substantial in width. The hips should be wide, to facilitate easy, unassisted birthing of cria, and to accommodate ample musculature.
The shoulder, loin, and rear musculature is ample and well-developed.
Minor faults: Narrow chest.
Major faults: Narrow hips; poor muscling; unbalanced proportions; lordosis (swayback); kyphosis (roached back).
Legs: The forelimbs and hindlimbs should be straight when viewed from directly in front of or directly behind the animal. Very slight toe-out is permissible. The substance of bone is modest; the animal must possesses sufficient substance of bone to carry its weight easily and without risk of premature lameness, but need not be greater than is necessary to facilitate soundness.
The legs should be free and clear of wrinkles. Fiber below the knee is neither encouraged nor penalized.
Major faults: Carpus valgus (knock-knees); carpus varus (bowlegs); cowhocks; sickle hocks; post legged rear conformation; dropped pasterns; extremely poor substance of bone (“pencil legs”).
Reproductive: The Production Alpaca must breed, conceive and birth easily, ideally without human intervention. The majority of breeding will likely be herd/pasture breeding. Males should possess two large, (>xxx” diameter and xxx” height), firm testicles of even size and consistency. Females should possess an adequately sized vulva that is not tipped, and should develop a large udder with ample milk once a cria has been delivered.
Because of the intensive production nature of the breed, all reproductive faults are considered disqualifying. Veterinary intervention may be sought to ascertain the cause of reproductive difficulty and whether it is likely to be heritable; however, animals that require any sort of human intervention to achieve reproduction should not be considered for a serious production breeding program. The only exception to this may be non-heritable conditions such as dystocia due to malpresentation.
Because the alpaca has a significantly lower reproductive rate than other livestock species, these traits are of paramount importance.
Males – Testicles <(xxx), uneven, or cryptorchid; poor libido; inability to sire offspring by 30 months of age.
Females – Small, tipped, or otherwise abnormal vulva; inability to conceive after 60 days' exposure to a proven fertile male at 24 months of age; inadequate milk production to nourish cria; poor mothering skills.
Fiber: All grades of alpaca fiber are useful, and thus, the Production Alpaca is not limited to a set grade or range of grades. However, it is well acknowledged that the more consistent the fiber, the more valuable and easily processed it is, and thus, an animal whose fiber is highly inconsistent in micron, length, or crimp style (?????) should be culled from production. As fiber production is the major purpose of the Production Alpaca, a high degree of fiber density (high number of wool follicles), yielding a larger fiber crop per year, is a critical aspect of selection. So, too, is a long staple length, indicating a fast rate of regrowth; although, until an alpaca is developed which produces adequate fiber to justify twice per year shearing, a maximum staple length of 6” at one year regrowth must be selected for by the average breeder, lest the crop yield be too long to be easily processed.
The crimp structure of the Production Alpaca is relatively unimportant, so long as the fiber does posses some degree of curvature to add memory and bounce to the resultant fabric products. However, all subtypes of crimp, ranging from bold and deep, high-frequency, to disorganized, are permitted.
The only permissible color is white.
Major faults: Standard Deviation of fiber >4 microns; primary fibers that visibly extend beyond the blanket, but are extremely close in micron to the secondary fibers; no defined crimp structure; blanket weight <3 lb at 2nd shearing; staple length <4” at one-year regrowth shearing; two or fewer colored spots that are <2” in diameter.
Disqualifying faults: Standard Deviation of fiber >5 microns; primary fibers that that are straight and /or stronger in micron than the secondary fibers; blanket weight <4 lb; staple length <3” at one-year regrowth shearing; three or more colored spots that are <4” in diameter, or any colored spot that is >4” in diameter; any color other than white.
Disclaimer: This post represents my currently amassed knowledge up to this point. It is by no means meant to be comprehensive, and since it is filtered through my brain, without citing reference material, I make no promises as to accuracy. Some of it may even be more opinionated than factual. You have been warned!
I first started out in alpacas just over a year ago now. Before we bought our first two pet girls, about all I knew about alpaca fiber was that it feels nicer to me than sheep's wool. I think that I am probably not alone in starting out with such an impoverished knowledge base before jumping in feet first.
I don't like being in the dark, so I set out to learn as quickly as possible. I am still quite far from knowing it all, and I sure still haven't a clue how to spin, knit, or weave, but I know one heck of a lot more than I did a year ago. Here is what I have learned.
