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Alpaca Judging: Art or Science?

Alpaca Judging: Art or Science?
By Mike Safley, Northwest Alpacas

It is a fact that many of the exhibitors at a given alpaca show are often dissatisfied with the judge. This dissatisfaction ranges from mild displeasure to outright disbelief in the results. Show participants fully expect judges to make decisions in a scientific fashion that dictates highly predictable placings that should be obvious to everyone concerned. They believe that judging is science. I have judged 1000's of classes over the past 10 years and I would like to suggest that each decision is not necessarily scientific; there is by necessity a certain art to judging alpacas.

Judging alpacas is the process of making a comparative analysis. The first-place alpaca in any given class is the one amongst the class that most closely conforms to the ideal alpaca as defined by the breed standard and show rules. An alpaca judge must have a clear picture of this ideal in their mind. Once the first place animal is chosen, the rest of the class is ranked in order of its relative merit to the blue ribbon winner.

Alpaca judges make sophisticated evaluations in a short period of time. Placing a class starts with forming opinions as the alpacas enter the ring. First impressions are often spot on. From start to finish the judge has on average 2½ minutes per animal to observe movement, evaluate teeth, palpate testicles, assess proportion, judge fleece for fineness, character and weight, place the class, award ribbons, and give their oral reasons. A class of ten alpacas takes about twenty-five minutes to complete. I ask you to read on and decide for yourself; is judging an art, science or a bit of both?

The judge's first order of business is to sort the class by overall phenotypic quality. This involves giving a mental thumbs up (ideal), thumbs sideways (improved) or thumbs down (unimproved) to each alpaca based on first impressions. The sorting process is really no different than walking into a pasture of alpacas and immediately deciding which ones look the best, which are somewhat interesting, and those you would rather not own.

The judge takes up central position in the ring and inspects each alpaca as it enters and walks past on its way to the lineup. As the alpaca approaches the judge, they observe movement and identify any structural anomalies. Is the alpaca wide-chested or narrow, fine-boned or heavy-boned? Does it have capacity, a strong top line, or is it frail and humpy-backed. The judge should take a mental snapshot of the head: Is the wool cap full; are the ears spear-shaped; is the head wedge-shaped; is the suri's chin dripping locks, or are the huacayas' cheeks full-fleeced? Once the alpaca comes next to the judge, he or she begins to form an opinion on the fleece. Is it dense, fine, have good staples or locks, and is there a little or a lot of guard hair? As the alpaca makes its way past the judge, is the animal strong off of its rear legs or wobbly; do its back feet track its front feet, or does it rope-walk? In other words, does the alpaca look the part and move fluidly? This process should take about fifteen seconds.

The mental sort is now complete and the judge should have in mind the candidates for first place, last place, and in between. Now it is time to verify or modify first impressions and take a moment to review the lineup. The class is viewed in profile and their posture is checked as they stand in line. Alpacas that have major faults or flaws are noted, and the thumbs-up candidates are identified before laying hands on the individual alpacas.

The purpose of the hands-on evaluation is to find the first and second-place alpacas, the middle pair and the end of the lineup. The process of placing the class in its final order requires the judge to prioritize the myriad of characteristics that make up an alpaca's phenotype. All traits are not equal; some are more important than others. The fleece characteristics of fineness and density, for instance, are more important than coverage down to the legs. Fineness is more important than crimp style, or even staple length. Fleece weight is of similar importance to fineness.

Once a judge understands the relative importance of traits, it is much easier to place a class. For instance, an alpaca with fine fleece and less organized crimp would place ahead of an alpaca with coarse fleece and well-defined crimp (all other things being equal). A suri with high luster would place over one with good fineness but little luster.

Brett Kaysen, a Colorado State University professor of animal science who coaches the school's award-winning judging team and is a senior alpaca judge trainer, says that judges must "Good 'Em Up" when they place the class. Brett tells alpaca judges to place alpacas based on their strengths. Alpacas with an abundance of the important traits should place ahead of alpacas that score well on less important traits. In other words, an alpaca with a good bite and slightly deviated front legs trumps one with a bad bite and straight front legs. The judge's problems in placing a class are rarely this simple, but the idea that some traits are more important than others is critical to accurate class placement.

Arriving at the final lineup from first to sixth place is the judge's foremost objective. To be credible, judges must be consistent and accurate. A solid lineup makes oral reasons easy to give and understand. Judges need an analytical matrix that guides their decisions class after class.

