The industry standard for many years has been to use only intact male llamas as packers. There were concerns about stamina and weight-bearing limitations for females and the risk of a llama getting loose and becoming feral and birthing in the backcountry. Geldings had an even bigger stigma with concerns about conformation issues developing due to gelding them. But I would like to share some experiences and encourage you to consider packing your females and geldings.
I have been very happy packing females and find many advantages to using them in my situation. For me, the biggest advantage is housing/pasture management. The female packers are housed with the breeding herd and this eliminates the need for extra pens. I train all my llamas the same way—from weaning to pack string training—regardless of their gender or fleece. I really believe in good conformation for my packers and also the brains and heart that gives them the advantage on the trail. There are certain bloodlines known for their responsive behaviors and others with a reputation for being high strung and difficult, and, anecdotally, I have experienced those tendencies over generations of animals. But that said, the first six months of that cria’s life is spent learning to be a llama and the dam’s behavior and tendencies are certainly influential regardless of genetics.
Identifying those females with the heart/brains for packing certainly weighs heavily in my decisions on breeding these females. There are always animals in a herd that may not be used for breeding, whether it is a management choice based on conformation or production or infertility, and having these animals already trained to pack gives an outlet to either generate income in the pack string or to sell these animals as finished packers.
We base the load our llamas carry on their body weight and condition, and I have not found any reason to limit loads on females with the exception of late pregnancy. Yes, I do pack my pregnant females. My pre-packing experience was a career in veterinary medicine specializing in camelids and in equine sports medicine. There are a lot of athletic mares out running barrels and roping calves while they are pregnant. The key to success with these females is that they are already trained and fit BEFORE becoming pregnant—therefore, the continued exercise and athletic endeavors help to keep them strong and maintain muscle tone. This muscle strength and tone is important for maintaining a strong topline and for an active labor. Inactive animals lose muscle tone and become over-conditioned and these factors can limit milk production and metabolism; fat tends to be deposited in the udder and around the ovaries, which can limit milking ability and cause infertility. The majority of fetal growth occurs during the last trimester of pregnancy, so the majority of females can pack at full weight through the first six or seven months of pregnancy without issue. Once you have to start letting out the back cinch, it is time to start decreasing the weight carried and perhaps shortening the trip length for pregnant packers. I typically stop packing weight on these females during the ninth month but do continue to take them on short treks without gear to keep them in shape. I like to give my pregnant females a year off between crias, so as soon as the crias are weaned, they go back into the pack string and continue the following year while being bred and gestating.
Pregnant females are some of the best behavior trainers in the llama herd and I try to take advantage of this with training new packers to string. A pregnant female is quick to kick or spit at an animal getting too close to her rear end and young trainees quickly learn to stay at a reasonable and respectful distance. The old horseman standard is to house recently gelded stallions with pregnant mares to teach them their place in the herd and I have applied this philosophy to llamas with great success. I have found some pregnant females work better with a female tied behind them in a string while others have no issue with a respectful gelding in tow.
Speaking of geldings, they make great packers. The geldings are the fill-in llamas for me when putting together a string or taking out a group. The geldings know their place in the hierarchy of the herd, but in the pack string they can be used in any location of a string, whether it is a bold lead llama or a sweep in the rear.
Breeders and outfitters have expressed concern about the long-term integrity of geldings and some have had experienced animals with weakened fetlocks and blame this on gelding surgery. Again, referring back to my veterinary experiences, tendon weakness and fetlock instability is typically related to either genetics or to becoming over-conditioned and inactive. Once the damage is done and the tendons have lost their elasticity, there is little to do to improve these animals. Many of these weak-tendon animals have siblings of either gender or a parent that has the same issue. The metabolism of these animals does change after castration (as it is hormone-driven), so managing the nutrition and providing exercise to these animals is very important. In my experience, across twenty-seven years of veterinary practice and twenty years of llama breeding, I see no negative to gelding animals and have not seen an unexplained weakness to geldings regardless of their age of castration. Geldings are often “retired” to become a companion in a herd situation and do not get the exercise they once had and it is weight gain that I have associated with post-castration breakdowns—a management issue, not a gender issue. I won’t open the can of worms to debate proper age of gelding, but I will share that, based on my professional career caring for athletic horses, the industry standard is to geld them under a year of age and they go on to have tremendous careers in athletic sports. I routinely castrate llamas at eight to twelve months of age and have not had a problem with that management decision.