A question that I often hear is “What do we do with our males”.
As many of us know, a good breeding goal for maximum profit potential would be to produce most of our alpaca fibre below 26 microns.
Alpaca, due to its scale structure, tends to feel approximately 5 microns finer than it actually tests, when compared to other fibres of the same micron. Where alpaca scales average 0.4 microns high, average sheep scales average 0.8 microns and have sharper edges. This gives alpaca an instant advantage in the softness category. A great deal of sheep wool is produced in the mid-20 micron range. Alpaca in that same range will have an advantage in terms of softness. In addition, the world does not produce much natural fibre that is finer than 20 microns and the fibre which is produced in that range commands a premium at sale. That is a niche on which many alpaca breeders will want to focus!
Most of us are familiar with the dreaded term “blowout,” which is an expression loosely used to describe alpaca fibre that coarsens dramatically from one year to the next. This may happen for a variety of reasons, including natural growth of a cria to adulthood, environmental and nutrition factors, and, probably most of all, simple genetics. As a cria grows to maturity, follicles spread apart in the skin. Imagine putting dots on a deflated balloon, then blowing it up; the dots will drift farther and farther apart as the balloon grows in size. Similarly, the follicles on a growing alpaca will spread farther apart, providing greater opportunity for fibre to thicken. On average, cria born with 15 micron fibre will have fibre in the 21-23 micron range by 3 years of age, and it may get as high as 30 microns. On average, alpacas are thought to increase in AFD by 2 microns each year, until the animal is four to five years old. The reasons for this common progression may be complex, but genetics clearly play a key role.
Geldings are typically finer than breeding males, which is thought to be the result of lower levels of testosterone. Males tend to stop coarsening once gelded. Geldings are excellent fibre herd candidates and will probably make up the greater portion of elite fibre production herds. This should answer the question, “What do we do with our males?” Treasure them! In general, females also tend to be finer than breeding males.
Fineness can be related to nutritional and/or environmental stress. A stressed alpaca, whether physically or emotionally, will divert much of its energy to protecting its immune system. Frequently, the result is diminished fibre thickness. Sick or otherwise compromised alpacas can exhibit very fine, but “tender” or weakened fleece. This is one reason why halter and fleece judges test the strength of fibre, as fibres that break easily are worthless to processors.
A strong fibre makes a strong thread and, in turn, produces a strong garment that will wear well. Fibre strength has two measurable components: tensile strength and shear strength. Alpaca fibre is naturally strong in terms of both components.
Holes in socks are caused by failure of shear strength, due to repeated pressure applied perpendicular to the fibre. Well-made alpaca socks are less likely to develop holes because alpaca fibre has inherently high shear strength. Holes in suits, dresses, and similar garments are usually caused by failures in tensile strength, where the force applied is parallel to the fibre. Again, properly processed alpaca fibre, that includes no short or damaged fibres, will tend to resist these wear and tear issues more than most other natural fibres.
As a result of its natural strength and durability, alpaca fibre may be spun lightly to produce end products that are lightweight, but nonetheless durable. The natural strength of alpaca fibre may be compromised, however, in animals that have suffered stress, illness, or inadequate nutrition. Fibre from these animals is more likely to be “tender” and susceptible to breaking during processing. Producing strong alpaca fibre for the textile industry is dependant upon good herd management techniques.
In many alpacas, excess protein increases fibre thickness and excessive weight or fat can result in shorter staple lengths. This situation may cause unsuspecting breeders, who assess density by hand alone, to believe that density is improving as an alpaca ages, when, in fact, the alpaca may simply be overfed, its fibre is coarsening as a result. Not all alpacas are equally predisposed to coarsen when on a high plain of nutrition, however, and genetics are another factor that impacts the extent to which coarsening occurs.
No single fibre attribute is the “be-all and end-all” that will ensure profitability from the production of alpaca fibre. Fleece attributes must be balanced, both to protect the alpaca from the environment in order to help maintain health, and to provide producers with the most profitable fleeces for the marketplace. Fineness not only varies between animals, it can also vary from one region of the country to another, based on different environmental conditions (hot vs. cold, humid vs. dry). Fineness is further affected by an alpaca’s age, health, nutrition, and, probably most significantly, by its genetics. An 8-year-old dam, pregnant with her fifth cria, that maintains a uniform AFD of 25 microns, may not place well in the show ring, but she has great value in a breeding program due to her lingering uniform fineness. She is precisely the sort of breeding animal on which we should focus if we wish to create a sustainable and profitable alpaca fibre industry.
If this year you were gifted by your middle aged dams with mainly boys, you are now nicely placed to ride the forthcoming wave of demand from the textile mills.
BAS Director & Committee Member (ex)