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The Basics

  • Alpacas are members of the camel family and come from South America.
  • An alpaca is half the size and less than half the weight of a llama.
  • Male alpacas are called Machos, females are called Hembra and the babies are called Cria.
  • There are two types of alpaca, the teddy bear-like huacaya, and the suri which has falling dreadlocks.
  • The lifespan of an alpaca is about 20 years.
  • Apacas produce wool fibre that is very soft, warm and strong. It contains very little lanolin.
  • Sixteen fibre colours are recognised in New Zealand, ranging from white through to many fawn and brown shades to black. The number includes six grey shades.
  • Alpacas are environmentally friendly. They have padded feet (not hooves) which allow them to graze paddocks without damaging them.
  • Pregnancy lasts for eleven and a half months and a single cria is born weighing around 8kg.
  • After birth, the cria will be standing and suckling inside two hours.
  • Alpacas are intelligent, gentle and social animals. They must live in a group of at least two.
  • Alpacas make a wide variety of sounds which they use to communicate information to each other.
  • Four to five alpacas can be raised per acre of land (0.7 stock units each).

 

The Bigger Read

Sections
Alpaca Origins Alpaca Types Alpaca Fibre
Reproduction Alpaca Behaviour Nutrition
Paddocks and fencing Health Illness
Alpaca Welfare References Other interesting articles

Alpaca Origins

The alpaca is a member of the camelid family (Camelidae). A rabbit-sized ancestor to this family (Protylopus) first appeared in the subtropical forests of North America during the Eocene Period (56 to 33.9 million years ago). At 35 million years ago, a goat-sized intermediate form (Poebrotherium) had evolved which then diversified into at least 20 genera [1]. At least one genus spread southwards to reach South America whilst others travelled across the Bering Strait to reach Eurasia. As a result, the guanaco (Lama guanicoe) and vicuña (Vicugna vicugna) are found in South America whereas the three species of camel (Dromedary, Bactrian and wild Bactrian) are now found in Africa and Asia. Native North American camels were likely wiped out at the time humans migrated from Asia.
The vicuñas and guanacos were domesticated several thousand years ago to produce the llama (Lama glama) and alpaca (Lama pacos) respectively. Although distributed over much of South America, 90% of the alpaca population is found in Peru at altitudes between 3000 and 4500 metres. Temperatures at these altitudes may range between -20° and 30°C. There are upwards of 350,000 vicuña and 3.5 million alpacas in the Andean highlands.

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Alpaca Types

There are two varieties of alpaca, huacaya and suri. Huacaya alpacas make up over 90% of the global population and are by far the most recognisable type. Their hair grows perpendicular to the body to produce the rounded 'teddy bear' appearance. The wool is used for superior knitted and woven products. Suri alpacas have smoother, finer fibres that fall parallel to the body in long well-defined locks. It has a silky sheen with great visual appeal and has found markets in high end fabrics. Both alpaca types have a life span of around 20 years.

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Alpaca Fibre

Alpacas are mainly farmed for their superior wool fibre for which there is a significant worldwide demand. The wool is essentially free of lanolin and harvested by shearing once per year. It is softer than sheep's wool, hypoallergenic (even for babies) due to smaller and less pronounced fibre scales and has diameters better than most cross-bred wool, similar to merino. The alpaca evolved at high altitude so it is unsurprising that the fibre contains air-filled hollows improving its thermal insulation properties.
A system of sixteen fibre colours is recognised by the New Zealand Alpaca Association. Ten range from white through a range of fawn and brown shades through to true black. In addition, there are six grey and rose-grey shades. Other countries have very different colour classification systems. A 2012 New Zealand review [2] of the registered huacaya alpaca population showed that 30% were white and 31% fawn shades. Brown shades made up 20% of numbers and black 14%. The various grey varieties made up only 5% of the total although this proportion is likely increasing due to market demand. Colour distribution in the suri population was similar with 37% white, 32% fawn shades, 17% brown and 11% black The grey varieties made up only 3%.
Alpaca fibre can be mixed with other natural fibres such as merino, cashmere, mohair, silk and angora to create blends with unique characteristics and adding to market value. As these fibres are all made from keratin protein, they readily take up natural and synthetic dyes. White, light fawn and light grey are the colours most readily dyed.
Peru alone produces 80% of global fibre at 6,000 tonnes per year (2015). Alpaca numbers are growing rapidly in other countries (notably China) but it will be many years until there is any significant change to fibre market dynamics.

