lost creek llamas


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Lost Creek Llamas

Breeding Program


In all species, the tried-and-true axiom is to buy and breed from the best you can possibly find. "Best," to the llama market (which changes with the winds of fashion), has included abundant wool, the most-curved and/or -warped ears, popular ancestory, and whatever colors or markings that are currently eyecatching and uncommon. None of these attributes make a tangibly better llama -- only a transiently more fashionable one.

We have set out to define "best" in more tangible, long-lasting terms with direct applicability to the classic performance llama. In the initial selection of our breeding stock, we screened for overall health, biomechanical suitablilty for packing and driving, physical soundness over time, longevity, mental and emotional stability, and a coat that lends itself to optimum health and easy care. These attributes are not in order of preference: above-average ratings in all categories were mandatory for any llama selected for our breeding program.

We of course have eliminated llamas with known carriers of genetic defects in their background. Although ferreting out this information can be tricky, until DNA markers are found and tests available for each defect, it's the only way to stack the odds in favor of a healthy offspring and gene pool -- thus it's a critical step for us and for anyone who buys a breeding llama from us.

Finally, we also began our breeding herd with entirely outcross llamas -- not just with differing backgrounds from each other, but without any of the heavily-used Patterson studs in their ancestry (most of which were woolly llamas or woolly-classic crossbreds anyway), without any South American import ancestry (virtually all of which have been woolly types) and with a minimum of Catskill ancestry (the Catskill Game Farm was the source for much of the Patterson herd and many other llama breeders' stock for a very long time, and thus is overrepresented in the gene pool). This critera not only improves the likelihood of maintaining adequate genetic diversity and vigor, but it also means that we won't be inbreeding and linebreeding to ancestry that wasn't even phenotypically classic, let alone ideal classic performance llamas.

We've also made efforts to be sure that we aren't taken in by the trends and fashions of the pack llama market. As an example, twelve years ago the heaviest llama was automatically assumed to be the best pack llama. It took ten years for people to admit that this criterion was producing far more duds than packers. The most prevalant myth today is that the tallest llama is automatically the best pack llama. Some people go so far as to say that no llama under 44" can pack or drive acceptably. Careful investigation reveals not only that taller llamas (over 46") statistically have markedly increased difficulty remaining sound later in life, but that the very best packing, driving and performance llamas in the country include several llamas under 44" -- and some as short as 42.5". Decendents from three of those animals have made it through the difficult cuts of our stringent selection process and into our own breeding program. It would have been a tragedy for the entire performance llama gene pool if these terrific animals had been castrated on the basis of height alone. (Also worth noting is that we've found through long experience that most llamas are measured sloppily -- and thus are commonly represented as being 2" or more taller than they really are. More than one llama has "shrunk" upon arriving at our farm!)

We also put no stock in showring placements. Although performance classes do test aspects of disposition, they are no test of physical fitness or soundness. Worse still, halter ("conformation") classes reward traits that interfere with or even prevent adequate performance on the trail and soundness over a lifetime.

We instead rely actual field testing. Over the years, we have learned to identify many llamas that won't be able to make the grade or remain sound based on biomechanical principles -- and saved ourselves a lot of time and money in the process. However, the trail is still our ultimate litmus test. We're quite sure that we don't (and won't ever) know it all.

Classic performance llamas aren't pasture ornaments or walking wool gardens. They are frequently companions in addition to functioning as work partners. We get to know each of our breeding prospects on a personal level before deciding if they should in fact be making more llamas, and if so, we use that knowledge when deciding who to pair them with. This simply isn't possible on larger farms. This doesn't mean we breed from our favorite pets, as some do. If one of our llama friends isn't breeding quality, s/he is neutered -- it's that simple. Yes, that means we put our money where our mouth is and spay females, too (see Lost Creek Nubin Calliope , Rocky Mountain Kiowah , and Spokane River Kokanee). For a llama to be pulled from the gene pool is not a disgrace or a failure to him, her, or us, but for us to knowingly produce no-purpose llamas, llamas that have a high chance of carrying a genetic defect, or llamas that are more difficult for the average owner to handle -- especially to compete with an oversupply of genetically flawed, difficult and no-purpose llamas already on the market -- would be unspeakable acts on our part.

