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Maximizing Female Production Through Emphasizing Diet and Monitoring Births



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by Eric Hoffman. Published (with pictures not shown here) in The Camelid Quarterly, June 2004

I’ll start by saying I’m not a veterinarian, nor an expert trained in animal reproduction. I’m a journalist with 30 years experience raising camelids. From these dual perspectives I’ve experienced and reported on aspects of llama, alpaca, guanaco, and vicuna reproduction in books and magazines for years. This article explores a number of factors that contribute to the essential role of female domestic camelids -reproduction. My emphasis will be on the importance of health, diet, the mechanical aspects of birthing and postpartum concerns. These basics topics may be thought of as unrelated but to me they are analogous to sections of a road that leads to healthy crias. To get to a healthy cria at the end of the road the sections in between need to be properly negotiated.

Pay Attention to Diet

Reproduction starts with diet. The importance of diet and its influence on health can not be over-estimated for general herd health. Assuring a balanced diet is critical for expectant dams and their developing crias. Today much is known about the nutritional needs of llamas and alpacas, but there is still much to learn. In the early days of both the llama and alpaca businesses in North America the understanding of camelid diet and how they utilize food energy was dealt with in generalizations and sporadic research. Initially there was much rhetoric about how South American camelids are incredibly resilient and able to sustain themselves on meager diets. Any of you who have been raising camelids since the l980’s or before will recall that there were scientists in North America who did research funded by camelid organizations who claimed camelids could sustain themselves by eating newspaper and low protein hays. Obesity, we were told, was a significant problem we needed to prevent. Fat animals were apt to have birthing problems. The general impression was that we coddled our animals and fed them too rich a diet. Undoubtedly, there is truth to this perception that too much is a bad thing. Under favorable conditions animals on good pasture can sustain themselves well enough not to require a great deal of dietary manipulation.

Selenium and Vitamin D

In part, the focus on diet came about as camelids spread across the diverse habitats of the North American landscape. They experienced a wide range of forages, supplemental feeds, weather conditions, exposure to toxic plants and different care philosophies. The scientific literature on South American camelids began to identify diseases related to diet. For several years there were discussions on the significance of selenium in the diet. Emphasis was put on what levels were beneficial in preventing white muscle disease and what levels were toxic to camelids. Many regions of North America produced selenium deficient hays so discussions centered on how to compensate for deficient hays. Other vitamins and minerals have made their way into the generalized discussions. In some cases, alleged significance faded from discussion as more was learned. In others cases, such as in the importance of Vitamin D absorption for bone growth in developing crias, the importance of identifying and correcting imbalance has become an area of major concern for breeders and veterinarians. Crias born in the fall in northern latitudes, where short days with meager amounts of sunlight are prevalent, often require oral paste or injectable Vitamin D supplements for healthy bone development. In spite of all that has been learned about the importance of diet we see promotional literature attesting to the easy care aspects of camelids. Often the “easy-keeper” sales pitch will devote about two lines to diet. There is more to it than this, especially for females slated for reproduction.

Protein Levels and Fatty Liver Disease

Another potentially dangerous disease related to diet is Hepatic Lipidosis (Fatty Liver Disease). This disease is the antithesis of the obesity mantra of the 1980’s. It can devastate a whole herd that has been on a substandard diet of hay or grass that may look great but is low in protein and other essential ingredients. Often one animal will become ill and in a short time others will follow. The disease may appear contagious when it's not. The cause is the cumulative effect of a low protein diet relative the needs of the affected animals – possibly a group ready to give birth with rapidly increasing nutritional needs that can no longer be met on a substandard diet. The importance of hay analysis can’t be over-emphasized.

Fatty liver disease is most likely to strike late term pregnant and lactating females. When these subgroups’ energy demands are not being met by a high enough quality diet the females exhibit lethargy and loss of appetite, followed by death. Sometimes something as subtle as a bout with cold, wet weather may set things in motion. The additional stress of combating cold might be the trigger to an untenable energy drain and rapid release of fat. One might ask, “How could this happen in North America where there is an abundance of food year round, when in South America animals rely entirely on about 4 months of rain drenched pastures followed by a drying up of the landscape until the next rainy season?” It turns out that the dietary smorgasbord in South America has sufficiently high protein levels (around 12 to 15 percent) during the wet season when the crias are born. Crias born outside of this window of good nutrition often perish because the diet is too lean for mother and baby. This is a fundamental truth in raising camelids in South America, so much so that many South American breeders think camelids are seasonal breeders. During a drought year in which herds experience “die offs” some of these undiagnosed deaths are undoubtedly likely to be fatty liver disease.