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Reproduction

Female alpacas undergo puberty at around six months though matings frequently fail [7]. It is common practice in New Zealand to start matings towards 2 years old when there is physical maturity. A female may breed until about 15 years old. Male alpacas may reach reproductive age at 18 months though the testes are not mature until 3 years of age.
Camelids species do not have a breeding season but are induced ovulators. Previously, it was believed that the act of mating resulted in the dam ovulating and although this may be part of the picture, it is now known that a stimulating protein factor is deposited with the sperm into the uterus [3]. Ovulation occurs within 48 hours. For mating, a receptive female will kush (sit) for the male to mount her which he does whilst making a distinctive orgeling sound, believed to be another contributing factor to the induction of ovulation. After about a week, ovulation will have caused an increase in progesterone levels and changes in the alpaca's behaviour. If fertilisation was achieved, the female will repel subsequent attempts to mate by spitting at him. Pregnancy can be confirmed after about two weeks and four weeks post-mating when the female will continue to spit the male off. Failing this, she will sit ready to be mated again.
Gestation is approximately eleven and a half months (355 days) with a single cria born (unpacked). Twin births are rare and due to low birth weights, one or both do not usually survive. However, there was a recent case in New Zealand of both surviving [6]. The majority of cria are born in the warmest hours between 11 am and 3 pm. If the weather conditions are poor or likely to deteriorate, the dam can defer labour as maternal instinct is to give the best chance of survival to the cria as it must dry, stand and suckle quickly. From birth to suckling normally takes around two hours. Experience at Te Korito Alpacas is that unpacking can be over in 15 minutes from the first signs of labour in older females but can take significantly longer, particularly for a dam's first cria or she if is overweight. Assistance is not usually required, especially in older females who have unpacked many times. When the cria is on the ground, the dam and cria should be allowed to bond and all of the herd members examine the new addition. The exception to this is the quick removal the epidermal membrane covering the cria's neck and thorax and disinfection of the umbilical cord stub using alcoholic iodine or chlorhexidine solution. Birth weight should be taken. Crias average 8kg at birth and should be checked on a regular basis to confirm a normal weight gain pattern. It is vital that the cria consumes the colostrum as antibodies are unable to pass across the alpaca placenta. A cria should consume 10-20% of its body weight of colostrum within the first 24 hours though antibody absorbtion is greatest within the first 12 hours. Other carbohydrate components (eg. oligosaccharides and sialylated sugars) of the colostrum provide gut protection from pathogenic bacteria.
In nature, the dam will wean the cria after some 6 months which coincides with an increase in growth rate of the foetus she is carrying. On New Zealand farms it is at six months or 25kg body weight.

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Alpaca Behaviour

Alpacas are an innately calm animal, happy to mill around people and are child safe. Although they don't like to be touched, training can overcome this reluctance. There is a hierarchy in both male and female herds with a lead animal in each case, generally the oldest. The 'pecking order' is usually easy to work out.
Alpacas are vocal animals and make a range of sounds. Most alpacas will make a humming sound which let other alpacas know they are content. Mothers and cria will hum frequently to each other during the first week after birth as part of bonding and this may persist long after. Clucking may indicate friendly or submissive behavior. Danger is indicated by a loud warbling sound, most often this is triggered by the appearance of a dog but cats can also be the cause. Each sound may be accompanied by elements of their body language, such as raised or lowered tail, ears forward or down, or particular body postures. Machos will produce a scream when fighting and also a particular sound when mating known as orgeling.
Alpacas do not spit in the usual sense (like llamas) but normally splutter air and some saliva. It is mostly reserved for other alpacas during disputes or asserting authority but occasionally a person can be caught in the 'cross-fire'. When severely angered, an alpaca can regurgitate its rumen contents (a pungent acidic slurry of grass) and project it forcefully at their target. Happily, this is unusual.