It seems that one of the first things new alpaca owners learn to evaluate is crimp, because it is a fairly easy thing to appreciate. I consider myself lucky in that regard, because I didn't even learn a thing about crimp until I was well on my way to building a herd. The very first thing I learned was that alpaca, unlike wool sheep, often grow a second coat of guard hair amongst the wooly fibers, particularly as they age. Think of a double-coated dog -- that layer of straight, bristly hair that sticks out and guards the insulating wool coat from the elements. Many alpacas will grow this guard hair coat as well, and this will cause profound itchiness if not removed before processing the fiber into a finished garment. Take-home message: Guard hair is bad. It is easy to spot, because it sticks out from the back of an animal. That also makes it fairly easy to avoid. Wherever possible, I have made every effort to avoid it.
The term "guard hair" or even just "hair" has such a negative connotation in the alpaca world -- despite being extremely common in alpacas -- that some people will refer to it using the term, "Strong, straight primaries." This is technically accurate, but I think it is also somewhat sugarcoating the issue.
"Primaries" is a term that confused me for awhile, and it is still pretty confusing, but I am starting to get a better handle on it. Primary follicles are different from secondary follicles. In many alpacas, the primary follicles grow guard hair, which is much thicker, coarser and itchier than the softer wool that grows from secondaries. However, it is possible to select for alpacas whose primary follicles produce a fiber that is nearly equivalent in diameter to the secondaries, and in even more advanced alpacas, the primaries may have wave or even crimp. Selecting for more secondaries and fewer primaries is another major goal of alpaca breeders. Breeders also try to select for primaries and secondaries that are equal in diameter. The practical end goal of all of this is to make all of the fibers as uniform as possible in diameter, length, and shape, because the more uniform the fiber, the less itchy the end product.
That brings me to the next thing I learned about: Histograms. The histogram is what most people call the fiber analysis, even though the histogram is technically only the graph of the analysis. What most people care about is the statistics. The four most common statistics are: AFD, SD, CV and CF or %>30, depending on which testing lab you use.
What the heck, right? They sound like obscure sports stats or something.
AFD stands for Average Fiber Diameter, and it is measured in microns (that's a millionth of a meter). This is the number that most breeders jump up and down and crow about, and I'll admit that I do it, too, but I do not believe that it is the most important. It is literally what it sounds like: the average diameter of the fiber in the sample you have submitted. Most people are shooting for as low a number as possible. Vicuna have AFDs of around 12 - 14 microns, and many of today's alpacas are in that range as well. Although many breeders get excited about breeding finer and finer fleeces, those fleeces with stronger (higher) micron counts are also valuable. In fact, a fleece with a micron count of 20-22 is arguably much more versatile than one which is ultrafine. AFD may some day be one of the things that defines different breeds of Huacaya alpaca.
SD stands for Standard Deviation. This is a statistical term that boils down to a measure of fleece uniformity. 4 is a pretty average SD. So, if you have an alpaca with an AFD of 20, and an SD of four, that means that two-thirds of its fibers fall between 16-24 microns.
SD is one number where lower is pretty much undeniably better. Even if your AFD is super low (say, 14.8), if your SD is high (say, 5.2), there is going to be a good amount of variation in that fleece that will make it feel less soft than the AFD would suggest. On the flip side, even a fleece with a fairly strong micron can feel softer than you would expect if the SD is very low. As far as I can tell, there are no disadvantages to having as low an SD as you can manage, and in my opinion, SD is more important than AFD. (The ancient Royal Incan alpacas have been documented to have SDs of 1. That is totally unheard of today!)
CV stands for Coefficient of Variation. This one is confusing. It is the SD, multiplied by 100 and divided by the AFD, expressed as a percentage. Basically, this is done because higher micron fleeces also tend to have higher SDs. It enables a fairer comparison of a higher AFD fleece to a really fine one. As with SD, lower is better, across the board, although, again, because of how it is calculated, the ultrafine fleeces will have higher CVs and that doesn't mean that they suck, by any means. I have found it most useful for comparing higher micron fleeces.
The last, and the number that I feel is most important (at least in low-micron fleeces) is CF or %>30. These are two different measurements of essentially the same thing, but inverted. That sounds complex, but it is actually really basic and easier to understand than SD or CV. CF stands for Comfort Factor. It measures the percent of fibers that are below 30 microns. Fibers at or above 30 microns often equate to guard hair, especially when the rest of the fleece is very fine. The ideal for this number is 100%, and this is one where higher is always better.