Researchers at Oregon State University did much of the initial research on the dietary and stress related aspects of this disease. They recognized the need to think of third trimester pregnant females and lactating females as a subgroup with special dietary needs, particularly concerning the levels of protein in their forage. Robert Van Saun, DVM, PhD, Dipl ACT/ACVN, (now with Pennsylvania State University) oversaw much of the dietary work at OSU. Necropsies revealed the camelids victimized by this disease in North America had released fat so rapidly, to compensate for dietary deficiencies, that their liver became overwhelmed and could no longer function – causing death and resulting in the disease’s common name, fatty liver disease. Veterinarians have learned that the optimum nutritional needs of an alpaca are influenced by pregnancy, weather, available diet, age of the animal, its physiology, and position in the herd hierarchy. When the diet is working well it seems as if it is a simple thing. However, when there is a significant deficiency in the diet it turns out there are many nuances inherent in diet-based problems that may take some diligence to solve. The good news about all of this is that enough is now known about diet to allow camelid owners to provide a balanced diet.

Determining Maternal Health

The first important question about reproductive females is, “Are the animals healthy?” As obvious as this question may be, it is often overlooked because of inexperience or haste to breed. Females, stressed due to the social demands of herd hierarchy and nutritional needs of the last cria, are often pressed back into service before they have had time to recover. Animals who are emaciated or obese are at risk, as are their proposed offspring. Poor diet (too lean, too rich, or imbalanced), parasite loads, and cria demands, all compromise reproductive capability. Female animals about to become pregnant must be strong and vigorous. Animals should be body-scored before breeding commences. Their body-score should at least be a 2, (3 being optimum on a 1 to 5 scale) and their diet supplemented so that they are a 3 before their 3rd trimester of pregnancy. This is especially important in alpacas because they have disproportionately large babies (around 20 pounds) as compared to size of the mother (often around 140 pounds).

The groups with the greatest need for protein, in the 12 to 14 percent protein range, are females in their last trimester of pregnancy and lactating females. Dr. Van Saun recommends “Body Condition Scoring” as a method for the average owner to assess the general health of their alpacas by palpating along the spine and inspecting females from the front and back. Diagnosing why a particular animal is underweight or overweight may be relatively easy, or it may prove to be difficult. Parasites, herd diet, the animal’s status within the herd’s hierarchy and physiological factors may play a part. Regardless of the specific reason why a female has a depleted body, she will have difficulty providing enough energy for herself and her fast growing cria. Striving for an optimum body condition in pregnant females should be the goal of all camelid breeders.

Optimizing the Actual Birth

If the diet has been correct and your females are healthy and strong you have already accomplished the most important steps for a healthy birth. It’s a simple axiom: healthy mothers usually produce healthy crias. The second ingredient to optimize births is monitoring pregnancies to make sure the pregnancy is on its way to term. As obvious as this may seem every spring and fall (the two optimum seasons for birthing) there are breeders who are mystified and shocked when a female they thought was pregnant somehow isn’t. Now retired Oregon State University researchers Brad Smith DVM, PhD and Karen Timm DVM, PhD point out in Llama and Alpaca Neonatal Care that as many as 25% of pregnancies can be lost after the first 30 days. Monitoring, either by use of progesterone tests or ultra sound, at several intervals during gestation allows the breeder to become aware of a pregnancy that has prematurely ended due to an absorption or abortion. Monitoring is insurance against losing an entire year of productivity. The breeder who monitors pregnancies will lose months of reproduction, not years.

The most dramatic moment in this course of events is of course, the birth. Each birth is its own special miracle with a long list of rapidly occurring physiological changes taking place in both the mother and cria. Most of the changes, such the onset of the cria’s breathing, are preprogrammed and not influenced appreciably by our efforts. Most births occur without the need for intervention, but a significant number require assistance of one kind or another. When assistance is needed it usually has to do with a mechanical problem, such as a leg tucked back instead of in the normal headfirst and two - front leg presentation. With training from a knowledgeable veterinarian, breeders can learn to deal with some of the mechanical challenges of a birth that is not entirely normal. However, breeders can’t be expected to handle every situation. For example, a breech (in which the cria presents backwards), or a uterine torsion (which is life threatening to both the mother and cria) may occur. All breeders should learn enough to be able to distinguish between a normal and problem birth.

Once the birthing process is underway time becomes critical and a problem that is allowed to fester too long may result in unwanted results for both the cria and mother. An important aspect of this process that is often not emphasized enough is to accurately calculate your birth dates so you can plan to be nearby during the birth. Look for telltale physical changes in the female (enlargement of udder, elongation of vulva, and behavioral changes). When the birth is imminent it is also important to move females to a pen that can be easily over seen. Knowing when labor commenced will help in making decisions about assessing whether the birth is problem free or requires intervention. As a general rule of thumb, if a problem is diagnosed in a birth in progress and can’t be corrected in 10 minutes, a veterinarian should be called.

