Greenbriar Farm - MAM Consulting Associates Inc.

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February 26, 2017

By: Michael A. Morack

How to Select a Herd Sire

Wrong selection costs six years in production

Why spend a lot of effort and time selecting a herd sire? When you consider that after successfully settling a female there is approximately 365 days gestation and 730 days to prove out the cria you are looking at over a three year investment. When you look at the lost cost if it does not prove out it is nearly six years to get back to where you hoped to be with the breeding so due diligence is a small price to pay in every attempt to get it right.

Where do you start? Our efforts started with not only identifying the traits but understanding what characteristics of each trait are desirable and then using that understanding to develop a vision of the ultimate alpaca as a standard through which we can define goals and assess results. The vision must be one of substance with exact measurable descriptors leaving little to the imagination or rationalization.

Crimp is probably one of the easiest traits to present as an example. We would define the frequency (number of crimp per inch), amplitude (measure centerline to the crest of a wave), and magnitude (measurement of crest to trough). Our description of the ultimate crimp that is our goal would be high frequency minimally 8 crimp per inch (3 per cm) with a minimum amplitude 1/8 inch, minimum magnitude of ¼ inch, and a wavelength (tip to tip of a crimp cycle) no greater than ¼ inch. Minimally stretch over the staple should be 1.5 times the length. With descriptions like this we have the ability to define clear goals and measure results to determine performance from a breeding.

Many at this point would start searching for the herd sire but we feel this is premature lacking a goal. As you created a vision for your ultimate alpaca you need to refine your expectations from a breeding. Where to start? We feel your definition starts with the female and in order to refine your goal you need to complete a thorough assessment of the female. We again will emphasize exact defined measurable traits. We find a worksheet that addresses each trait of importance and along with recording the exact traits that are measurable we also assign an arbitrary score that builds an index that can be used as objective comparisons. The top score would be your vision if scored.

Upon completion of the female’s assessment the weakest traits or in other words those that require the most improvement define the herd sire you are seeking. No herd sire improves all traits in every breeding so learning the strengths of each herd sire will define when to use which one. And there in lies the trick isn’t it? Those who have bred for years have built up a dossier of herd sires and the traits they are known. This is hard won knowledge and few are willing to share that knowledge base so you can see this will not be a waste of time and additional justification for the amount of effort.

When developing your worksheet compiling all the traits that should be considered in a breeding and for that matter when developing a description of your ultimate vision there are a number of publications that assisted our efforts but of them these four stood out; Ideal Alpacas by Michael Safley, The Complete Alpaca Book by Eric Hoffman, A Definitive Guide to Alpaca Fibre, and The Art & Science of Alpaca Judging by Jude Anderson, Cheryl Gehly, Michael Safley, and Amanda VandenBosch.
Our worksheet lists conformational traits both desired and those to be averted and we list plus or minus points weighting each trait. A total score is then accumulated for each alpaca with the perfect score that of our ultimate alpaca vision. We then developed a guideline how to score traits to provide consistency. By example let’s look at Average Fiber Diameter (AFD). If finer fiber is considered more desirable than courser fiber then scoring might go something like this; AFD<16, score=10, AFD>16<20, score=8, AFD>20<23, score=6 and so on until an AFD is undesirable and might receive a zero. So if the female you are currently analyzing was tested AFD=19, then her score for AFD would be 8. When all traits received a score, add them up and that is the females score. While developing her score enter key features such as known AFD on the sheet for future reference.

Now use the worksheet to assess traits of the female. The most difficult thing about this analysis is remaining objective as our goal is not to affirm the high quality of our female but to discover the weaknesses that require improvement. Once we have the list of weaknesses we also have a list of strengths as well and are worth keeping in mind while searching for the herd sire as we do not want those to slip while selecting for the improvements. You are now well armed to search for the herd sire you need but how to find the candidates.

Our search encompasses a number of avenues. Winners in shows, a herd sire’s progeny winning in shows, a females progeny showing well, males or females who are used a lot in breeding and registrations, names that are notorious in the industry, pedigree searches, EPD’s searches, farm visits, and especially those sleepers that do not have the fame due to resource limitations to advertise or show. There is no one avenue and remember each search and analysis is valuable information – perhaps not for the breeding at hand but in the future for you or someone who has come to you for assistance.

Once you have identified a candidate your due diligence begins. The first item to fill in on the worksheet is from the pedigree. Strength of pedigree comes initially but not completely relative to contribution to the national herd. Our belief is that the more a herd sire contributed registered alpacas the stronger the score. This thinking is carried through parents, grandparents, and great grandparents diminishing the magnitude of contribution the older in the pedigree. To emphasize this point parents each contribute 50%, grandparents contribute 25%, and great grandparents 12.5% so scoring should diminish each generation’s impact. So your score might assign a perfect score of each parent at 10 (total 20), each grandparent 2.5 (total 10), and each great grandparent 1.25 (total 10).

Progeny are the single greatest predictor of trait performance but to understand what traits can be attributed to the herd sire they must be differentiated from the female’s contribution. This requires three steps; first, developing a worksheet for the progeny, second developing a worksheet for the contributing dam, third, developing a worksheet for the herd sire. As you had with the female you wish to breed, by developing a worksheet for the three you can separate the individual contributions segregating the herd sire’s contribution and the strength of that contribution. The more progeny that can be assessed in this manner the better will be the understanding the strength and confidence of the herd sires contribution.

Once you have investigated enough progeny of a herd sire that you feel confident you can predict his contributions you are then ready to determine if these are the characteristics that will provide the improvements to your female. If they do, make the arrangements, but if not, file your work and look to the next potential male. While this method provides clear and accurate predictors geography, logistics, data collection, or owners simply unwilling to share data on their alpacas will impair your analysis reducing predictability.

There is one effort underway to assist overcoming these impediments and that is the Alpaca Owners Association’s Expected Progeny Differences (EPD) program. This is in its infancy and data is still being collected to improve accuracy while many owners are not willing to allow access to the information. While this is occurring our development of dossiers on alpacas in the industry even though potentially incomplete, will not leave you wanting and will position you to understanding alpacas in your industry in a way ahead of other breeders and well underway of understanding your alpacas at a depth many do not possess.