A Little about Myself

 

I am a fifth generation merino sheep breeder, with about 30 years experience in the mohair industry, and have been breeding Alpacas since 1989. Along the way I trained as an army officer (national service), did 2 years of accounting, managed a flourmill, and worked as a paymaster for a large dairy company. I also chased bushfires for the Conservation and Natural Resources in summer. All except national service were done to support an addiction to agriculture. Thus you can see my qualifications came from the University of Hard Knocks .

I had the idea instilled into me at an early age that any livestock you run must give you a commercial return. My whole philosophy in farming is that it takes just as much time and money to run poor quality animals as good quality, but the financial returns only come from quality stock. This is particularly apparent in today ' s farming climate. Thus alpacas, even though they are stud animals at the moment, must be bred to be commercial, as ultimately down the track, we are going to have to convince sceptical farmers, to run these animals in large numbers for their fleeces. It is imperative that breeders gain the knowledge to recognize, and select these “ commercial ” stud animals, to enable alpacas to gain the recognition they deserve in agriculture.

Thus what I am trying to achieve today is pass on some of my fibre knowledge in a practical and easily understood way; “ Grass Roots Fibre Production ” .

Bill Robbins

Traron Alpacas  

GROWTH OF FIBRE

 

When an alpaca is born it has a birth coat (commonly called primary and secondary follicles) which eventually gives way to an adult coat. This birth coat relates back to when primitive camelids were two coated (e.g. like cashmere goats), a finer shorter undercoat and a coarser longer cover or over coat. Through selection the present day alpaca has evolved. The primary follicles develop first in the foetus, followed a short time later by the early secondary follicles. The later secondary or secondary derived follicles are formed just before or after birth. In sheep by the time a lamb is six to eight weeks old, approximately 75% of its follicles are producing fibre. This appears to be somewhat similar in alpacas.

The plane of nutrition of the female in late pregnancy and of the cria in the first few months of life is critical to the development of these follicles, as if insufficient food or trace elements are provided at this stage the lifetime production of fibre can be dramatically effected, i.e. an alpaca performing below its genetic potential.

The birth coat can take anywhere from about 3 months in some animals to approximately 8-10 months in others to develop into the adult coat. Some Peruvian alpacas appear to take even longer. For this reason it is unwise to fleece test alpacas less than 12 months of age without first making allowances for this change.

FACTORS EFFECTING FIBRE QUALITY

Climate

Climatic conditions can effect the performance of an alpaca. The Australian merino industry has developed animals with specific fleece and conformation characteristics to suit the areas where they are run.

Heavy rainfall, high altitude country, requires smaller framed fine woolled merinos. The density of the fleece prevents moisture retention from heavy rain thus preventing fleece rot, lumpy wool, and flystrike. The drier areas and plains country is more suited to larger framed stronger woolled merinos. These animals live in harsh environments and have to travel long distances for food and water and their fleeces must withstand incessant dust and sandstorms.

In the regions of Australia between these two extremes the medium woolled merinos are found. They have the ability to cope with both extremes, to a lesser degree. Thus in the long term it is my opinion that the alpaca industry will develop along the same lines. In the short term it will be the ability of breeders to recognize the above characteristics in their animals that will lead to their advantage over those breeders who do not. This is what alpaca breeding in its true sense is all about. We have a wealth of knowledge in the sheep industry, that we must take advantage of, after all we lead the world in wool production.

Nutrition  

Only about 25% of Australia ' s alpacas are performing to their true potential due to problems with nutrition. Lack of food, too much food and deficiencies in both vitamins and minerals can detrimentally affect the fleece ' s commercial viability by causing changes in the characteristics of fibre.

Underfeeding.  

In drought conditions Australia produces large quantities of fine wool due to the lack of paddock feed for sheep. This wool although fine, lacks tensile strength and in most instances is tender i.e. breaks, when put under stretch pressure. Thus the fibre is of an inferior quality. The same thing can happen with alpaca, if there are too many animals grazing too small an area (overstocking). Alpacas, like angoras though, tend not to grow their wool in these situations leading to fleece length being uneconomical (too short).

Vitamin & mineral deficiencies.

