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Challenges of Feeding Llamas and Alpacas!

Dr. Nancy A. Irlbeck AOBA - February 4, 2000


       Nutrition? Just say the word and people start yawning! Who wants to talk about amino acids, vitamins, minerals and fats ....... ? How could anyone even imagine that nutrition is not only an exciting field, but an essential one? Nutritionists are always "debating" about the importance of nutrition - the classic statement, "You have to feed the animal correctly before you can breed it, work it and harvest any product from it!" The argumentative rebuttal is, "Yeah, but you have to breed an animal before you can have it to feed!" Ah yes - here we are back to the old proverbial "What came first the chicken or the egg!" My challenge today is to relay just how fascinating nutrition can be and how we can apply it to make a better life for our "silent friends."

        Now, I could start talking about all of the nutrients. There are many articles and nutrition texts written on each of the nutrients and what they do, thus I will not follow that path. We do not know exactly what the nutrient requirements are for camelids. Though some work has been completed, limited scientific research has been done to specifically clarify them. At the current time, we have extrapolated "tentative nutrient requirements" from the Nutrient Requirements (NRC) of domestic livestock. I have given a brief summary of these in Table 1. I could also present potential feedstuffs for camelids. This too has been done at great length at other conferences and you can too find this information. Thus to avoid being redundant, I will take a different approach - and yet the same. When discussing how to feed any animal, I always pose a series of questions that need to be addressed before actually feeding that animal. In fact, I would advise researching the selected species before even procuring it. It is critical to fully understand "the nature of the beast" before starting and that includes how to feed it. As you go through these sections, you will find out how complicated nutrition can be; and you will see what I present in one area, could be presented in several. With that introduction, let me go ahead and list those questions that need to be considered, and address those issues as they relate to nutrition and how we feed these animals.

  Questions To Be Answered

Identification "So "nutritionally", what are the llama and the alpaca?"

       The llama and the alpaca are not ruminants but psuedoruminants. In much of the lay literature, I have seen the term "modified ruminant" used extensively. As a ruminant nutritionist, my preference is the term psuedoruminant, "pseudo" meaning false. Psuedoruminants chew their cud similar to that seen in a ruminant cow, sheep, goat, deer. However, the distinguishing factor between ruminants and pseudoruminants is the stomach, or perhaps more appropriately, the number of compartments in their stomachs. Ruminants have a single stomach with four compartments while the pseudoruminant has only three - Compartment I, Compartment II and Compartment 1II (really unique names !).

        Compartment I is "almost" analogous to the rumen in a ruminant - "almost" that is the quantifier - the rumen is lined with finger-like projections called papillae. These papillae absorb volatile fatty acids (VFA) which are excretory products produced by the synergistic microbial population. Compartment I found in the SA camelids does not have papillae. It does have the same synergistic microbial population; however, the walls of Compartment I are lined with gastric pits. The gastric pits produce digestive enzymes and buffers that aid in microbial fermentation. The VFA produced by the microbes are absorbed through the walls of Compartment I and the top four fifths of the Compartment IH. The second compartment, Compartment 11, is a further source of glandular secretions used in the digestive process. Compartment II also is the location of the residual esophageal groove that directs milk from the mouth of the nursing cria to Compartment IH. Compartment IH is a long tubular organ, the top four fifths secreting glandular secretions as well as mucous. The bottom fifth of this last compartment is the true or gastric stomach - that part analogous to the stomach of any non-ruminant or the abomasum of the ruminant. This portion of the stomach produces the hydrochloric acid and proteolytic enzymes critical in the digestion process. (Fowler, 1989; Johnson, 1989; Johnson, 1991; San Martin and Bryant, 1989)

       Even though they are called a pseudoruminant, some of the digestive upsets found in ruminants are rare in the camelid species. Camelids can develop lactic acidosis, but they have to overeat a very large amount of grain, and clinical symptoms may not occur for 12-36 hours after gorging themselves (Fowler, 1989). Bloat too is possible, but rare in camelids (Fowler, 1989). Colic is a digestive disorder associated with horses, but colic can also occur in psuedoruminants. Ruminants are not as expressive of pain as are horses or camelids, and if a llama or alpaca suffers from colic - you will know it - they will groan, grind their teeth, get up and down, rolling and other displays of pain similar to that found in the horse (Fowler, 1989). Another anatomical difference between ruminants and non-ruminants would be the camelid spiral, a colon not as emphasized in traditional ruminants. This spiral colon could potentially become impacted. There are also dental differences between camelids and ruminants (Fowler, 1989; Johnson, 1989; Johnson 1991), but that will not be discussed in this dialogue.

  Origin "Where is this animal from and what did they consume in their native habitat?"

       We know that both the llama and alpaca came from the mountainous regions of South America including Peru, Bolivia and Chili. The animals are browsers - meaning that they selectively consume sparse woody plants and forbs, often traveling long distances to find that. Those woody plants are usually high in fiber and of low quality. The combination of having to expend a significant amount of energy to acquire a low quality diet in a potentially hostile environment, and often times working - has resulted in an animal that is extremely efficient. As an adaptive response, the animal builds body reserves - reserves of fat that are not needed in our environment (Johnson, 1991). Now change scenarios - bring that same camelid to the United States - now it becomes the beloved "pet" or object of extreme adoration. Part of the "American Phenomena" is to feed anything (or anyone) that we love with the best food that we can in as massive amounts as we can. This "need" to nurture with food those living beings we love has lead to an epidemic of obesity among humans, companion animals, and those species kept as "backyard livestock." Now I may be embellishing slightly, but ...I'm not far off. As an added note, once a camelid becomes overweight the best plan to reduce that weight is to increase exercise. Merely decreasing the amount of feed is not as effective and could be dangerous in pregnant females or growing animals.

