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Issues involved in choosing

a safe and appropriate initial breeding age

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 to $50,000).

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 of llamas.

What about relying on body weight to determine sufficient maturity?

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 peers.
  • 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 "dropped pasterns."
  • 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 abcesses.
  • 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 limb deformities
  • 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 circumstances.

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 gene pool.

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 pregnancy.

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 resoundingly false.

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 problem?

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, not necessity.

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 via e-mail

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