Preparing for the Spring Birth

Musings from the barn office . . .

Here is a set of management suggestions to remind both the experienced alpaca owner and the new owner of normal and abnormal issues that will or may present in a spring birth. The majority of comments address late pregnancy and births at any time of year, but I have addressed some specific spring concerns. These include: late pregnancy nutrition, minimizing late pregnancy and post birth stresses, a simple hour rule for birth stages, cleaning the cria’s navel area, measuring cria weight gain, and watching out for heat dehydration. Remember, that some 90+% of births are uneventful and those odds are on your side.

My childhood on our family farm, lessons learned in 4-H, and then undergraduate training in animal and veterinary sciences taught me that being prepared is the key. Get supplies NOW and be prepared.

Pre-Birth

First, know the breeding date. If there are problems, this is the first thing your veterinarian will want to know. Understand that the gestation (pregnancy length) average of 345 days is just that — an average. Spring births tend to go two weeks longer and fall births equally shorter. But be prepared if a birth occurs earlier than planned. A dam with a spring birth at day 346 is NOT overdue (not even day 355…)! Yes, these dams will drive you crazy checking on them…that is their job.

What to have in the birthing bag? I have a large plastic storage box and keep supplies in there. On a moment’s notice, I can pick it up, go into the pasture and have everything there. It starts with your veterinarian’s telephone number, alpaca friend’s numbers, and your alpaca mentor. A charged cell phone is essential. If you are new to this birthing situation, then call somebody and say you have a cria likely on the way. Get help — even if you don’t think you need it.

Towels (lots), a navel disinfectant, a hair dryer, a cria “coat” and halter/lead are the minimum. I like to have clear Karo syrup (not dark), a 5 or 10 ml (1 teaspoon) plastic syringe (to give Karo if needed), vinyl gloves, dental tape (not floss or a clamp) to tie off a bleeding umbilicus, 4x4 gauze, roll of paper towels, and a rectal thermometer. This list can become more extensive, but these items are common.

The last few months (third trimester) of alpaca pregnancy are the time of greatest fetal weight gain. This is where nutrition quality is critically important. But too much protein and calories to the dam can cause inappropriate fat deposition that can both impede birth and can also have negative consequences for later nursing (fatty udder). Body scoring of the dam is the key and not just measuring her weight gain.

Over the pregnancy, I expect dams to gain at least 25+ lbs. (sometimes 40+!), but Mom will starve herself to provide for this fetal gain. This late pregnancy rapidly increasing fetal size also pushes up against the rumen (stomach), compromising its function so you may want to feed the same amount daily, but more often. Keeping weekly body scores (amount of muscle on back just behind neck) insures you know of any changes to resources after birth required for the tremendous metabolic drain of nursing. None of this is ANY surprise to human moms. Just keep telling your dams that "no, of course you don’t look fat, …".

Feeding stress, in these last months of pregnancy, can be a significant issue as other dams, pregnant and otherwise, will crowd in to get extra rations. A pen, separated for the late pregnant dam, allows her to eat by herself, be more relaxed, and not have to fend off others.

There will be spring days when it suddenly gets hot and this can be a very significant stress (hot damn!). The winter fleece is at a maximum, fetal heat is adding to the dam’s internal heat, and now it is hot and humid. This is where you must consider getting out some scissors and cut some fleece away. A water sprinkler may not be enough (thick fleece) to cool the hot dam. Save the clipped fleece for the later full clip, but if you see the dam nasal flaring/rapid breathing, it means you need to shear now. Hot does not mean air temperatures of 90°F — it may “only” be 75°F, but with no wind, full sun and humidity, this 75°F air temperature can be too hot. Your emergency shearing is not supposed to be pretty — but it can be a cria (and dam) life saver.

Keep stress to a minimum in the last couple months. Research has now clearly shown that CD&T shots, given in the month or so before birth, do NOT help with milk colostrum quality, but this vaccine does significantly stress the dam immunologically. The physical shot through the skin is inconsequential in terms of physiological stress — it is the post injection vaccine internal reactions that causes physiological stress. And on occasion, you can get a full blown vaccine reaction to a CD&T shot (~ 1 in 1000). With this reaction, there is almost always a delivery — of a way too premature cria…and sometimes, the dam can’t be saved as well. Not worth it. Save the CD&T shot for later in the non-pregnant state.

Note my attention to stress avoidance. It clearly causes early births and then you have a dysmature cria. Avoid stress — especially well intentioned human visitors.

If you are in a meningeal worm (M worm) area, generally east of the Mississippi River, you need to continue with the standard all year round, every thirty days ivermectin shots. Don’t stop — the risk of M worm is far greater than the minimal shot injection stress.

