Colostrum is the first milk that any mother produces. It is thicker, richer and contains protection against infection in the form of antibodies. Alpaca cria are born without any antibodies. A cria should have its first drink of colostrum within 4 hours from birth. Colostrum can only be absorbed by the cria in the first 24 hours of life. If the dam is unable to supply the colostrum other alternatives are another alpaca, a sheep, a goat, a cow, or a freeze-dried product. The latter is easy to store in a sachet in the fridge, but rather expensive. At dairy farms colostrum can be bought with a colostrum keeper, which keeps it fresh. Fresh colostrum can be frozen and kept in the freezer. You can pour it into a ice cube dish, freeze that and then store it in containers. A handful of cubes is easy to defrost when you need it, instead of defrosting a whole litre. NEVER DEFROST COLOSTRUM IN THE MICROWAVE!!! This will kill the valuable antibodies for which we keep colostrum! Just put it in a container and place the container inside another container with warm water, or bain marie. Cria like warm milk at 38 degrees. If for some reason you need to hand feed your cria, you will need to feed a milk replacement. Lamb’s milk is best, then cow’s, however goat’s milk does not contain enough milkfat for the cria to grow properly. A commercial milk replacement powder for lambs is suitable. Alpaca milk is one of the richest milks, even though they are lean animals. Cria need the high milkfat content to grow and survive.
When hand feeding cria you need to follow a schedule.
Start by feeding 10% of the birthweight for the first couple of days, every 4 hours, spread over 6 feeds per day, from daybreak to late evening. A 6 kg cria should receive 600 ml of MR a day, in 6 feeds of 100 mls.
Remember that colostrum is needed in the first 24 hours – either give straight colostrum or a colostrum replacement mixed in the milk or milk replacement.
Weigh the cria regularly to check their growth. The weight of the cria may drop by 10% in the first couple of days, but once the milk supply is fully in, cria weight gain should be 1 to 1.5 kg a week. Normal weight gain is 6 kg in each of the first two months and 5 kg in each of the third and fourth months.
As the cria grows, increase the volume of MR to maintain the 10% bodyweight ratio. At 3 weeks old the frequency of feeding can be brought back to 4 times a day, then 3 feedings at 5 weeks old and then eventually 2 feedings: one in the morning and one in the evening. After 3 months one bottle of 900ml should be sufficient. This is not a natural schedule, but cria can be trained to this type of regime.
Keep the cria with its dam and encourage it to feed from her.
Complications with bottle feeding can be constipation or diarrhea. This usually only happens when the cria is changed from mother’s milk to a milk replacement. There are various products on the market to help out, however don’t keep changing from one MR product to another as it will only make things worse, as the stomach doesn’t get a chance to settle. Constipation can be helped by putting a little liquid paraffin (or cooking oil) in the milk, or syringed under the cria’s tongue.
Young cria that are very thin and need to go on a bottle, but absolutely resist it, can be given a paste of milk replacement. Weigh off the amount of milk powder and add only a little water to make a paste. This can be more or less forced into the cria’s mouth. However young thin cria may well have something else wrong, so consult your vet.
WARNING: never water down the formula. If 125gr-150gr/litre is on the label stick to it. In older cria you can use the lowest, in younger cria the highest amount. Thinning the milk will cause diarrhea.
TIPS: Use a 450ml cola or other soda bottle with a lamb teat (yellow cap, red teat) and in newborns make sure the hole is not too big. Make sure the hole in the teat is at the top side of the bottle for feeding. When you tip the bottle and milk runs out easily with a big stream, it is too big. It should run out in a very thin stream that can be stopped easily with your finger when keeping the bottle turned down. Cria MUST SUCK and SWALLOW, especially when just born. This will get the food into the correct stomach. Continue this in the first couple of weeks and only make the hole slightly bigger once they are used to bottle feeding.
In older cria that need milk replacement and that are used to mothers’ milk, start the same way as new-borns, otherwise you lose a lot of milk going down the side of the mouth and you would have no idea how much it drank. Give small quantities to keep them hungry and accept the bottle. Once used to taking the bottle, you can feed them according to weight and then eventually increase the time frame between feedings.
Bottle feeding: take the cria between your legs, head facing forwards. Ideally the cria should be standing, but if it won’t or can’t, make it sit in kush (basically “fold” the legs), and kneel over it so it can’t get up (but don’t SIT on it!!). Tip the head backwards, slip a finger in the side of the mouth to open it and place the teat OVER the tongue. In new-borns this may take only a couple of minutes and will become easier with each feed. Within a couple of days, they will just take the bottle when you are standing next to them.
WARNING: DON’T pet, cuddle, or talk to a bottle fed cria, as they can and are likely to develop un-alpaca behaviour because of the bonding. Be business-like and walk away without looking back when the bottle is finished.
Monitor the progress of the cria. Weigh regularly – daily initially. Plot a chart of weights of all your cria, to notice any different growth patterns. The weight of the cria may drop by 10% in the first couple of days, but once the mother’s milk supply is in, progress should be 1 to 1.5 kg a week. Observe the feeding behaviour – how often, and if satisfactory. Cria are snackers, feeding often.
General observation – look for anything different. Cria are active, and move and play a lot. A sluggish cria, resting more, and drinking less, not gaining weight, is of concern.
As a rule of thumb, a healthy cria will not allow itself to be caught easily in the paddock after the first day and when caught will make a strong attempt to escape. If your cria is caught easily or remains kushed when you walk up to it, take its temperature, and observe it closely. If its temperature is abnormally high call your vet. Cria should be 36.8 to 39.2 C.
The cria should be using its bowel by day 2. It will expel a browny-yellow meconium before that time. You rarely see a cria toilet, but in the first week you may see it straining at the dung heap. Constipation can be helped by giving a little liquid paraffin (or cooking oil), syringed under the cria’s tongue.
A cria coat is useful for a small cria in wet and/or cold conditions outside. When using a cria coat, make sure it does not cover the tail area, where the scent glands are. Mum needs to be able to smell her cria there to recognise it. She will reach round and sniff there when it is feeding.
Cria are usually weaned around the age of 6 months depending on the size of the cria and the dam. It can be a hard thing to do but is necessary to allow the female a chance to prepare for the next cria.
Some cria may need weaning as early as 4 months if they are a large size and taking all the goodness out of the dam. If you are in doubt as to whether your cria should be weaned early or if you have concerns about the condition of the dam, check with another experienced breeder or your vet for their advice.
When separating the dam and cria, put at least 2 paddocks between them and make sure the fence is intact. It is even better to keep them out of sight of each other. In their desperation cria sometimes try to find their way back and may end up in trouble eg caught in a fence or out on a roadway. Sometimes it is easier to take the dam away and leave the cria amongst familiar alpaca and surroundings.
Keep them separated for at least 2 months. It is not uncommon for cria to go back nursing after a separation of 6 weeks or longer when the dam permits it. If you return the cria to the same paddock as the dam, ensure you observe them for a week to catch any nursing.
Remating after a normal, uncomplicated birth is usually at day 14 post- partum.
Still Born or Death of a Cria
Like any other animal, alpacas need to understand their offspring is dead and also need time for mourning. Removing a stillborn directly after birth is probably the worst you can do, especially when the dam has had a cria before. They need time to come to terms with the situation and walk away themselves from the dead cria. In this situation, place the dead cria in the shade and leave the dam with it for some hours. Neonatal clinics use the stillborn and cria that die within a week of birth. If you can, please keep the cria in the freezer. Put it in a kush position or roll it up like a foetus and place it in a plastic bag and freeze it as soon as possible. The cria may help many others survive, by training breeders who need to assist with a dystocia.