AUSSIE ET Interview
Genetics of Australian alpacas advances
Reporter: Lauren Harte
First Published: 17/09/2006
LAUREN HARTE: Alpacas have been in Australia for many years, but they've struggled to remove themselves from the category of 'animals suitable for hobby farmers'. The major problem has been genetics. Australian alpacas have never had the background necessary to produce the best fibre,
and subsequently most clothing manufacturers have been reluctant to commit with any sort of enthusiasm to alpaca garments. That's about to change. Australian scientists are now leading the world in genetic alpaca technology. The result will be a worthy competitor for the very best superfine wool.
It's early morning in the Adelaide Hills, and a group of alpacas is grazing contentedly. This alpaca stud nestled in South Australian grape-growing country is the largest in Australia. Today, some of the herd are going to take part in a process that's revolutionising the industry.
DR JANE VAUGHAN: I'm probably the most obsessed vet in Australia who works with alpacas. You know, 95% of my time, I spend working with alpacas and most other practitioners would be spending probably up to 10% or 20% at a maximum of work with alpacas, so I probably do the most work.
LAUREN HARTE: Dr Jane Vaughan is one of Australia's leading alpaca vets. Today she's setting up her mobile laboratory to carry out a procedure known as embryo transfer, or ET.
DR JANE VAUGHAN: By using embryo transfer, we're able to get many embryos from the better females in a year. So normally she'd only produce one per year, but what we're able to do - we can get 10, 20, 30 embryos from one female in any particular year. We can use different sires over the female at different...in different flushes, and then we can place those embryos into less valuable females that are still good mothers, have a very good ability to rear crias, but they don't have the fine fleece and good body confirmation.
LAUREN HARTE: To put it simply, ET speeds up the breeding of top-quality alpacas, and that's important when you consider the animal has an 11.5-month gestation period.
DR JANE VAUGHAN: So these animals have been treated with - the donors have been treated with super-ovulation drugs. Normally these animals only release one egg at a time, but what we've done is give them injections of hormones so that they're releasing multiple eggs at a time and then they were mated - the five donors were mated last week. We're going to hopefully get some fertilised eggs out today. Up on the machine here, you can see some nice little CLs there, the little round circles on the screen. There's probably half a dozen on the left-hand side.
LAUREN HARTE: Australia has led the way in embryo transfer in other livestock industries. But that hasn't been the case until recently with alpacas. Dr Vaughan and colleague Dr David Hopkins pioneered the process. The first commercial ET cria - or baby alpaca - was born in 2002. When Landline last looked at the industry three years ago, ET was just getting started with mixed results. Now it's much more common and much more successful.
DR JANE VAUGHAN: Each season I'm probably adding two or three new breeders to the list. So we're up to - there's probably 35 or 40 people - breeders - using the technology now across Australia.
LAUREN HARTE: These females were mated with top studs a week ago. First up is last year's supreme champion at the Royal Adelaide Show. Unlike other leading alpaca-breeding countries like the United States, Peru and Chile, Australia was the first country to recognise and use ET programs at a commercial level. Alpaca breeders Matthew and Cathy Lloyd decided to get involved in the technique three years ago. They believe it's given them the edge on their competitors both at home and overseas.
MATTHEW LLOYD: It's been good. It's allowed us to sell better-quality progeny that normally we'd be keen to hang on to. It's allowed us to, obviously, therefore increase our sales here and to export for genetics and bloodlines that we normally wouldn't make available for sale.
LAUREN HARTE: The next step in the process is inserting a catheter through the cervix and into the uterus.
DR JANE VAUGHAN: So we just flush the fluid in and out half a dozen times and there's a filter in the bottom of this cup. So anything larger than 70 microns, we collect in the cup so that the embryos can't go through into the bucket. Once I'm confident that the uterus has been well flushed, we'll take this fluid in and have a look at it under the microscope and see if we can see any little babies in there.
LAUREN HARTE: On average, the ET process yields three quality embryos per female. But last year one of the Lloyds' animals set a world record.
DR JANE VAUGHAN: This particular female had a big response and she had a dozen CLs on each ovary, and we flushed her out and generally if you have a big response like that, we don't get any embryos because the hormonal milieu is not suitable for fertilisation of the eggs. But this particular female, she delivered well and truly, and we flushed out 21 A-grade embryos. It was quite a big day, really, because the previous highest score had been 15.