Births are overwhelmingly in the morning with a peak of 9–11 AM. But 5–6 AM births are not unusual, so an early trip to the barn is clearly advisable — especially on cold mornings. A late afternoon birth really gets my attention and I am especially watchful of those crias and dams during both birth and the several days afterwards.

Typical signs of impending birth (stage one of labor) include a different posture, humming, prolonged standing over the poop pile, distancing herself from the herd, holding her tail in an odd manner, acting like she is grazing, but not eating, or looking directly at you and humming. She just acts “different.” Looking at the udder teats will often see them engorged changing from pencil eraser size to index finger diameter. These are all signs of impending birth. But some dams are stoic, literally show nothing and continue to graze as the cria appears.

What does the word premature mean? In human medicine this is a birth significantly before the due date and that directly implies low birth weight, inability to nurse and to regulate physiological issues, among them blood sugar concentration and body temperature. With alpacas, dysmaturity is the key word. I have seen full term or even post term (by “average” 345 dates) crias that are large in size, but slow to stand, can’t nurse, have floppy ears, unerupted front lower teeth, have fallen or contracted pastern tendons (lower leg issue), and have problems regulating both temperature and blood glucose — all clear signs of dysmaturity…but born at day 355!

On the other hand, fall crias, born at 315–320 days can be smaller, but up in ten minutes, nursing in thirty, and running about in an hour — perfectly normal. A cria birth that is clearly early, by dates, resulting in a small cria AND dysmature is a post birth management and veterinary problem. Prematurity really only refers to the gestation length and this is highly variable in camelids. Understand the important difference with dysmaturity.

Birthing

OK, the dam is humming, something is protruding from her butt — what do I do now? First get all the other alpacas away if they are bothering her. For some reason, adolescent (2–5 month old) alpaca boy crias now want to mount the mom in labor! This is why I like a birthing area already set up where I can see her easily, she can see other herd mates, but she is not bothered by the hormone driven, perverted, sex maniacs…

Get a halter on mom while you can. This will allow you to lead her more easily later. After the cria is born, she will NOT like you fussing with her face. Sit, breathe. Note the time. If the crias nose is protruding, then you should have a cria on the ground within 10–20 minutes. If this goes more than 30 minutes, then you need help. But know this time interval. First time dams may be a bit longer, but not by much.

After the nose appears, two feet should present. All is normal. Sometimes, the head will protrude in a fluid filled sac. As long as things are progressing, all is fine. Within a couple minutes, the cria will slither out with the dam usually standing up. Sometimes, the cria “hangs for a minute — don’t be concerned with this. Stage two labor (the actual birth) is now complete.

What does a cria look like immediately (1 minute) after birth — an alien! They are incredibly long legged, soaking wet, gasping for breath, and shaking their head. Within seconds, the tongue should be pink. Don’t worry if there is shivering — the cria is still at the same temp as the dam. They flop around like rag dolls (all good signs). I like to quickly wipe any birth residue from nose/mouth and then briefly towel dry the cria — but quickly (maybe only one minute or so of drying). I then place the cria on another set of dry towels and then I back off 20–30 feet to let the dam bond to her baby. Mom looking head down, humming and eyes focused on the cria are all good signs.

A bad sign is a still, nearly flaccid and “blue” cria. Immediately, rub, rub, rub with towels to stimulate. Do NOT pick up the cria and swing it (old and bad advice) to expel respiratory fluid. A bit of grass, twirled in the cria’s nostril, can cause a vigorous sneeze and help get respiratory fluid out.

Consider the environment. If it is warm, sunny, and nice (not windy), then enjoy the moment. But if it is cold, especially windy, then bundle up cria and walk backwards into shelter. A wind, even with 70°F degree air, is quickly the enemy (hypothermia). The worst is wet, windy, and cold — and on cold ground. In those conditions, hypothermia will set in within minutes. As you carry the cria back to the barn, allow the dam to see her cria and she will almost always follow. If she doesn’t follow, you have the halter on — remember? Clip on a lead and get all into cover and into a stall. Now turn on the hair dryer and rub with more dry towels while you are applying warm (not hot) air. There are never enough dry towels.

In perhaps an hour, but certainly within a few hours, the last aspect of birth appears — the placenta (stage 3). It may literally hang, but do NOT tug or pull it out. The dam may walk away from her cria, deliver the placenta, and then return to her cria. This is normal. There should be just a stain or two of blood, but nothing constantly dripping from her birth area.

Here is an easy rule to remember; 1, 2, 3. One hour for cria to stand, two hours to nurse, and three hours for placenta to deliver. Not hard and fast, but simple and easy to recall.

