Ribbons aren't everything!
There are basically four ways that one can assess the quality of alpaca fleece. The first is eyes and hands – how does it look and how does it feel? The more fleeces you get your eyes and hands on, the better you will be able to judge a quality fleece. The risk is “barn blindness,” which is when you only look at your own fleeces and judge them to be superior – which we all do! That is why it is important to get someone else’s eyes and hands on fleeces, and to look at fleeces that don’t live in your barn.
The second way is to go to the shows. Halter and fleece shows will give a lot of feedback – with a few caveats. If you send your fleece to a fleece show, you will get a scorecard with the judge’s comments, regardless of placement. If you go to a halter show, your alpaca will also be scored on conformation, which is important for breeding. You won’t get comments in the halter ring, though, unless your animal places in the top six. By the time you pay to register the animal, reserve stalls, travel and secure lodging, pay for farm sitting, etc, the shows get pretty expensive. For some of us, that is a real issue.
The third way, histograms, gives objective data. That is why we do histograms on all our animals. At shearing, a 4x4” sample is taken from the side of the animal, which is sent to a lab in New Zealand where the fiber diameter, curvature (crimp), and staple length are measured in a machine that has no bias or error. Of course, the measurement is only as good as the sample. Histograms only look at fiber – not the whole animal, and not density, because that is based on hair follicles per square millimeter. Hair follicles are in the skin, so can’t be measured by a fleece sample.
An option with histograms is to participate in the EPD program. EPD stands for Expected Progeny Difference. All the data that is available for a particular animal – most of it from histograms – is entered into an algorithm that tells breeders how likely an animal is to pass on particular characteristics. EPDs are available for cattle, pigs, sheep, horses, and within the last few years, alpacas. The EPD algorithm for alpacas assesses fleece diameter (fineness), percent of fibers above 30 microns (comfort), medullated fibers (can produce itchiness, and don’t take dye well), mean staple length (2” staple length is necessary to go through machinery at a commercial mill), fleece weight (more is better), and birth weight. The higher the percentile (closer to zero), the more likely the animal is to pass that particular trait on.
Histograms only take a couple of weeks once the sample arrives at the lab, but EPDs are run as a batch at the end of the year, as the data is needed from all the animals participating. Our EPD results for 2022 came about a month ago, and we are SO pleased.
We don’t have a lot of show wins, mostly because it is so expensive to show. We’ve never stood in the championship ring (although we’ve bought animals who have!). But our EPDs tell us we are right where we want to be as a fiber producing farm.
Two of our animals are in the top 1% for fineness (AFD), one is in the top five%, and three are in the top 10%. Consistency (SDAFD) is even better: 1 in the top 1%, 5 in the top 5%, and 5 in the top 10%. Mean staple length (MSL) is where we fall off: 1 in the top 5%, 1 in the top 10%, and 2 in the top 25%. This means that out of 53,247 females, some of ours ranked in the top 300 for various traits. For males, 29,710 animals were ranked, so again, those in the top 25% are more likely to pass that trait on than 22,282 of the animals participating. Not bad for a small farm like ours!
These results tell us that our breeding decisions are paying off. We have been focusing on consistency for several years. Consistency gives us nice, soft yarn that tends not to shed and is less prickly than yarn that has fibers of different diameters and length. Fineness is important for softness, but the mills can’t use fiber that is too fine, so we prefer to focus on consistency. Now, while we maintain a strong focus on consistency, we will turn to improving our staple length.
There was an interesting article in The American Alpaca Journal in the January, 2023 issue, that judges in the show ring are not currently showing a preference for staple length, and in fact are rewarding fleece traits at the expense of staple length. “To win in the halter ring, breed to produce animals with fleeces that are finer, denser and much shorter than average.” (p. 3). The data bears this out: from a sample of 50 male halter show champions and reserve champions with shows from January 2021 to May 2022, all were at the 85 percentile or lower for staple length (p. 5). In fleece shows, the highest percentile for staple length in a cohort of 38 male champions and reserve champions was 63% (p. 9). The problem is that staple must be two inches long, at least, to be commercially made into yarn. There is a disconnect here somewhere. As one exhibitor at a show a few years ago told me, we have to make breeding decisions based on what we want – to win ribbons or make yarn, because the two aren’t necessarily the same. This particular exhibitor has champion alpacas and owns and operates a fiber mill, so he knows whereof he speaks.
What does this mean for Sugar Hollow Farm Alpacas? As we say on our website, we breed for yarn. We don’t need the finest alpacas who win in the show ring. We want consistent fleeces with a staple length of 2 inches or more. Our EPD results tell us that we are exactly where we want to be as far as consistency goes. Now we need to work on staple length.
What does this mean for you? Look past our show ribbons – we aren’t big winners at the shows. Look at our histograms and EPDs, and if you need help interpreting them, give us a call. If yarn is what you want, our animals will help you get it!
Edens, L., & Bienenstock, S. (2023). Winning Fleece Formulas By Venue. The American Alpaca Journal, 8(January), 2-11.
We are Jay & Kathy Brown of Sugar Hollow Farm Alpacas in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania. Learn more about us here.