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Nutrition

Alpacas evolved to eat and digest the native grasses found at high altitude in the Andes which for most of the year are of low nutritional value. A number of unique adaptations have allowed the alpaca to thrive under these conditions. Notable amongst these is having a three-chambered rumen which due to specific bacterial flora and recycling of urea from the blood back into the stomach, is able to extract the maximum protein yield from the bacteria and greatest breakdown of eaten material. On New Zealand paddocks, there is a risk of animals putting on too much weight - see condition scoring below. Alpacas require 1.8 - 2.0% (dry weight) of their body mass per day of feed, making them more efficient consumers than sheep. As such, supplementary feeding is not required except as an option during the facial eczema season or putting weight back onto a thinner animal.

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Fencing and Paddocks.

Fencing for alpacas serves more to keep predators such as dogs out and alpaca groupings apart rather than keep alpacas in. Alpacas rarely challenge fences but intact males may rear up onto one when in close proximity of females and crias may try to go through a fence when they are first weaned from their mothers.
Most New Zealand fencing types are suitable, from standard 8-wire sheep fencing to post and batten, are all very acceptable. Barbed wire should not be used as it causes injuries and can get caught up in the fleece. Thick fleeces are a good insulation layer and make electric fencing largely ineffective. Moreover, electric wires can be a danger, particularly to crias. The recommended height for alpaca fencing is 1.2 metres.
Alpacas are intelligent and can be moved between paddocks with little effort or stress. Opening a gate is frequently enough to indicate that they should pass through and they can be readily be trained to come on clapping or calling out, even when at a distance.
Ryegrass is by far the commonest grass found on New Zealand farms and is suitable for many herbivore species. However, as browsers and not grazers, alpacas prefer variety in the plants consumed. A number of seed suppliers (for examples, here and here) have formulated mixtures more suited to alpacas which include bromes, fescues, lucerne, cocksfoot, clover, plantain and others. Adding to the unsuitability of ryegrass is that the Argentinian weevil feeds on the roots of the grass causing plant death. Seed suppliers resolved this problem by the introduction of an endophyte fungus that produces alkaloids toxic to the insects. Unfortunately, these same alkaloids are toxic to alpacas and result in ryegrass staggers (see section below).
Alpacas are opportunistic browsers and will try a wide variety of plants. However, a remarkable number found growing in paddocks and gardens are poisonous to alpacas and must be removed if within reach. The list of toxic plants is extensive but perhaps the most likely encountered are foxglove, hemlock, woody nightshade, Jerusalem cherry, Rhododendron/Azalea, Ragwort and Box hedging.

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Alpaca health.

Alpacas generally maintain good health but as they are stoic animals, they will hide any illness. It is therefore important that alpaca owners know their animals well so that any abnormal behaviour can be quickly recognised and investigated. Of equal importance are husbandry measures to support their good health and these are discussed below.
Notable in the treatment of illness in alpacas is that relatively few drugs are approved for use in camelids by the US FDA or any other national medicines regulatory body. Although a range of safe and effective drugs has now been established for use in alpacas, most are completely "off label". Vets tend to approximate alpaca dosage rates based on those for sheep.

Please note that the information given here is for guidance only.
Veterinary advice is strongly recommended for ensuring the good health of your animals.

For cria:

  • Immunisation. A vaccination programme should be started before the immunity provided by the dam's colostrum antibodies fades. A series of injections are needed to protect the cria from life-threatening diseases caused by Clostridia; these are Pulpy Kidney, Malignant Oedema, Tetanus, Black Disease and Blackleg. Vaccines such as Multine 5-in-1 are available from veterinary practices without prescription. The selenised versions of these vaccines should not be used. An injection schedule and dosages should be discussed with your vet or alpaca breeder.
  • Vitamin D promotes calcium absorption and maintains adequate serum calcium and phosphate concentrations to enable normal mineralization of bone. Growing animals will therefore have greater vitamin D requirements than adults. Alpacas have higher vitamin D requirements compared to other ruminants which may be a reflection of their adaptation to very high UV exposure in their native environment - UV exposure is required for activation of vitamin D in the skin. As most alpaca are now farmed at low altitude and the dam's milk has only low concentrations of vitamin D, supplementation is required. The cria should be injected with vitamin D by subcutaneous injection at defined intervals. The oil-based vitamin A, D and E supplement Hideject is suitable.
  • Worming. At Te Korito, it is done at 3 months and at weaning using Dectomax, injected subcutaneously. Dosage is based on equivalent sheep body weight.