The inverse of CF is % > 30; that is, the percentage of fibers above 30 microns. Here, again, lower is better, with zero as an ideal. I can't recall ever having seen a report that proclaimed zero percent over 30 microns, though I have seen plenty of reports with 100% Comfort Factor. This is due to differences in the testing laboratories, which is one of the major limitations of fiber testing.
Now, the percent of fibers over 30 microns is obviously going to increase significantly as the AFD approaches 30, and thus, for those animals, this variable becomes a lot less meaningful. For an alpaca with an AFD of 28, a 30 micron fiber is still only 2 microns above the mean. For an alpaca with an AFD of 20, however, a 30 micron fiber is 10 microns above the mean, and is going to equate to a serious itch factor. A 30 micron fiber on a 20 micron AFD animal is probably a guard hair, and that is maximum itch, right there. Thus, for most alpacas, we want as few fibers over 30 microns – as high a “comfort factor” - as we can get.
I ended up putting a lot of emphasis on statistics in the beginning, as I think a lot of newbies probably do when they're first learning, because numbers are easy to understand. One of the most important things to realize, though, is how incredibly limited the fiber analysis really is. For one thing, it is typically only analyzing one small section of the blanket. It is only analyzing that year's blanket, which can be affected by environmental factors such as diet and weather conditions. Lastly, it is not even 100% accurate in the first place. The machines have a margin of error that many people don't even consider. Also, there are different testing laboratories, and those laboratories tend to give slightly different results.
Last, but certainly not least, there is an awful lot that the analysis doesn't tell you.
Most of all of the analysis measures factors that equate to the hand of the fleece. Hand, or handle, refers to how the fleece feels. AFD, SD and %>30 all contribute to hand, but so do other factors. One of these is brightness. Brightness refers to how shiny the fleece appears, and it is a function of the height of the microscopic scales that line the outside of the fiber shaft. Lower, flatter scales reflect light better and make the fleece appear brighter. They also make the fleece feel slicker, and therefore softer. Having a lot of sebaceous glands to nourish the fleece will also make it brighter and slicker and give it a softer, more appealing hand. Brightness is an inherited trait, and one well worth breeding for, but it isn't measured in the typical fiber analysis.
There are other important fleece characteristics that aren't measured on a fiber analysis. These were some of the later things that I learned about (as I said, I did my learning backwards relative to many breeders).
Crimp is a really obvious one, but it was one of the last things I explored, so it's the last piece of this essay. We all know how "curly" sheep's wool is. That's crimp, in a nutshell. Crimp comes in many different styles. These mainly relate to the frequency and amplitude. Remember that stuff from physics class? Frequency refers to how many little crimps there are on the fiber shaft. Amplitude refers to how deep those crimps are. Alpaca folks also talk about the level of "organization" to the fleece. That refers to the tendency of a fleece to form discrete bundles, and to neatly line up all of the individual fiber shafts.
Some breeders have gone into great depth to characterize the different crimp styles of alpaca fleeces, a lot more depth than I want to go into here. If you're interested, Snowmass Alpacas has done a series on this topic which can be found here. The main take-home message is that all crimp styles are useful and valuable. Crimp style, like AFD, may someday help to define different Huacaya alpaca breeds, as it does in sheep.
This brings us, at last, to that ill-defined word: "Elite." Although all crimp styles and micron counts are useful, many breeders are aiming for a very organized, high-frequency, high-amplitude fleece with a low (<17 micron) AFD, as low an SD as possible, no fibers >30 microns, excellent brightness and good staple. All of these traits together are sometimes said to make up an "elite fleece." The problem is that there are no strict objective cutoffs to delineate the difference between an "elite fleece" and one that is just really darn good, so the term becomes a pretty subjective one. It is also mired in politics and advertising, with many of the "big name" farms claiming to breed and sell only the finest "elite" seedstock, when in reality, the quality of their stock overlaps that of a small breeder who has been quietly selecting for excellence, but would not deign to use the coveted word.
So, there you have it. To sum it up: many alpacas are (still) hairy, which is pretty bad; some are not, which is good; a few are really fine and really organized, which is better, although not the end-all; and, if you get fine and organized enough, you get to call your alpacas “elite,” because everybody else does. Oh, and never mind density, because nobody really knows how to measure that objectively, anyway, even though it directly relates to the yield of your end-product.
… And that's just fleece. Never mind conformation, structure, type, and definitely never mind color. That's a whole 'nother 'blog post.