No llama is perfect. All of our breeding and potential breeding llamas fall short of perfection in one or more minor ways. This is where the art and science of knowledgable selective breeding comes into play. We continue to scrutinize our breeding prospects closely long after purchase, and even after we have started using them for breeding. We retire llamas from breeding (but not from life!) after they've produced offspring that are better than themselves.

Even the results of our own selective breeding are scrutinized. Just because we produced a llama does not mean he or she will grow up to be bred -- we demand improvement from each successive generation until we reach the point that our stock "breeds true."

Thus far, we are very encouraged by the fruits of our stringent selection procedures, and other performance llama users are already grateful for our efforts.

All of that is about quality . . . what about quantity?

It doesn't matter how many llamas you have if you need pack llamas and none of them can pack up to real-world expectations -- quantity alone is useless (worse than useless where animals are concerned, because they all need feeding and care). However, quantity is also a very serious concern to us.

As mentioned above, trends and fashion are very much at work in the pack llama gene pool. Trends are based largely on simplicity and what the most prominent advertisers happen to have; valid information is not only scarce, it's repressed by the trend-setters. It's no wonder that few buyers are able to educate themselves before buying llamas, even working pack llamas. When our llamas are "out" (even though they are clearly outperforming the "in" llamas), the segment of the buyer pool that will even consider our llamas is substantially smaller.

There is also an ever-increasing oversupply of extremely low-priced generic crossbred llamas and flunkies from nonpack breeding programs. That surplus means ridiculously low prices, and that in turn means undiscriminating buyers (of which there are many) see no reason why they should pay a fair price for a personable, good-quality pack llama.

All of this means that the intelligent buyers who recognize the quality of our pack-bred classic llamas are currently few and far between. We would be stupid to produce llamas at 100% capacity (we in fact are breeding at around 15% of absolute capacity).

Producing too many llamas at any one time also affects quality in a very tangible way -- training and interaction time is greatly reduced to the point that the resulting animals would be nearly as wild and fearful as the llamas raised nearly everywhere else. Our buyers don't want that, and neither do we.

Finally, well-bred performance llamas live and pack for a long, long time. If they remain uninjured, one can realistically expect an excellent pack llama to do an acceptable job on the trail into his or her early twenties. That means for every really good llama we sell to someone, there's a potential buyer out of the market for quite some time, perhaps 1.5-2 times longer than if they'd bought an "average" llama instead ... it's a no-brainer that there's no point in making good pack llamas faster than they wear out!

Although having fewer llamas available for sale means that we may not have the right llama at the right time for those buyers who are in a hurry, it does mean that we can be very selective who we sell llamas to. Our pastures remain healthy and spacious, not overcrowded. Our own production of well-adjusted classic llamas with their easy-care coats place little extra demands on our time after their training is complete. In short, we have structured the quantity produced by our breeding program to meet our ability to fulfill our lifetime obligation to each and every llama we have been responsible for producing.

If there are so few buyers, why breed at all, then?

First, we KNOW, first-hand, what it's like to pack with average or poorer llamas ... the kind that are most readily found for sale today. They're not worth the extra trouble; in fact, average llamas in the backcountry constitute an unacceptable risk in our experience. No matter how much people want to believe otherwise, it takes an excellent pack llama to satisfactorily meet an average backcountry hiker's demands! In order to protect Jim's back and Gwen's knees and still have a good time and a safe trip, we need llamas that handle the changing backcountry weather and perform at the level of our carefully-selected breeding stock. To assure that we continue to have adequate pack llamas as our breeding stock ages, we must breed a few for ourselves.

People who are passionate about their backcountry access and experiences are also awakening to the reality that above-average llamas are needed for enjoyable, long-term packing. They are also finding, from first-hand experience, that pack llamas bred to the latest trends are just not able to meet their desires.

Twenty years from now, the demand for llamas like ours -- trail-proven performers that truly meet North American hiking standards -- will be different. It has been changing already. Breeding a few of our llamas now -- so we will continue to have high-performance, outcross breeding stock in the future -- ensures that these carefully- and stringently-selected, exceptional genes remain available instead of being lost forever.

You can meet and view our breeding llamas and their resident progeny along with the rest of our llama family.

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