For adults:

    Most of the annual actions can be done at shearing time as the alpaca is already restrained.
  • Annual injections.
    The following are usually given:
    - A 5-in-1 vaccine against clostridial diseases
    - Vitamin D supplementation, particularly if the animal is under three years old or darkly fleeced.
    - Worming. The frequency of worming has been the subject of much discussion. Alpacas normally have a low worm burden. A communal dung site (midden) is used and there is an innate reluctance to feed around it. Worms and worm larvae are therefore less likely to be eaten. Moreover, with the rise of resistance to the drugs used for drenching, some owners prefer to drench only if worms are shown to be present. Consistent removal of the middens and cross grazing with other livestock, particularly horses, is effective in controlling worm numbers in paddocks as they will graze over the middens. Horses are not susceptible to the worms carried by alpaca and vica versa. Discussion with your vet will help with your decision.
  • Toe nails.
    Some alpacas, notably with black nails, will seldom need them trimming. Most however will and it prevents the nails twisting and deforming the toes. When they become long, trimming using straight-bladed clippers is done which is a simple process, similar to cleaning horses hooves. With one person holding the alpaca's head, another will lift the foot whilst facing backwards and trim the nail level with the pad base. Inspection of the nails by lifting the feet should be carried out several times a year as occasionally a nail may curve over and press into the pad.
  • Teeth trimming
    Alpacas have six incisors on their lower jaws and a hard pad on the upper. If the teeth grow past the front of the upper palate, they should be trimmed otherwise the misalignment will cause difficulty in feeding. There are several methods for doing this but all require veterinary involvement as sedation of the alpaca is required. Teeth should be checked twice a year as growth rates will vary amongst alpacas.
  • Condition and condition scoring
    Most alpaca owners will not have a livestock scale to weigh animals regularly so body scoring should be done on a regular basis. Data should be collated and records kept to manage herd health and identify a possible health issue. Methods for doing this can be found here and here. On a five point scale, the ideal body condition is scored at 3.0. Condition scores of 2.0 and less or 4.0 and above represent extremely thin or fat animals respectively. Most alpacas (except in late pregnancy or lactation) should maintain a body condition score between 2.5 and 3.25.
  • Shearing
    In New Zealand, alpacas are usually shorn in late spring or early summer to avoid them being heat stressed during the warmer months. It is done either by laying them on a specialised shearing table or on the ground. In both cases, the legs are restrained by straps forwards and backwards to keep the animal still. Once restrained, many owners take fleece samples from the mid-side of the animal for fibre analysis. These samples may be sent to testing laboratories such as the New Zealand Wool Testing Authority or SGS New Zealand. For shearing, an assistant usually holds the head and assists by manoevering the alpaca in a manner that allows effective shearing with the minimum of stress to it. Electric clippers are mostly used although with alternative combs to those used with sheep. A skilled shearer will take under 10 minutes per animal and be able to remove the fleece blanket in one piece.
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Illness.

Knowing your animals makes abnormal behaviour due to illness or injury far easier to identify. Sudden and rapid weight loss is often indicative of health issues so condition scoring or weighing your alpacas on a regular basis is valuable. A sick alpaca is likely to lack energy and spend more time recumbent and be reluctant to stand.

  • Barber’s pole worm (BPW)
    This parasitic nematode worm (Haemonchus contortus) infects the C3/abomasum stomach compartment where it attaches to and sucks blood from the lining. The female BPW produces thousands of eggs every day which are expelled in the alpaca’s faeces onto the paddock where they hatch, develop into larvae and are ingested during grazing. They then pass into the stomach of the new animal and attach to the stomach wall, thus the life cycle is complete. Infections are serious as large numbers of worms may be present in the abomasum and ingest the blood of the host animal which causes severe anaemia, weakness and ultimately, death.
    Symptoms include very pale pink or white mucous membranes of the eye and mouth (gums) which should be a strong pink colour. Animals are likely to have diarrhoea, show a loss of condition and be lethargic or collapsed due to the anaemia. Treatment involves immediate drenching of the animal with an injectable wormer. Worm treatment options for Australia/New Zealand can be found here.
    It should be noted that Haemonchus eggs can survive for long periods on the pasture during dry weather. If the alpaca dung is not removed, large numbers of eggs can build up. Warm wet weather will cause the eggs to hatch and allow infection or reinfection of an alpaca.
  • Facial Eczema (Pithomycotoxicosis).

