This article appeared in the second issue of our farm newsletter in July, 1998. We discontinued the farm newsletter when we started publishing articles in other newsletters. The article has been edited to reflect our experiences since 1998.
In our first newsletter we discussed the physical requirements, e.g., shelter, that should be considered when you are planning to acquire your first llamas. In this issue we are addressing the goals you may have in mind when considering the acquisition of llamas. Of equal importance is the choice of farm from which you will be acquiring your llama(s).
You may have more than one of the above goals, in which case you should look at the most restrictive requirements amongst the categories reflecting your goals.
If your basic interest is to have llamas as companions and have no intention of ever breeding them, then you may wish to consider acquiring gelded males or males that will be gelded when they reach a gelding age. Gelded males tend to be fairly inexpensive and, if you should ever change your mind about breeding, normally can be kept with either intact males or females. Avoid getting an intact male and a female together, even if you intend to geld the male. Llamas can be precocious at times and you may end up with a cria from a pair of llamas with inferior breeding qualities.
Geldings are frequently used as pack animals, but females and intact males also can make good packers. You, of course, may not want to take an intact male and an open female on the same trek. Good leg conformation is especially important. Avoid llamas who are knock-kneed, sickle-hocked or cow-hocked (visit farms and ask about appropriate leg conformation). These llamas will have a reduced ability to pack under load.
If you will be going into areas with heavy underbrush, you will want to avoid heavy-wooled llamas.
Other qualities you should look at are the llama’s temperament and condition. Is the llama easily caught and haltered? Does the llama enjoy working? Does the llama respond well to strangers?
If you plan to do a lot of packing and wish to avoid training your llama, you should look for a llama that is already pack trained. Expect to pay substantially more for a pack-trained llama in good condition.
Both male and female llamas will guard against predators. Male llamas that will be guarding sheep must be gelded before they have ever been used for breeding, otherwise they may try to breed with the ewes with potentially fatal outcomes for the ewes.
Maturity is important in the choice of guard llama. We will not sell a llama as a guard llama unless it is at least three years old, preferably five years old or older. Many first-time buyers have concluded, before talking with us, that they want a younger llama which will grow up with the animals it will be guarding. In these instances the guarding capacity is not an immediate issue. For several reasons this is a bad idea. First, while llamas, in general, make good guards, not all llamas are good guards. The young llama you acquire may not turn into a good guard. Second, it is very important that the llama(s) you acquire will have grown up with mature llamas. In this way the llama learns what it is to be a llama.
Conformation is not as important as it is with pack llamas, unless the llama will have to run for long distances. Similarly, disposition is not as important as it is with pack llamas.
Conformation becomes quite important if you intend to breed your llamas. The assessment of the quality of a llama takes a practiced eye and you should seek out help. Farm visits are most helpful.
Faults may not appear until the llama starts to mature and some apparent early faults may work themselves out as a cria develops. There is no such thing as a perfect llama. When selecting a stud for your female(s) you will want to balance out any of their weaknesses with strengths on the part of the stud.
May 2010: Llamas in North America have a very small gene pool and it is essential that special care be taken to recognize the genetic history of the breeding pair to avoid unintended inbreeding. In the 1980's and early 1990's llamas were viewed as a great investment, similar to the view held today for alpacas. As a result, there was much indiscriminate breeding in an effort to produce as many llamas as possible. As a result congenital defects were all too common, e.g., choanal atresia. After the collapse of the llama market with a consequent shakeout of those who were solely interested in the investment rather than the animal, llama breeding became much more selective with a consequent reduction in the frequency of congenital defects. Today most congenital defects in llamas occur when individuals, who have acquired llamas at livestock auctions because they are "cute", breed them without any research into their genetic background. Thus, when acquiring breeding stock, you need to look not only at the physical conformation but also at the genetic history.
The quality of llama fiber varies considerably. We have some llamas with excellent fiber quality and others where the fiber is suitable only for stuffing comforters or similar objects. If your primary objective is fiber you should give consideration to looking at alpacas where the fiber quality is more uniform (but there still is a high degree of variability). If the quality of fiber is a secondary, but important, consideration then discuss the importance of fiber to you with the farms you are looking at.
We recommend visiting a number of farms. Not only will you be exposed to a variety of llamas but also you will encounter a range of views on llama care and management. The following is a list of things to consider:
Add to this list any concerns of yours. Consider
creating a written list of concerns. The farm owners/managers should be
willing to sit down and answer your questions.