LAUREN HARTE: Waiting back in the yard is a female who, like it or not, is suddenly about to become a mum. Like the donor mother, she is under a mild tranquilliser. A recipient like this one that's not prize stock wouldn't normally be part of a breeding program. She's been picked not for her genes, but for her mothering skills.
DR JANE VAUGHAN: Beautiful. She's pregnant!
LAUREN HARTE: Watching the process are Bob Hyde and Tim Hey, who've made the trip from the UK to buy better stock. More and more overseas alpaca enthusiasts are turning to Australia to improve their genetics.
BOB HYDE: It's what I need...you know, it's what I need to do. I just can't - I don't think I'm going to find the males in the UK for them and the money as well - it's the price. Obviously it's expensive to send them round the world - about £3,000 per animal - but it is worth it.
LAUREN HARTE: Embryo transfer is in its early stages in the UK, but both men recognise the potential.
TIM HEY: It's very important that we have the opportunity to improve productivity very, very quickly if we're able to catch up on the 10 years more breeding Australia has than the UK. The problem we have in the UK at the moment is we're still quite young, the industry is young. With around 30,000 alpacas, breeders generally don't have the numbers to play this game. You really need to have some really high-end females and a number of animals to take the embryos forward. I can see it getting stronger and stronger in the UK.
MATTHEW LLOYD: It's about 320 hectares here. We've sort of grown as the herd has grown, and there's approximately 1,600 alpacas here now. We have 2,000 alpacas in the UK, which is about 20% of the European herd. So with the animals here, we believe it's the biggest herd in the world outside South America.
CATHY LLOYD: We looked around and we looked at different alternatives when we moved on to the land, and we decided that at the early stages of the alpaca industry back in '93 that it had a very bright future and we thought that it was something we wanted to be involved in.
LAUREN HARTE: Matthew and Cathy Lloyd are highly regarded in the Australian alpaca industry. City born and bred, they got into the game 13 years ago. Now they specialise in whites, but have the odd black herd on their Oakbank property just for good measure. A lot of the Lloyds' alpaca offspring are sent overseas to countries like the UK, Germany and France. Last year, just a half-share in one of the Lloyds' stud males was an Australian record, selling for $150,000. Matthew Lloyd says the price tag for ET-bred alpacas is also rising.
MATTHEW LLOYD: Well, it's still early days. The record price male last year - the National Supreme Champion - was actually an ET progeny. And he was sold for over $170,000, I believe, at the national auctions. So we're just now starting to see the results and see that gene pool increase at the top end. So it's starting to have an impact, certainly in the show ring and the sales.
LAUREN HARTE: The only downside to the industry at the moment is that the Australians are doing it so well that local breeders are finding it tougher and tougher to find quality animals worth importing.
MATTHEW LLOYD: We've done some large imports over the last few years from Peru. We certainly are finding it more difficult to find the quality there. I guess the Australian herd has just grown so much in the last 15 years quality-wise - and given the cost factors - it is becoming more and more difficult to certainly import large numbers out of South America. I think there's probably still some opportunity there, but it's certainly not what it was in the past.
LAUREN HARTE: But one of the biggest contributions to the industry that's coming from ET is the rapid improvement in fleece quality.
CATHY LLOYD: I guess when we got into the industry back in '93, when you opened a fleece there wasn't really that much there to see - there wasn't crimp structure, there wasn't lustre and brightness. Whereas now when you open an alpaca fleece with the advanced breeding that we've been putting in over the last 10 to 15 years, they're really starting to develop the structure and crimp definition very similar to sheep.
CATHY LLOYD: Good definition. And that's gotta be a good thing for Australian fashion.
LAUREN HARTE: China is one of the countries that's sitting up and taking notice of Australia's new improved fleeces. Even though world alpaca fleece prices are still low, demand has picked up. Recently, the Australian Alpaca Fleece Limited made an urgent call to its members to send all available fleece. It's tipped that, by 2009, Australia will be exporting around 60% of its annual clip.
The Australian alpaca industry will soon be launched at Shanghai Fashion Week at the end of next month. Like Australian fine wool branded itself with the Woolmark logo, the alpaca industry has followed suit. AlpacaMark is now recognised around the world. Already it's registered in the big markets of China, the United Kingdom and the United States. Australian producers are also now manufacturing offshore. They're making products in Peru from Australian alpaca fleece and then selling it back to the Peruvians, as well as creating markets in New Zealand and in China.