       One way to monitor and prevent llamas from becoming too fat, is to condition score the animals. This system is similar to those developed for horses, sheep, hogs, beef and dairy cows. Using this system, body condition of the animal can be watched at all times. The llama condition score system is based on a scoring system of 1 to 10, a score of 1 being very thin and 10 being obese. A condition score of 5-6 would be perfect. Ideal body weights for llamas are 250-275 pounds for a small frame size; 275-300 pounds for a medium frame size; 300-350 pounds for a large frame size and 350-400 pounds for an extra large frame. Remember, frame size is dependent on bone structure as well as stature (Johnson, 1991). It is of importance to note that there is some natural weight cycling in llamas and alpacas - a natural gain in spring and early summer, and a loss in late summer, fall and winter (Pugh, 1996a). By using the body condition score and keeping records of them, you will be able to "spot" anything out of order very quickly!

 Behavior "How does behavior of an animal affect what and how you feed and manage it?"

       Llamas are browsers by nature and if allowed, that is their preferred eating style. In most captive situations in the US, llamas have little choice but to be grazers. Alpacas tend to be more opportunistic than llamas, and in their native land showed selection of a wider variety of forage types (San Martin and Bryant, 1989). Overall in comparative studies, llamas and alpacas will consume more coarse forage (stems) than will domestic sheep - perhaps indicative of the dry season in their home country. During times of drought, camelids are able to adapt to their environment by reducing intake and decrease transit time of digesta (you do not see this type adaptation in domestic ruminants). Work by Pfister et al. (1989) indicates that llamas are better adapted to coarse forages than alpacas, because when given a choice, llamas will select tall, coarse bunchgrass while alpacas prefer plants of moist bottomlands.

       Though the llama and alpaca do not have a prehensile tongue as seen in cattle, they are able to utilize salt blocks to some extent (Hoffman and Fowler, 1995; Johnson, 1989; San Martin and Bryant, 1989), often by chewing the block rather than licking it (Fowler, 1989). It is suggested to feed loose, iodized salt in mineral feeders that can protect the salt from the environment.

      Camelids are notorious for their dung piles. Obviously because they do use dung piles, clean up is much easier! In their native environment it is thought that dung piles were used to mark an animal's home territory.

   Physiological Status "What is the physiological status of the animal and how does that affect what it is fed?"

        Physiological status is defined as the state or level of physiological function that the animal is in; for example the most common physiological states are maintenance, growth, gestation, lactation, working and geriatric. Each physiological status has different nutrient requirements to meet the functions of the body. Those states that have the highest nutrient requirements are late gestation, early lactation and growth. It should be emphasized again here that camelids are extremely efficient. Also, you will see animal variation - some are "easy keepers" and look at food and become obese. Other animals are "poor keepers" and will need dietary supplementation merely to maintain weight.


        Maintenance is defined as where an animal's weight is maintained - the animal is neither gaining nor losing weight. We often see this with studs outside of the breeding season, geldings that are not working or mature non-pregnant females. Since these animals are so energy efficient, just keeping them in a grazing situation with mineral supplementation is more than adequate - no grain is needed (Hoffman and Fowler, 1995). If the pasture is lush and has a lot of plant growth, the animals may still become fat, thus limited grazing or feeding a forage at 1% of body weight is advised. Forage is the key to camelid management, and in fact, if the diet does not contain at least 25% crude fiber, animals will develop gastric ulcers (Johnson, 1989). Forage usually has less energy than grain, and an animal will not be as hungry on a forage diet. Grain supplementation is rarely needed in a maintenance scenario. Monitoring body condition score is essential to prevent "fat" animals. As an added note, geldings have a lower energy requirement than intact males and females.


Growth involves the young cria as it is growing. Growth involves the building of body structure and will require a higher protein requirement (12-14%) than what is needed for maintenance (8-10%). Initially the cria will acquire its nutrients from its dam's milk. As with other mammals, immediately after birth, a newborn cria must consume 10% of its body weight daily in colostrum (Johnson, 1991). If llama colostrum is not available, goat colostrum may be used. Within 7 to 10 days, the cria will begin to mimic its mother's example of grazing, though full rumination does not occur for several months. Creep feed is not usually necessary unless the dam has a limited milk supply. Regular weighing of the cria will enable you to monitor this. If milk does seem to be limiting, a leafy forage like alfalfa serves as a good creep feed; but if grain is used, crias need to be vaccinated for enterotoxemia (Johnson, 1991).

       The cria is usually weaned at four to six months of age. Animals can be weaned as early as two months (Johnson, 1991), but a much higher plane of nutrition is needed (16-18% CP and 60% TDN). Irrespective of when the animals are weaned, it is a stressful time for the young animal, and a higher plane of nutrition is warranted during the transition.


        Gestation is the period when the female is bred, and the embryo begins to develop. The gestation period is roughly 350 days. Of those 350 days, the first two trimesters or early pregnancy is where females often become obese - often because of the "extra care" from their owners. I have had many arguments with individuals who say immediately after breeding, "Oh Oh, now she is eating for two!" which immediately involves a higher plane of feeding. Frankly in the first trimester or 3.5 months, the female can be maintained on a maintenance diet unless she is lactating. If she still is nursing, obviously additional nutrients are needed. When the cria is weaned, a maintenance diet alone is sufficient. During the second trimester the female will gradually begin to increase her intake of forage, and seldom are supplemental grains necessary. 

