in Alpacas Leaders in Research and Practice Explain by Meyla Bianco Johnston
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Canchones practices embryo transfer extensively and are proponents of the techniques. These fine black animals are the fruits of their labor.
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variety of different practices qualify as reproductive technologies. Many are well accepted as business as usual in livestock circles, while others are only recently gaining recognition. Science moves at astounding speed in these areas. Issues surrounding reproductive technology can be complicated and somewhat oblique to those outside of the scientific research community. The amount of information circulating is very large and often, different factions have sharply contrasting opinions on the data. Because the techniques are so powerful and result in new life, reproductive practices also retain an element of mystery and wonder while simultaneously sparking controversy. For instance, not long ago, the idea of artificial insemination was unbelievable. Today, it is practiced regularly in many animals – and even humans. Then, Dolly the sheep was cloned in 1996, and humans began to question what is possible in science and animal husbandry and consider the implications of those powers. Alpaca Culture will focus here on embryo transfer, or ET, arguably one of the most controversial reproductive topics in the alpaca industry now. The first successful embryo transfer in alpacas happened in 1974 in Perú and more crias followed in 1987 and 1996. In Australia, the first births from embryo transfer took place at Benleigh Alpaca Stud in March 2002. The practice has proliferated greatly since then. Because research scientists know exactly what the latest developments are in this realm, we asked them to weigh in. We also asked breeders, geneticists and others familiar with embryo transfer for their input in order to capture a multi-faceted look at the topic.
What is Embryo Transfer?
To begin, we asked scientists to explain embryo transfer so non-scientists can understand. Jane Vaughn of Cria Genesis in Australia offered this definition: “In camelid terms, where a donor female is mated naturally, fertilisation of the egg occurs in her oviduct, she incubates the embryo for a week, then the embryo is flushed out of her uterus and placed into the uterus of a recipient female, who has been synchronised to ovulate in parallel with the donor. The recipient then incubates the embryo for the rest of the pregnancy.” Stephen R. Purdy, DVM Director, North American Camelid Studies Program defines embryo transfer as, “The collection of an embryo from the uterus of one female (embryo donor) and transfer of it into the uterus of another female (embryo recipient) where it will hopefully continue to develop to the fetal stage and result in a full term pregnancy and birth of a live cria.” 24 | Alpaca Culture • June 2013
In a successful ET transfer program, some assert, the most important females are never pregnant and you can greatly increase the number of babies born with their superior genetics through ET.
How is Embryo Transfer Performed?
It makes sense to ask those who are performing many embryo transfers each year how it is done. Jane Vaughn says, “I have been performing embryo transfer in alpacas for more than a decade and have flushed hundreds of donors in that time.” She explains the process in practical terms: “Donors are tranquillised. Embryos are collected transcervically, which involves placement of a catheter through the cervix followed by flushing embryo-specific solution in and then out of the uterus multiple times. The flushed fluid is then examined under a microscope to retrieve the embryos. Embryos are loaded singly into transfer pipettes then transferred into the uterus of sedated recipient females.” Single and Multiple Embryo Flushing The single ovulation technique does not require any hormonal treatment of donor females, who are mated once and flushed approximately one week after. The procedure results in about seven of ten females producing an embryo. Gregg Adams is a Professor of Veterinary Biomedical Sciences at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Saskatchewan. His research has “focused on ovarian synchronization and super ovulation.” With four colleagues, he co-authored “Induction of Superovulation in South American Camelids” which appeared in Animal Reproduction Science. He was able to explain superovulation in understandable terms: “Alpacas normally have a single ovulation (release of a single egg from the ovary). We give super stimulatory hormone treatments to cause super ovulation; i.e., release of many eggs from the ovary to be available for fertilization and development into several embryos rather than only one. The number of ovulations ranges from one to 15 after super stimulation, and if fertilization occurs, we could theoretically collect the same number of embryos. However, the number of embryos collected usually ranges from zero to four (average: 2-3). He continues, “The embryo transfer technique in South American camelids involves embryo collection from a female donor by uterine flush – one week after breeding and transfer to a recipient female that has been synchronized with the donor. Pregnancy rates after embryo transfer range from 40-60%. Without super ovulation, a donor can produce eight or 10 offspring per year instead of just
one. With super ovulation, a single donor may produce more than 20 offspring in a year. So, what would otherwise take decades – tangible genetic improvement of a herd – can happen in the space of a few years.” As to how many embryos can be flushed at one time, Jane Vaughn explained, “In single-ovulation ET, a female is mated and flushed a week later. These females usually produce one embryo, but may produce two embryos 5% of the time due to ovulation of two oocytes rather than one. In multiple-ovulation ET, a female is treated with superovulatory hormones prior to mating and produces approximately three embryos per flush (range zero-21 in my hands).” Stephen Purdy commented as to the number of embryos that can occur, as well. He says, “As many as the donor produces. Donors are typically superovulated to produce multiple eggs before being bred. This increases the chances of producing multiple embryos for transfer to multiple recipients. Embryos are examined microscopically after retrieval and only those deemed to have high chance of survival are transferred to the recipients.” We asked breeders who have used or are using ET techniques for their input. Keenan Scott of Waiheke Alpaca Stud in New Zealand uses “Only superovulation these days – we used to do a combination from time to time in the past.” Jude Anderson, co-owner of Pucara International and an esteemed alpaca judge, used the single ovulation technique with ET in Australia. She notes, “Some of our fellow Aussie breeders are using super ovulation on a regular basis with no adverse side effects on the donor dams.” Peter Kennedy and Robert Gane own and manage Canchones in Victoria, Australia, one of the most successful ET programs in the world. Canchones “Uses super ovulations but will revert to single if the donor female does not respond in the super program. Naturally, super has the greatest impact on the advancement of the breeding program.” Kennedy and Gane explain, “Single-ovulation embryo transfer of alpacas does not require any hormonal treatment of donor females (Taylor et al. 2000). Donor females are mated once and flushed a week later. Approximately seven of every 10 females flushed will produce an embryo. Follicle growth in the first 10 days after new wave emergence is consistent regardless of subsequent interwave interval (Vaughan et al. 2004), an observation integral to the success of single-embryo flushing of donor females every 10-12 days. More
Great Great Grand Sire
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Grand Dam Grand Dam
Reproductive Technologies Artificial insemination The injection of alpaca semen into female alpacas by humans. Hand breeding Females are chosen for specific males to mate. Field breeding One male is released to a group of females in a confined area and encouraged to mate with them. Cloning The creation of an exact genetic copy of another an organism with identical DNA. Embryo transfer The chemical and physical process in which embryos are harvested from female alpacas with extremely desirable characteristics and transferred into female alpacas with less desirable genetic characteristics to be carried to term and birthed.
