Alpaca Nutrition: An Owner's Guide

Proper alpaca nutrition is a key component of the overall animal husbandry program and plays an important role in maintain alpaca health.  Alpacas evolved in a mountainous terrain with minimal rainfall and sparse vegetation. They can survive on a small amount of feed and water. The pivotal word in that sentence is survive. To be able to maintain optimal health and truly thrive, careful attention must be paid to alpaca nutrition.

This is even more crucial for females who are, more often than not, pregnant and nursing simultaneously. As nothing in life is ever static, it is important to continually monitor any alpaca nutritional program to make sure it is still meeting the animals needs. The bulk of an alpaca's diet will come from either fresh pasture or grassy hay. In addition most owners choose to feed an alpaca supplement.

Feed Analysis

The first step in establishing an alpaca nutrition program is to determine the source for each component and have it analysed. If your alpacas will be kept on pasture during the spring, summer and early fall, soil tests should be done. A nearby farmer will usually be able to suggest a good source for testing. If not try your local feed mill. If you don't know what the pasture was planted with you can ask whoever is testing your soil or again, consult a neighbour. Once you have determined the composition of your pasture you will be able to decide if it is suitable for alpacas. Most pasture grasses and many legumes are acceptable (see Pasture below)

Pasture

There are a variety of pasture mixturse that will fit into a good alpaca nutrition program. Most owners strive for between 14 to 18 percent protein. Your local Agricultural Extension Office is an excellent source for advice. The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food has an extensive online resource covering forage and pasture considerations. The Complete Alpaca Book has a thorough review of all pasture options. The pasture mix that we use on our farm is comprised predominantly of Orchard Grass, Brome Grass and approximately 10 percent alfalfa. One pasture plant to avoid is Timothy Grass as the mature seed heads easily attach to alpaca fleece.

 If not caught during skirting they will "burst" during processing and ruin the finished product. Although the grasses in a pasture will not reach maturity they may still spread to adjacent fields. If your hay source is off farm then Timothy Grass may be okay in a pasture mix that you buy from another location

. The stocking density for alpacas on pasture depends on the quality of pasture, annual rainfall and whatever  rotational grazing program is used. Under good conditions a stocking density of 5 to 8 animals per acre would be suitable.

Hay

Most of the same considerations apply to hay as to pastures. Some alpaca farmers may be lucky enough to have a hay field on their property. If so they will face the typical concerns all farmers face when growing hay. Any new farmers who grew up in the city will soon develop an appreciation for the expression "make hay while the sun shines". If you've never taken part in haying before, it is certainly a worthwhile experience, not to mention an exhausting and itchy one. At the end of the day you will be amazed at the places you find hay! 

If it is not possible to get hay on site, the cost of hay per bale and the size of bale you can handle should be taken into account in budget planning. Small square bales are the most expensive, but can be moved by most people without too much difficulty. Large square bales and round bales are more economical but require equipment to move.

A rough feeding guideline would be half a bale per 6 or 7 animals a day during the winter when grass is not available. We have 20 animals on our farm and usually go through 300 to 320 bales a year.

When feeding hay it is important to have a method of containing the hay and keeping it raised off the ground. Hay should never be fed by simply tossing bales onto the ground. Not only will this increase the amount of wasted hay, but it can contribute to increased internal parasite problems by the animals transferring parasite eggs to the hay while walking through it.  

Supplements and Minerals & Vitamins

The soil throughout most of North America is deficient in many minerals. Therefor,e to maintain optimal alpaca health it is vital to research local soil conditions. In Ontario, for example, selenium is one of the pivotal minerals that needs to be supplemented for livestock. Most alpaca supplements (feeds) have selenium and other minerals added. Alpaca supplements may be comprised completely of pelleted grains and minerals or may have some whole or cracked grains as well. Some alpaca owners group together to be able to order bulk feed and thus have greater options for feed mixes. Many feed mills will carry a simple alpaca pellet supplement.

In addition to the grain or pellet mix some owners include a powdered mineral and vitamin supplement. Master Feeds produced a Mineral and Vitamin Premix that can be sprinkled on top of the feed supplement. Feed supplements come in 25 kg (55 lbs) bags. One bag will feed about 15 animals for 1 week. Recommendations vary between half a cup to a cup a day per animal. We feed one cup broken up into two feedings per day.

Water

Alpacas should have access to clean water at all times. This is just as pivotal as other aspects of your alpaca nutrition program. In the winter, you should use heated buckets to keep their water from freezing and also for keeping it warm enough that they will drink. Alpacas will not drink if the water is too cold. Dehydration could lead to serious health problems so this is a must.

To ensure that their water supply is free of contaminants, water buckets should be rinsed daily and sanitized once a week. Although we generally avoid single use disposible products we have found that Lysol wipes are a good solution for sanitizing water buckets.