The last 3 or 3.5 months of gestation, the third trimester, is when 90% of fetal growth occurs. Now, a small amount of grain can slowly be added into the diet twice a day (for example one pound twice daily for female llama). This level of grain can also be continued for the first three months of lactation to meet the needs of milk production (Johnson, 1989). A word of caution again - each animal is different - some will need more and some will need less - use regular body condition scoring as a monitor. Most female llamas gain 45-60 pounds during gestation, while alpacas gain on average 20-30 (Pugh, 1996). As with all physiological stages, don't allow the animal to become fat, as the added fat can result in birth complications (Hoffman and Fowler, 1995).


       The dam usually reaches peak milk production three weeks after birth of the cria. Because of this, the female's nutrient requirements are higher at this time (Johnson, 1991). Again as indicated above, a small amount of grain should be fed until the third month of lactation. After that time, a gradual decrease in the amount of grain will allow for lower milk production and a gradual "natural" weaning process. It should be cautioned again that the females should not be allowed to become overweight. One of the first places fat is deposited is the mammary gland, and there is a potential for decreased milk production in the future (Hoffman and Fowler, 1995). Work

        Again, emphasizing that every animal is different and that their body condition score needs to be monitored, animals under intense work (packing) need more energy. A hard working pack animal may have twice the energy requirement that it would have for maintenance (Fowler, 1989). During these times grain should slowly be added into the diet - the amount of grain increased to provide 25-50% more energy (Pugh, 1996a). Caution should be taken if an animal is working under high heat and humid condition to prevent heat stress.


       How animals adapt to their advanced years is as variable as people. In some, there is little change, while others age very quickly - again a good reason to regularly body condition score and weigh animals. Older camelids actually have a lower energy requirement (Fowler, 1993a) than younger animals. But by closely monitoring your animal, even subtle changes can be caught early. In general, with age we see compromised strength in an animal's muscles and bone structure (joints) and often arthritis attacks the joints (Fowler, 1993a; Hoffman and Asmus, 1989). The best thing to do for an older animal is to ensure that in the heat of the summer, shade or a cool place is provided. Older animals are more susceptible to heat stress as they have a lower sweat gland activity (Fowler, 1993a; Fowler, 1994). When temperatures are colder, a heated barn and warmed water provide comfort for the animal. Warmed water is particularly important, as with other species, cold and icy water can result in decreased water consumption. Decreased water consumption can result in decreased feed intake and resultant weight loss. Also, as part of the aging process, gut function and motility is slowed, the chance of colic or an impaction occurring is higher. Monitor the animal to ensure that it visits the dung pile, or as an older animal it could be compromised very quickly. With age, we see a lowered immune function in all species. Thus alleviating stressful conditions can aid in immune function. If an animal's mouth (teeth) become compromised (Fowler, 1993a), a high fiber, pelleted complete diet could be fed.

  Environment "What environmental issues do you have to be aware of for camelids and how does that change management?"

       The llama and alpaca evolved in the cool mountainous areas of South America. Thus, it is common sense that if these animals are brought into a different environment, management will vary. Animals do adapt to the environment where they are born, but the effects of the centuries in South America still have an impact in the management of these animals. Likewise if an animal is born in Colorado and moved to Virginia, or an animal born in Virginia and moved to Canada - there will be stress involved, and intensive management is needed to prevent problems from occurring.

 Heat Stress

        Dromedary and Bactrian camels - "cousins" of the llama and alpaca - evolved in a much different environment than the South American camelids. Camels are adapted to a hot, arid climate and deal better with hyperthermia and dehydration. The llama and alpaca do not have this adaptation, evolving in a much cooler environment. Llamas and alpacas are primarily dependent on cooling their bodies by evaporative cooling via the thermal window (fiberless area on ventral abdomen), even though they do have sweat glands over the entire surface of the body. Heat stress can cause neurological damage, congenital damage or abortion in pregnant females, lower sperm count in intact males or even a case of colic (Fowler, 1994). To help minimize heat stress, fiber can be sheared, feed only needed protein (protein provides more energy than carbohydrates) and by feeding a highly digestible diet (to minimize the heat produced by microbial fermentation) (Pugh, 1996a). Animals should have a cool, shady place and water can be provided to drink, lay in, stand in or be sprayed with. (Baum, 1994). Monitoring and maintaining an optimal weight is critical in warmer and more humid environments, as heavier animals are more prone to problems of overheating.

        An excellent tool that has been advantageous in a clinical setting is a rule of thumb provided by Baum (2000). This formula provides an owner the information that can alert them to potential heat stress.

"If the sum of environmental temperature (in °F) plus humidity is > than 150 - watch for heat stress.

If the value is 180 or more - then you are on "RED ALERT" and can expect heat stress." Based on research done on sheep, Baum (2000) also advises her clients to supplement thiamin (vitamin B0 at a rate of 1 mg/lb BW/day. Again, this is anecdotal information, but information that has been applied successfully in a clinical setting for several years.

        As an added caution, just because you live in a cooler environment does not mean that your animals will not be prone to heat stress. Factors other than environment that lead to this concern include packing, racing, breeding, fighting, transportation, prolonged restraint, chased by dogs (or children) or having an intact male adjacent to other intact males (Fowler, 1994).