than 400 live births (50% males, 50% females) have occurred over the last eight years in Australia, following single-embryo flushing performed by Dr. Jane Vaughan and Dr. David Hopkins in numerous commercial alpaca herds. Donor females have since given birth to crias from matings performed soon after embryo flushing, indicating donor fertility was not interfered with during embryo collection.” Which Animals are Candidates for Flushing? Embryos are flushed from females that exhibit robust health and beneficial genetic components. This can
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mean beautiful conformation or superb fleece characteristics, in essence: genetically advanced or especially fine and esteemed animals. Obviously, breeders may have some concerns when offering up their most elite female for a procedure they may not be familiar with. We asked Jane Vaughn about first-time breeder concerns. She explains, “The main concerns are how the flushing and transfer procedures work, the stresses placed on donor and recipient females, and the long-term reproductive viability of donors and recipients. I strongly encourage anyone interested in undertaking an ET program to get in contact with other farmers who are already using the technology and talk about the procedures, and to also visit a farm on flush day to see what is physically involved with ET firsthand. Setting up a program of ET requires rigorous preparation and attention to detail. Part of that preparation should be seeing how ET works and learning how to run a smooth program.” Canchones selects donors based on “their superior genetic qualities. Also, they must be free of all known heritable genetic faults. They need to be sound both conformationally and in regards to fertility. It is easy to fall in love with their fleece, but they need to be sound in all other respects before considering to reproduce them in ET.” Julio Sumar began researching alpaca embryo transfer in 1968. Since then, Sumar has published more than 100 scientific articles in journals, proceedings, congresses and specialized meetings. Sumar is also a respected alpaca judge in Perú and in the USA. His advice on which animal to pick as a candidate for receiving an embryo is clear. “You must select the best breeding males and females and carefully observe the next generation. This is called good ‘progeny testing.’ In this way, you will get the best breeding males and females for using them in other crosses.” We asked breeders Rob and Joanna Stephens of RobAsia Alpaca Ranch what sort of animal they would pick as a candidate for embryo flushing and why. Their response assumed they “have perfected the proper protocols for embryo harvest and implantation.” They said, “Initially, we would begin our ET program by selecting a dam and sire who consistently produced offspring with genetic merit for luxury fleece production and no genetic defects/abnormalities. Our next step would be to produce multiple offspring from unproven dams and sires and measure the quality and variability of their offspring. Those combinations that produce the best quality with the least variability would be selected for additional embryo harvest and implantation into recipients. We believe 26 | Alpaca Culture • June 2013
this method would produce the best results with the lowest risk in the least amount of time.” Candidates for Receiving ET Embryos Alpacas with strong mothering instincts are chosen to carry ET crias. It is imperative that these animals are healthy and well adapted to stress. As to what sort of animal RobAsia Alpaca Ranch would choose as a candidate for receiving a flushed embryo, Rob and Joanna Stephens’ answer is simple. “Any proven female with excellent maternal production history and no health issues,” they note. “Her production history would show unassisted deliveries, normal birth weights and high wean weights.” Kennedy and Gane add, “Selection of recipients is a key factor in the success of your program. We select females that have been proven as good mothers. They need to be fit and healthy. Some females will not work as recipients and if they fail to carry an embryo more than three times we remove them from our program. Any female that fails to mother their cria well or whose cria is slow to grow out is removed from the program.” Noted camelid researcher and veterinarian Julio Sumar says, “Do not use yearlings or small alpacas that do not reach size and body weight,” he cautions, “because they are less fertile that those that already have a cria. Alpaca donors should have at least one cria, so you are sure of their fertility. The BC [body condition] should be more than 2.8 and no more that 4.5. Don’t use obese alpacas.”
Embryo Transfer in Other Livestock Industries
Most dairy and beef breeds commonly use embryo transfer. In fact, the cattle industry was an early adopter of the technology. Cattle just three weeks old are being sold for large sums because people can be certain of what characteristics they are getting without waiting until the animal is an adult. Since embryo transfer is still relatively new in alpacas, we asked someone who is familiar with embryo transfer in other livestock his views. Michael D. Bishop is the owner operator of MB Genetics, Inc. where he and his wife, Barbara, breed and market Angus cattle and Southdown sheep. Michael has a PhD in Animal Breeding and Genetics with an emphasis in Molecular Biology. He was author of the first genetic linkage map for cattle, founder of a biotechnology company that pioneered animal genetic testing, animal cloning and use of transgenics. He has bred and sold several million dollars of purebred beef cattle and Southdown sheep using advanced genetic and reproductive technologies.
“Embryo transfer is used in almost all livestock cattle. He replied, “The biggest milestone came in the species,” he says. “It was developed initially in cattle late 1970s when non-surgical ET was perfected, setting and was sequentially developed for other species as the the stage for a more robust use of the technology in the technology was perfected. My first experience with ET field without the need to send donors to a special facility was in 1976 using surgical methods in cattle. We were an and thus interrupting their in-herd production cycles. The early adopter of the technology and used it to expand the next was development of IVF, which allowed the use of genetic contribution from high genetic merit cows in the ET from donors who were not responding to traditional herd and drive genetic progress at a more rapid pace.” superovulation protocols. IVF also extended the time a He explains the process of embryo transfer in terms producer could recover unfertilized oocytes (eggs) from of genetic progress, marketing direction, economic valua donor to well into the latter half of her first trimester ations and breeding goals. of pregnancy, thus increasing the production period for “Greater genetic progress is realized from the identispecial donor females. fication of superior dams and the production of offspring “As an example, we made 27 pregnancies by IVF of by several sires. This increases the true genetic evaluaa young bred heifer that all calved in the same year that tion of the dam and allows one to identify the truly supeshe had her first natural calf. This allowed us to really derior dams within the species, breed or herd. Initially, ET termine the genetic value of the female, which turned out was used within a herd to expand the genetic influence to be huge in our herd. When semen-sexing technologies of proven dams but when EPDs [estimated progeny were perfected, producers could use multiple sires to differences] became available for each breed of fertilize oocytes (unfertilized eggs) with gender an·es·trous cattle, offspring produced by ET accelerated specific semen. Now, with genomic selection [an-es-truhs] genetic progress and allowed greater productechnology combined with EPDs and advanced adjective tion from superior females from their lifetime 1. not showing estrus. reproductive technologies, it is incredible what production cycles. can be achieved in a short period of time.” 2. not in a state “Genetic progress for measured traits with As to ET advantages and disadvantages, of estrus; not economic relevance is much more rapid within Bishop was clear: “There have really been no in heat herd, breed and species now. Once the tools were in disadvantages to having access to advanced reproducplace to quantitatively identify superior genetics of fetive technologies such as ET. In the early days, many males, the monetary value of them began to dramatically producers over-stimulated the donor and caused anesescalate. Several years ago, the Angus breed recorded trous but now those protocols and skill sets of the those its first individual million-dollar female but now, several practicing the technology have advanced immeasurably. females have recorded multiples of millions of dollars of Monetary valuations have continued to escalate for offspring produced just from them. superior donor females. With more genetically superior “As breeders began to realize how they could utilize males available for the commercial bull market, the cattle ET, IVF [in-vitro fertilization], ovum pick-up from industry has contracted in numbers but expanded in virgin and bred heifers and combine those reproductive total production output in recent decades. This is a good technologies with sexed semen from genetically superior thing because competition for natural resources is fierce bulls used in AI [artificial insemination], the pace of in the market place. I don’t know of anyone who would genetic progress has really quickened. Now, with use of discount the value of AI, ET, EPDs, genomic profiling or quantitatively predictive genomic arrays, breeding goals gender-specific semen in the cattle business today.” are set and met at an even faster rate. Skipping generaBishop continues, “In the early days of AI, it was tions by using reproductive tools we have available feared that that technology would decrease value of today allows breeders to push the genetic envelope much bulls. That did not happen! Still less than 20% of all beef faster in cattle. For instance, in Holstein cattle today, the cattle are artificially inseminated and top commercial combination of pedigree, EPDs, genomic profiling and bulls are bringing nearly $10,000 in some markets. ReIVF from young virgin heifers allows producers to make productive and genetic evaluation technologies have inET pregnancies from females whose own dams have not creased monetary valuation for both males and females. yet reared a natural calf (i.e., three-month old heifers are The good ones always sell for a high premium. now used to make ET offspring that have grand maternal “At this juncture in cattle production history, we dams that have not had a calf yet!).” really cannot compare having the technology versus not We were curious about what Michael Bishop having access to the technology. Those producers with thought occurred to make embryo transfer successful in herds who chose to not use advanced reproductive and Alpaca Culture • June 2013 | 27
All Photos courtesy Canchones
Above: Beautiful young animals congregate. Many beliefs and superstitions circulate around alpaca reproduction. For instance, old wives’ tales indicate orgling causes ovulation, but scientists now believe the real cause is a chemical produced in alpaca prostates. Research continues around the world on this and other somewhat esoteric topics related to alpaca fertility and reproduction. See page 6 for recent discoveries reported by Alpaca Research Foundation. Above right: Alpacas with strong mothering instincts are chosen to carry embryo transfer crias. It is imperative that these animals are “healthy and well adapted to stress.” Below right: The Canchones alpaca herd is the premier black herd of Suri and Huacaya in Australia, with more than 400 animals living on the farm.
