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In the wild, female alpacas may reach 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. Mating can start after shearing in late spring though is commonly done after New Year so that the cria are born during the following summer.
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 . Damage caused by premature matings may then 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 directly into the uterus . As a result, ovulation occurs within 48 hours and the egg is then fertilised. 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. During the mating, the male manoeuvres his penis into both horns of the uterus and deposits semen. It is interesting that females can be induced to ovulate by sitting next to an enclosure where mating is happening.
There are two breeding methods: pasture breeding in which a male is put in with a group of females, and managed breeding which involves introducing a male (normally on a halter and lead) to a female within an enclosure, ideally 3 x 3 metres in size. Apart from giving a clear conception date, the latter method allows for control of the mating time. Extended (>30 minutes) or repeated matings can cause injury to the lining of the uterus and cause an infection. The alpaca penis has a hard cartilaginous tip which impacts the uterine lining - blood traces may occasionally be seen on the fleece around the vulva after mating.
A functional corpus luteum develops 2–3 days after ovulation and is responsible for the production of progesterone. At about one week after mating, the increasing progesterone levels start to cause changes in the alpaca's behaviour. Although ovulation occurs equally between left and right ovaries, pregnancies are invariably carried in the left horn of the uterus. An embryo created in the right horn must therefore migrate to the left - the mechanism for this is unclear. Most twin pregnancies are either resorbed or aborted early in gestation.
If pregnancy was not achieved, the dam will sit ready to be mated again. Gestation averages 355 days from the conception date with a few not unpacked (born) for 380+ days. Swelling of the abdomen is noticeable in the last three months with the cria's movements and occasional kick clearly visible in the last month. The female develops noticeable udders only about two weeks before unpacking. It should also be added that some dams hide the pregnancy well, even to the experienced eye.
It is good practice that all breeding activities and observations are recorded for future reference.
The great majority of dams will unpack within the 340-370 days window with most crias arriving in the warmest hours between 11 am and 4 pm. If the weather conditions are poor or likely to deteriorate, the dam is able to defer labour. As a legacy of evolving at high altitude, the maternal instinct is to time unpacking for good weather. This gives her cria the greatest chance of survival as it must dry, stand and feed quickly.
Identifying a dam going into labour is not easy and requires frequent paddock visits to identify any typical behaviours.
All newborn crias will pass through a period of post-birth recovery and move to a cush position before attempting to stand. Once standing, it will instinctively look to suckle from the dam. The birth to suckling sequence can be achieved in under an hour and most will be there in under two hours.
Birth weight should be taken, and this should be checked on a regular basis to confirm a normal weight gain pattern. The cria may lose up to 0.25kg in the first 24 hours but gain between 0.25-0.5kg daily from that point. Although the average weight of a newborn cria is about 8kg, maiden dams tend to have lighter crias. Cria weights increase until the dam is 9 years old and then steadily decrease again . Notable is that the dam and cria will hum to each other frequently as part of bonding and this may continue for several weeks. 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. Immunisation of the dam with a 5-in-1 vaccine, 2-4 weeks prior to the unpacking date, is effective in increasing the antibody concentration in the milk.
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 drops during the session. Opportunist crias may attempt to 'steal' feeds but are quickly repelled when noticed.
Within 24 hours, the cria will pass meconium, a thick and tarry dark waste composed of cellular material, mucus and ingested amniotic fluid. Should the cria not excrete the meconium, it may become lethargic and require veterinary assistance. Unfortunately, these droppings are easily missed in the paddock so the behaviour of the cria must be watched over this period.
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.
Remating of the dam can be done at a minimum of two weeks after birthing. 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 achieved by relocating the crias into a separate paddock, ideally out of sight of the dams. The process takes around 12 weeks; if the crias are reintroduced back to the herd too early, some may successfully suckle their dams.
Most of the literature below can be accessed by clicking on the highlighted link. Some 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.
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