 Cold Stress

       Many individuals are under the assumption that cold is not a problem for the llama and alpaca, as they evolved in the mountainous regions of South America. The truth of the matter is that the temperature in the high elevations of North America (minus 40° F and wind chill) is much colder than the camelids home environment (Fowler, 1989). Under intense cold, animals should be supplied shelter and a source of ice-free water. If needed, grain can be added to their diet for extra energy - up to 1/5 of their diet dry matter (remember to add grain slowly to allow the microbes a chance to adjust)(Pugh, 1996a). In this case scenario, a pelleted, high fiber diet would allow for increased intake and thus more energy.

  Feeding "Nutrient" Management "What are some specific "nutrient" requirements that need to be monitored for this species?"

In answering this question, I will not cover all of the nutrients, this too can be found in various texts and publications. I would, however, like to emphasize a few nutrients of most importance.


       Llamas are well suited to dry, arid environments and can get by with drinking water only once a day; however, at that time, particularly if they are working, they must drink two to three gallons (5 to 8% of body weight) (Johnson, 1989). Irrespective of this, fresh clean water should be available at all times. Water is the cheapest nutrient to feed, but often the most neglected. One factor that I cannot stress enough is that producers, especially for those having wells or springs as their water source - TEST YOUR WATER! I have seen many cases involving high levels of trace minerals, bacteria or other contaminants that could affect animal health. Water tests are cheap - much cheaper that the price of an animal or a vet bill. Also, watch to see if your animals drink from the automatic waterers, as some animals are slow to adapt if they have been kept in a pasture with a stream or other natural water source (Fowler, 1989).

  Carbohydrates - Forages and Grains

       Llamas do very well on low-quality, cafeteria-type diets with minimal or no grain (Fowler, 1989; Johnson, 1989). They like variety. Grass hays are better than alfalfa because of potential hypercalcium when llamas are fed alfalfa. If given a choice, llamas usually select a more coarse, low-quality feed. In regards to pasture management, Hoffman and Fowler (1995) give an excellent overview, and Fowler (1993b) characterizes grasses of "camelid" quality. Fowler (1996) also wrote another article emphasizing "concerns" when feeding grasses to llamas and alpacas. There are also plants that could be potentially toxic to camelids, thus a producer should be familiar with them in order to protect their animals (Hoffman and Asmus,1989; Knight, 1996).

       Supplementation of grain to the camelids is not advised except for those physiological states with higher nutrient requirements - late gestation, early lactation, weaning, work, extreme cold or for thin animals. If grain is supplemented to crias, they must be vaccinated against enterotoxemia. The nutritive value of grains is characterized for camelids in another article written by Fowler in 1989.


       Protein or rather amino acids are essential for camelids - particularly during late gestation, early lactation and growth. For a llama or alpaca at maintenance, 8-10% crude protein (CP) is adequate, and a rate of 12-14% CP is suggested for late gestation, early lactation and growing. Young camelids are usually weaned at four to five months of age. They can be weaned earlier at two months; however they will have a higher CP requirement (16%). As a rule of thumb - good quality alfalfa hay may have 20% CP while a good grass hay may contain 12% CP. Camelids have a relatively low protein requirement as they are capable of recycling nitrogen like the ruminant.


       When discussing mineral supplementation for llamas and alpacas, one needs to consider the area of the country, and in some situations the area of the county or even the property. There are extremes of high and low mineral contents even in small areas. For example, one neighbor had a selenium (Se) deficient soil and needed to supplement Se, while the other neighbor had Se-sufficient land. If the individual with Se-sufficient soil supplements Se, they could create a Se-toxicity scenario. So why is the mineral content of the soil important? It is important because the mineral content of a forage or grain grown on the land will mimic the mineral content of the soil. If you purchasing your feeds, follow up and find out what kind of soil the crops were grown on - or test your feeds which is an even better ideal. Different forages need different mineral supplementation. For example, the calcium content in alfalfa hay is 4-6 times higher than most grass hays. A calcium:phosphorus ratio of 1.2 to 2:1 is adequate when feeding camelids. Again, check the mineral content of your water! Recommended levels of supplemental trace minerals are listed in Table 1.

       It is a common practice to include trace minerals in a salt career - thus the animal's individual craving for salt controls trace mineral intake. In cases of growing, lactating or working animals, trace mineral deficiencies could occur as animals may not eat enough salt (Pugh, 1996b). In these physiological stages supplemental trace minerals need to be provided in a grain mix or some other form to ensure consumption.

       Copper (Cu) is commonly added to feedstuffs, thus is considered safe, however molybdenum (Mo) is not - thus the balance between the two minerals is often neglected. In one study, Cu:Mo levels fed were 16.6:1 (36 mg Cu/kg and 2.2 mg Mo/kg), and four llamas died (Junge and Thomberg, 1989). When selecting a mineral supplement, the Cu:Mo should be 6-10:1 (Pugh, 1996b). This is particularly important in parts of Colorado or other parts of the country where there are drainage areas with extremely high Mo. If the Cu:Mo story is not enough to cause "worries," now add the scenario of sulfur (Pugh, 1996b). If the sulfur level exceeds 2000 ppm (mg/kg), a Cu deficiency could be the result. Again, a reminder to test your water!

       Zinc (Zn) is another "monitor" mineral, and producers should ensure that the zinc level is higher that the Cu level (Pugh, 1996b). High levels of Zn can suppress Cu absorption, thus Zn levels should be no higher than 100 ppm of the total diet.