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genetic technologies are generally gone from the market place. There is not a herd in North America that has not benefited in some way from these technologies. Once the ‘genie was out of the bottle,’ the industry adopted, adapted and implemented strategies to deal with the reality of having access to it in a very positive way. “Without ET, we would not have made as much genetic improvement in the whole population of cattle that we have made to date. The availability of multiple sons and daughters of superior donors has allowed breeders to multiply the genetic gain in multiple environments and management situations. The cattle industry (beef and dairy), sometimes reluctant to adopt and adapt in the early days, has come to realize that in order to remain a competitive source of food for human consumption (protein food source) it needs to keep advancing the traits for pure production and end product merit traits at a fast pace and remain competitive for the natural resources available. The consumer of retail products drives the food produced and those breeds and species of livestock who keep focused on that fact and move towards greater production efficiencies will remain viable.” Michael Bishop explained how genetic prediction information, genomics and visual appraisal are used in cattle when selecting animals for ET. “In the cattle business, we have experienced several pendulum swings concerning right cattle size and stature of animals over time. We have made a lot of progress in value of end product merit for the consumer and our cattle are larger and have higher yielding carcasses. We have continued to change the shape and distribution of muscle and fat over time. We sometimes get caught up with the beauty contest of show winners and such, which is a good thing because it keeps us aware that there is no substitute for form and function in the cattle business. As long as cattle have to walk to forage and as long as man has to look at them and feed them he will continue to tweak appearance traits to meet his expectations of what is the right conformation and look. The production cycle of cattle is long, with natural generation intervals of around 4.2 years, so the industry needs all the tools it can implement to make progressive progress with economic reality. Genetic evaluation + visual appraisal + genomic analysis all go hand-in-hand to make a superior animal that has the predictable genetics for the selected traits desired in a package that satisfies form and function. That said, beauty is ‘in the eye of the beholder’ and cattle producers (being even more independent than alpaca breeders) have different ‘eyes’ for beauty!” 30 | Alpaca Culture • June 2013
“Because there is a social aspect to raising livestock, there will always be shows where young and old, rich and poor come to weigh in on what the current desired look should be. Most of the time, the nuances of how an animal looks does not alter end product merit or commercial market value but sometimes key structural changes can lead to calamities that become genetic problems. Everyone wants an attractive heifer or massive bull . . . in their own image! Beauty and shape . . . now those are personal choices! But real dollars get traded because of them.”
Embryo Transfer in Alpacas
In North America, alpaca reproduction is generally less well understood than other more familiar livestock like cattle and pigs. The technology for embryo transfer has only relatively recently been perfected and is not currently available in every country. (See p.34-35 for which countries allow ET).
Benefits to the Alpaca Industry
There are many reasons breeders practice embryo transfer. Benefits include producing more elite crias to create faster genetic progress, increasing the number of offspring from superior dams, maximizing beneficial alpaca pairings, financial gain, utilizing the mothering ability of certain females, saving inaccessible genes, rebuilding decimated stock in a certain area and even preservation of species. More Offspring Can Be Born Through Embryo Transfer than Naturally Alpaca physiology dictates that population growth must be finite: gestation is quite lengthy. According to Northwest Alpacas, “The average gestation period is 11.5 months, but pregnancies that go for over a year are not uncommon.” Therefore, each cria is long in coming. Further, twin alpacas are quite an exception. Northwest Alpacas states, “Twinning in alpacas is extremely rare (approximately 0.0001% of births) and should not form any part of a breeding plan.” Jane Vaughn points out, “The advantages of ET are that it is possible for donor females with fine fibre and good conformation to produce many more offspring than would be possible naturally.” She continues, “The gestation of female alpacas is around 342 days and twin births are very rare so females may have about 10 crias in a lifetime. It is possible to flush single-ovulation donors every two weeks and superovulation donors every two months, so donor females may have many crias being born each year.”
A limited number of crias possible through nature ways and means (EPDs) to identify superior females for causes some humans to devise ways to circumvent biotraits and characteristics that are deemed economically valuable, those females can and will have a more sublogical limitations. Therefore, many have devoted their stantial impact (genetically and monetarily) on the future careers to studying how to multiply the number of crias of the species, breed or herd for all the same reasons that that may be born in a given period of time. they have for all other livestock species (cattle, sheep, Faster Genetic Progress pigs, horses, etc).” In essence, embryo transfer allows breeders to Maximize Best Possible Pairings of Animals improve animal characteristics much more quickly and In addition, embryo transfer can determine the best in fewer generations than would be necessary using possible genetic pairings because multiple sires may be traditional methods. So embryo transfer can exponenused over the same female annually. tially increase not just the number of crias born, but the Stephen R. Purdy, DVM, is the Director of the number of animals born with superior genetics. North American Camelid Studies Program and PresiKeenan Scott says the genetic advantage of using dent, Nunoa Project in Perú. “Multiple superior offembryo transfer is “Expediting breeding improvements spring can potentially be produced from the combinaand numbers of higher quality offspring.” tion of one superior female and one superior male each Jude Anderson points out: “The genetic benefit and year,” he says. the whole reason for using ET is to increase the numbers Keenan Scott uses ET “to expedite breeding of superior quality stock in the national herd, without numbers of our best genetics and allow more accurate increasing the national herd population.” breeding decisions to be made based on a larger sample Julio Sumar says, “Using the very best of offspring from a particular joining. It also allows males and also the very best females, you Keenan Scott several different designed joinings to different increase the probability of having the best says the genetic sires to be completed in each calendar year.” cria,” he says, “in terms of fleece qualadvantage of using ity and conformation.” Genetic Gains, Financial Benefits embryo transfer is As far as what kind of genetic adPeter Kennedy and Robert Gane specialvancement can be contributed by ET, “Expediting breeding ize in breeding black alpacas. They started Sumar says, “The quality of the fleece improvements their embryo transfer programs in 2005 with Dr. is the most important trait for selecJane Vaughan and “have continued with embryo and numbers of tion, density and the length of the staple. transfer ever since.” They have “no plans” to stop higher quality The length of the staple is very important regular ET programs. Kennedy and Gane have had offspring.” for us, because more length equals more “350 ET cria born and another 50 in-utero.” Their aim weight. In a program of genetic selection, you is to have “approximately 30% to 50% of cria produced must avoid the use of many traits, because you complithough ET.” cate your work and the advancement of your genetics They report, “ET has enabled Canchones to fast will be very slow.” track both its breeding and business plan. Having multiIncreases the Number of Offspring ple cria from the same dam with different sires each year from Superior Dams has enabled us to identify the prepotent strengths of our Near perfect animals don’t happen every day. males and females and make better breeding decisions Sometimes breeders know as soon as a cria is born that with this knowledge. Males or females who produced she is special, sometimes it takes until she matures to see highly variable quality progeny are removed from the her exceptional traits. When a farm boasts a dam whose ET program. We only use alpacas with highly consistent characteristics are especially wonderful, the logical inclibreeding results. This has enabled us to make consistent nation is to multiply her excellence. and predictable results.” Geneticist Andy Merriwether, Associate Professor of “The business impact: ET has enabled Canchones to Anthropology BA, BS, MA, PhD at Pennsylvania State sell its very best alpacas as we have equals still on farm. University, sums it up: “The plus [of ET] is you could To advance the industry, we need many breeders with an make more cria out of your best dams than they could elite breeding program, not just us. We are also able to normally make in a lifetime.” put these clients’ females into our managed ET program Michael Bishop believes ET could “most definitely” allowing further quality improvements.” benefit the alpaca industry. He asserts, “Once there are Alpaca Culture • June 2013 | 31
Photo courtesy Keenan Scott, Waiheke Alpaca Stud
Right: Alpaca embryos from flushed females ready for implant into recipient mothers. Below: A transfer straw draws up alpaca embryos in the lab.
Photo courtesy Canchones
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Photo courtesy Canchones
Above: Scanning a donor alpaca in preparation for the flush of embryos in Australia. Robert Gane explains, “We are all interested to see the result of our preparation and are staring at the ultra sound monitor.” Left to right: Robert Gane, Graeme Meyer, Peter Kennedy, Dr. Jane Vaughn. The alpaca is Canchones Prada, who has had 36 cria.
