Alpacas originated from the harsh environment up in the mountains of Peru. Their evolution moulded them into hardy animals with extremely efficient digestive systems. However, they are purely herbivores and as long as they stick to their strict diet they will continue to thrive.
Grass, hay and fodder are an alpaca’s main source of food and during the summer months they can be left to graze on grass rich pastures. During winter stock up on hay and alpaca supplements for extra vitamins and minerals. Grains, shrubs and trees can also supplement an alpacas diet.
There are many important things to know about an alpaca's diet and being clued up on what they should and shouldn’t eat could be a matter of life and death. We’ve put together a guide to help you navigate your alpaca herds daily food intake.
What Can I Feed Alpacas?
Alpacas love to eat grass which makes up the bulk of their diet. The average alpaca weighs in at about 60 kilograms but only consumes between 2-4% of their body weight a day. This is because alpacas are pseudo-ruminants with one stomach made up of three compartments (as opposed to full ruminants such as cattle, which have four stomachs.) They chew a cud and produce rumen just like a full ruminant and this allows them to process small amounts of food extremely efficiently.
An alpacas diet should not be too rich. Grass hay is preferable to lucerne hay due to the protein rich nutrients, although a small amount of lucerne can be introduced as a supplement.
Alpacas also sometimes enjoy nibbling on some roughage shrubs and trees for the leaves, bark, wood and stems. Before you let them loose on your land, check this extensive list curated by Cornerstone Alpaca Stud by to find out which native shrubs and trees in your area are poisonous to your alpacas.
What Do Alpacas Eat in the Summer?
Alpacas have short tongues unlike sheep, goats and cattle who can pull up grass from the roots. This makes them easy on pasture during the warmer months as they can graze fresh grass from the fields while it healthily regrows.
The best type of grass for alpacas are Bermuda Grass (sometimes called Couch grass) or Timothy. You can mix it with a small amount of Yarrow, dandelions, clover and other wild, native plants but these should only make up a fraction of their grazing.
Due to the seasons and alpaca’s preferred food source, food avenues and nutritional supplements are likely to vary at different times of the year.
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What Do Alpacas Eat in the Winter?
Alpacas evolved in the extreme mountainous conditions of South America but even they can get cold in the winter months and need extra reserves to thrive.
During the winter when grazing is limited, you will need to increase your herds hay intake. Alpacas like soft-cut hay during the winter and their intake will be significantly higher than at other times of the year as they use extra energy to stay warm.
Stock up on hay long before winter sets in as the price tends to increase once winter sets in as hay production comes to a halt and the demand rises. If you find hay is in short supply then other supplements such as commercial pellets are a valuable source of energy. There are several commercial alpaca mixed products available full of additional essential vitamins and minerals that should be used on top of natural grazing.
Energy rich foods such as grains can be a good way for your alpacas to get more calories quickly.
Corn, oats, barley and beet pulp are all easily digested. However, overfeeding of grains can be a serious issue for alpacas as it can cause harmful buildups of stomach acids. Therefore it's best to offer your alpacas grains in moderation alongside a mix of other nutritious options.
You might choose to feed your alpacas beet pulp which can also come in the form of pellets. Dry beet pulp is the fibrous material left over when the sugar is extracted from sugar beets.and is an excellent source of digestible fibre, comparable to good quality grass hay that some farmers use for horses as well as alpacas. If you get it in the form of dry pulp we recommend soaking it before they eat it for a few reasons:
- Dry beet pulp can be a choking hazard for alpacas.
- Soaked beet pulp helps your animals stay hydrated in the winter months
- Warm soaked beet pulp can provide some comfort during the cold weather.
Alpacas love treats in the form of carrots, apples, pumpkin, raisins and broccoli stalks. While broccoli stalks are safe and provide great nutrients for alpacas, it’s important to define the nutritious stems from the florets - which if fed to your alpacas can be dangerous. Make sure to cut these treats up or shred them into small pieces to avoid your herd from choking.
