In the wild, female alpacas may undergo puberty at around six months though matings frequently fail . It is common practice in New Zealand to start mating females at around 2 years old when there is physical and mental maturity. The female may breed until she about 15 years old.
Although male alpacas reach reproductive age at about 18 months, they should not be allowed to mate until at least 2½ years of age. Earlier matings may result in damage to the penis if the prepuce has not detached from it, a process that is not complete in 100% of males until 3 years old . Such damage may result in associating mating with pain and prevent a successful stud career. Moreover, the testes do not physically mature until 3 years of age.
Camelid 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 contribute, it is now known that a stimulating protein factor (known from unrelated studies as ß-nerve growth factor) is deposited with the sperm into the uterus . 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 - a behaviour known as 'spitting-off'. This is a slight misnomer as although some will spit, others may run away, scream, kick out or even try to jump out of the pen to escape the male. Spitting-off should be done after about two weeks post-mating and confirmed at four weeks. If pregnancy did not take, she will sit ready to be mated again. Spit-offs can be repeated as needed to confirm continued pregnancy. Pregnancy can also be confirmed after 60 days by ultrasound scanning when the pregnant uterus can be seen. However, this method carries a risk of false negative results.
Gestation averages 355 days from the conception date with a few not unpacked (born) for 380+ days. Crias unpacked early may be immature, indicated by unerupted front incisors, drooped ear tips, showing tendon laxity and being very slow to stand after birth. Depending on their degree of prematurity, these crias will require assistance. This can range from help in standing and introduction to the dam's teats through to needing to be sheltered with the dam. Immediate veterinary support is vital for those weighing less than 5 kg.
The majority of crias are born in the warmest hours between 11 am and 4 pm. If the weather conditions are poor or likely to deteriorate, the dam can defer labour. Maternal instinct is to give her cria the best chance of survival as it must dry, stand and feed quickly.
The birthing process can be broken into three stages:
Stage 1. The start of contractions. The dam will become restless and usually move away from the herd. She will stop grazing, make frequent visits to the communal midden and may alternate standing and sitting in an effort to become comfortable. The duration of this stage varies but finishes when contractions reach one each two minutes.
Stage 2. Birthing of the cria. Rupture of the fluid (chorioallantoic) sac starts this phase and is completed by the expulsion of the cria. The process normally lasts between 5 and 30 minutes but can take significantly longer for a dam's first cria or she if is overweight. Assistance is not usually required, particularly with older females who have unpacked many times. Almost all crias are unpacked head-first, facing downwards, with the majority of dams standing. As contractions increase, the head appears closely followed by one forelimb, the second appearing some minutes later. Strong contractions occur to pass the cria's shoulders and chest with the remainder of the cria passed shortly after, with the help of gravity. The umbilical cord detaches soon after unpacking.
Stage 3. Expulsion of the placenta. This normally occurs within 20 minutes of the cria unpacking but can take up to one hour. If it has not passed within 8 hours, veterinary assistance will be needed.
With the cria on the ground, the dam and cria should be allowed to bond and all the herd members will 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. One of these antiseptics should be part of a birthing kit.
This kit should comprise:
➛ Electronic thermometer,
➛ A tube of water-based lubricant,
➛ A cria sling (belly sling) and weighing scale (digital suitcase types are suitable),
➛ Disinfection spray as described above,
➛ Clean towels or paper towels,
➛ Mobile phone with your vet's number available.
Birth weight should be taken (average weight = 8kg) and this should be checked on a regular basis to confirm a normal weight gain pattern. A slight weight loss over the first couple of days is normal.
All newborn crias will pass through a period of post-birth recovery and move to a cush position before attempting to stand. Once standing, they will instinctively look to suckle from the dam. The birth to suckling sequence can be achieved in under a hour and most will be there in under two hours. A few crias will need help as they may attempt to suckle from the wrong dam or even head for a dark area in a stable. New mothers should be checked to ensure milk flow as waxy plugs block the nipples. It is vital that the cria consumes the colostrum as the antibodies it contains provide passive immunity for the cria. These antibodies are unable to pass across the alpaca placenta. Other compounds contained in the colostrum provide gut protection from pathogenic bacteria. A cria should consume 10-20% of its body weight of colostrum within the first 24 hours though antibody absorption is greatest in the first 12 hours.
Dams will only feed their own crias and they check that the right one is feeding by sniffing at the base of the tail where there are scent glands.The cria's tail will be raised at the start of feeding but slowly drop during the session. Opportunist crias may attempt to 'steal' feeds but are quickly repelled when noticed.
A single cria is almost always unpacked. Twin births are fairly rare and due to low birth weights, one or both crias may not survive. However, there have been recent cases in New Zealand of both thriving. Twins born at the Nevalea stud, Lucy and Lucas,  weighed 3.9 kg at birth and developed to normal adult weights. At the Gilead stud  the crias were born weighing 5.5 kg (which developed normally) and 2.8 kg (Timmy, pictured) which only grew to the size of a four-month-old.
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, weaning is usually done at six months or 25 kg body weight. However, some dams will part or fully wean the crias themselves at an earlier age by refusing to feed the cria or only allowing feeds at dusk. Weaning is normally done by putting the crias into a separate paddock, ideally out of sight of the dams. The process takes 12 weeks; if the crias are reintroduced back to the herd too early, some will successfully suckle their dams.
Most of the literature below can be accessed by clicking on the highlighted link. Some of the links will access the appropriate web page from which the article can be downloaded but others will immediately start downloading the full reference.
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
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.
9. Rogers, M. and Goffin, H. (2009). Timmy - the tiny twin's story. New Zealand Alpaca, Autumn, pp. 36-39.
24. Cebra, C., Anderson, D.E., Tibary, A., Van Saun, R.J. and Johnson, L.W. (2014). Llama and Alpaca Care, Ch.15. 1st Ed., Elsevier.Back to the top