IAN DAVISON: China is very interested in alpaca, and they're a new economy with booming spending power. They're looking for luxury product that they can identify as being something different, not manufactured in China, but manufactured from overseas product. In certain areas they're not actually able to fulfil the demand from China with existing Australian product, so we're really crying out for Australian producers to produce more of the sort of quality fleece that we're looking for to sell into China.
LAUREN HARTE: Breeders came from far and wide to make this year's National Alpaca Conference in Adelaide.
IAN DAVISON: Initially the alpaca industry started off from a lot of people who were perhaps seachangers or people retiring and wanting hobby farms and so on, but we're seeing a different sort of person entering the industry now. We're still seeing those people but we're also seeing some of the experienced agricultural producers of the country starting to look a little bit more critically at alpacas and what the prospects are for an agribusiness involving alpacas.
LAUREN HARTE: Jane Vaughan was also there, spreading the word about embryo transfer.
DR JANE VAUGHAN: It's providing breeders in Australia with rapid methods of determining optimum breeding combinations. We've had some success with animals with acquired infertility.
IAN DAVISON: I think there's always been interest in artificial reproductive technology. As yet, artificial insemination has not been terribly successful in alpacas, but embryo transfer - we've got a lot of experience in embryo transfer over the last three years or so, and it's becoming more and more reliable.
PROF. ROBERT VAN SAUN: Well, in terms of probably the application, they are certainly up there. I mean, I think the veterinarians that are here are very similar to the veterinarians in the US that are doing those things, so I think the two countries are moving forward in that direction. Again, I think Australia's nudging ahead, because they're not only taking the technology but they're applying it to good genetic evaluation.
LAUREN HARTE: Every year at the Royal Adelaide Show alpacas have more of a presence. This year, the number of alpaca entries has jumped by 25% compared to 2005. Now, 134 animals are being prepared by their owners to face the judge in the show ring. And that includes Matthew and Cathy Lloyd. For an animal that's more suited to somewhere in the Andes, there's sometimes a reluctance to cooperate on show day.
CATHY LLOYD: I'm actually a bit nervous this morning. I think just sort of - it's all coming together now and there's quite a large team and what have you, so I'm just feeling a bit on-edge before the day starts.
LAUREN HARTE: So hoping for the third year in a row for the Supreme Champion today?
CATHY LLOYD: It'd be nice, it'd be nice. But there are some good animals here today, so time will tell. (Laughs)
LAUREN HARTE: At this stage, there aren't that many animals on parade at local shows that are ET-bred. But every year the number is growing, and the quality on show is improving. One person in the know is Jill MacLeod, a Canadian alpaca judge here in Adelaide to make the tough decisions.
LAUREN HARTE: Jill, were you impressed with what was on show today?
JILL MacLEOD: Absolutely. I was very impressed with what I saw today and the quality overall. Out of all the countries that I've judged at, this line-up here could stand up anywhere that I've judged in the world. So they are certainly very high quality and just a beautiful group. I'm very pleased with that.
LAUREN HARTE: Today, the Lloyds are pinning their hopes on their 10.5-month-old ET-bred male cavalier. And he didn't disappoint. It's all looking good for the couple. So far, they've bagged three championships and three reserve championships. Now, they're holding out for the big one - Supreme Champion.
ANNOUNCER: Grand champion alpaca for the 2006 Royal Adelaide Show - number 110.
LAUREN HARTE: But it wasn't to be for the Lloyds.
MATTHEW LLOYD: It's fantastic. We're very pleased. We own the sire of the Supreme Champion today, so it's sort of another - we didn't win the big one, but I guess owning the father is a nice consolation prize, anyway.
LAUREN HARTE: How about you, Cathy? How are you feeling?
CATHY LLOYD: Yeah, I'm glad it's all over. It's a busy, long day. But no, really happy. We have been to lots of championships, so we've done well.
LAUREN HARTE: The future of the Australian industry appears to be in good hands. Embryo transfer and its spin-offs are helping establish alpacas as a successful and sustainable agricultural industry.
IAN DAVISON: I'm tremendously enthusiastic about the future of alpacas in this country. I think Australia has the expertise and the experience which it's shown with the wool industry over 200 years to progress the alpaca industry very, very quickly in this country.
MATTHEW LLOYD: I look forward to the day when we do have a million alpaca running around in this country - not 70,000 or 80,000 - because we certainly have the market and the demand there. It's just getting the numbers and the volume and that critical mass.
SALLY SARA: Lauren Harte looking at bright prospects for the alpaca industry.