Getting the Right Llama for the Job
by Linda Hayes
It's easy to fall in love with a llama because of his personality or stunning looks. However, if you have a planned use for that llama you need to consider his suitability before making the purchase. Young llamas are fun and learn quickly. They are ideal if you plan to train for performance classes at shows. But if you need a guard llama, they will be totally ineffective until they reach maturity or close to it. So, keeping that in mind let’s look at what you should know in order to select the right animal for the job.
Let's start with fiber. If you are into spinning, weaving or are a fiber artist, you need to consider the coat of your animal. It's a given that younger llamas have finer fiber. That is, finer than it will be as they age. Some young llamas are born with coarse fleece. There are older llamas that keep a fine micron into old age. It is rare but it happens. A few ranchers have been breeding for this trait and such llamas sell for a premium. You need to learn how to detect the micron (diameter) of each hair. Thirty microns and up is useful for rugs and felting, but the prickle factor will be too great for use in garments that have skin contact. Try and find a llama with microns in the twenties.
Some llamas have lots of guard hair mixed in with the finer fiber making dehairing a nightmare. You may want to choose a carra. These are the original short wool llama that we frequently see in pack strings. Often overlooked because of their noticeable guard hair, their undercoat is some of the softest fiber in the world. This soft down can be combed out, leaving the guard hairs intact. No shearing is necessary. Another plus is that the covering of guard hair protects the undercoat and keeps it clean. Another favorite is the silky or single coated animal. While most of these do have fine fiber, it is much harder to keep clean. There are no protective guard hairs.
Perhaps you need a guard llama. Females three years and older are the best bet. They will not try to breed the sheep or goats as a male and some geldings will. For years people used geldings for guards because females were too expensive. But now that prices have come down it is best to eliminate the chance of potential smothering by using a female.
Every llama owner should learn to identify dropped pasterns. This condition is an unsoundness that makes even guard llamas ineffective. It usually goes along with being over in the knees. A llama that has bad legs will lay around more than normal and won't be as protective as one with correct angulation.
Older lamas make good guards as long as they are healthy, have good eye sight and are sound. Youngsters need to mature before the protective instinct kicks in. Some llamas will start guarding immediately but most need several weeks to feel comfortable with their new home and to bond with their charges. Not every llama makes a good guard so if you are buying an inexperienced animal, ask if it can be returned if it doesn't do its job.
Packing with llamas has become more popular than ever. While most llamas enjoy an outing on the trail, they will last longer and do a better job if they are built for it. Most outfitters prefer a long striding carra type with sturdy bone and correct conformation. Any softness in the pasterns will just get worse with time and you will have an animal that sits down on the trail and refuses to pack. A good disposition is a plus if you are working with the public but not a necessity. Many a grumpy llama has excelled on the trail.
Pack strings work best when they are all female or all male. Geldings fit in with both but because they tend to break down in the pasterns before the others, they are losing favor. If you just take a few short hikes and are not going out for days at a time, select a llama you like and condition him to pack the weight you want him to carry. Even short little llamas have been known to pack well once they are in shape.
Ideally it's best to select a short wool llama as you will have less of a chance to deal with overheating while on the trail. Of course all that long wool can be shorn to make them comfortable but too close of a haircut leaves them vulnerable to insect bites. Why not get one that was bred for the job? The carra type was developed for packing work over thousands of years. They are in great demand but if you can find one, you will enjoy your pack trips to the fullest.
Public relations llamas come in all shapes and sizes. With them, it is the disposition that is important. Disposition is inherited. Ask to see siblings and parents when buying. If one is a ‘spitter’ or seems to dislike people, look for another bloodline.
We all love to show off the beautiful suris and long wool llamas and they do make great PR animals. However, I have found that a short wool llama with a coating of guard hair is so very easy to get ready for the PR events that I routinely leave the long wools at home.
Finding a driving llama is not as easy as locating one for other endeavors. Here again, disposition is important. Choose a llama that is independent and outgoing – one who is eager to be first on the trail or exhibits independence in the herd. A llama that doesn't have these traits will not be useful when hooked to a cart. They can work when paired in tandem but you are better off with one that is willing to participate right from the start. I prefer a large strong animal with correct conformation. One that is soft in the pasterns will drop them quickly when required to pull.
Driving llamas need to be fully mature to pull weight. They can start their training as youngsters with ground driving and pulling empty carts. You will soon learn if they have the disposition needed to be a cart llama.
Breeding: If you are planning to raise your own llamas you need to do your homework. Learn the best bloodlines, as well as the ones that have exhibited genetic faults. People tend to hide the record of problem animals. Talk to old timers who were around when llamas that sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars produced off-spring without tails or with crooked backs. Studies show records and sale prices. Buy the best you can afford and avoid fads such as certain colors. Buy what you like. Sooner or later that color or "style" will be popular.
Halter Show llamas are another topic. There are so many varieties and classes. To select the best, you must know conformation. If you can attend a judging clinic as a spectator, you will learn to recognize faults that will keep llamas from winning. Finding a mentor in a top showman or llama judge will also keep you from making costly mistakes.
You will see one thread running through my commentary. You must be able to recognize correct conformation. Learn to notice dropped or soft pasterns as well as knees that are too far forward. This is about the only problem llamas frequently get. It is also where I see so many people get disappointed because they did not recognize it in the animal they bought. I'll never forget my embarrassment when I was proudly showing my very first llama only to have the judge tell me he was soft in the pasterns. Until we become educated llama owners, we will miss conformation traits that will keep our animals from performing at their best. Find a mentor, study the literature and attend clinics and seminars. It's all part of the fun of being in the llama world.