Progeny Testing of Alpacas

A fundamental aspect of any successful alpaca breeding program is the ability to select breeding stock that exhibit traits regarded as both desirable and heritable.

If only the science of genetics was that simple.

The relationship between traits exhibited by any sire or dam and the traits of their progeny is indeed a fickle affair, causing untold frustration for those determined to breed their ‘ideal’ alpaca.

Firstly, there is the issue of whether the desired traits of the breeding sire or dam are being influence by genetics or by environmental factors. In the latter case, the predictability of
whether the parent’s traits shall pass on to their progeny becomes (almost) purely a matter of luck.

Furthermore, there are those traits that have low heritability. Traits with low heritability may be present in the animals genes (its genotype), but these traits will have little influence on its
appearance (phenotype).

In other words, unless you pick a quiet afternoon and successfully develop a complete Alpaca genome map, there is no way you can fully understand the genetic makeup of your breeding alpacas.

Then there is also the matter of the sire or dam carrying recessive genes whereby the genetic make-up of the alpaca might not be expressed in its observable traits.

Perhaps we might include the interesting phenomenon of genetic mutation. These ‘Freaks of nature’ can play absolute havoc with breeding selection, but ironically, can result in mother nature’s greatest turbo charge to genetic improvement – but this is another story.

While my humble involvement in the science of genetics might pale into insignificance compared to those specialists who wear white overalls and rubber gloves, I suggest we resign ourselves to the fact that when selecting a breeding sire or dam, it is often not the case that ‘what you see is what you get.

Please don’t get me wrong – in some cases, predictability of parents being able to pass on traits to offspring can be over 50%. The point I make though, is that we can do much better.

‘Within herd (or mob) Progeny Testing’ is a strategy that has proven its worth in most animal husbandry industries.

Progeny testing is a standard procedure with cattle and horse studs. It is now being adopted by many sheep studs, although due to the nature of sheep breeding, this can be problematic.

The nature of alpaca breeding is well suited to this type of testing strategy.

Progeny testing would mainly be carried out by large operations as it requires a statistically significant number of progeny from each sire or dam.

The progeny from one season would be tested for heritable traits such as average fibre diameter, variation of fibre diameter, fleece weight etc within the herd. The respective progeny’s sire (and
perhaps, the dam) are also recorded.

The next step is to load the data onto a spreadsheet, sort according to sire (or dam – or both), then table the relevant averages. It’s that simple – sort of.

The catch is that to effectively compare progeny, they should be raised under similar conditions and tested as similar age groups. Further, as mentioned, a significant number of progeny for each sire (or dam) is required to make sense of the averages.

Our fibre testing service has carried out a number of Within Herd Progeny Testing programs for alpaca breeders over the past 24 months. An example of such a program is summarized in Table One. While the sire’s names have been changed for obvious reasons, the results have not been changed.

SireAvg FDSDUFWCount
Sire A 20.4 4.0 1.1 12
Sire B 21.6 4.5 1.2 23
Sire C 22.3 4.4 1.3 18
Sire D 20.8 4.2 .9 21
Sire E 19.9 5.0 1.1 18
Sire F 19.2 4.1 1.2 9
Total Avg 20.7 4.4 1.1  

Avg FD = Average fibre diameter, expressed in microns
SD = Standard deviation of fibre diameter expressed in microns
UFW = Unskirted fleece weight expressed in kilos
Count = number of progeny tested for that sire.

As all the sires have varied ages, comparing their fleece statistics serve little purpose. Clearly, however, their value as breeding stock is evident by the above figures.

It should be noted that the owner had paid a considerable sum for sire E, not realizing he would be responsible for breeding alpacas with much higher variation in fibre diameter. In fact it was later noticed that his progeny exhibited harsh handling fleeces.

Furthermore, sire D was purchased based on his low fibre diameter test results. However, he appears to be consistently breeding alpacas with above average fibre diameter for the herd. Sire F was a rather pleasant surprise package,

As the reliability of progeny testing is determined by the number of progeny tested for each respective sire, it should ideally be carried out each year in order to accumulate data on each sire/dam, thereby strengthening the ability to make assumptions.

Our testing service has conducted progeny testing in the alpaca industry for 2 years, and the wool industry for 8 years. From our experiences, there is significant repeatability of progeny test
figures over the years for respective sires. In other words, the whole thing seems to work – we can tell how effective breeding stock are even with the excess baggage of genetic ambiguity.

By accumulating this information, large scale breeders can identify the more effective breeding stock as well as use the information to market these alpacas as is the case in the thoroughbred and stud cattle/sheep industries. In addition, for those purchasing breeding stock, these figures, if available, can take a lot of the guess work out of making these important, and often valuable purchases.

I guess it should also be mentioned that progeny testing can lead on to more interesting and beneficial projects such as indexing different traits, estimating breeding values and sire/dam matching.

At this point, I can imagine a truck load of geneticists, statisticians and ‘consultants’ who are now typing furiously to criticise my paper along the lines that it omits important conditions and considerations when compiling progeny test data. They would be correct in doing so as I have purposefully kept this paper as a short introduction.

If anyone would like further information on ‘Within Herd Progeny Testing’, please contact the writer or relevant service provider.

Paul Vallely
Australian Alpaca Fibre Testing
9thJanuary 2008

Paul Vallely is the owner/manager of AAFT. He has presented papers to the AAA Annual Conference and has conducted numerous alpaca breeding workshops. He initiated the National Alpaca Fibre Seminar and the Ultrafine Bale scheme. He has qualifications/experience in fibre metrology, statistical analysis and basic genetics.

17 January 2008

Website Editor: The AAA also conducts a progeny testing programme, it is operating as the Across-herd
Genetic Evaluation (AGE), details of which can be found on the AAA website

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