At some early point, I like to get a cria weight. A standard home human type scale works well. Hold the cria, get your combined weight and they weigh yourself. Subtract to get the actual cria weight. If you put on a jacket, then measure the cria with jacket and continue the measurement on later days with it on (or it is off and you hold it with cria as it may be hot outside). I really like to have a jacket on for the first 24 hours. Night time temperatures in the 60°F can be chilly for an unjackated cria. At the same time you put on the jacket and weigh, liberally apply a liquid umbilical disinfectant. If you see any blood dripping from the umbilical stalk, then tie on umbilical tape (hard to get). Dental tape (not dental floss) is an excellent substitute (yarn dipped in umbilical disinfectant is another).

I like so called “tamed iodine” as an umbilical liquid disinfectant because the red color tells me I got it on the navel area. A shot glass, an old 35 mm film canister, or something similar works well to apply this liquid while the cria is standing. Repeat this umbilical treatment twice a day for the next two days (at weighing times). This treatment prevents “navel ill” an infection that gains access to the cria through an infected umbilicus. In terms of weight, you are looking for a daily positive daily weight gain.

Recall the warnings regarding human toddlers and water filled five gallon buckets? Just like toddlers, cria’s are fascinated by water buckets — especially when Mom drinks from them. Crias, just like toddlers, fall into water buckets and sadly drown. Clip the water bucket up off the floor to eliminate this all too often and 100% preventable tragedy.

Post Birth

Nursing…ah, the sweet slurping sounds of suckling! Udderly fantastic (sorry, couldn’t resist…). The cria’s tail is up, the dam swings her head around to sniff the crias hind end, cria’s milk moustache is evident and all is well — even the dam is smiling. You can use that “tail up” flag to generally tell you that nursing is occurring. But some teats may be blocked by wax plugs — especially the two front ones. I like to remove these while the cria is first nuzzling about looking for the udder. A gentle pinch of the teat usually removes this rice grain or smaller wax plugs and allows milk to freely flow. This is another good reason to have the halter on.

Some dams do not produce milk at first. They may have milk in the upper udder, but the “let down” hormones do not relax the milk sphincters in the teat. Stress can inhibit milk let down. What stimulates milk let down is nursing.

Constipation is a relatively common cria problem. When crias are rectally plugged up, they nurse less and less. They then rapidly lose energy, can’t nurse, and the cycle quickly gets worse. Normally, soon after the first nursing, a purple/blue fecal plug (meconium plug) is typically rectally expelled. The meconium plug is the months up stored end product of fetal metabolism. Sometimes it is as wide as your thumb, a couple inches long (think small sausage appearance), other times it is stringy, long and thin like cooked green fettuccini pasta (but doesn’t taste like it!). If this meconium “plug” not expelled, it can quickly cause constipation. The use of rectal fluid or suppositories often doesn’t work as the meconium plug may reside further up in the spiral colon where rectally delivered fluids can’t get to. A simple early cure for cria constipation is 5 ml (1 teaspoon) of Karo syrup, given orally (by mouth). This osmotic laxative is simple to give, nontoxic, gentle and tastes good. Two oral doses, a few hours apart, is a quick inexpensive constipation cure. The sooner this is done, the better, but it doesn’t need to be routine for every cria. Avoid the common human magnesium based laxatives as they are way too harsh for a cria. A call to your veterinarian is always a good idea when dealing with constipation…but do not wait.

Honey is never to be given to a cria (or human infant) as a substitute for Karo. Honey (even pasteurized) contains botulism spores and both human infants and crias have been known to die of botulism after a well-meaning person gave the newborn some honey.

For many reasons, do NOT offer the cria any bottle milk (cow, goat, etc.) immediately after birth. This supplement interferes with the normal nursing and what is called transfer of passive immunity. The dam’s early milk, colostrum, contains immunoglobins that literally “seed” the cria’s blood stream with antibodies by passive transfer across the gut via pores into the cria’s blood. These proteins not only fight early cria infection, but are the template for later growth of the cria’s own infection fighting immunoglobins. But a cria MUST get the dam’s immunoglobins (colostrum) in the first 24 hours after birth. The crias gut, after seeing any milk proteins (alpaca, cow or whatever), then shuts down the pore transfer and will not later absorb immunoglobins. Don’t “fool” the cria’s gut with anything but real colostrum in the early hours. Supplemental milk does not have these immunological compounds. I am not aware of any commercial colostrum substitutes (liquid or dried) that have active immunological compounds (even if they say so). In an emergency, cow or goat colostrum can be used, but check with your veterinarian on how to do this.

Sometimes, older weaned crias will steal the dam’s colostrum. Most often, this is the dam’s prior cria who was weaned several months earlier. Mom may not reject her older “baby” and may let her drink up all the vital new colostrum. Watch out for a milk thief!