        Most of camelid vitamin A requirements are met by feeding a high quality forage containing 13carotene. This carotenoid is converted to vitamin A in the animal's liver or gut wall. Recommended levels of supplemental vitamin A and E are listed in Table 1. In regards to vitamin D, llamas and alpacas evolved in the high altitudes of South America. At these altitudes, even though the animals have thick fleeces blocking 13ultraviolet light, they still acquiring enough light to convert to vitamin D3. However, in the northern latitudes, lack of sufficient II-ultraviolet light could indeed be a problem. During the winter months because of the orientation of the sun, 13-ultraviolet light only reaches the earth during certain months. This could be a problem in the case of fall-born crias, because when they are born later in the later seasons, they may not be able to acquire sufficient vitamin D3 from the sun (13-ultraviolet light) for vitamin D production. Since milk is a very poor source of vitamin D, and if young animals are not provided supplemental vitamin D, they may develop rickets (Fowler, 1992; Hoffman and Fowler, 1995; Smith, 1996). Even if a summer is unusually cloudy, or in areas of thick fog where 13-ultraviolet rays are blocked, rickets in the camelid industry is a reality. Rickets can also occur with insufficient amounts of phosphorus, calcium, magnesium or even an inverse Ca:P.


       In summary, more scientific research on the South American camelids is needed. Until more nutritional information is in place, we will continue to use the extrapolated nutrient requirements from domestic ruminants; the scientific camelid data available; and some anecdotal information - some wrong and some right - but the bottom line is that we are only beginning to learn how to feed these species. The mammalian body is phenomenal. The body can compromise and "rob Peter to pay Paul" for a long time, but ultimately the body can go no longer - and the animal dies. Yes, the camelids in the US may live longer than in their native habitat, but how much longer could they live with a better diet?

       So what do you as a camelid owner do? My advice is to research as much as possible. Research by coming to conferences like this, read the literature, and "surf the net." My only caution regarding information from the Internet is "be careful." In my preparation for this talk, I did a lot of "surfing" and became very concerned about some of the information presented as gospel. I can think of several examples where if the "advice" were followed - it is my opinion as a nutritionist - your animals could be compromised and may even die. Many of the maladies seen in the camelid industry today can be traced back to nutrition. I obviously was not able to present everything on camelid nutrition, but it is a start. Nutrition is not a panacea to "all," but sound nutrition is an excellent place to start. Good luck!

  Table 1. Estimated Nutrient Requirements of Llamas and Alpacas.

  Nutrient                          Level                             Source

Crude Protein, %            8-14                             Johnson, 1989

ME, Kcal BW'75         84.5                              Carmean, 1992

Calcium, %                    0.3-0.85                       Van Saun, 1999

Phosphorus, %               0.16-0.40                     Van Saun, 1999

Potassium,%                   0.5-1.0                         Van Saun, 1999

Magnesium,%                 0.12-0.20                     Van Saun, 1999

Copper, ppm                  13-15                           Van Saun, 1999

Iron, ppm                        60-130                         Van Saun, 1999

Manganese, ppm          45-55                           Van Saun, 1999

Selenium, ppm                0.4-0.6                         Van Saun, 1999

Zinc, ppm                       40-50                           Van Saun, 1999

Vitamin A, IU/kg        3000-3500                     Van Saun, 1999

Vitamin D, IU/kg        3000                              Extrapolated

  Vitamin E, IU/kg        17-20                             Van Saun, 1999

  Literature Cited

Baum, K.H. 1994. Heat Stress in Llamas and Alpacas. Llama Banner. April/May 1994: 71-72.

Baum, K.H. 2000. Personal Communication. Little Doc's Veterinary Care. VA.

Carmean, B.R., K.A. Johnson, D.E. Johnson and L.W. Johnson. 1992. Maintenance Energy Requirement of the Mature Llama. American Journal of Veterinary Research 53:1696-1698. Fowler, M.E. 1989. Medicine and Surgery of South American Camelids. Iowa State Press, Iowa State University.

Fowler, M.E. 1992. Rickets in Alpacas. In: Alpacas. Fall 1992: 10-11.

Fowler, M.E. 1993a. Health Management of the Older Mature Alpaca. Alpaca Conference.  Estes Park, CO.

Fowler, M.E. 1993b. Grasses - The Staff of Life. The International Camelid Journal. October.

Fowler, M.E. 1994. Hyperthermia in Llamas and Alpacas. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Food

Animal Practice. Volume 10, No. 2.

Fowler, M.E. 1996. Grasses - The Dark Side. Alpacas. Summer.

Hoffman, C. and I. Asmus. 1989. Caring for Llamas and Alpacas: A Herd and

Management Guide. Rocky Mountain Llama and Alpaca Association. Golden, CO.

Hoffman, E. and M.E. Fowler. 1995. Feeding. In: The Alpaca Book. Clay Press Inc. Herald, CA.

Johnson, L.W. 1989. Nutrition of llamas. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Food Animal Practice.  Volume 5, No. 1.

Johnson, L.W. 1991. Llama Digestive Anatomy, Physiology and Nutrition. American Veterinary Medical

Association Annual Meeting. Seattle, WA

Johnson, L.W. 1994. Update: Llama Nutrition. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Food Animal Practice.  Volume 10, No. 2.

Knight, A.P. 1996. Toxic Plants and Your Alpaca. AOBA 5th Annual Conference. Denver, CO.

Pfister, J.A., F. San Martin, L. Rosales, D.V. Sisson, E. Flores and F.C. Bryant. 1989. Grazing Behavior of Llamas, Alpacas and Sheep in the Andes of Peru. Applied Animal Behavior Science, 23:237-246.