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Utilize Excellent Mothering Ability of Certain Females Some female alpacas are excellent mothers while others are less attentive. Occasionally, a dam will not supply enough milk or be indifferent to her baby. ET can tap into the especially excellent mothers’ skills and use them to move the herd forward more quickly. As to why she used embryo transfer, Jude Anderson said, “Purely and simply, to increase the numbers of superior stock and decrease the numbers of just average or inferior stock. And also to use the excellent mothering ability of inferior quality breeding females to raise those cria. It was also beneficial to us personally because it meant that we kept cria from our best females in Australia when we brought those dams to the U.S.” Keenan Scott echoes her sentiments: “It also gives the opportunity to use their poorer quality dams with good mothering ability as recipients, effectively making them as productive as their best dams.” Save and Regenerate Valuable But Inaccessible Genes Another benefit of ET is to obtain offspring from old or injured animals incapable of bringing a cria to term. Jude Anderson says, “ET also enables superior quality females that can conceive but may be incapable of carrying a cria to full term because of a prior dystocia/ injury to still be able to reproduce. These females would no longer be lost to the gene pool. It also means that lower quality females that are excellent mothers can still be put to good use, but at the same time be removed from the gene pool. In both instances, the genetic benefit to the national herd is raised.” Gregg Adams, DVM, MS, PhD, DiplACT is a Professor of Veterinary Biomedical Sciences at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan. He enumerates the benefits of ET: “The advantages of embryo transfer in alpacas are: 1) embryos from valuable females may be transferred to less valuable recipients; valuable animals can therefore produce more embryos than would otherwise be possible, 2) some infertility problems in valuable animals may be bypassed by embryo transfer, 3) preservation of endangered species (vicuña and guanaco), and 4) genetic improvement may be accelerated.” Huge Influx of Usable Alpaca Fiber All the new, high quality animals could mean a great deal of superb fiber can be produced and made available for textile manufacturing. Peter Kennedy and Robert Gane “can see no disadvantages,” to ET. “The ability to replicate elite alpacas 34 | Alpaca Culture • June 2013
will enable the industry to advance the number of quality producing fibre animals,” they note. This could make alpaca fiber a household word and something everyone is familiar with, one of the ultimate goals of the industry. However, it is important that the new animals being produced are extremely high quality. Because multiplying mediocrity is not the way of the future. Small Farms as Particular Embryo Transfer Beneficiaries? Keenan Scott points out that ET might be beneficial to small farms in particular. “It allows maximization of their best, albeit a potentially smaller group of alpacas, expanding the numbers of offspring produced in a given period and hopefully resulting in a greater depth of quality within their herd.” Michael Bishop asserts, “Small farms become large quality producers when they embrace reproductive technologies combined with use of EPDs and genomic analysis. Small farms become more competitive and more competitive small farms purchase more expensive females and drive more people into a species or breed. Most large farms initially fear the use of some technologies outside of their farms but the reality is that access to technology expands marketing opportunities and makes the way to a more robust specie or breed economy.” He continues, “In the cattle business, when a firm becomes so dominant that no one else can compete the interest in the breed generally always decreases. We are seeing that now in one of the old time major breeds of cattle. Genetics and banners have been sequestered into the hands of a few and that has strangled participation. That same breed has focused primarily on competition in the show ring and resisted application of EPD technology for performance and end product merit traits. Because of that focus, they have distanced themselves from relevance to the commercial beef producer and thus have no market for their bulls. They have become a ‘show heifer’ breed for youth programs. Their relevance in the beef production world has been severely diminished. This is a shame, because 50-60 years ago they were the breed of choice for the commercial cattleman focused on efficient beef production.” Peter Kennedy and Robert Gane of Canchones note, “The size of the farm is not an issue. The industry is very comfortable with co-owning herdsires. With ET, the same logic that makes co-owning males a sound breeding and business strategy applies to quality/elite females. Small breeders can work as a syndicate to advance the breeding program through multiple ovulation embryo
transfer. By their nature the key issue for small farms is quality, not volume.” Jude Anderson says, “[ET] increases the quality of any herd, no matter if it’s big or small.” Rebuild Genetic Stock En Masse Julio Sumar explains, “Perú has lost, in the last 35 years, a great number of its genetic stock due to the exportation and black-marketing of alpacas to Bolivia and Chile. We need urgently to increase the genetic quality of our herds by means of embryo transfer which we consider the best and quickest way to reach the preexportation period, around 1980.” Preservation of Threatened Species Obviously, alpacas aren’t endangered because they are domestic animals. However, their relatives the vicuñas have been in the past although they are now considered “of least concern.” Embryo transfer used with them can increase numbers dramatically and preserve a species still considered vulnerable. Clearly, saving this rich genetic heritage is priceless to both the South American countries where the vicuñas make their homes and to the world at large.
Concerns and Roadblocks
Not everyone in the alpaca community agrees that embryo transfer is a beneficial path to begin traveling down. Concerns include the difficulty of the procedure, costs, ethical issues, gene pool and inbreeding factors, economic repercussions and other scientific reasoning. Difficult to Freeze Embryos Part of the difficulty with embryo transfer is that no perfect techniques exist for reliably freezing alpaca embryos now. However, Paul Taylor of Taylor Llamas pioneered the first attempts at freezing alpaca embryos. He notes in his article The Dracula Pipette, and How It Made Freezing of Camelid Embryos Possible: “The solution to this problem of freezing camelid embryos had taken me 13 years and about 3,000 hours of work alone in our little lab. I felt a bit like the guy who made the original run to Marathon and fell dead at the finish. I just didn’t want to go back into the lab to work out the remaining bugs in the freezing protocol. Now I find it a real pleasure to do the work necessary to make freezing of embryos a practical reality for camelid breeders around the world.” Taylor’s article explains why it is such a difficult endeavor to freeze embryos. “The early embryos of the camelids mature at a faster rate than those of other livestock species, and they break out of the zona pellucida, a process called hatching, before they reach the uterus.
That means the early embryos obtained non-surgically from camelids are much larger and contain much more water than the embryos flushed from cows. These early camelid embryos are basically a thin spherical envelope of living cells surrounding a central volume of aqueous solution. That makes them very difficult to freeze using conventional methods that depend on osmotic penetration of the envelope by cryoprotectant molecules.” Timing is Everything According to Jane Vaughn, embryo transfer disadvantages “include that it is not possible to freeze embryos on a commercial basis, so all embryos are transferred on the day of collection, which means crias will be born 342 days later. This may interfere with having a condensed birthing/weaning/mating pattern.” While embryo transfer is a viable technique and many are practicing it, the farm must have some knowledge and expertise to do it successfully. Certainly, practice makes perfect, but the first few instances may go more smoothly with outside, expert help. A commercial embryo transfer operation therefore also makes skilled technicians necessary and maintaining a staff around alpaca fertility cycles can be costly. Julio Sumar notes, “The disadvantage [of ET] that I see in my experience is how to manage the input and output of females of a large scale of commercial enterprise. You must have at least three alpaca receptors synchronized for each alpaca donor. Also, you need a permanent staff of people screening the herd for a) New alpaca donors entering in the program, that need to be of good quality and b) Preparing those alpacas to be synchronized (and checking daily ovulation and CL formation). Synchronized receptor alpacas that are going to receive the embryos should be in the very best body condition, more than 2.8 in a scale of 1 to 5.” “Regarding the males, you need a number enough for having services daily, no more than three services per week. In other words, you need a good staff of helpers at the farm, to manage the different classes of females. For example, new alpacas entering the program, those to be synchronized for donors, for receptors, etc.” Special Equipment, Facilities, Training and Costs Clearly, embryo transfer takes education, planning and an investment. It also requires a few special considerations. In response to whether any farm can do ET or if it takes special facilities, equipment and training, Michael Bishop says, “For cattle, many farms have on-farm capabilities depending on the size and scope of the operation and economic justification. For alpaca, it will take an experienced technician, initially.” Alpaca Culture • June 2013 | 35
Embryo Transfer: A World View With a topic as complex as embryo transfer, nothing is black and white. Alpaca Culture tried to simplify each country’s views by asking each alpaca registry for very short answers with strict limits on length. Here is what we asked: 1. Do you register animals derived from ET? 2. In 20 words or less, can you sum up your registry's feelings toward embryo transfer in alpacas?
