management and resources
Fiber from llamas
Our llama family
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Issues involved in choosing
a safe and appropriate initial
for female llamas
Pregnancy and lactation place significant
additional nutritional demands on the body. Late pregnancy also
places substantial physical demands on a female llama's structure.
Being successfully responsible for a cria requires a certain
level of maturity -- both mental and physical.
What is current practice?
Prior to the explosion of private llama ownership,
game farms and zoos kept llamas in large, unmanaged herds. Female
llamas were typically impregnanted at the earliest possible age,
often by their own fathers, and without the knowledge, design,
or assistance of humans.
In the 70s, individual ownership grew. Breeders
separated females from their birth herd and made the decisions
of when to breed them and whom to breed them to. They observed
that female llamas were close to adult size by 24 months. Female
llamas were somewhat expensive ($2000-$4000) and demand was growing.
Livestock breeders knew that cattle and sheep can be bred prior
to full physical maturity and still carry a pregnancy to term,
and so they typically began initially breeding female llamas
at two years of age. However, breeders also began to notice at
this time that the first crias from these females did not grow
to be as large as their parents and subsequent offspring.
Demand greatly outpaced the supply of llamas
in the mid-80s, and investment-oriented breeders pushed hard
to find the very earliest age they could impregnate female llamas
and still produce a viable (and saleable) cria. This resulted
in many breeders advocating initial impregnation as early as
12 to 14 months of age; some have allowed llamas as young as
10 months to be impregnated. This simultaneously increased demand
and price for weanling females because they would be "ready
to breed" in a matter of months, resulting in a very quick
initial return on a rather hefty investment (at that time, $10,000
This practice of extremely early impregnation
(the rough equivalent of impregnating a nine-year-old girl) resulted
in immediate problems that could not be ignored by the small
breeder: increased dystocias, increased rejections and cria losses,
and lactation problems. These consequences increased dam and
cria death rates to an economically problematic level -- unless
the breeder had so many females that the gains outweighed the
losses. However, smaller breeders and concerned larger breeders
vastly outnumbered the few uncaring large breeders. This resulted
in a gradual return to "delaying" initial breeding
until 18 to 24 months of age, with most breeders eventually beginning
to advocate waiting until 24 months.
A growing number of breeders, particularly
those who use their female llamas for activities other than walking
incubators, are not breeding females for the first time until
they reach physical maturity -- between 36 and 48 months of age.
The only exceptions to this practice currently are the cria mills
and the trendy llama producers (those who produce many cria each
year in hopes of one or two high placements and selling prices
at exclusive auctions and shows).
Because it requires patience and results in
a slower initial financial return, waiting until physical maturity
-- not surprisingly -- generates controversy and meets with resistance
from those whose economic plans (or sales pitches) are structured
around earlier breeding. The opposing camps of pre-mature and
fully-mature initial breeding for female llamas have generated
a substantial amount of conflicting information.
When is physical maturity? And why wait?
A single published study of llama maturation
age purports that llamas are "fully grown" at 18 months
and have reached mature weight by three years. This dicotomy
alone should raise suspicions that the 18 month figure does not
reflect physical maturity. A careful examination of the methods
involved in this "study" reveals that it was in fact
a survey of height, length (which cannot be accurately measured)
and weight of selected llamas on private farms -- adult males,
females, and juveniles (not necessarily related to the selected
adults). At that time, many of the adult males in that locale
were markedly small, first generation imports. This error, coupled
with failure to follow individual llamas or to survey groups
of genetically-related animals, suggests why the conclusions
of this "study" do not correlate with other research
on llama growth.
Other research, including our own, follows
individual animals throughout their growing period, use accurate
and repeatable measuring methods, and includes information on
adult size of parents, grandparents, full- and half-sibs of both
sexes, and unreleated llamas with identical nutrition and environment.
The results show unequivocably that physical maturity is in fact
significantly later than 18 months:
- Female llamas reach their full height between
30 and 36 months (males are on a different, later, schedule --
just as in other mammals). We have a single, atypical female
that continued to grow until 40 months.
- There is a correlation between completion
of permanent incisor eruption and cessation of height increase.
- Markedly slowed or completely stopped growth
has been repeatedly observed at the times of each incisor eruption.