Helpful Resources

The Llama and Alpaca Neonatal Care book by Bradford Smith DVM, PhD, Karen Timm DVM, PhD and Patrick O. Long, DVM is an excellent book that walks the reader through the birthing process. The authors describe and illustrate a healthy birth and also describe a number of problems that can occur and how to diagnose the nature of a problem. They also tell the reader at what juncture veterinary assistance is needed. A serious breeder would be well advised to enroll in a neonatal care course that addresses birthing and post partum care for crias.

From Washington State University, Ahmed Tibary DMV, PhD, Dipl ACT, has also written about female reproduction. In the Complete Alpaca Book, he walks the reader through the birth process with text and illustrations in “Chapter 13; Female Reproduction.” Tibary helps his reader identify three stages of labor both in general observable terms and scientific terms, describing the physical changes that are occurring to the mother as the birth proceeds. Both books cited here also expose the reader to what can go wrong and the causes. Dr. Tibary explains embryonic death, stillbirth, dystocia, uterine torsions, vaginal prolapse and other undesirable situations. He also goes into detail in sleuthing causes for females known as “problem breeders.” People don’t usually want to think about problem births, but recognizing what can happen may help save a mother experiencing a health threatening reproductive problem. The texts cited here are excellent resources for veterinarians serving camelid clients.

Birthing Supplies

Always have a birth kit. Use a plastic box with a tight fitting lid equipped with the following:

  • rectal thermometer

  • stethoscope

  • scissors

  • KY Jelly, iodine scrub, disposal sanitary plastic gloves, and a tail wrap (if reaching into the mother is needed)

  • 7% tincture iodine for drenching umbilicus

  • 35 mm plastic film canister for treating umbilicus

  • string (to tie the navel, should it continue to bleed)

  • bottle, nipple and cria sized stomach tube

  • child’s enema

  • old sheet for crias first surface, and towels for drying


Postpartum is the time following the birth in which the cria begins nursing and the mother’s body restores itself to a non-pregnant state. In the mother changes occur rapidly following the expulsion of the placenta. It is important that the entire placenta passes and there is no evidence of uterine prolapse or uterine hemorrhage.

For the baby there are other critical concerns. First, is the baby breathing normally? It may gasp for air through its mouth at first but eventually the breathing should become more even and be done through the nostrils. Making sure that both nostrils are passing air is important. There may be a blockage that needs clearing or if one nostril is blocked it may be evidence of a partial choanal atresia or malformation. Assessing the cria’s strength is important. Most crias can sit sternally within about 20 minutes. Dip the cria’s umbilicus in 7% iodine or comparable product recommended by your veterinarian.

The next part of the miracle is one I find most amazing. How does the baby know to stand and bend it neck to reach under its mother to nurse? This is no small feat but most crias pull it off without intervention. You are there to make sure nursing commences and the baby is fully able to get up and nurse. Check the dam’s milk supply. Sometimes the udder needs to be worked until milk is produced. As a general rule I make sure two nipples are producing milk. Usually the back two nipples are the most engorged. Usually the other two are quick to follow once the lactating is stimulated by the cria’s constant demand. It is important that you actually witness mouth to nipple contact between the cria and mother. Crias can fool you. Some will slide underneath their mother and suckle in the general region of the nipples but not actually make contact. However, once the source of milk is identified crias become habituated to the nipples. Watch for the cria that continually searches and never seems to find what he’s looking for. If this goes on for longer than an hour, double-checking the mother’s milk supply is warranted. In some instances crias may need to be directed to the nipples which requires patience and should be done gently.

Getting first milk is critical for the newborn. For passive transfer to occur (in which the cria absorbs antibodies from its mother) the baby should be nursing well within the first several hours after birth. Ahmed Tibary DVM, PhD, Dipl ACT states in “Chapter 14; Obstetrics and Neonatology” that, “ A cria should receive 10 percent of its body weight in colostrum (first milk), within the first 12 hours after birth, with 5 percent given in the first 6 hours after birth.” If the cria is unable to nurse successfully in these first few hours arrangements should be made for an IV plasma transfusion.

The birth of a vital and healthy cria is a moment of awe and joy. It seems like a miracle every time. It is a stunning moment in a chain of events that started months before with the conception of a fetus that has been well nurtured by a healthy dam. By maintaining the correct diet for your herd, lactating mothers will successfully nourish themselves and their young. Crias are the future. And remember, healthy mothers make healthy babies.

Eric Hoffman is the primary author of The Complete Alpaca Book, a newly published 604 page text covering all aspects of alpaca raising and fiber production. Twelve experts from five countries contributed to the book in their areas of expertise.

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