Elsevier Science Publishers B.V. Amsterdam - Printed in the Netherlands.

Pugh, D.G. 1996a. Nutrition and Feeding of South American Camelids. AOBA 5th Annual Conference.  Denver, CO.

Pugh, D.G. 1996b. Trace Mineral Nutrition in South American Camelids. AOBA 5th Annual Conference.  Denver, CO.

San Martin, F. and F.C. Bryant. 1989. Nutrition of Domesticated South American Llamas and Alpacas. Small Ruminant Research 2:191-216. Elsevier Science Publishers B.V. Amsterdam - Printed in the Netherlands. Smith, B.B. 1996. Hypophosphatemic Rickets in South American Camelids: Interaction of Calcium, Phosphorus and Vitamin D. AOBA 5th Annual Conference. Denver, CO.

Van Saun, R.J. 1999. Understanding Vitamin and Mineral Supplements for Camelids: Reading Between the Lines. The Alpaca Registry. Volume IV, No 1.

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(Presented about 1990/1992) 

LaRue W. Johnson, DVM, PhD Professor

Department of Clinical Sciences Colorado State University

Fort Collins, Colorado 80523


"We feed our horses hay, with oats,

With grass for cows and sheep and goats.

Chickens look for grain to eat,

While ducks find worms and dogs get meat.

Cats have meat and milk and fish,

To each its own peculiar dish.

Some are fussy, others not,

But pigs of course will eat the lot...


Now when it comes to camelids,

It seems the knowledge ends.

Yet their enlightened owners will

Never starve their friends.

Each new day there's a new form of pellet,

The value of which not all of us can tell it.

So I'm here to tell you with my usual sage,

That llamas will do well with quality forage."


I preface this current presentation on camelid nutrition by explaining to the reader that I have no formal training in nutrition, that I have nothing in the line of camelid nutrition to sell, and that I am open minded as to what might yet be revealed for the nutritional betterment of our buddies. If I were to total up the numbers of presentations I have given to camelid assemblies on the subject of nutrition, it would conservatively number about 30. So, why am I back talking to the ILA Annual Meeting on nutrition?

It could be because I don't make myself clear...or is it because nobody reads the ILA Brochure #6 (1986)...CAMELID NUTRITION. I would like to think that there are some of the old guard that really believe the KISS' principle of nutrition has some merit, and that new owners could benefit from it. In addition, Dr. Johnson may just have a couple of new gems to pass along that he has learned in his travels... As such, you can be assured of something Old, something New, as well as something Borrowed, and hopefully most of it is True. 

The old will be much of the thrust of ILA Brochure #6 (1986)... Yes, the KISS principle. The new is also borrowed, and it relates to forage/pasture management. I will give credit to where it is due--namely a CSU colleague, Dr. Roy Roath of our Range Management Department in the College of Natural! Sciences. Dr. Roath has addressed our food animal veterinary students for the past several years on the topic of forage management. He recently addressed our CSU  Llama Workshop for Veterinarians. The following is excerpted from his presentations.

 While not all camelid owners have year around or, for that matter, seasonal pasture as a forage source, I am sure that we would all desire for our charges to have abundant hilly pastures to graze, play and pronk on. That being the case, it is desirable to have knowledge of pasture as a resource base and its productive capability. While great variability of plant content exists, the operator must have some knowledge about the types of plants that are present as well as the variability of quality and quantity throughout the year.

Quality of forage is the factor that, more than any other, drives livestock productivity be it growth, reproduction, or simply health. Being aware of forage quality available, maximizing its use as well as perpetuation, is the challenge a livestock manager faces. As such, the challenge is simply to match the available quality of the forage resource with the demand of the grazing animals, or to harvest the best quality forage to later serve as a stored forage, usually in the form of hay. 

Leaves are the highest quality component in any forage environment. As such, effective forage utilization is based on management decisions that allow use of leaves when they are young, green and highly palatable. As you no doubt have noted, leaves are not always young and green, so it is important that you maximize the use of the green forage time of the year. It is of interest to note that in their Andean origins, the nondomestic camelids birth and have peak lactation demands during this "young and green leaf" time of the year. Domestic camelid owners of South America generally take advantage of this season as well. Matching the breeding, criation and nursing period of camelid raising to this maximum forage nutrition time would seem advisable, both for ease of management, minimizing supplementation as well as the maximizing of performance. Obviously, irrigated pastures, whether sub-irrigated/flood/sprinkler, allow a wider period of "young and green", and proper fertilization will further enhance the performance. 

What are the foraging options available to camelids? They are really no different than for any grazing or browsing animal. We usually tend to think mostly of grasses; however, forbs and shrubs are out there and very desirable, considering the cafeteria preferences of camelids. As Dr. Roath stated: "The whole world is not made of grass". By and large, however, most of our forage mentality tends to hover around grasses. It is important, however, to keep in mind that in most cases a forage resource is not pure grass either by intention or invasion. Broadleaf plants called forbs and woody plants referred to as browse, play key roles in providing quality and diversity to the forage resource. The most commonly utilized forb in camelid nutrition is alfalfa, but plenty of noncultivated forbs (weeds, e.g. dandelions, mustards, prickly lettuce), are being consumed as volunteers in your pastures with variable nutritive value, palatability and, of course, in some cases potential toxicity. 