Lori May Executive Administrator Canadian Llama & Alpaca Association No, the CLAA cannot register alpacas born as a result of AI or ET. It’s a bylaw issue, which the Board is in the process of reviewing so I can’t answer what the CLAA’s position will be until the Board has set the direction.
Darby Vannier Executive Director, Alpaca Registry, Inc., United States The ARI Bylaws and Policies do not permit registration of alpacas derived from ET. The ARI Board does not have a position on the use of ET or other reproductive biotechnologies. ARI Bylaws, created years ago and approved by the membership, prohibit the registration of alpacas created through the use of ET, AI, or cloning. The Registry has encouraged education and research on this subject as evidenced by the focus of the 2011 International Conference on Camelid Genetics & Reproductive Biotechnologies organized by ARI and ARF.
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Cristiano Bianchi President, Societa Italiana Alpaca (SIA) Yes, we do accept animals derived from ET in our registry. We see ET as a useful technique. However we think that a clear regulation must be stated around it and this will be developed in the coming years.
Libby Henson, British Alpaca Society Yes, the BAS does allow embryo transfer and has registry rules to accommodate the resultant cria. Both the biological parents, the recipient and the embryo must all be DNA typed and the parentage check completed.
Sini Honkala Chairperson, Alpaca Breeders of Finland DNA based Alpaca Registry of Alpaca Breeders of Finland was established in 2011. There are no alpacas derived from ET in Finland so far.
I am afraid the BAS does not have ‘feelings’ about embryo transfer. It is an available technology which is recognised by the society and members can use it if they wish to do so.
Alpaca Breeders of Finland supports ET. In the future, ET will most likely be helpful improving the quality of the Finnish alpaca population, while importation of alpacas has been made very difficult for us with quarantines lasting 12 months with a demanding testing protocol. The registry rules will be updated considering ET in the future.
Joy Walker General Manager, Australian Alpaca Association Ltd. Yes [ET animals are registered in Australia]. The Australian Alpaca Association supports members who strive to improve the genetics of their herd through embryo transfer.
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Kit Johnson President, Alpaca Association of New Zealand Yes, we can register animals derived from ET. Peter-John Garbutt South African Alpaca Breeders Society Yes, we do accept and register ET. The registry has no feelings, it accepts ET, our Society has members that are both for and against ET.
Embryo Transfer has been done in New Zealand for about eight years now but few members have embraced it. Cost and inconsistency of results in a difficult market probably explain the poor response. As a breeding tool, it is probably the best way to fast track your breeding objectives. Our registry has no issues with embryo transfer. Alpaca Culture • June 2013 | 37
Keenan Scott says, “Given the amount of variables “Breeders must be cognizant of multiple characterisyou can influence to ensure the best chance of success, tics when selecting breeding pairs,” he continues. “These most farms can undertake ET but whether this is either include fertility, resistance to disease, and mothering practical or economic is another thing.” ability. These should not be lost by focusing just on one “There is a lot of forward planning involved selectcharacteristic such as fiber. ET does not work for every ing and preparing stock, pasture type, quality and weathpotential donor. Recipients should be selected on strict er pattern considerations, but most of all the dedication criterion of fertility and mothering ability, as well. You and accuracy required through each ET program. cannot have one donor and one recipient and expect to always get a cria born.” “It is continually an evolving process, with patience As to what kind of genetic advancement can be and the will to continually modify and make improvecontributed to ET, Gregg Adams has this to say: “As with ments pertaining to your ET program on your farm. I any livestock industry, the rate of genetic improvement think any farm can have success utilizing ET!” Scott says. depends on the willingness of the industry to use the According to Peter Kennedy and Robert Gane, “Any tools available, and the ability to define what traits are breeder can do the preparatory work for embryo transfer being selected for.” but we have always used Dr. Jane Vaughan to facilitate the transfer from the donor females to the recipiReducing the Genetic Pool ent females. Our approach has always been to If only a small percentage of animals are use the best veterinary skills on your elite being bred, genetic diversity suffers. “EmJude Anderson alpacas.” bryo transfer is a demanding process that points out: “The genetic Stephen Purdy notes that disadbenefit and the whole reason requires expertise,” Gregg Adams says, vantages of the current techniques: “so sudden widespread use is unlikely. for using ET is to increase the “The technique is technically (and Even if use does become widespread, it numbers of superior quality can be used to the betterment or the detritime) demanding and relatively costly.” stock in the national herd, ment to the genetic pool; i.e., it can be used It can, “Happen on-farm,” Jude without increasing to spread desirable genetics more widely, or Anderson says. “You just need a clean room the national herd it can result in reduction of genetic diversity where the embryos can be observed, isolated, (if a given male/female pair are over-used). The population.” washed and set up for implantation. The ET latter can be easily controlled by the Registry.” practitioner (either a trained, experienced ET vet or “The negative is in doing so, you are reducing the trained, qualified ET technician) would bring the equipvariation in your herd,” Andy Merriwether says. “To ment necessary for the procedure. The practitioner does some people that is a good thing. To me, the strength of need to be trained and proficient, this is most important.” camelids lies in that they are not inbred in the US.” Analytical Selection Techniques and Expert Flooding The Market Breeding Techniques Necessary The laws of supply and demand that apply here are While excellent progress can be made with ET that if demand stays the same and supply decreases, a genetically, the converse also applies. Poor breeding shortage occurs, leading to a higher average price. Howchoices are multiplied even more quickly with ET, resultever, if demand stays the same and supply increases, a ing in harm to the progress of alpacas and ultimately, the surplus occurs, leading to a lower average price. Thereindustry. Responsible and science-based techniques must fore, individuals concerned about the alpaca economy guide breeders who practice ET. in light of a less than robust global economic outlook “Recipients and donors must be carefully selected,” caution temperance. Some believe too much of a good Stephen Purdy notes. “Animals of good fertility and thing could crash the economics of the industry. In times mothering ability but average fleece could be selected of global economic challenge, is adding a lot of supply in as recipients. Donors should have good fertility also to a relatively short time period good for demand? ensure that we do not potentially produce multiple offEthics and Risks spring with poor fertility. Every cria born from the same Some members of the alpaca community simply dispair will not necessarily be of top quality just as with agree in principle with ET because it can seem to reside normal breeding plans. You can, however, get insight on morally shaky ground. Is it wise to interfere with Nainto the potential production of a pair all in one year with ture in this way? Are we being arrogant in approaching multiple crias born.” living things as an entity that can be increased through 38 | Alpaca Culture • June 2013
our actions for human gain? So many times in history, humans have thought they have outwitted Mother Nature only to be taught a costly lesson. These are some of the questions the alpaca community is asking. Dr. Julio Sumar, in “Advantages and Disadvantages of Embryo Transfer and Artificial Insemination in Camelids,” notes: “Other important aspects that should be addressed concern ethical and animal welfare issues. Interspecific ET, genetic testing and gender selection before transfer, use of poor fertility animals, superovulation effects on the female and animal suffering if the techniques are used by untrained persons, are just a few of the aspects that should be considered in drafting any recommendations for the use of these biotechnologies.” Some suggest that if ET were adopted widely, a temptation to overbreed alpacas might occur, making animals breeding machines and leading to abusive practices. Responsible scientists and breeders would never allow harm to come to alpacas on their behalf. Therefore, we asked what risks might occur to the sire, dam or cria with ET. Jane Vaughn says, “To date, there have not been any issues with health or reproduction involving artificial breeding technologies in dams, sires or crias, above and beyond what happens with normal matings, pregnancies and births.” Stephen Purdy is succinct. “There are no significant risks to sire or dam and none to the cria.” Gregg Adams explained, “The risks to the animals (sire, dam, cria) associated with ET are minimal. There are no side effects, and the donors or recipients can return to normal reproduction at any time. There are no known ET-related problems with the offspring. Similarly, the risks to the industry are also minimal.” Michael Bishop points out, “It is a good idea to identify and test for viruses that might be detrimentally transferred between parent and offspring. Once identified, they are easily managed by whatever is the appropriate testing means. Risks to the females might be from overuse of hormonal stimulating drugs, too aggressive manipulation of the reproductive tract and so forth. These types of issues will resolve themselves as trained personnel become more experienced.” Peter Kennedy and Robert Gane of Canchones pay close attention to the welfare of their animals during ET. They use a strategy to reduce alpaca stress: “We try to minimize stress in our animals so as soon as we start to plan a program, we organise our groups so that the alpacas are able to develop a hierarchy within their groups. These groups are maintained as long as possible.”