- The vertebral growth plates (those in the
spine) are the last to close, as in other ungulates, and may
remain open and growing six months to one year after all the
growth plates of the legs have fully closed.
- As in all other vertebrates, the ligaments
that are responsible for supporting the back do not gain full
strength until some time after vertebral growth plate closure
(the timing of the latter is dependent on several factors).
What this means is that the part of the female's
anatomy that is most vulnerable to damage from pregnancy -- her
back -- is not mature until 36 to 48 months, and maturity can
be later in females who have experienced malnutrition, or a significant
illness or trauma during their youth.
The lumbar vertebrae and certain associated
major ligaments and muscles bear the brunt of the weight for
the last few months of pregnancy (and in a far worse position
than a pack). They are particularly vulnerable to outright damage
while still growing. If stressed during this time, the major
vertebral joints (particularly the lumbosacral joint) are at
risk of damage that eventually results in unnatural calcification
and fusion. This results in subsequent damage to adjacent vertebrae,
which in turn repeat the cycle of damage, fusion, and further
damage. Signs of physical compromise in the older animal may
not be obvious, but are easily detected by the trained eye, particularly
when the llama is in motion.
Won't better nutrition allow simultaneous
growth and pregnancy?
The triple calcification demands of the teeth,
bone growth, and fetal development followed by lactation (which
often occur simultaneously in immaturely bred females), have
proven difficult to address. "Better nutrition" apparently
does not ensure that all three will be adequately met in all
individuals, and there's no way to know which llamas will sacrifice
what aspect(s) until it is too late to rectify the consequences.
Each animal (not pregnant) monitored in our
studies ceased growth completely during tooth eruption -- and
resumed growth afterwards. Environmental stressors also have
caused measurably slowed or stopped growth. The severity of the
winter, for instance (low temperature rather than sunlight availability),
has a direct correlation to slowed (or temporarily halted) growth.
Illness, which is unpredictable, can also temporarily slow or
halt growth. Moving a llama after purchase invariably results
in a temporary growth suppression. Some of these events can certainly
be avoided during pregnancy; others are either not predictable
or simply not avoidable.
If these events can halt growth on their own
despite increased, state-of-the-art nutrition, it seems
unwise to place the additional demands (or rather, a never-ending
cycle) of late pregnancy and lactation on the female llama. Her
cria, particularly her first, may also suffer some stunting --
it is not uncommon for first babies to be smaller than subsequent
offspring, but in llamas, it appears that many of these do not
"catch up." These llamas are genetically larger than
they appear, and those firstborns that are female may then be
at risk for making larger crias than they themselves are capable
of delivering easily.
Many guanacoes (the wild ancestors of the
domestic llama) are impregnated at 24 months -- doesn't this
mean that they're plenty old enough by that age?
In the wild, of course, it is always highly
advantageous for a female to replace herself as soon as possible
-- there is no guarantee that she will even be alive the next
year, let alone able to reproduce. What stops guanacoes as a
species from breeding even earlier is that those who do are often
culled by reproductive damage or death.
In the wild, better physiology in old age
is of no advantage if the animal dies prior to reaching "old
age," and that is often the case. Guanacoes can't be expected
to live until twenty-something -- they're lucky to see the ripe
old age of ten or twelve.
In domestication, there's no rush to cheat
death. In domestication, "old age" is not the exception,
but the rule. Thus, different management concerns and choices
in the llama's youth become germaine ... and prudent.
Cattle and sheep producers all breed their
female animals prior to physical maturity. Why shouldn't this
apply to llamas?
Cattle and sheep are slaughtered before the
damaging effects of early breeding become an issue. Cattle and
sheep who are injured or die in birthing are still useful --
for meat. Cattle and sheep are not expected to pack, drive, or
show, let alone remain sound enough to do so over a long period
of time. Cattle and sheep are raised strictly for economic returns,
and the margins of profit are very low. Cattle and sheep are
livestock -- literally "food stored on the hoof" --
and not companion or working animals.