Animals with forestomachs (e.g. classical ruminants) including sheep, cattle and goats, as well as the modified ruminants...the camelids have the ability with the aid of mechanical crushing (mastication) enzymes, microbial digestion and remastication to digest the bulk of plant material they ingest. What is variable in what they harvest has to do with the quality of the vegetation and the rate of passage through the digestive tract. It has been shown that camelids have a slower rate of passage than conventional ruminants, indicating digestive superiority. What then are the variabilities of quality? In a general sense, quality is represented by the Total Digestible Nutrient (TDN) content of the vegetation. However, more specifically, we could focus on protein content, as generally if the protein content of a forage is high, the TDN is also high. 

If one compares the forbs with grasses on a physical basis, the leaf to stem ratio is very high in forbs. As such, since photosynthetic activity is predominantly in the leaf yielding energy and protein, most of the year the forbs yield high quality nutrition, unless allowed to go to maturity (i.e. flowering and seed production). Left to their own preferences and, in the face of abundance, many animals will become essentially "concentrate grazers” by eating nothing but leaves. This is, of course, also true when leafy hay (grass or alfalfa) is offered in abundance. 

Assuming there are grazable forages for your critters, perhaps some food for thought on management is in order. Dr. Roath offers an acronym as a guide...FIO. Frequency of defoliation, and Intensity of defoliation are related in that it basically determines the remaining ability of the plant to regenerate if given the Opportunity. How much of the · plant is left is more important than how much was eaten. Hopefully, the remaining plant has enough leaf structure or can call on many adaptive mechanisms to overcome the effect of grazing. For example, structural integrity, genotypic variation, protected growing points, mobile nutrient reserves and ability to compete for resources, which will enable it to regenerate new leaves and carry on active photosynthesis. The opportunity to regrow is, of course, influenced by soil nutrient, moisture and temperature. If intense grazing is anticipated, soil sampling and response with indicated fertilization in the spring of the year is ideal. Strip grazing, or pasture rotation will allow Opportunity to regrow. Unless uniform grazing has occurred, older, less palatable forages will be skipped and, in all likelihood, go to seed to produce more of the less favored plants. When regrazing occurs, the same plants that were previously harvested will again be the most young and green. Ideally, after a grazing period, the minimally or ungrazed forage should be mowed so as to stimulate young and green regrowth, at least during the time of year when regrowth climate prevails. The question then is how long should the Opportunity be? Because of variability of climatic conditions, there appears to be no one answer. During prime regrowth time, as little as 10days may be required, but ideally 30 days for the best plant health. This may be even longer later in the growing season. 

Questions are often asked as to what kind of forage should be planted in my location...or what is the best pasture forage for my alpacas...llamas? Again, there is no absolute answer to these questions. First of all, they are related in that in certain locations one type of forage will grow best and as such be the best for your choice of camelid. A survey of what grows best in your area, based on observation, or contact with the extension agents or university in your area will give you a leg up. Another alternative is to plant a pasture mix that is recommended for your area, with rainfall and irrigation reality influencing the final selection. And then, after time, do some reseeding with what appears to both grow well and be preferably consumed. 

The thrust of this presentation has evolved around forage care and consumption. I remain of the opinion that grasses, forbs and shrubs provide the ideal basis for routine camelid nutrition. By analyzing the forage being fed, or at the minimum having textbook knowledge of presumed analysis, a basic mineral supplement should be offered to balance the nutrient intake. Supplementation thereafter is designed for owner mental satiation and entrepreneurial gain. 





(Presented about 1999/2000)


 LaRue W. Johnson, DVM, PhD

 Hypothetical alpaca farm - 11 head

             4 brood females - due October/November

1 stud

3 weanlings

3 fiber geldings

 Q  Can I feed them all the same?

        A  No!

Q  Why?

        A  They have different nutritional needs

 Q Such as?

        A  Maintenance - ALL

Growth - weanlings and one young female

Late gestation - 4 brood females

Work -          probably none

                stud - how much servicing?

                geldings - how much fiber production?

 Q  Is there something I can feed all of them? Yes, forage (pasture/hay)

        A  How much? Depends

 Q  On what?

        A  Their FRAME SIZE plus BODY WEIGHT and/or BODY CONDITION. Also, the              existing WEATHER conditions. 

Q  What do you mean, frame size?

        A  Just a subjective scoring of how big the basic skeleton of your alpaca is (e.g. 1              (small), 2 (medium), 3 (large), 4 (extra large) 

Q  How does that relate to body weight or body condition?

        A  Frame size relates best to body weight, where we might SPECULATE that normal              body weight for the various frame size to be:

        Adult Frame Size                          Body weight

                1                                         135-145 lbs

                2                                         150-170 lbs

                3                                         175-195 lbs

                4                                         200-210 lbs

         Bone structure (fine-->med-->heavy) will influence this weight range. 

         Gender difference?? Intact males tend to be lighter.

 Q  And then what about body condition?

        A  Actually, it can work without body frame size considerations 

             and in lieu of body weight. 

Q  How do you go about it?

        A  Establish a subjective scoring system of from 1-10 with 1 being 

             very THIN and 10 being very FAT, with 5 being ideal.

  Q  So how do you establish the score?