A hungry, healthy newborn cria will nurse hard and this will produce the milk let down reflex. However, after several hours, and if no milk is present, and the cria is not nursing, then a call to an experienced alpaca mentor or veterinarian is in order. The drug oxytocin can be injected to the dam once, but if teat milk does not appear within a minute, then additional oxytocin is simply not going to work. Oxytocin does NOT produce milk or stimulate milk production. It only relaxes the milk teat valve to allow milk let down of existing udder milk.

Resist bottle feeding. If you start, then the cria will identify you and the bottle as mom and you are now obligated to feed the cria by bottle every 2–3 hours. Once the dam doesn’t have to nurse, she "dries up." I know it is terribly fun to feed a cria by bottle, but Mom will dry up and YOU must now feed round the clock — yes for months. This is exhausting, not fun, and generally an owner created problem.

The healthy hallmarks of a healthy cria are nursing, peeing/pooping, frantic running about, and then deep sleeping. Watch carefully, especially on post birth days 3–4 as your attention may wander to other expectant dams. If a problem occurs, get help quickly. Cria diarrhea is something to watch for. With diarrhea, crias can be OK in the morning, but be dead by afternoon. Pasty (toothpaste consistency) yellow poop is fine. Watery or foul smelling feces are dangerous.

I think it is a really good idea to have your veterinarian to come out and do a healthy newborn check. The small amount of money is well worth it and any unforeseen health issues can be dealt with early on. Expect the veterinarian to check out both cria and dam (especially the dam’s udder).

This is also not the time to have all the neighbors come and visit the new cria — especially for first time dams. Do new human Moms want all the neighbors/friends/relatives to come visit the newborn human baby the day after birth? Especially consider a first time mom that just gave birth to a 14 lb. baby that is now nursing round the clock? Visits—I don’t think so! Give the new mom and cria some time and TLC. A week later will be fine.

Expect a small and normal cria weight loss the day after birth (0.5 – 1 lb). Thereafter, expect daily ¼ – ½ lb. weight gain (2–3 lbs. per week). This amount of cria weight gain means the dam becomes an eating machine. She may need to consume four times the normal food intake (an additional 10,000 calories) a day to provide the milk for a rapidly growing cria. Dam body scoring every week is now essential. This is also a good time to check for fecal parasites that rob the dam of nutrients. Hungry dam fights over feed bowls are common and “choke” can occur. Make sure the lactating dams all have enough feed bowls to minimize feed competition, too rapid feed gulping and choking. Prevention is the key.

Here is probably the single most important post birth cria issue. Failure of the cria to gain weight is an immediate problem involving both management and veterinary intervention. There are many issues involved here so measure cria’s daily weight, at the same time each day, for at least the first couple of weeks. Then weighing perhaps weekly.

Unlike the fall, spring weather can go from cool and damp to very hot in just days. Hot, dry and windy days can be a cria killer in the week or so after birth. Crias can heat dehydrate easily and can rapidly "crash." The first sign of dehydration is a sudden drop in cria “energy” (running, nursing, pronking, etc.). They will not have a fever. You may need to put the dam and cria in a cool area (garage) for a few days if high daytime temperatures are predicted. Fans don’t work well and only serve to further dehydrate crias. They need a cool place. Letting Mom and cria out at night allows them to be with the herd, but they are inside and cooler when it is hot and dry outside. Cria dehydration is a must call to the veterinarian.

Lastly, remember the 3–5 month old adolescent sex maniacs? These young males can play ROUGH and can see a new cria as something to chase, play push, and have fun with. They know, right away, which newborn crias are boys and which are girls. They will play rough with the boys and will mount the little girl crias. If you yell at them, these “tough boys” immediately run to momma, lower their head and put their tails up. But when you are gone, all hell can break loose. Jerks…be very observant with a new cria and watch carefully when the cria is placed out in the herd. If you have a guardian dog, do a proper introduction so the guardian knows this cria too is a valued member of the herd. Make sure everyone plays nicely in the sandbox…

It may seem like I have focused on problems. In the vast majority of births, there are simply NO problems. But it is important to know what to expect, what to avoid and the common management solutions.

Summary

Let’s recap important concepts: 1) importance of third trimester nutrition, 2) minimizing all manner of stresses, 3) the “1, 2, 3 rule”, 4) disinfection of the umbilical stalk/navel area, 5) removal of teat wax plugs, 6) measuring daily cria weight change and 7) watching out for post birth cria heat dehydration and rough housing issues.

All in all, I often joke in my seminars that at the bottom of every birthing bag should be a bottle of Champagne. Enjoy!

Next month’s management post will discuss more on cria management: human bonding, vaccinations, halter training, feeding and weaning. And rebreeding the dam.

Happy criating!

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