“The animals are used to being run into our barn to be weighed monthly, so the routine of running them into the barn for their treatments is not a stressful event.” Kennedy and Gane note, “Donors over time tend to put on excess weight. This will have a negative impact on their performance. We therefore try to maintain their weight and ensure they are fit. If they do gain too much weight, we would mate them naturally and let them have a cria then re-assess them for further use in our ET program. “Another issue that may require the females to be mated naturally is their uterine volume. To remove the embryos, we flush the donor’s uterus with commercial embryonic solutions. Over time, the volume of the donor’s uterus can decrease and if they no longer flush well, we would breed them and let them carry a normal pregnancy and then use them again after they have had their cria. We have not observed any negative impacts on the future fertility of the donor females being used in our ET program.” They also mention that nutrition can affect embryo transfer: “Too much of a good thing can have negative impacts on the ET program. We try to have all animals involved on pasture that is a good mix of grasses and herbs. We try to minimise the amount of clover (due to the plant estrogen having a negative impact) and rye grass also can have a negative impact on fertility.” Further, Canchones pays attention to the land the pasture grows on. “Soils may be lacking in some essential nutrients. Australian soils are often low in Selenium and this will have a negative impact on fertility. We therefore supplement with Selenium (via injection) where necessary. We are very active in improving our soil health, so we routinely take soil samples and address any deficiencies as part of our farm management.” Julio Sumar offers other cautions. He suggests intelligent selection of the parents and warns against excessive inbreeding. In addition, “Your transfer operators should have small hands with very long fingers, if possible. After eight to nine embryo flushings, you must breed the female and let her become pregnant and have a cria, and after this, you can start flushing the female.” Success Rates Feasibility is statistically less in embryo transfer than with reproductive technologies like artificial insemination.
Alpaca Breed Registries, Shows and Embryo Transfer
Some countries are currently accepting animals into their registries that were created with embryo transfer. Others are not. Many countries do not allow Alpaca Culture • June 2013 | 39
animals created through embryo transfer to compete in shows. Please see map on pages 34-35 to see which countries allow embryo transfer animals to be shown and which do not. United States The United States does not register ET animals and they are not approved by Alpaca Registry, Inc. Geneticist Andy Merriwether points out, “[Embryo transfer] is not allowed in the ARI, so very few people do it, as legally the animals are unregisterable (if detected). For ET, it is obvious, because a dam has more than one cria a year, so the software will pick it up.” Jude Anderson of Pucara International says, “We are not using ET at this time in the USA, but we have used it in Australia.” When asked what obstacles are preventing it, she said, “The only obstacle is that ARI doesn’t allow for registration of ET alpacas.” When she was involved with it in Australia, her operation “had several [cria] each year” and “21 pregnancies from six donor females over a two year period.” She continues, “Currently in the US, the ARI does not allow for the registration of ET cria. But this does not mean ET cria cannot be reproduced purely for their fiber, without being registered. ET would be perfect for a fiber herd.” “If ET cria were able to be registered in the US by the ARI,” Anderson says, “we would recommend that ONLY registered alpaca females be used as surrogate dams. That way the population would not explode, if, as an example, llamas were used to carry the cria. The practitioner would be required to sign a document verifying that the surrogate was a registered alpaca.” Andy Merriwether says, “Since the value of the animals is very much tied up in being registered, I don’t expect anyone will do much of AI or ET in the US anytime soon. It is in the bylaws and would take a majority vote of the membership to change. There are a LOT of members in the ARI so it will be very hard to change it. Not impossible, but right now there is no compelling reason to do so. Most people are not breeding every animal they have now. Being able to make even more alpacas is not really all that appealing in this economic climate, especially having to pay quite a bit to do it, with low chance of success.” New Zealand In New Zealand, Keenan Scott of Waiheke Alpaca Stud reports that the registry “accepts registration of ET alpacas.” There are “no restrictions as long as no disqualifying faults as per any other alpaca being registered.” Scott says ET is “an integral part of our breeding program.” Waiheke has “averaged three programs per 40 | Alpaca Culture • June 2013
annum in recent years.” While the number of cria born there “varies considerably depending on how large ET programs are,” this year Scott reports that “maybe 30 cria” will be born using ET. As to whether he sees differences between the attitudes toward ET based on country, Keenan Scott’s perception is that, “Most alpaca associations seem to embrace the idea. Within a couple of associations, however, banned or restricted showing of ET offspring is in place.” Australia In Australia, ET cria are accepted into the registry. However, as mentioned, the United States does not recognize ET cria. Since she has practiced ET in Australia and not in the US, we asked Jude Anderson if she saw differences in attitude between countries. She replied, “Yes! In Australia, when ET technology was first used, the board of the Australian Alpaca Association’s (AAA) attitude was, ‘Let’s work out how we can enable the registration of cria born in this way.’ There was never any question or doubt that ET cria would not be registered. There are only a couple of requirements: firstly, that the registered name of the cria has the letters ET after its name on the certificate, by default; and secondly, that the vet/technician records on an official AAA document the registered names and numbers of the donor sire, donor dam and the surrogate dam. All of the animals involved must be registered alpacas with the AAA and a special form must be filled out with all of these details in order for the cria(s) to be registered.” We asked Anderson what happened to alpaca livestock values as a result of adapting ET. Anderson says, “In Australia, initially the worth of low quality, good mothering females increased, as breeders who were interested in ET purchased them for more than the current price. Also, breeders were able to sell surrogate dams on the basis of the ET fetus they were incubating, because they had more at home. Or they could sell the actual live cria because they have more than one from the same genetics.” As to the show system in Australia and how it handles ET, she explains, “In Australia, ET alpacas can be shown and as their full registered name is listed in the show catalog, all show participants are aware that they are ET cria. The only restrictions are in the Get of Sire and Produce of Dam classes – in the ‘Get’ the progeny must be from different dams, and in ‘Produce,’ the progeny must be from different sires.” Canchones’ Peter Kennedy and Robert Gane report, “ET alpacas are able to be registered and shown in
Australia. A sensible restriction for registration is that the recipient females must be registered alpacas.” “ET alpacas are accepted in the showing system in Australia. The only restriction is in sire or dam progeny class, the alpacas must be from different ET flushes, i.e. they cannot be out of the same ET flush being full siblings. “ET has been embraced in Australia with a wide group of breeders having used it over the years. Some will try for a specific breeding objective then stop, others use it on an ad hoc basis. For others, it is part of their ongoing breeding strategy. This has not been the case currently in the USA due to registry restrictions. The use of ET has also been accepted in New Zealand, England and parts of Europe.” Canada The Canadian registry only allows one baby to be registered per female annually, thus eliminating ET animals. According to Lori May, Executive Administrator Canadian Llama & Alpaca Association, there is a bylaw issue taking place now.
