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The Australian Alpaca Association Ltd.

Victorian Eastern Region of the Australian Alpaca Association Ltd.

Resources >> Judging >> Trends in Shows

An overview of trends seen in alpaca halter and fleece shows

By Peter Kennedy - Canchones Alpacas (Senior Australian judge and certified AOBA - American judge)

It is now over 20 years since the modern incarnation of alpacas have been a part of the Australian landscape. During that time, a vibrant show network has developed that is an important part of both the marketing of alpacas as well as an aid in breeding decisions for breeders.

As judges we are there to offer our opinion on the alpacas or fleeces in the show we are judging. In the halter ring, it is our job to compare the entrants to the current breed standards of the association and then rank them on the qualities exhibited by each competitor.

In a fleece show, the system is different as each entrant is judged and awarded points against the points available for each attribute in the fleece scorecard. Points allocated for micron and the annualised fleece weights are determined by reference to the AAA micron and weight score cards for both suri and huacaya. Places are awarded based on the final points tally of each fleece in the class. 

With that basic introduction to judging, what have been the improvements that we have seen over the years?

Improvements seen

Micron

It will be no surprise that in both the halter and fleece show arenas, there has been significant improvements in the general microns of the exhibits. With the dedicated breeding employed across all colours and both fleece types we have seen a general reduction in the microns. This has been reflected in the recent changes to our score cards for microns in the fleece shows. In the mid nineties, it was not unusual for herd micron averages to be in the high 20’s for whites and light fawns and higher still for the darker colours. 

With the introduction of new genetics, from shipments from Peru and the USA during the nineties and the naughties and the focus of breeders on improving their breeding programmes herds now often have average microns at or below 20 micron with alpacas being tested as low as 13 and 14 microns. There has also been significant improvement in the coloured herds with herd micron averages in the low to mid twenties.

Weights

The density of the alpacas shown is another area that has improved over the years. This has been reflected in the fleece weights in the fleece shows and resulted in the recent changes to the scorecard for fleece weights for both suri and huacaya.  Fleece weights would routinely be under one kilogram per animal in the nineties . There were of course heavier fleece weights (most still below 2 kilograms) but these were usually associated with higher microns. 

Today skirted fleece weights have generally improved and herd averages are often around the two kilogram mark with some peaking at approximately four kilograms. This may not sound a huge improvement but when we factor in the associated improvement in microns this has been a substantial gain.

Trueness to Type

In our breed standards, we have a description of what an alpaca should look like. It is to this standard that alpacas are judged in the show ring. This standard describes what is generally accepted as correct in the various areas of conformation. 

Over the years we have seen a general improvement in the over all trueness to type of the alpaca shown. In the early years with the original imports, alpacas often exhibited the following:

This was due to the fact that there was very little known about alpacas when they first arrived and there was also little choice in the alpacas that were originally imported. These original alpacas would now be seen as generally unimproved. With knowledge and experience and subsequent imports leading to improved breeding, these issues are now rarely seen in the show ring.

Coloured Alpacas

Initially there was a marked difference between the qualities exhibited in the whites and light fawns compared to the darker colours. This was generally due to the fact that the Peruvians had been told to focus on lighter colours so there had been very few breeders that had focussed on breeding coloured animals. With the advent of exports of alpacas to the new markets in Australia, the USA and Europe it was realised that there was a demand for quality colours. This resulted in coloured farms being established and quality started to improve.

In the new markets, dedicated breeders established themselves with the aim of improving the quality of colours and this has resulted in a quantum improvement in the colours now being shown.

The improvement can be seen in both conformation and fleece traits. Of course there is still room for improvement but breeding programmes are definitely showing results.

Areas for improvement

With the improvements there are still areas that need to be kept in mind. 

Coloured fibres

With the improvement in the alpacas in the show ring and the fleeces in the fleece shows, an issue that we are seeing is coloured fibres through the blanket area. This may be both white fibres in darker fleeces or dark fibres in lighter colours.