This may seem a bit out of context, but it is actually something I have been meaning to write for awhile. It may get its own page eventually, but for now, here it is in 'blog form: my feelings on the oft-debated issue of alpaca breed standards.
Since the first commercial North American importation of alpacas in 1984, breeders in the United States have debated whether to draft a breed standard for the Huacaya alpaca. Breeders of the Suri alpaca – the cousin to the Huacaya, whose long, lustrous fiber somewhat resembles dredlocks from a distance – have had a breed standard in place since 2006. At the time of this writing, there is no such standard for the Huacaya.
On the surface, the concept appears so rudimentary as to defy debate. Every year, thousands of Huacaya alpacas are shown at halter and judged. Any animal that is judged must, inherently, be judged against a standard. If this standard is not written, then the judging is arbitrary, subjective, and, frankly, downright absurd. I do not argue for a moment that anyone who participates in the show system has the right, perhaps even the responsibility, to demand a written standard to which their animals shall be held. What I am opposed to is the implementation and enforcement of a single show standard. I oppose any effort to confine the development of the North American Huacaya alpaca to one specific type and goal.
The sheep has been domesticated for an estimated 6000 years. It is a mid-sized, triple-purpose species; sheep may be bred for their fiber, meat, milk, or all three. The alpaca has, likewise, been domesticated for an estimated 6000 years. It, too, is a mid-sized, triple-purpose species; in its native South America, it is commonly used for fiber, meat, and occasionally as a pack animal. The sheep boasts more than 200 unique breeds that are or have been reproduced by man. The idea that modern alpaca breeders ought to confine themselves to a mere two (Huacaya and Suri) seems dramatically restrictive.
By the time of the Incan empire, the Huacaya alpaca had almost undoubtedly been developed into more than one breed. Mummies of pre-Incan alpacas have been unearthed, creatures whose fiber test out with a standard deviation of one (standard deviation is measure of fiber uniformity that directly correlates with softness). Even the most genetically advanced Huacaya alpacas of today cannot even approach that number – a standard deviation of five is considered acceptable; three is great, two and a fraction is “elite,” and below two is unheard of. Meanwhile, the majority of alpacas of the ancient Andean cultures were probably used for pack and meat animals. Their fiber was most likely very coarse, suitable for rug yarn and garments that will not touch the skin. There is little doubt that these animals were of a dramatically different variety than that of the royal alpacas. However, there is also little doubt that these coarse-fibered alpacas played a vital role in the survival of the average Andean citizen. These coarser Andean alpacas were not inferior to their royal counterparts. They were simply different.
In the 1500's, the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in South America and slaughtered its native inhabitants. They destroyed the Incan civilization, and with it, the refined Royal Alpaca breed as well as any other developed breeds of alpaca. The Quechua and Aymara peoples – the modern inhabitants of the Andes – have hybridized the llama and alpaca in an effort to increase their alpacas' strength, size and fleece weight. In so doing, the characteristics that made up the Royal Incan alpaca breed were lost. The creatures in their place are, for the most part, mutts. The modern alpaca is unique among beasts, in that it is at once unquestionably domesticated and largely unrefined.
How does this pertain to the modern alpaca? Can we not agree that the goal of all modern alpaca breeders is to strive for that lost breed, that paragon of Huacayas: the Royal Incan alpaca?
Well, no, we cannot all agree on this, and that is both the problem and the beauty of the developing North American alpaca herd. Many breeders are, indeed, striving to produce a modern reconstruction of the ancient Royal Incan alpaca. Others are striving for a more balanced breed, a modern production alpaca with abundant fleece that is uniform, yet stronger in fiber diameter than the Royal Incan. Some wish to produce an alpaca with a super-fine fiber diameter – and bone structure – that mimics the modern Vicuna. Though it has not yet emerged in much force in the United States, the time may well come when breeders turn their focus entirely to the meat side of the species, selecting for maximum heft with a minimum of fiber production.
Then, too, there is the show standard. The show standard appears to follow none of the above guidelines, for a majority of its awards are aesthetic. The show standard rewards a short muzzle, square frame, spear-shaped ears, a thick topknot and full coverage of the fiber down to the toes. There is nothing at all wrong with these aesthetic niceties. They are, in fact, critically important, for the aesthetic considerations – head shape, body type, fur, feather or fiber coverage – are a major part of what defines a breed. However, these niceties are just that – niceties. The show system also rewards some production considerations – density of fiber, fineness, uniformity – but they are hap-hazard. Density cannot accurately be judged by human hands, as has been demonstrated numerous times. A fine-fibered animal will always feel less dense than a coarse animal, because a thicker fiber takes up more space than a thinner one. The show system rewards fiber crimp, but not necessarily curvature, which is a more accurate measure of the elastic properties that contribute to its desirability in garment-making. More importantly, different fiber crimp styles are suitable for different end uses. All crimp styles have a purpose; one ought not be rewarded above the other.