You'll note that working horses and working
dogs are not bred prior to physical maturity. This is
for the same reasons given for refraining from immaturely impregnating
female llamas. Several horse breed registries have rules prohibiting
immature breeding. Some will not register the foals; others will
seize the mare's registration -- permanently. Although unlikely
in the current political climate, there are those who hope to
see similar registry rules in effect someday for the protection
What about relying on body weight to determine
You may have heard that "two years or
200 pounds" is a sufficient maturity gauge for llamas. This
guideline was generated based on standard livestock practice
-- breeding at an estimated two-thirds of mature weight -- and
not on companion and working animal practice.
Forgetting for a moment the irreversible consequences
of pre-mature breeding, consider that llamas range in mature
weight from 210 to 450 pounds. Now consider that some of those
llamas are up to 150 pounds overweight, and that young, immature
llamas can also be as much as 50-80 pounds overweight. In this
light, it doesn't take much to see that 200 pounds is a highly
variable, and thus inaccurate, gauge of physical maturity.
What happens to female llamas who become
pregnant prior to maturity?
Not all llamas will suffer identical effects.
Some are lucky; others are unusually unfortunate. The key points
here are that (1) you never know if a given female will be damaged
until it's too late to change what's already been done; and (2)
no amount of apparently unaffected females can guarantee that
your female will also be unaffected. It is
also important to note that many of these effects do not become
visible until later in life, and that they can easily escape
notice or be ignored by those who do not know (or do not want
to know) what they are looking for.
- The most noticeable effects occur in llamas
bred prior to 16 months. Dystocias and damage to the reproductive
tract occur at a much higher rate in llamas bred this young,
although some females are lucky. However, these llamas all suffer
the eventual physical damage and breakdown of their later-but-still-immaturely-bred
- A significant percentage of llamas bred under
two (particularly those bred at 18 months and younger) develop
a visibly detectable "swayed back" by the early age
of six to eight.
- A high percentage of females bred younger
than 24 months suffer premature suspensory ligament weakness,
which manifests itself in several ways, only one of which is
- Llamas bred prior to acquiring their full
height (30-40 months) begin to show alterations in their walking
gait by six to ten years of age. Their balance often becomes
impaired, they may have difficulty running or sustaining a gallop,
and they may not be able to keep up with a handler at the walk.
Radiographs, if taken, show abnormal vertebral spurs and fusions
-- the growth plates of these vertebrae were still open during
late gestation, and the associated ligaments were weaker at that
time in order to accomodate further growth. If worked, these
llamas are at a substantially higher risk of quickly developing
"swayed backs," painful arthritic changes, and permanent
injuries. These effects are frequently considered "normal
effects of aging" -- but they do not occur as early, if
at all, in normal males or infertile females.
- Llamas bred prior to dental maturity are
at risk for developing dental problems such as weak, broken teeth
and subsequent decay. There is some suspicion that female llamas
who are already prone to developing molar abcesses may experience
more extensive problems than they otherwise would have; this
is still unclear. Certainly female llamas (who, on the whole,
were bred between 18-24 months) suffer the lion's share of tooth
- Depending on both age of initial impregnation
and genetic size potential, immaturely-bred females may be from
1 to 4 inches shorter.
- Also dependant on age of initial impregnation,
immaturely-bred female llamas may show any number of growth disorders,
including altered proportions and limb angulation abnormalities.
Examples of damaged, immaturely-bred llamas
abound. Some typical cases:
. . . . . .
- A pair of full sisters initially bred the
same year -- one at 18 months and the other at 30 months. The
younger animal was swayed and moved poorly at the age of six;
her seven-year-old sister looked much younger.
- A female llama, bred initially at 24 months
and videotaped at three years and at seven years showed markedly
altered and restricted gaits -- the owner, accustomed to seeing
the llama every day, had not noticed the slow, insidious changes.
- A female llama, bred initially at about 24
months, has striking conformation whan standing. When in motion,
her resultant crippling arthritic changes cause a marked difference
in her motion (and willingness to move) in contrast to her pasturemates,
all bred post-maturity.
- A female llama (below left), firstborn of
a female who was bred at 22 months and then bred at 21 months
herself looks very much stunted and out-of-proportion; her movement
is clearly compromised and her pasterns are noteably soft. Her
full sister (below right), was not bred until 9 years of age
... and is 3.5 inches taller, larger boned, moves freely, is
properly proportioned, and has much sounder pasterns.