It is essential that we focus to remove this out of our fleeces. If fibre is contaminated with another colour, it is likely to be penalised in a fleece show and it may result in a loss of a place or two in the halter ring. 

In a commercial sense this can be a disaster. Manufacturers will not tolerate colour contamination and the fleece will be downgraded in price. If the colour contamination is not picked up it can result in the final buyer rejecting the product being manufactured which will not endear you to the fibre buyer.

This applies also to spots. In processing, it is often found that alpacas with a different coloured spot, will also have this other colour in the fleece as a contaminant to a greater or lesser degree.

It is a reality that this is an issue in most herds. The imperative is not to choose to ignore it. If we do, the problem will only become greater and more common. It is therefore essential to keep this in mind when making our breeding decisions. 

Uniformity of Micron

Even though we have seen an improvement microns at the mid-side, we still see a greater variation than is desired across the blanket area. This is the reason that fleeces in a show often score lower points for micron than exhibitor feels is appropriate. The reason for this is that the micron assessment is taken from samples across the blanket either via a grid sample at some shows or across the samples taken from across the blanket area by the judge. 

Again this is important as our aim is to maximise value in the fleeces we produce. If there is a lot of variation across a fleece, on classing, at the processor, it is almost certain to be downgraded to the classing line that most closely matches the overall micron. In Australia it is unlikely that the blanket will be divided into it’s component classing lines and thereby maximise dollar value for the producer due to time and cost constraints at the processor.

Producing a uniform fleece with low variation between the primary and secondary fibres as well as low variation across the blanket area, will maximise value for the fibre producer and manufacturer. It will also result in a product with a superior handle for the end consumer.

Conformation

For many breeders, their single focus has been in the reduction of the micron of their alpacas. This is certainly a worthy aim but it needs to be achieved in a manner that does not ignore other important traits. One trait that is often overlooked is the conformation of the alpaca. 

In the judging ring,we have the alpaca walk out and parade before us so that we can monitor their gait and hence their leg conformation. We also view them standing and in profile to again assess their conformation. We assess the alpacas against the breed standard that indicates various know faults in all areas of conformation. The reason this is so important is that we are breeding with the view of producing alpacas with the fleece and conformation suitable for broad acre conditions. A sound conformation is essential if this is to occur. 

When making breeding decisions, the breeder needs to remember that they can not afford to trade off too much conformationally to attain their fleece goals. 

Some areas of concern in the show ring and that should be kept in mind are:

Again the reason that these are emphasised is that it is essential that we maintain the alpaca fit for function. The function of the alpaca is not only to produce fine fibre but also to reproduce in a timely manner and live for a long and sustained period with little intervention on behalf of the breeder.

Skirting of fleeces

Skirting is an area that is often mentioned by judges and frustratingly seems to be ignored or misunderstod by exhibitors. It is important that fleeces are well skirted as a poorly skirted fleece, though gaining points in the weight area, will lose points in the majority of other areas including:

With fleece weights being worth a total of 15 points and the other areas adding up to between 55 (suri) and 60 points (huacaya) there can be a large negative impact if fleeces are not skirted well.

I would encourage all breeders to review there scorecards after a fleece show. Scoring a fleece is a time intensive process and the scorecard will give valuable feedback to all entrants in a class (unlike the show ring where only the placed animals are discussed). Looking at the scores for the individual sections will give a good insight into how the fleece exhibit compares to the standard judged against. This will also give you an idea if there is room to improve through better skirting.

In summary, there is no doubt that the average animals and fleece shown has significantly improved across the board in the last decade. It is essential that the breeder does not become overly focussed on a single trait (for example micron) to the detriment of the other traits that make up the complete animal. Improvements in breeding takes time and focus however large improvements have been made and will continue to be made by the dedicated breeder. 

I would encourage all breeders to be involved in showing as it is an important way of keeping in touch with the ongoing development of the breed as well as a great way to market both your own alpacas as well as the breed in general. It also provides a great opportunity to look at the animals and fleeces that are performing well to benchmark your own breeding programme.