EPDs: An Alpaca Breeder’s Evolution

In 1998, when my wife, Ruthie, and I began Columbia Mist Alpacas, there were less than 13,000 alpacas in the U.S. At the time we were assigned show number 584 by AOBA. Making breeding decisions for herd improvement were primarily based on selecting from a limited supply of imported herd sires. Being a numbers-oriented person, I was concerned that there were not many quality indicators being measured. Many farms were not submitting fiber for yearly histograms; so many people evaluated alpacas based on show placings and personal conformation and fleece evaluations. They had purchases and breedings that were hit and miss as far as quality.

We had great mentors who helped us develop expertise in evaluating alpacas. We used an abbreviated check list from the original alpaca importations to record both conformation and fiber characteristics for each alpaca we evaluated and tried to be very methodical in our decisions.

Initially we purchased two of the highest quality females we could afford and decided to not purchase any stud quality males which would lock us into an expensive long-term commitment. We purchased another five females in the next three years. As a very small farm we did not have the time to experiment with younger males who were not proven like many of the larger farms did. So we tried to breed to males who were at least four-years-old. The males many times had a number of cria on the ground to evaluate and had three years of histograms to show a trend of maintaining good fiber attributes including what we now call “lingering fineness.”

Our initial goals were to breed solid color alpacas that were ½ to ¾ Accoyo in lineage, building fiber density and fiber length first, and in subsequent breedings improving fineness and consistency. We made great strides in reaching our goals in the first five years and did not sell many of our offspring as we were trying to build our herd in order to retire early and raise alpacas full time.

In 2005, I was invited to join the Judge Training and Certification Committee where I spent the next 3½ years rubbing shoulders with senior judges, judges, judges-in-training, and quality committed alpaca farmers and ranchers who helped our committee by providing alpacas for judge training clinics and judge testing all over our nation. I thought I was going to give something back to the industry but ended up gaining more insights into breeding the best alpacas. One of those people who had great influence on me was Brett Kaysen. He helped me to understand Expected Progeny Differences (EPDs) and how other livestock associations were using them for great genetic gains. I was also impressed with the growing interest by alpaca breeders in fleece judging. I was anxious for our industry to create an EPD program!

In 2008, we implemented another quality tool on our farm to not only breed better but to make better alpaca products to sell in our farm boutique — fiber sorting and grading on shearing day. We started documenting the weights and grades of fiber from each alpaca including brightness, handle, comparison of the ratio between secondary primary fibers, staple lengths, and color consistency. This was a great improvement from a breeding perspective versus just using histogram information from only the mid-side sample.

A couple of months later, after hearing an EPD presentation by Mike Safley at the Parade of Champions Auction, Ruthie and I joined the Ideal Alpaca Program which eventually became part of the current ariEPD program. Mike’s team helped me analyze my histogram results and gain a better understanding of how to use statistics to further fine-tune my breeding selections.

After retiring, we made the decision to no longer participate in halter shows so that we could spend more time with our family, volunteering, and focusing on further improving the genetics of our alpaca herd. However, you will see me at some of the larger shows in my role as President of Quechua Benefit, where I sometimes enter a few alpaca show fleeces due to my competitive nature and happily, our herd is still winning ribbons.

Even though we no longer show, evaluation of our alpacas is imperative to our herd and EPDs help us accomplish this through a scientific process. As a result of our belief in EPDs and our dedication to improving our herd, last year we began using EPDs not only for breeding decisions, but also to market alpacas for sale. On our website, all alpacas that are old enough to be sheared have their complete EPD information listed along with their histograms and total fiber sort statistics. We have used a ARI tool to show each alpaca’s nine fleece measurements and the % ranking of the national herd (only if it is in the top ranking). ARI provides this information in each new Producer’s Report at www.ariACADEMY.com/report. We have not withheld any EPDs on any alpacas even if some characteristics are not the best as we have learned that it is rare if any alpaca is rated high in all nine measurements and believe this transparency is essential.

We continue to raise and sell high quality alpacas and take great joy in being mentors to those just entering our industry. We currently have a herd of about 60 alpacas. Our tagline is “Consistent Quality you can Measure.” In the last six months we have seen an unprecedented interest in the purchase of quality alpacas. When speaking with prospective buyers, there are always two things I do. I talk to them about EPDs and their importance, and I recommend that they read “The Art & Science of Alpaca Judging” prior to purchasing their first or next alpaca.

Through development of an effective and highly managed EPD program, our industry finally has an important tool that can help breeders obtain greater predictability in selecting breedings for fleece improvement with greater genetic gains. While we should never discard evaluation of conformation issues, the scientific ariEPDs provide us with an easy-to-use rating scale to make breeding and buying decisions that can have a much quicker impact on improving our herds. EPDs have been used in other livestock associations for decades and are seen as imperative for successful operations. Having ARI move forward with this program and continue to expand it through effective education and promotion has meant a dramatic increase in the number of alpaca breeders who participate. This means that the program gets stronger with each new calculation, providing EPDs that are even more accurate than the last calculation.

A couple of weeks ago we had an experience that confirms ARI and those of us using EPDs are on the right track. A couple of 3rd generation eastern Oregon cattle families stopped by to stay with us for the night while starting a much needed and well deserved mini-vacation. They asked if they could go down to our barn to see the alpacas, shop in our farm boutique, and see the whole operation. As the guys were looking at the alpacas (one for the first time) and evaluating them from a livestock perspective, their ears perked up when I mentioned how we had been using EPDs for over four years to improve our fleece predictabilities. Both of them said that buyers for their calves insisted on seeing their weight gain/feed efficiency EPDs before purchasing each tractor/trailer load. They told me of how they culled out calves based on their EPDs so that they would have the best to sell and hopefully repeat business each year with the highest prices. They went on to say that the buyers provided them with feedback on each calf’s continued weight gain prior to being sold for butcher in order to help them continue to refine their breeding program. They both indicated that their family business would not have survived the last decade if they had not used EPDs.

Their story is not uncommon in the livestock industry. Each industry has evolved to the point that EPDs are an essential piece of information required to make breeding and buying decisions. This evolution is no different than that of our individual farms, or indeed the entire alpaca industry. I do not claim to be an EPD expert. I still have a lot to learn and look forward to the future of the industry. Just as our friends require EPD information in the decisions they make with their cattle, serious alpaca breeders are beginning to do the same as they see the huge benefits to that information. Are you going to be one of them?