    Unfortunately, there are many livestock owners in New Zealand who have experienced this serious disease in their animals. It is caused by a toxin contained in the spores of the fungus Pithomyces chartarum. It mainly affects ruminant species and although it is known worldwide, facial eczema is especially common in New Zealand due to the high percentage of toxin-producing strains as compared to other countries. Alpacas are more sensitive than sheep to this disease, likely due of a lack of selection pressure in their native environment.
    After several days of warm humid weather with night time temperatures of over 13°C, the fungus begins growing on the decaying litter at the bottom of the grass sward. On ingestion, the fungal spores release the mycotoxin sporidesmin into the gastrointestinal tract which causes severe liver and bile duct damage. Obstruction of the bile duct may occur which restricts excretion of bile pigments and results in jaundice and failure to excrete phylloerythrin, leading to photosensitization of the skin [4]. As a result, there is severe skin irritation which the animal tries to relieve by persistent rubbing of its head against objects (e.g. fences, trees etc.) which causes peeling of the skin. There is also restlessness, frequent urination, shaking, drooping and reddened ears, swollen eyes and seeking of shade to avoid sunlight. Veterinary assistance is essential in assessing these animals. An initial diagnosis is made based on these symptoms and behaviours but confirmation requires blood testing for γ-glutamyltransferase (GGT) levels.
    Sporidesmin often causes permanent liver damage so support care is needed for the affected alpaca. They should be kept in the darkest area available and receive pain relief, vitamins for liver support and low protein feeds until there is clear recovery. It is notable however that the consumption of spores causes potentiation and subsequent ingestion of small quantities of spores can lead to severe outbreaks.

    Prevention of facial eczema:
    1. Spore counts. There are many commercial services available for determining spore counts in samples taken from paddocks. Methods for taking samples are also described. Samples may be taken to a veterinary practice or farm supply for sending away to the testing laboratory. Local area spore counts may also be available there. Aggregated counts for areas nationwide are available from Gribbles Veterinary or Asurequality during the eczema season.
    2. Spraying paddocks with fungicides - this will decrease the number of spores present but it must be done prior to the start of the season as the fungicide kills vegetative fungus cells but not spores. Alpacas may graze the paddock after a set number of days as specified in the product description. The treatment provides a level of protection for around 5 - 6 weeks, unless there is significant rainfall.
    3. Grazing to low level - must be avoided. Paddocks with minimal remaining grass should be closed off until good regrowth has occurred. Heavy rain helps by washing spores into the ground.
    4. Alternative feedstuffs - these should be provided during danger periods, particularly good quality hay, which reduces reliance on grazing.
    5. Dosing with zinc. The incorporation of zinc oxide into feeds is the only practical way of getting an alpaca to consistently consume adequate zinc to ensure effectiveness. For this, alpaca nuts with added zinc are widely available from farm stores during the facial eczema season. In New Zealand, the facial eczema season usually starts in early January. Given it takes about two weeks for the blood zinc levels to rise to a protective state, gradual introduction of the zinc-containing nuts (initially with normal alpaca nuts) should begin at New Year. Supplementation with 2g of elemental zinc per 100 kg liveweight per day is recommended. Excessive consumption of zinc for extended periods of time in other ruminant species is known to lead to pancreatic disease and copper deficiency. In sheep and cattle the recommended maximum continuous zinc supplementation period is 100 days. In the absence of studies with alpacas into the maximum dosing period, the same recommendation is followed. The severity of the facial eczema seasons vary so a close watch on spore counts is essential and in particularly bad years, extended dosing and feed supplementation may be needed.
  • Ryegrass staggers.
    This is a condition caused by the endophyte fungus Epichloë festucae (var. lolii) which is found in the leaf sheath of perennial ryegrass pastures. The endophyte is a deliberate addition to the ryegrass seeds to deter insects, particularly the Argentine Stem Weevil, and increase grass growth rates. The condition is particularly common in New Zealand, possibly due to the deliberate selection of particular endophyte-infected ryegrass by plant breeders and the practice of monoculture. This fungus produces several mycotoxins including lolitrem-B, peramine and ergovaline, which when ingested cause neurological symptoms [5]. The disease usually occurs in mid/late summer and autumn or after a drought when new grass is growing quickly. This condition mainly affects animals under 2 years of age but only some are affected and may be permanently so.
    In its mildest form, there are slight head tremours or head wobbling but the animal will often appear normal until it becomes excited or agitated. If left untreated, the condition progresses to head shaking, a high stepping gait may develop and a stiffness that can lead to poorly coordinated walking (ataxia). Later there may be complete loss of limb control and it will be prone to falling over. Once removed from the pasture, most animals will recover with no apparent residual effects. The alpaca should be stabled with another alpaca and provided with alternative feedstuffs such as hay, chaff and kibble. The recovery time is between one and three weeks. Veterinary treatment may include an injection with vitamins B1 and B2 to eliminate the possibility of polioencephalomacia (thiamine deficiency), which exhibits similar symptoms.
  • Fly strike (Myiasis).
    In New Zealand this is well known as a serious condition in sheep and more common in regions with summer rainfall. Occasionally it can afflict alpacas when the fleece is short, if there is a skin lesion or the animal has rolled in faeces. An inspection of the animal for cuts is recommended after shearing although skin cuts and abrasions do occur due to vigorous rolling.
    Several species of blowfly lay eggs around the wound and on hatching (12-24 hours), the maggots degrade and liquefy the underlying tissues. Toxins released by the decomposing tissues and ammonia secreted by the maggots are absorbed into the animal’s bloodstream causing systemic illness, possibly leading to death. Once flystrike has started, further flies are attracted to the site. Regular inspection of the herd will identify abnormal numbers of flies around any animal.
    Veterinary treatment is essential as appropriate insecticides and antibiotics may be required.
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Alpaca Welfare.

