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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 . 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. 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 achieves fertilisation of any eggs released by the ovaries as a result of the mating. It is interesting that females can be induced to ovulate by sitting next to the enclosure when mating is happening. There are two breeding methods: pasture breeding in which a male in put in with a group of females, and managed breeding which involves introducing a male (often 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.
After about a week, ovulation will have caused an increase in progesterone levels and changes in the alpaca's behaviour.
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 are recorded for future reference.
The 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 can defer labour. As a legacy of evolving at high altitude, the maternal instinct is to time unpacking to give her cria the best 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.
The birthing process can be broken into three stages:
Stage 1. The start of contractions. The dam will become restless, hum frequently 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 considerably 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 may be interrupted by resting periods and can take significantly longer for a dam's first cria, or she if is overweight. Assistance is seldom 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. Interestingly, some dams will pause and resume grazing for a period during this stage of labour, with the cria dangling. Time in this position does allow fluid to drain from the cria's lungs however. The remainder of the cria is passed shortly afterwards, with the help of gravity. The dam does not usually lick the cria once on the ground. The umbilical cord detaches very 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.
It should be noted that neither the unpacking cria nor the placenta should be pulled to 'assist' their passage. Doing this can cause serious damage to the dam.
Crias unpacked early may be immature, indicated by unerupted incisors, drooped ear tips, showing tendon laxity and being very slow to stand after birth. Depending on their degree of prematurity, these crias may 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.
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. Be aware that the dam may protect the cria from your actions.
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,
➛ Colostrum powder plus appropriate feeding bottle and teat,
➛ Mobile phone with your vet's number available.
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 a 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 will have lighter crias. Cria weights increase until the dam is 9 years old and then steadily decrease again . 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 drop 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. 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 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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