How ET Could Propel the Industry Fiber, Fiber, Fiber It takes a large herd of excellent alpacas two to three years to produce a single bale of a single color of very fine fiber. By identifying the beneficial DNA markers in combination with embryo transfer, more babies with remarkable fleece characteristics can be born. More individual alpacas with exceptional wool translates into more high quality fiber for manufacturers to purchase. More outstanding fleece means more excellent garments can be made for more humans to wear and use in their homes. This could put the alpaca industry in the United States and abroad in a very good position. Keenan Scott believes, “Any tool which allows better breeding decisions to be made earlier can only enhance the improvement of alpaca and its continual push for excellence in fleece quality and production.” Jude Anderson thinks ET is “absolutely” necessary for the alpaca industry. “If we are really serious about a US alpaca fiber industry and about improving the quality of the US herd, ET is the only way to go!” As to what it could do to the textile industry, she says, “The fiber industry would have greater numbers of alpacas producing the fiber that is most sought after and therefore able to meet demand,” she says. “To progress to commercial fibre production, Peter Kennedy and Robert Gane assert, “the industry needs large numbers of quality alpacas. ET enables key breeding stock to be expanded quickly.”
Keenan Scott points out that ET “will and does allow for more higher quality fleece-producing alpacas than would be available if no ET programs were conducted. Exponential gains will and are being made by the selected ET stock breeding through in greater numbers than would be there in natural breeding systems.” “Key to the success for the alpaca textile industry, Peter Kennedy and Robert Gane say, “is volume of consistent, uncontaminated fibre. These are genetic issues best addressed through the expansion of key stock through ET.” Animals Themselves Make Genetic and Economic Steps Forward If ET is managed wisely and animals are born with the sort of traits required to make them strong, healthy and indispensible to the world textile industry, alpacas win in an evolutionary sense. “If the industry is interested in improving fiber for example,” Stephen Purdy says, ‘then multiple superior animals could potentially be produced per year from a breeding pair. If a specific male is used with multiple superior females, then that further increases the number of potentially superior animals produced.” Jude Anderson: “ET quickly proves the value of both male and female alpacas in terms of their genetic ability – their ability to produce high quality offspring time after time. It also provides for the ability to put high quality alpacas into the market place, both here and internationally, while still retaining excellent alpacas in the original herd.” Keenan Scott believes ET would help the alpaca community economically “if you are selling your offspring at a premium to the non ET offspring. You would certainly have the ability to potentially sell more higher priced alpaca and still retain valuable breeding stock.” When we asked what happened to livestock values in New Zealand as a result of adapting ET technology, Scott said there is “Too small a sample as we are the only breeder engaging in ET on NZ soil to my knowledge, certainly on any scale.” Michael Bishop believes, “ET will increase the value of females in the herd. Initially, people will overreact to values of the females, discounting some more than they should and some higher than they should but valuations will stabilize as adopters grow in number and scope. It has in every species thus far that the technology has been perfected and used.” “With the introduction of ET, Peter Kennedy and Robert Gane assert, “the value of lesser quality females who have good mothering traits are increased.” Alpaca Culture • June 2013 | 41
Advancements in the Techniques and Science of ET Itself “Doing ET more naturally,” Julio Sumar says, can take the industry forward. In other words, avoid tranquilizers (using a small hand operator). Avoid hormone ovulation induction in donors, because research has showed that the natural mating (with a rested male), that using GnRH, and finally avoid the use of Prostaglandins after you have recovered the embryo. The female very rapidly will come in estrus without hormones. Males should be checked by fertility, to see if the are doing well, not only in the donor female, but also in the receptor female. Remove males with low fertility.” Textile Industry Benefits Alpaca Culture asked Maine Tops Mill’s Bob and Erin Weintraub how ET would affect their ability to meet commercial requirements for their products. They replied, “ I think we first need to define what it is that is meant by ‘commercial requirements.’ This seems to be a concept that is thrown about by many alpaca breeders, with varying degrees of understanding. A commercial mill wants to be able to process as much fiber as it can, as quickly as possible, with the least cleanup. The fiber qualities that make this possible are complete uniformity of micron, high curvature and tensile strength. Both uniformity and curvature are mainly genetic traits. Presently the ideal is wool, because it has an extremely high curvature and absolute uniformity. Wool has so much curvature that this isn’t a quality that wool producers and processors test for.” “Sheep got to where they are by doing line breeding and using modern technology to assist them in increasing the rate of genetic change. However, ET could be a double-edged sword for alpaca fiber. On the one hand, there is tremendous opportunity to increase the number of offspring born to genetically superior dams. But who determines what ‘genetically superior’ is? How would we regulate ET? ET can dramatically increase the rate of genetic change, but how do we make sure that we’re moving in the right direction? Can alpaca breeders use the technology of ET wisely, or could it cause even more harm? There are some major hurdles facing alpaca breeders, and how we over come them will determine if ET might be more of a help than a hurt,” they conclude.
Costs and Affordability
After all the benefits and detracting factors are examined in detail, the question “Yes, but is it affordable?” almost always comes up. Some breeders are small and wish to stay small, focusing on producing beautiful 42 | Alpaca Culture • June 2013
fiber for their family and friends in the cottage industry. Breeders interested in producing fiber for a large-scale textile manufacturing model may have different perspectives on the issue of affordability. Since each breeder’s financial situation is entirely different, there is no simple answer. Keenan Scott considers it affordable for his operation. But he points out that it is not possible to pinpoint how much each instance costs because, “There are too many factors and variables involved.” He acknowledges, “It is a numbers game though – the more success you have and the more alpacas in the program, the cheaper your per unit (viable cria) cost. This is the same for single or superovulation programs.” Scott continues, “Rule of thumb says that around 1/3 of your donors will be very suitable and successful flushers, 1/3 average and produce more variably and 1/3 not suitable. So we, on average, utilize nine to 12 donors per one-day program to maximize the chance plenty of embryos are produced and donors are also added and culled building through the programs to enhance this even further.” Gregg Adams concedes, “I really do not know what the cost of ET is right now – there are no commercial services available in Canada right now because the Registry forbids registration of more than one offspring per female per year. It is affordable and popular in other species (eg. horses and cows) – costs range from $300 to over $1,000 per embryo.” Jane Vaughn notes, “The average cost varies according to type of flush (single- or multiple-ovulation) and country where the procedure is performed. ET is affordable if animals of suitable quality are used in the program.” Jude Anderson considered ET affordable when she practiced it in Australia. She says, “Once the protocol was learned and practiced it was way less than the cost of a breeding to achieve each pregnancy. We considered it to be money very well spent!” Would ET improve the financial viability of raising alpacas? She answers, “Producing greater numbers of excellent quality stock would always improve the economics!” Stephen Purdy: “I am not aware of costs but have heard numbers of approximately $1,000 per cria.” In a search of answers, we looked at costs of embryo transfer in cattle where the process is well-established. “Embryo Transfer in Cattle,” a publication from Oklahoma State University says, “Minimum costs of $250 per pregnancy have been reported by embryo transfer technicians. These costs may not include drug costs for superovulation, and certainly do not include semen,
registration, embryo transfer certificates, blood typing of donor cows and ancestors, and most importantly the cost of maintaining the donor cow until the calf is weaned. Three to five straws of valuable semen can be priced from $45 to $300. Proper nutrition, health care, and synchronization of the donor and the recipient can add another $400 to $500 expense to each successful pregnancy. Consequently, many purebred operations conducting embryo transfer on a regular basis consider that each ‘ET’ calf must have a market value of $1,500 to $2,000 greater than other naturally conceived and reared calves in the herd before embryo transfer is considered.” Michael Bishop pointed out, “I have no way of predicting cost for the alpaca industry.” However, with cattle he was more definitive. He says, the cost “varies depending on several parameters that are dependent on the producer and his situation. A donor who makes a lot of embryos (8-10 per flush) can be very economical. We have a cow in ET at a donor facility and with all housing and flushing costs factored in, the cost per embryo produced and frozen for subsequent implant is running around $163 per embryo.” Peter Kennedy and Robert Gane, “have never found the cost of embryo transfer prohibitive. The issue is the management of cash flow. You pay for ET and need to wait 18 months before being able to sell the cria from the program. The key issue is to only use elite alpacas in the program. If you replicate average genetics using ET, it is expensive.” They continue, “ET has transformed Canchones’ breeding and business. Whether looking at a breeder level or national herd, the key to success is quality and ET enables the replication of quality alpacas at an accelerated rate when compared to the natural breeding cycle. It also increased the value of poorer quality females that had good mothering abilities for use as recipients.” Alpaca Culture was under the impression that Julio Sumar was able to do ET in rural areas of Perú affordably, so we asked him more about it. His reply: “The cost of an embryo transfer in the Peruvian conditions is around USD $450.00. This is to have one cria at foot. Or in other words, one baby in his first day. The cost of maintaining the cria up to one year is not included.” Increased Income Through Sales of Embryos Questions about how much people pay for an embryo are part of the unknown and comparisons to natural breeding costs are inevitably raised. The other difficulty in quantifying cost is the large number of variables that are involved. Currency differences are also an issue, making definitive dollar amounts elusive.