40"; first bred at 22 months
. . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .43.5"; first
bred at age 9
Although finding older llamas who were not
initially impregnated while immature for comparison can be difficult,
they do exist. Our adult female llamas are frequently mistaken
for males because of their soundness and strong, free movement.
They are also markedly more active throughout the day in their
pasture. Those who are still breeding can do as much work as
comparably-built males and geldings until eight-and-a-half months
into gestation, and they enjoy their outings. Those who are retired
from breeding -- even after multiple crias -- look no different
from well-cared for males and geldings of their age.
Are there any disadvantages for the cria
of an immaturely-bred female?
The first-born cria suffers the greatest effects
of having a physically- and nutritionally-compromised dam. Sometimes
these crias will get lucky and their dam's systems will sacrifice
the young mother's needs to prioritize their health. Others will
not be so lucky. Some common effects:
- Lower birth weight and smaller size in comparison
to later full siblings
- Increased likelihood of dystocia
- Higher number and greater severity of angular
- Higher risk of rejection or abandonment (most
pronounced in females bred under 18 months)
- Mature size from 1.5 to 3 inches shorter
- Female first-born crias of immaturely-bred
dams have a lifelong increased risk of dystocia and reproductive
tract damage -- their physical size is smaller than their genetic
size and, therefore, their bodies are smaller than their own
crias will be genetically "designed" for.
Although risk to the maturing females' physiology
from pregnancy appears to be past by 36-40 months, our data shows
that cria height is still measurably compromised when females
are bred before 48-54 months. Cria height is directly correlated
with mature height; thus first-born crias of immaturely-bred
females are destined to be stunted.
Aren't there short- and long-term risks in
holding females open?
In domestication, delay of initial breeding
has raised two common, short-term concerns. One is cystic
ovaries. However, cystic ovaries are known to be the
result of a genetic defect in related species, and most cases
are suspected to have a genetic origin in llamas. There is technically
an environmental component -- the female needs to remain open
for the problem to be manifested -- but the defect is present
and passed to future generations regardless of environmental
There are many reasons why one might want
or need to leave a female open for her health initially or later
in life. Or the female herself might "slip" a pregnancy
and be open for a while. In these cases, a llama with a propensity
for cystic ovaries again becomes problematic -- the defect simply
isn't practical to tolerate in any nonmeat animal. To our knowledge,
the incidence of cystic ovaries in llamas is not particularly
widespread (at least it is nowhere nearly as common as in, say,
Jersey cattle). We also do not see all the reproductively dysfunctional
llamas, either. We have not had a case ourselves, and if we do,
we will treat the condition once and leave the female open in
order to confirm whether or not it is a recurring problem. If
it is, we will bite the bullet and remove that female from the
The second major concern is FAT
(even still-growing llamas can get fat). Speaking collectively,
overweight llamas do have increased difficulties in conception,
delivery, and milk production (and then again, some individuals
do defy the odds). Keeping a young, open female trim requires
different management and a separate feeding regime from the adult
breeding females, but it IS possible to keep the weight off without
Either cystic ovaries or excessive fat will
certainly interfere with conception. However, the fertility rate
for healthy llamas initially bred at 36-48 months appears to
exceed that of younger llamas. There are simply no factual grounds
whatsoever for the wide-spread myths of the 80's: "breed
them as soon as they will accept a male or they'll never get
pregnant" and "never leave a female open or you'll
never get her pregnant again." Both have been shown to be
There are no known or purported long-term
risks in waiting for physical maturity prior to initial breeding.
Aren't open females a serious management
Yes, there are management considerations.
Whether these considerations become problems depends on the way
they are handled and also on the suitability of your facilities
for handling breeding llamas.
- Some find that open females crawl under,
jump over, or push down fences in order to get bred (or entice
studs to make the effort to get to them). Adequate fencing is
an important part of protecting llamas (and especially crias)
from predators and other animals; keeping females pregnant is
therefore not a substitute for adequate fencing.
- Hypersexual stud males are difficult to handle
and manage, even when all females are kept pregnant. Because
this trait is clearly heritable, the hypersexual male is definitely
the problem that needs to be addressed (hypersexual males produce
a high number of hypersexual females, which do have additional
and undesirable management problems). Normal stud male llamas
can learn and do practice self-control, even when in close proximity
to open females. This applied self-control does not interfere
with normal libido.