Alpacas can be grazing sufficient paddock feed, but not getting enough of the vitamins and minerals they need. This can effect the handle, look and lustre, of the wool. Copper deficiencies can give a fleece a harsh feel, making a fine fleece appear to be much coarser. The fleece will look chalky, (no lustre) and the tip damaged. The colour of the wool can also be effected (e.g. black wool appears to be brown). Alpacas with sulphur deficiencies can suffer from external parasites or lice, which can damage the fleece. Vitamin deficiencies appear quite common, with problems like ryegrass staggers (vitamin B1 or Thiamine deficiency), also lack of vitamin D in very dense fleeced alpacas, and vitamins A, D&E in crias, particularly in winter, can effect the health and therefore the fleece bearing potential of alpacas.

Overfeeding.

Overfeeding animals can cause the micron of the fleece to substantially blow out.

It pays to test your soils for deficiencies so that you can supplementary feed your animals, or add the elements to your soils to overcome the problem. Also it pays to monitor the physical condition of your alpacas. This is easily done by checking the fat cover on the short ribs and giving a fat score of 1 to 5. One is emaciated and five is obese.

A good rule of thumb for a healthy animal is:

Paddock fed animals – score 2 ½ to 3 ½

Show animals – score 3 to 4

Remember over fat animals are as much at risk of death as emaciated animals.  

FLEECE CHARACTERISTICS

 Density

The most important fleece characteristic is density, as without it you cannot get weight of fleece, and alpacas ultimately need to be commercially viable.

The easiest way to assess density is to shear an animal and weigh the fleece. However, this is not practical, especially when purchasing an alpaca. When inspecting a fleece, put your hand on either side of the animal and take a small handful of the fleece, rubbing your fingers over and through it. If you feel bulk, the animal has density, but if your fingers appear to have little or nothing the fleece is light. Look for compact solid staples of wool with little or no bare skin visible. These are the best methods of assessing density in fine fleeced animals which are much harder for the inexperienced to recognize, as their soft handle gives the impression of a light-weight fleece. Do not grab a fistful, but rather half a finger length and let the tips of your fingers assess the density there.

Good point coverage i.e. leg and head cover, is also another indicator of density, particularly a good solid bonnet and muttonchops. Leg coverage on quality finer animals is often not as thick as on broader fleeced alpacas.

Evenness also goes with density. The more even the crimp and micron of a fleece the denser that animal will be.

Fineness

Fineness, after density is the most important factor determining the value of alpaca fibre. Finer alpaca is normally more valuable and is used in quality apparel. It can be worn next to the skin without irritation. Our aim should be to produce alpaca fibre 25 micron and below as alpaca handles approximately 5 micron finer than it actually tests. There is a lot of sheep wool produced in the mid 20 ' s micron range, which we cannot compete against. However, the world does not produce much natural fibre finer than 20 micron, and it normally commands a premium at sale. It is at this end that we must aim if we are to compete on the world market. We must look for quality males that hold their fineness with density, over time (genetically fine), and breed with these superior sires. Unfortunately there are very few of these sires available.

Breeding purely for fineness without first having density is a waste of time as you will finish up breeding animals that produce uneconomical fleece weights.

Crimp

Crimp is the wave or corrugation visible in a staple of alpaca wool. It varies in size and number according to the fineness and character of the wool. In general, fibre that has a finer diameter will have a smaller crimp and there will be more of them per unit of length. Broader fleeces tend to have a stronger crimp that is further apart.

Crimp is necessary in fleece as it holds the fleece together, preventing moisture or dust penetration. This helps to eliminate problems with fleece rot that can cause breaks and discolouration of the fibre. In sheep it also helps prevent flystrike, and without doubt, as alpacas become denser the same will apply to alpaca wool. Alpacas with no crimp have open fleeces that pick up dirt and vegetable matter when they roll.

Well-crimped fleeces have less medullation, as these fibres are coarse and straight. A good even crimped fleece indicates a well-bred alpaca that is more likely to breed true to type. Variation in the crimp along the individual fibres can be an indication of sickness or poor nutrition.