What Should Alpacas Not Eat?
Alpacas are 100% herbivores which means they only eat plants, this means they are unable to digest animal products such as milk, cheese or any form of animal meat well. In addition to animal products there is a variety of foods that are likely to pose a risk if your alpacas ingest them:
- Nightshade family of vegetables such as eggplant, potatoes, tomatoes, horse nettle and nightshade. These foods contain alkaloids that have steroidal properties which can poison your alpacas.
- Nitrate rich plants such as kale, beet greens and lettuce may cause cyanide poisoning.
- If onions are eaten in large quantities they can lead to nitrate poisoning.
- Rye grass can include endophytes to control insects. This can be toxic to some alpacas and other livestock as it can affect the brain and nervous system and cause ryegrass staggers.
- Mustard family of plants such as broccoli florets, brussels sprouts, kale and turnips contain sulphur which interfere with the red blood cells ability to transport oxygen.
- Flowers such as daffodils, daisies, foxglove, irises, lilies and poppies.
- Bean family of vegetables such as lima beans and peas can contain cyanide.
- Other foods such as avocado, cherries and chocolate can also cause poisoning.
Our list of risky foods that alpacas cannot eat is not exhaustive and you can find out more about what not to feed your herd at The Open Sanctuary Project’s Global Toxic Plant Database.
What Do Alpacas Drink?
Your alpacas will require access to a steady supply of fresh water throughout the year. During the winter months alpacas will need plenty of water. A single alpaca can drink up to 8 litres per day. Maintain the water source to ensure it does not freeze over in the coldest winter months or dry up in the summer months.
Watch out for any algae or bacteria that can grow in stagnant water. If you don’t have access to free flowing water, make sure you change their water daily as this can lead to disease and infection.
Do Alpacas Need A Shelter?
Alpacas can be hardy animals when they are required to face extreme temperatures. However just like most animals and humans they thrive much better when they are protected from the elements. If you don’t have a lot of tree cover on your land then you will need an alpaca shelter to protect them from wind, rain and intense sun exposure.
Their thick coat of wool means a shelter that provides shade will help them escape the heat and a shelter that keeps them dry can prevent hypothermia and skin conditions such as rain scald. Alpacas are highly adaptable to different climates but due to their fleece coats extreme heat will likely effect your alpacas more than the cold snow.
A barn or shelter with three walls and a roof will likely keep your alpacas safe, warm and dry in the winter months as long as the open face is not facing the wind while keeping them cool in the summer months out of the heat of the sun.
Although their thick fleece coats can keep them warm in the winter, their feet tend to get cold. Lining the floor of the shelter with straw or rubber mats will help to keep their temperature regulated throughout their bodies.
Feel free to check out our guide to paddock shelters for Alpacas for more information.
Can Alpacas Eat Cut Grass?
Grass makes up a large proportion of an alpaca's diet. It can come directly from the pasture, in the form of cut grass or hay. Stay away from ryegrass as it can cause staggers in some alpacas.
Although alpacas can happily graze on pasture year round, the arrangement of their teeth can make it difficult for them to eat long grass. They only have one set of front teeth, on the bottom and on the top is a hard gum. Alpacas lower front teeth grow continuously and are worn down through grazing. They use these front teeth to shear off food and swallow it whole. The food is then regurgitated and chewed on their back molars to form a cud which is re-swallowed and digested.
Due to their short tongues they may need you to cut the grass before it gets too long. They will then eat up the cut grass while fresh shoots will grow through which they can also eat.
Can Alpacas Eat Bread?
Your alpaca may become partial to human food such as bread but we don’t recommend feeding your herd anything processed. The foods we are used to digesting as humans may contain toxic ingredients for alpacas. Certain added sugars and other ingredients may make your alpaca sick.
To be sure of providing a healthy diet, make sure you consult a veterinarian or animal nutritionist, preferably one with camelid experience.
If your interested in our alpaca range, feel free to give us a call or email the team at Outpost Buildings.