Last updated on 26/09/2020

Breeding, Birthing and Crias.

In the wild, female alpacas may undergo puberty at around six months though matings frequently fail [7]. 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 [24]. 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 [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. During the mating, the male manoeuvres his penis into both horns of the uterus and achieves fertilisation of any eggs to be released by each ovary. 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. Apart from giving a known conception date, the latter method allows for control of the mating time. Extended (>30 minutes) and repeated matings can cause injury to the lining of the uterus. 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.

Confirmation of pregnancy can be done by:
  • 'Spitting-off'. This is a slight misnomer as although some dams 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.
  • Ultrasound scanning - Usually performed after 60 days when the pregnant uterus can be seen. This method does carry a risk of false negative results.
  • Serum progesterone level - this rises to a peak after 7 days and if the mating was successful, the level remains elevated. However, it falls back to normal after 14 days should the dam not be pregnant.

If pregnancy was not achieved, the dam will sit ready to be mated again. Spit-offs can be used (if males are available) to confirm continued pregnancy. 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 clearly visible in the last month. The female develops noticeable udders about two weeks before unpacking.

Nevalea Fantasy showing a very swollen abdomen at the end of pregnancy

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 become 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, 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 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 dam does not usually lick the cria once on the ground. The umbilical cord detaches soon after unpacking. Interestingly, some dams will resume grazing for a period during labour, with the cria dangling. The dam will not lick the cria which is usually partially covered in membranes.
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.

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.
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.

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 (average weight = 8 kg) 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. Zaria suckling from Te Korito Poppy 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. Tiny Tim, the world's smallest known surviving alpaca twin 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, [6] weighed 3.9 kg at birth and developed to normal adult weights. At the Gilead stud [9] 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 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.

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References.

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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