        A  By PALPATING some key body locations. FIRST, I palpate the 

            loin region for slope of muscle and firmness. Generally I have a 

            pretty good idea from this site if the animal is 5OR LESS. NEXT, 

            I palpate the fiberless area behind the point of the elbow (being 

            careful not to touch the leg). The relative ease of rib palpation 

            will confirm my 5 OR LESS score. If the ribs are difficult to feel 

            and the loin area was soft and bulging, we are looking at a 6 OR 

            GREATER. To separate the upper scores, I then look BETWEEN 

            THE REAR LEGS and AT the BRISKET REGION for degree of 

            bulging. Furthermore, some of the fatter females will have gobs 

            of fat in the PERINEAL region adjacent to the vulva. It is important 

            to do your scoring in that order as one can be deceived by some 

            extremely muscular breeding males BULGING WITH MUSCLES 

            between their legs that actually may have a body score of 4or 5. 

            DO NOT make your decisions based on palpating over the pelvis 

            as even fat alpacas will have thin skin, light musculature and little 

            fat cover at that site making the pelvic bones readily palpable. 

Q  Having body scored all of my alpacas, now what?

        A  First, you have got some gender/age problems to initially create 

             feeding groups as they all can't cohabitate (e.g. stud/3 older brood 

             females/weanlings plus I first pregnancy female/and 3 pack geldings. 

             Then, using body scores you may have to further divide them with all 

             the truly fat alpacas (7 or greater) to be fed separately from the 

             normal (5-6) alpacas and the thin (4 or less).

  Q  Isn't this getting awfully complicated?

        A  Yes, so you really want to prevent a wide disparity of body condition 

             in your herd. DOMINANCE/SUBORDINANCE can be another 

             confounding factor. 

Q  So how much forage do I feed the various individuals/groups?

        A  Without knowing their body weights we can't be sure, but essentially, 

             the  GROWING, LOWER BODY SCORED individuals can have free 

             choice hay/pasture and POSSIBLY some supplement of grain depending 

             on low body score and weather. The normal/ideal individuals should be 

             limit-fed such that they clean up EVERYTHING or have restricted pasture 

             feeding with NO concentrate (grain). During cold weather (when they 

             are below their CRITICAL TEMPERATURE ZONE - not established in 

             alpacas but somewhere BELOW FREEZING and influenced by WIND CHILL). 

             During cold weather, we can offer free choice forage and POSSIBLY some

             concentrate (grain). The FAT ANIMALS should be severely restricted, 

             with no more than they will clean up after two hours or limit their pasture 

             to three hours of grazing. Thereafter, they should be in a dry lot. 


  Q        If I was able to weigh my alpacas, could we be more exact?

        A  It would be a distinct advantage to have both weights and body 

             score information. You would create the groups by body score 

             and then feed by percent of body weight according to maintenance 

             and additional (?) needs.

FOR EXAMPLE: Abnormal frame size 3-180 lb body score 5 alpaca is offered 1% of body weight in dry matter (DM) forage to cover maintenance. 180x.01 = 1.8 lbs. Since most hays will average 90% DM we must correct for this by: 1.8/.90= 2.0 lb of hay as fed/day.

FOR EXAMPLE: A thin (<4 body score) alpaca can be offered free choice forage and will consume 1.8-2.0% of body weight or for the same theoretical 180 lb alpaca (frame size 3) - 3.6-4.0 lbs of hay AS FED/day; 

FOR EXAMPLE: A fat (body weight of 210, frame size 2and body score> 6) alpaca can be offered 1% or less of targeted body weight (180 lb alpaca with body frame size 3) = 2 lb of hay AS FED or less to effect. 

Q  Is all forage/hay the same?

        A  Absolutely not! There area lot of differences when one compares hays 

             such as alfalfa, the grasses (timothy, orchard, brome, fescue) and straw 

             or even corn stalks. 

Q  What are the important differences?

        A  Principally, the protein, energy, fiber, calcium and phosphorus levels.

  Q  How do you find these out?

        A  The ballpark values can be looked up in an NRC table, but THE 

             values for a forage at hand are best analyzed after proper sampling.

  Q  How is proper sampling done?

        A  Ideally this is done by core sampling of stacked bales where 6-10 

             core samples are taken, mixed and submitted for analysis. Or, in 

             the case of pasture, samples should be pluck gathered, mixed and 

             submitted during the various seasons of the growing season.

Q  Where do we send them?


             206 1ST STREET

             EATON,    CO      80615



             (Servi-Tech Laboratories

             1816 East Wyatt Earp Blvd

             Dodge City, KS 67801 

             Phone: (316) 227-7123    added by Ed.)


            (Servi-Tech Laboratories

            1602 Park West Drive

            Hastings, NE 68901

            Phone: (402) 463-3522     added by Ed.)


Free choice mineral should be available at all times. The basic formula outlined below is available commercially.  It should be the only source of salt and mineral available.

Camelid mineral supplement: 50# trace-mineral salt, 50# steamed bone meal, 50# dry powdered molasses, 10# "Zinpro 100"

Mineral mix analysis

%                               PPM

Protein                                   8.5                      Mn    1025

Fat                                         4.0                      Cu       145

Fiber                                     4.4                       Co        34

Ash                                      63                         Zn     5632

TDN                                    25.5                      Fe       624

Ca                                         6.3                       Mb       20

P                                           3.3                       Se           4.9

Mg                                          .016

Na                                       14.0

S                                             .70


Modifications of mineral mix in Table 1

 INDICATION                                                 MODIFICATION

High alfalfa diet or springtime pastures          Replace 25 lbs of bone meal with   

                                                                        monosodium phosphate          


Stored forage                                                   Add 5 lbs of vitamin E (227,000IU of       

                                                                        d,l-alpha tocopheryl acetate/lb)

Selenium supplement if necessary                   Up to 90 parts per million of selenium

Prevent grass tetany                                          1.5 lbs of magnesium oxide

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