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It's Time to Unlink Alpaca Importation from It's Economic Appendage

Recent discussions on Facebook about the alpaca registry, which cascaded into a debate on alpaca importation, have spurred me to express my thoughts.  Some of the discussions become misinterpreted due partially to the lack of term definition and usage and the nature of the quick responses within the threads.  Thus, I find it easier to express my opinions in blogs.  I welcome comments.

AOA Registration Is A Validation of Parentage…Period

“AOA has the most stringent testing requirements of any alpaca registry in the world. In fact, our requirements surpass most livestock registries of any species, and even many human parentage testing requirements used by state governments.” “parentage is conducted using exclusion DNA testing. DNA testing determines that the reported dam or sire cannot be excluded from being a parent, rather than they definitely are a parent.”—from AOA website.

That is what AOA registration does. AOA registration provides DNA validation. Below is what AOA registration does not do.

  • AOA registration does not provide a statement of minimum qualifications, let alone exceptional qualities or desirable traits.
  • AOA registration is NOT linked to Breed Standards.  
  • AOA registration is the method it uses to maintain the EPD Database and, to some extent, adds to the validity of the EPD data. It does not, however, require nor even permit any promotion of EPD status or ranking.
  • AOA registration is not an acknowledgment, certification, assurance, or guarantee of quality, standard, or characteristic. Nor is it an endorser of heritability for genetic traits, qualitative or quantitative.
  • Validating AOA Parentage and registering an alpaca through AOA does not ensure any heritable quality.

Blue-eyed whites can be registered, and people will buy them because of their eyes! Pigeon faced alpacas can be registered, and some people might think they’re different or cute!  AOA registration does not distinguish faults.

I am supportive of the AOA registry and EPDs.  I also want to state that an AOA registration in and of itself is not a validation of meeting a standard of quality. It validates parentage and that validation allows you to examine and trace the database. However, an AOA registration does not alone signify any standard and therefore shouldn't be interpreted as an identifier of a superior animal.

Why do I think this is an important point of distinction? Because it provides background into a pattern I've observed in our breeding selection. Breeding decisions are too often made based on trendy "genetics" and what will sell because of names on the AOA registration certificate without regard to what those genetics might or might not represent.  I theorize that this adds further to the problem of "bottle necking." 

It leads to another discussion..."How do you make breeding decisions?"

Are Registered Alpacas Worth More Money

Reasons for registering alpacas vary but one reason is that registering alpacas will increase the likelihood of an alpaca's sale and their price. Boosting alpaca sales and prices due to AOA registration is not in itself a cynical tactic unless the owner intends to falsely market a registered alpaca as being of a certain standard.  Therein lies the problem.  Alpaca value should be determined by many factors including genetics, meeting/exceeding minimum breed standards, EPD production, show winnings and other objective measures. 

Alpacas that are not registered have value outside the breeding stock.  I have long been a promoter of having both registered and non-registered animals in our US herd. We need to align our infrastructure with other livestock models. That doesn’t mean that we cannot continue to collect and expand our genetic trait database. We can and should do both.  

To Open or Close Our Registry To Imports or "Unregistered" Alpacas

There are ongoing debates about several topics.  One is whether or not we should open the AOA Registry for imports.   Another discussion focuses on whether or not we should allow "unregistered" alpacas into the AOA Registry.  Intrinsic to these discussions is the perceived potential for devaluation of the current AOA registrants. 

I find a great deal of confusion in trying to understand the terminology.  For the purposes of this blog, the term "non-DNA validated" alpacas refers to those animals that are imported into the US and can not have parentage identified through the AOA Registry.  The term "not previously DNA validated" means those alpacas that have not been DNA validated BUT that parentage could be validated in the AOA Registry.  

The debate about whether or not to allow "not previously DNA validated" is a non-issue.  In my opinion, if an alpaca's registry can be validated, then AOA policies dictate that parentage must be confirmed by the owners of the dam and sire.

The argument that letting in "non-DNA validated" alpacas could result in an infusion of already “bottle-necked” genetics is always a possibility. But that concern was present in the 1990 imports.  Alpacas imported in the 1990s were screened for phenotypic variables such as conformation faults, fiber quality, and health concerns. Their phenotypic presentation did not translate into knowledge of their genotypes. 

Importing non-DNA validated alpacas to the EPD data base will require an adjustment.  Our database is built on a small number of generations and our record-keeping for genetic expression is still in its infancy. 

Anticipated financial gain or loss is a short-sighted and self-limiting reason for opening or closing US importation.  Any reason for opening or closing US importation ports must be for the proper goal.  Decisions to open or close alpaca importation should rest on the state of the genetic pool.  The call for a continued closed alpaca importation should not link to our concerns in the supply and demand chain. It should only link in terms of its effect on our genetic pool. To do so otherwise is reckless at best and not the least self-sustaining for our growth. 

The problem in our current supply and demand strategy is it aligns with a pet or collector's model.  It is a two component model where the product is the alpaca, akin to the labradoodle craze we currently see in this country.  People want a labradoodle (demand increases).  There is limited supply and that results in an increase in the price for a labradoodle.  Once supply catches up to demand, the cost will come down.  In livestock businesss models, there is a third component, that being demand for end product.  Think of the cattle industry.  As the demand for meat (end product) increases, supply initially decreases and the selling price for cattle increases to meet the demand.  We do not have the end product effect in the alpaca supply and demand equation.  Fiber and finished goods prices in the US can fluctuate without any effect on the selling price for the alpaca animal.  The alpaca supply and demand model operates similar to a pet or equine strategy.

Should we open the US to imports because we have reached genetic drift?  Or is there plenty of untapped genetic potential here in the US?  Is one exclusive of the other?

History Should Teach Us a Lesson

The mantra from the early 2000s has not changed much in the past twenty years. We continue to chant, “we need more animals to build a (commercial) fiber industry.” What we see instead is average alpaca sales prices have decreased. As a result, we are probably witnessing stagnation in actual alpaca numbers, a decline in overall breedings, and aging of the US alpaca population. All of which eventually leads to a diminishing of alpaca fiber quality and quantity.   Increased competition within the show ring does not translate to an overall improvement in the US Herd fiber quality.

US Alpaca owners did not respond to the campaign by breeding more and supporting fiber markets. Instead, we’ve decreased stock through fewer breedings and closed importation. While reducing supply is a legitimate strategy for increasing perceived value and demand, it is not a sustainable model for our industry.  

History, if not reason, should speak for itself.

I am at a standstill in my breeding program. It has nothing to do with how much money I can make by selling the next generation. It has to do with the inquest of finding the genetic combination that will promote desired qualities while diminishing the risk of introducing negative qualities and without adding to genetic drift.  

We need to accept that our current method of alpaca registration, which is based solely on DNA validation, should not be a significant barometer of an animal’s perceived value and ultimate selling price.  An alpaca's perceived value and selling price needs to determined by many factors including genetics, meeting/exceeding minimum breed standards, EPD production, show winnings AND with consumer demand for end product (fiber and finished goods) to fit within a livestock model.

Decisions to open or close DNA or non-DNA validated imports should rely on an analysis of the US genetic pool and genetic drift and not by any perceived financial gains or losses that might occur as the result of such a decision.