The first step is identifying the similarities between the top animals, if they all move well, have good bites, ears, testicles and top lines. The Judge may ignore any small differences in the individual alpacas' conformation and proceed with analyzing the relative fleece characteristics.

Judging suri is identical to judging huacaya with the exception of the fleece. The primary trait for placing suris is luster. In general, fineness and density are equally important in suri and huacaya, but in suris, luster is the dominant characteristic. Luster in suris is tied to the end use of suri fleece: commercially one hundred percent of suri fleece is used in outerwear. Once the fleece is combed, spun, and woven, the cloth is finished by brushing the surface. This process creates a brushed knap or surface that resembles the glistening hair on a fur coat. It is critical to their value that the finished garment exhibit luster. A lustrous fleece on the live suri will create a lustrous and expensive final product.

When judging the fleece of the top six alpacas, they may be fairly close in their micron counts but two of the six may have exceptional density, two a little less density with the last two having the lightest fleeces. Once the pairs are organized, the Judge may place first over second based on well-defined crimp or in the case of a suri, lock structure.

Ideally, alpacas that win blue ribbons and championships are perfectly conformed, extremely dense, extremely fine, extremely lustrous or extremely crimpy. In other words, alpacas with extreme traits win. It is of key importance to remember that alpacas place on the sum of their strengths. The Judge should never single trait eliminate! Remember, there is no perfect alpaca. A big, bold, typey male with soft, dense fleece, should not be cast aside because he is a little cow-hocked or slightly post-legged. If judges insist on nit-picking every alpaca on minor flaws, they end up placing the animal with the least flaws ahead of the alpaca with the most strengths.

A judge must rank conformation in order of its importance to the alpaca's long life and efficient reproductive capacity. Traits that indicate llama blood are judged more harshly. Substance of bone, while important in a breeding male, is certainly secondary to small or missing testicles.

When all of the alpacas in the final lineup have fairly similar conformation and the judge proceeds to place the class on their relative fleece quality, it is of paramount importance that an alpaca's fleece be evaluated based on its textile value. The most important commercial traits are: fineness, density, staple length, lack of guard hair, color uniformity, and for suris, luster. Secondary fleece traits include style, character and handle.

It is important not to confuse secondary traits such as style and character with primary traits such as fineness and density. Crimp style, frequency and amplitude are certainly secondary to fleece weight/density. Handle, for instance, is linked to fineness, but a soft handling, twenty-five micron fleece is not nearly as valuable as a twenty-micron fleece with a lesser handle. Color uniformity for instance is certainly more important than the degree of crimp. Staple length is important for a number of textile reasons, and alpacas of the same age are judged for staple length after mentally adjusting for the time of shearing. Any alpaca with abnormally short fleece should be placed further down in the final lineup.

The judge is often called upon to make final placings based on different strengths and weaknesses from one alpaca to the next. There may be two adult males that are very similar-one with large testicles, the other with adequate, but smaller testicles. This difference may tip the scale for one over the other, and the same may be said for bite. Females can present another problem since their reproductive organs are not weighted as heavily, the judge may need to find another, more important, trait such as bite to make the final distinctions.

Judges must, at all times, keep in mind the alpaca's strengths, and any extreme in quality is a good place to rest the decision. When analyzing an alpaca with perfect type, presence, and structure, it surely deserves to step ahead of an animal with average fleece and conformation. Thinking of extremes in terms of a fleece's quality illustrates this idea: A two-year-old with a seventeen micron moderately dense fleece is more extreme than a two-year-old animal who would shear equal amount of 21 micron fleece. But a two-year-old with an extremely dense twenty-one micron fleece would surely be the most extreme of the three. The seventeen micron fleece is twenty percent finer than the denser alpacas, which might have twice the fleece weight or one hundred percent more than the finer animal.

Judges learn to balance strengths and weaknesses, both fleece and conformations, in every class. One of the hardest decisions is how to deal with a generally good alpaca who demonstrates a particular weakness. In general, most conformation negatives, such as base narrow, lack of capacity, or slight leg deviations, can be handled by moving the offending alpaca down a place or two from a well conformed alpaca. Significant faults in breeding males, such as bite, guard hair, ear shape, or lack of substance, must be more harshly judged. A judge should be careful not to award blue ribbons to males with negative traits that would be passed on to their offspring or impair their reproductive ability.

I have endeavored to paint a picture of the challenges facing a judge. I will leave it to each of you to decide whether you think alpaca judging is an art or a science. But I can tell you that a Judges decision often provokes the same range of emotions from exhibitors that a controversial piece of artwork evokes in its viewers.