Importing and Exporting Keenan Scott explains, “Because embryos cannot be successfully frozen and thawed at this point in time, they need to be implanted as fresh as possible, normally same day.” Therefore, the viability of importing or exporting them “depends on distances you are proposing.” He points out that the possibility of doing so, “Certainly would allow the swapping of genetics and also allow any surplus embryos from any particular program to be implanted elsewhere with the appropriate preparation.” According to Jude Anderson, ET could open the borders for importation and exportation of embryos. “The cost of freezing and transporting a canister of embryos would be far less expensive than shipping a crate load of alpacas! It would enable breeders around the world to access excellent genetics from the US that may not be otherwise available because in the US currently a female can only have one cria per year, which may or may not be for sale by the breeder. And, vice versa, overseas genetics from ARI registered alpacas would become available to us here in the US. It would be perfect because the population would not be increased with the import of embryos, just the quality! What a great way to improve quality and genetic diversity.” “The technology to freeze embryos has not been developed to a commercial level,” Peter Kennedy and Robert Gane explain. “Therefore, there is no possibility to export embryos other than in a recipient at this time. If the technology becomes readily available and reproducible in the future, this will become affordable and attractive. Quarantine issues would of course have to be managed as part of this process.”
Advice for Breeders Thinking of Using ET
Reading and learning about ET, like any topic, is of tremendous benefit and the more you can do, the better. However, the actual prospect can be daunting when the first day of performing ET comes around. We asked breeders experienced with ET what their advice to new breeders is. Kennan Scott said, “Take any advice and instruction from your ET technician as Gospel and don’t deviate from the protocol you are given.” Jude Anderson offers, “ET is only successful/worthwhile when the donor sire and donor dam are excellent quality alpacas. There is no point in increasing the number of average quality stock.” “ET requires a very disciplined approach to the management of your alpacas,” Peter Kennedy and Robert Gane assert. “Much of Canchones’ success has been on Alpaca Culture • June 2013 | 43
focusing on the quality of the recipients. Increasing the number of embryos transferred that process to live cria has a great impact on the overall success of the program and cost per live cria.”
Into the Future . . .
As to which new processes are on the horizon that will make reproductive technologies more reliable and effective, Jane Vaughn comments, “Research is currently looking at freezing embryos, which would allow alpaca farmers to collect embryos from donor alpacas all year, then transfer into recipients to coincide birthing with good pasture quality and temperate climatic conditions.” As to ET how ET can take the industry forward, she notes, “ET can be used by alpaca farmers with few or many alpacas to more rapidly improve fibre quality and quantity and body conformation of their herds.” “Work is also being undertaken in freezing camelid semen, which would reduce risks around mating day, such as transport stress if the male does not live on the farm and climatic stress, such as very hot conditions, which may affect sperm quality and thereby reduce embryo numbers,” Vaughn explains. “Further research,” Stephen Purdy says, “will help refine the superovulation, collection, selection, and transfer techniques used in ET.” The story of embryo transfer in alpacas is being written as we speak by scientists, breeders and researchers all over the world. In search of a balance between ethics, economics and a global consensus, each is using the latest data and personal introspection to find the best way forward for alpacas and those who care deeply for their welfare. SOURCES: • Kennedy, Peter, and Gane, Robert. Embryo Transfer – A Breeders Perspective. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print. • “Reproductive technology - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Wikipedia, n.d. Web. 3 Dec. 2012. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reproductive_technology. • Greiner, Scott. “Understanding Expected Progeny Differences (EPDs).” Virginia Tech Cooperative Extension. Virginia State University, n.d. Web. 25 Feb. 2013. <pubs.ext. vt.edu/400/400-804/400-804.htmlhttp://>. • “Reproductive Physiology and Endocrinology - Embryo Transfer.” http://www.animal.ufl.edu. University of Florida, n.d. Web. 31 Mar. 2013. <www.animal.ufl.edu/ans3319/Notes/Chpt1 • “Embryo transfer - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Wikipedia, n.d. Web. 25 Feb. 2013. <http:// en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Embryo_transfer>.
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• Taylor, Paul. “The Freezing of Camelid Embryos.” Reproduction research and information.. Taylor Llamas, n.d. Web. 3 Apr. 2013. <http://taylorllamas.com/CamelidEmbryoFreezing.html>. • Safley, Mike. “Alpaca Breeding and Birthing - Alpaca Q&A.” Alpaca Breeding and Birthing - Alpaca Q&A. Northwest Alpacas, n.d. Web. 05 Mar. 2013. • “What is Cloning?.” Learn.Genetics™. The University of Utah, n.d. Web. 25 Mar. 2013. <http://learn.genetics.utah.edu/content/ tech/cloning/whatiscloning/>. • Selk, Glenn. “Embryo Transfer in Cattle.” Http://www.humble. k12.tx.us. Oklahoma State University, n.d. Web. 2 Apr. 2013. <http://www.humble.k12.tx.us/cms/lib2/TX01001414/Centricity/ Domain/3026/Embryo%20Transfer-cattle.pdf>. • “Alpaca Breeding Technologies | Jorge Reyna Alpacas.” Art-
minds Web Design | Sydney - Australia. Artminds Digital Media, n.d. Web. 2 Apr. 2013. <http://www.artminds.com.au/alpacas/ index.html>. • “The World’s First Commercial Embryo Transfer in Alpacas.” Camelid Quarterly. Version September 2002. Camelid Quarterly, n.d. Web. 2 Apr. 2013. <http://www.llamas-alpacas.com/ccq/editorials/ webpages/CQ0902EmbryoTransfer.pdf>. • “Advantages and Disadvantages of Embryo Transfer and Artificial Insemination in Camelids.” http://www.camelidconference.com/. ARI and ARF Conference on Camelid Genetics and Reproduction, n.d. Web. 2 Apr. 2013. <http://www.camelidconference.com/resources/dyn/files/191138/_fn/Tibary-BreakoutAbstract-2011.pdf>. • “Alpaca Breeding and Birthing - Alpaca Q&A.” Alpaca Breeding and Birthing - Alpaca Q&A. Northwest Alpacas, n.d. Web. 05 Apr. 2013. <http://www.alpacas.com/QnA/Breeding.aspx>. • Kennedy, Peter. “Embryo Transfer - A Breeders Perspective.” International Conference on Camelid Genetics and Reproductive Biotechnologies. Alpaca Registry, Inc. and Alpaca Research Foundation. Westin Galleria, Houston. 16 Sept. 2011. Lecture. • “ASPECTS OF REPRODUCTION IN THE ALPACA: Summary .” Reproduction, a high quality journal publishing research into the cellular and molecular biology of reproduction . Reproduction, the Journal of the Society for Reproduction and Fertility, n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2013. <http://www.reproduction-online.org/ content/16/3/395.short>. • “Vicugna vicugna.” The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version n/a. IUCN/Species Survival Commission, 1 Jan. 2008. Web. 2 May 2012. <www.iucnredlist.org/apps/redlist/details/22956/0>. • “Supply and demand - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Apr. 2013. <http:// en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Supply_and_demand#cite_ref-1>. • Personal interviews: Jane Vaughn, Stephen Purdy, Gregg Adams, Keenan Scott, Jude Anderson, Robert Gane, Peter Kennedy, Rob and Joanna Stephens, Michael Bishop, Julio Sumar, Andy Merriwether, Bob and Erin Weintraub.
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Embryo Transfer in Alpacas