We often hear it said that the processors don ' t need crimp to enable them to process wool, but in two recent interviews carried out by Cameron Holt and reported in Issues 22 & 23 of the Alpacas Australia magazine both Michell ' s and Inca Tops (two of the worlds leading alpaca processors), said they preferred crimped alpaca, and that they would not buy uncrimped fibre if there was sufficient crimped fibre available.

Handle

Handle is another important factor in determining the value of alpaca. Finer fibre normally has the best handle or feel. In alpacas this can be deceiving with some black fleeces having a slippery feel which to the inexperienced can be mistaken for fineness when actually these fleeces can be quite broad, perhaps in the 28-30 micron range. Trace element deficiencies (copper – apparent harsh feel) or insufficient nutrition can also effect handle.

Heavy medullation (guard hair) in alpaca wool can also adversely effect its handle. The one fibre quality associated exclusively with alpaca is soft handle .

Medullation

This characteristic should be selected against. It is a true hair fibre, being smooth, generally hollow, and runs to a point. Medullation gives a garment the prickly feel and the fibres won ' t take the dye as well as the wool fibre. Most huacayas carry medullated fibre on the chest, up the neck, and in the britch area. Some also carry it right through the fleece (try to avoid these animals). Through selection we should be able to eliminate medullation in the body of the fleece and minimize it in other areas, with the ultimate aim, being to eliminate it altogether.

Evenness or Uniformity

The more even the crimp and the micron of the fleece the more dense the animal. Evenness in fleece length is also a desirable characteristic.

Tensile Strength

A strong fibre makes a strong thread, and a strong garment that will wear well. Uniform levels of nutrition are required to be sure of an even tensile strength. Once again, underfeeding or sickness can be a problem causing tenderness or reduced fibre length.

Lustre

Lustre is the shine that we see when we open an alpacas fleece. It is important in all alpaca fibre but probably more important in suris as this is what suris are renowned for. The shine is due to the length of the individual scales on a fibre. These scales in alpaca are twice the length of the scales found on sheep wool and create a large uninterrupted fibre surface that strongly reflects the sun ' s rays.

Once again sickness or ill-thrift can effect the amount of lustre in a fleece. Trace element deficiencies such as iodine can cause scurf, which can inhibit the amount of lustre in a fleece.

Staple Length

Uniform staple length is important for processing with the overall fibre length required to be at least 75mm. The worsted system uses the more uniform fibre of greater length to make the finest garments. Little twist is required in the process leading to a softer fabric.

The shorter fibres are used in the woollen system and are twisted more tightly to gain durability; this can lead to harshness in the knitted fabric.

Staple length can be selected for and measured at each shearing, and those animals not performing well can be culled.

Grease Content

A small amount of grease in the fleece is beneficial as it assists in preventing moisture and dirt penetration. It also helps to hold the fleece together and prevents crossed fibres. Thus protecting a fleece until it is shorn and enabling it to be presented to a processor in a first class manner. Too much grease however, reduces the clean fleece weight and could lead to flystrike in summer as was found with Texan angora goats.  

HISTOGRAMS

Histograms are a good tool to test animals within your own herd to gauge the rate of improvement in fineness and evenness. They do not however, show one of the most important traits, density (weight of fleece) and they also do not take into account climatic or nutritional changes. They should not be used as they are sometimes used in the alpaca industry to compare animals run under totally different conditions.

When purchasing an alpaca, a histogram should only ever be used as a guide, as you must also handle and view the animal to satisfy yourself that you agree with the histogram. If you can ' t do this you should get the assistance of someone who can. Remember one of the most important parts of the histogram is the date the sample was tested. However this still does not give you the date the sample was taken from the animal.

The most accurate sample is a grid sample. This means a fleece is spread out on the table and a piece of mesh 4 ” x4 ” (100mm x 100mm) as defined by the Melbourne College of Textiles, is placed over it. A small sample is taken from each filled or half-filled square. This is blended together and tested.

The most common sample tested is the mid side sample. This is taken from the mid side of an alpaca. Care must be taken to sample the correct site, as sampling too high or too low can give a finer or stronger test result.

Another thing to keep in mind is that fleece testing in the USA is done differently to in Australia , and therefore animals tested in the USA should be re-tested here. This will then give you comparable results.

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