Changes to the Animal Welfare Act in May 2015 gave the Ministry of Primary Industries the ability to make regulations under the Act. As a result, MPI can better enforce the Act by mandating clear rules to protect animal welfare.
The 2018 MPI code of welfare for llamas and alpacas can be downloaded here.

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References.

Most of the literature cited in the text can be accessed by clicking on the appropriate link below.

1. Rybczynski, N., Gosse, J.C., Harington, C.R., Wogelius, R.A., Hidy, A.J. and Buckley, M. (2013). Mid-Pliocene warm-period deposits in the High Arctic yield insight into camel evolution. Nature Comm. (4), Article no. 1550.

2. Registry Working Group. (2012) How many Alpaca are there in NZ? New Zealand Alpaca, August, 36-37

3. Kershaw-Young, C.M., Druart, X., Vaughan , J. and Maxwell, W. M. C. (2012). β-Nerve growth factor is a major component of alpaca seminal plasma and induces ovulation in female. Reproduction, Fertility and Development, 24, 1093–1097

4. Boyd, E. (2016). Management of Facial Eczema. M.Vet. Stud., Massey University.

5. Philippe, G. (2016). Lolitrem B and Indole Diterpene Alkaloids Produced by Endophytic Fungi of the Genus Epichloë and Their Toxic Effects in Livestock. Toxins (Basel), 8(2): 47.

6. Ferguson, F. (2018). Nevalea Alpaca farm welcomes rare twins. Stuff Online, 20th February.

7. Cebra, C., Anderson, D.E., Tibary, A., Van Saun, R.J. and Johnson, L.W. (2014). Llama and Alpaca Care, Ch.16. 1st Ed., Elsevier.

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Other interesting reading

1. Adams, G.P., Ratto, M.H., Silva, M.E. and Carrasco, R.A. (2016). Ovulation-­inducing factor (OIF/NGF) in seminal plasma: ­a review and update. Reprod. Dom. Anim., 51 (Suppl. 2): 4–17.

2. Vap, L. and Bohn, A.A. (2015). Hematology of Camelids. Vet. Clin. Exot. Anim., 18: 41–49.

3. Montes, M., Quicaño, I., Quispe, R., Quispe, E and Alfonso, L. (2008). Quality characteristics of Huacaya alpaca fibre produced in the Peruvian Andean Plateau region of Huancavelica. Span. J. Ag. Res., 6(1): 33-38.

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