- Once the initial hormonal flush of puberty
(a survival-ensuring holdover from long before domestication)
has run its course, usually by 30 months, female llamas can and
do learn to live with their sexual urges. Our experience is that
those females bred prior to full maturity don't learn this aspect
of self-control, and if they later must remain open for any reason,
some of these llamas can have marked difficulty adapting.
- Open females are more active and may enjoy
sparring games (or get into squabbles) similar to males living
in bachelor herds. As long as fighting teeth have been blunted
or cut (length of females' fighting teeth is variable), the exercise
is desirable and the squabbles are harmless. Pregnant females
also may get into serious physical disagreements; pregnancy is
not a solution to eliminating squabbles.
- Mature open females and open females approaching
maturity require less feed than do pregnant and lactating females.
This is easily achieved in other species by running two herds
(for larger breeders) or by giving supplimental feed to the pregnant
and lactating females (for smaller breeders). Owning and especially
breeding animals carries the responsibility for providing suitable
care and nutrition. Keeping immature females pregnant for convenient
management is not an ethical solution to meeting this responsibility.
Why would anyone, let alone most breeders,
recommend breeding female llamas so young?
Fear of economic loss ... specifically,
that you'll buy from someone else. Impatience for economic return.
A breeding business-for-profit based on early impregnation and
sales. Management convenience.
These reasons fall under the category of "exploitation"
-- use of an animal entirely for human gain. In historical South
American, exploitation was necessary for survival of both human
and llama. In modern North America, exploitation is a choice,
Impatience to see the results of a planned
breeding program. Impatience to see cute little crias running
around. Peer pressure. Guilt -- a change in practice includes
an admission of previously unintended harm in the past.
The second set of reasons assume the breeder
has some knowledge that immature impregnation is harmful. The
sad fact is that most breeders simply do not have the necessary
facts to make informed choices. Research has been aimed at creating
more llamas, not at long-term llama health and soundness. The
single, flawed "study" of llama maturation age purports
that llamas are fully grown at 18 months -- something that both
our research and others' observations have disproven. Fortunately,
the fact that llamas are still growing into their fourth year
is becoming more widely noticed and known.
Our own choices and recommendations
We used to delay initial breeding in all our
females until at least 40 months to allow full physical maturity
and ensure future physiological safety; we now delay initial
breeding until 48 months or later to ensure that the resulting
first cria are not stunted.
Our females pack, drive, and show (we are
breeding performance llamas only, and one wouldn't seriously
expect to breed a stakes winner from, say, Secretariat and just
any old unproven mare!). Even if we had no concern for their
future health and comfort (which we certainly do), we have substantial
motivation to wait until physical maturity so that our females
can maintain their structural integrity into old age as well
as they possibly can.
We also can't guarantee that our females will
remain fertile and capable of safely reproducing, nor that they
are free from any hidden genetic defect whose discovery would
dictate that their breeding career come to a screeching halt
(such as Kokanee,
who proved to have poor milking ability despite her mother's
prowess in that department, and Kiowah,
who turned out to be a choanal atresia carrier). Under any of
those unpleasant circumstances, only a physically strong and
sound female still has a long, useful, and interesting life ahead
of her as a packer, driving llama, or show animal.
Although some people feel that providing a
pasture retirement home to an infertile llama who also is physically
compromised by early impregnation is an acceptable completion
of their obligations to the animal, we do not feel that our llamas
should suffer the predictable and very preventable physical damage
of early pregnancies -- or even be subjected to a known risk
of damage -- for our temporary gain. Pasture retirement with
physical disabilities is still painful, and daily pain is something
that we don't feel anyone has the right to inflict on others.
To date, everyone who has heeded our advice
to delay initial breeding until their female(s) had reached or
passed physical maturity has later made the effort to contact
us and tell us how incredibly glad they were that they had waited. That alone speaks volumes. We, too, have never regretted
our decision to wait, and our females' health and soundness --
particularly when compared side-by-side to agemates who were
bred immaturely -- certainly demonstrate unequivocably a big
part of the reason why.
Comments and/or questions are always welcome
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