There is a place in North American agriculture for numerous Huacaya alpaca breeds, all of which are just now in the latent stages of development. The establishment and codification of a standard for a show breed would be a logical and welcome addition to the show circuit; there is little doubt of this. The risk is that such a standard could squelch the development of nascent nonconforming breeds. To codify and promote one single Huacaya breed at this time would be to arbitrarily elevate certain aesthetic and production values over others (for example, a short muzzle over a long one, or a fine fiber over a strong fiber).
Perhaps the most important argument against the implementation and encouragement of a single breed standard is a genetic one. At the time of this writing, there are approximately a quarter of a million alpacas in the United States. (There are, by contrast, more than five million sheep.) The North American alpaca registry chose to close itself to new alpaca registrations in 1998, and so, with no more financial incentive to import, the importation of new alpaca genetics from South America came to a screeching halt. Our approximately 250,000 North American alpacas are all descended from approximately 12,000 originally imported animals. 12,000 is a lot of animals – this is more than enough of a genetic foundry on which to base our populations. However, we must realize that, of those 12,000 original founding animals, only a handful – perhaps a few hundred or so – have come very close to conforming to the ideal that has been implied by the show system. Thus, the founding population for that particular subset of alpacas (the ideal, or “elite” alpacas that are often promoted as the most valuable) is much smaller. This is by no means a problem for this population. Quite the contrary, genetic concentration – homozygosity – is necessary to ensure a consistent breed.
The problem could come if this show-type, “elite” alpaca is codified by the national registry as the only worthwhile breed in the United States. Breeders whose stock do not conform to these standards – but whose animals are otherwise sound of conformation and possessed of positive genetic attributes – may find that their stock has been further devalued by this public declaration of standards, and may choose to cull these animals from the gene pool. Once the genetic blueprints for a trait are lost, they are remarkably difficult to retrieve. Only a few bloodlines in the United States today truly and reliably conform to the exact requirements of the show ring; to establish a single standard at this point risks encouraging a genetic bottleneck at a very early stage of North American alpaca agriculture. I feel it again important to emphasize that I am in no way opposed to the creation of breed standards, nor to the practice of thoughtful line-breeding – quite the contrary; I encourage both. However, I believe that genetic homogeneity can be a boon to individual breeding programs – not to entire populations!
Returning to the sheep, it is worth noting that, despite their superior numbers, the North American sheep population is still at risk for serious and irretrievable genetic loss. 40% of all sheep registered in the United States are of one breed (Suffolk). 75% of our North American sheep hail from one of four major breeds (Suffolk, Dorset, Hampshire and Rambouillet). The remaining 25% of all registered sheep belong to one of forty-two other recognized breeds. One may ask why sheep breeders should care about the remaining 25%. In some cases, the answer may be clear; for example, Merino, the sheep breed that alpaca breeders are likely most familiar with due to its frequent comparison to ultrafine, elite alpaca fiber, is one of the least common breeds in the United States. The value of those genes for extremely fine fiber is difficult to deny. Other breeds, however, may seem to have little value on first inspection. The Gulf Coast Native sheep is not particularly fine of fiber, prolific, or meaty. It is, however, extraordinarily resistant to the ravages of internal parasitism – something that was of perhaps little apparent importance in the halcyon days of effective antihelmenthics, but which has become critical now that many sheep populations house parasites that cannot be killed by any chemical dewormers. Had a few breeders not chosen to cultivate those rare populations of otherwise apparently substandard sheep, these genes for antihelmenthic resistance would have been lost (and still may be; the Gulf Coast Native sheep is listed as critically endangered by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy).
All North American alpaca breeders ought to be encouraged to establish and work towards a standard within their breeding programs. Likewise, show systems ought to be encouraged to publish a standard (for a show system is worthless without one), but only with the broad caveat that the specific alpaca type that it promotes is only one of many potential North American alpaca breeds. North American alpaca breeders are only just working to establish the place of the alpaca on the landscape of North American agriculture, and many of the markets are yet nascent for the products this species produces. Let us keep our minds open to the possibilities that the future can hold.
K writes this stuff, for some reason that has yet to become apparent.