Feeding Alpacas in the Winter: What, When, and How Much

By Kimberly


Even alpacas can get cold and need a little help during winter – especially if they’re extremely cold! And one of the ways to help your alpacas during the winter is to make sure they get enough food and water so that they have the reserves they need to be happy, and healthy, and keep growing more fiber so they stay plenty warm!

Alpacas generally need to eat a variety of hay, grasses, grains, hay pellets, and forage of between 2-4% of their body weight per day, with higher caloric needs when growing, during pregnancy or lactation, or during extreme weather conditions. Alpacas also need plenty of water during the winter – up to 2 1/4 gallons (8 liters) per day.

You’ll also need to think carefully about how to feed your alpacas. If winter is cold where you live, they’ll need to burn a load of extra energy to keep them warm and cozy. If it’s likely that the ground will be covered in snow, they’ll also need to stay indoors and be provided with much more food as they lose all their lovely grazing opportunities. So here’s a handy guide to some of the main questions about feeding alpacas in the winter! 

An image of a happy father and daughter feeding alpacas with hay in the field.

What Should You Feed Alpacas in The Winter?

During the winter, alpacas need a reliable source of food, energy-rich treats (like grains), and plenty of water. If pastures cannot support alpacas during the colder months, then supplement the alpacas’ diets with hay, silage, or feed pellets to make sure they get enough to eat in the winter.

Now, that’s all fine and dandy, but let’s go into some more detail. Let’s start with water because it’s the most critical (and most forgotten) part of an alpaca’s diet – especially during the winter.

Alpacas need plenty of water during the winter

The first thing to think about when feeding your alpacas is their water. A single alpaca can drink more than 2 gallons (8 liters) of water a day! Without help, cold winters can cause alpacas’ water buckets to freeze over and they won’t be able to drink anything!

Many alpaca herders use heated buckets in the winter. These are a small investment (around $25 each, and they’ll use electricity), but it’s impossible to put a price on the health and comfort of your herd. The perk of a heated bucket is that the water is always ice-free enough to drink. You won’t have to go out and de-ice buckets constantly.

Now, if you’d rather avoid a ton of cords everywhere, there’s another option that we use. We use a submersible de-icer. We drop the de-icer in a covered tank – and then we use a watering bowl that our animals can nose to get water on demand.

We do have to keep an eye on the watering nipples, but they’ve held up through long, cold Utah winters as long as we use the de-icer. You can see the stock tank de-icer we use on Amazon by clicking here.

If you’d rather not buy a heated bucket, you can put a thermometer in their water buckets and monitor water temperature to keep it acceptable, but you’ll need to spend a lot of time checking to make sure that your herd always has a ready supply at a temperature they’re comfortable with. Just like Goldilocks, they’ll need something that’s not freezing, not too warm, but just right.

Make sure your buckets aren’t on the floor, either. Alpacas enjoy heated foot baths as much as the rest of us – so you’ll find them with their feet in their water buckets!

As cute as this is, alpacas putting their feet in the water puts them at risk of infections, as their feet may often pass through the communal dung pile. This is even the most common way for young crias to catch coccidia. Crias are particularly susceptible to coccidia. While adult alpacas build up resistance to this over their life, it isn’t yet developed at a young age.

Alpacas need plenty of forage or hay to eat

Alpacas do well eating soft-cut hay during the winter. Alpacas need to eat between 2-4% of their body weight every day. Give your herd plenty of hay, because they’ll need significantly more than during the other seasons, as they use up extra energy to keep warm. Some alpacas can even eat up to double the amount of food!

You’ll need to stock up for winter well in advance to get the best prices on hay. There’s usually still hay available during the winter, but it’s much pricier. Bear in mind that there is no hay production during the snowy winter months.

Nearer to the winter season, there is a great demand for hay, and it’s also worth bearing in mind that there’s the possibility of a low production season. So if you want to feed hay during the winter make sure you stock up ahead of the trend and ensure you’re well supplied in advance of the season.

As a side note, beware of the risk of hanging hay in nets. While this is an easy storage option, nets can be very dangerous for alpacas, who might be in danger of getting their heads stuck and hanging. Instead, place bales where they can be easily accessed without risk to your herd. Hay racks can be a great choice.

Pro tip: If you don’t have a hay rack, you can make one yourself out of a laundry basket. Seriously. Just hang the laundry basket up on the wall with a couple of nails or screws and you’re good to go.

One other option for your alpaca’s winter diet is to supplement with commercial pellets. Some commercial pellets can be used in place of hay entirely. Others should only be used as a supplement like grain, so we’ll talk more about commercial pellets in the next section.

Alpacas may also need energy-rich treats during the winter

Alpacas need extra energy during the winter. Energy-rich foods, like grains, can be a great way for alpacas to get more calories quickly. Corn, oats, and sugar beet pulp, barley are great options as they are high in energy (carbohydrates) and are easily digested.

However, overfeeding grains can be a serious health issue for alpacas. Their stomachs digest the grains much easier than hay but can do this too easily, causing a harmful buildup of stomach acids that leads to bloating and other issues.

This is a very serious problem that has led to necessary surgery and even death in some animals, with symptoms appearing very late and leaving a short amount of time for possible effective treatment.

As a result, while offering up some nice sugary tasty grains can be a good option to provide the important extra energy (especially for those that need it most — crias and older alpacas), it needs to be offered in moderation. To be sure of providing a healthy diet, make sure you consult a veterinarian or animal nutritionist, preferably one with camelid experience.

Now, I promised to talk more about commercial pellets. Pellets are generally a safer option than grains if you’re not experienced, as pellets are formulated specifically to maintain a forage-to-grain ratio. Pellets provide mineral supplements in an alpaca’s diet, so are important to maintain all-around health benefits.

Different brands offer different recipes, but generally, pellets are mostly compressed forage, such as alfalfa hay, with supplemental minerals, grains, and vitamins. If you choose to supplement the alpacas’ diets with pellets, read the brand information carefully to be sure both of its contents and recommended feeding quantities.

How Much Food do Alpacas Need in The Winter?

In normal seasons, alpacas usually need to eat approximately 2% of their body weight per day, which can rise to 4% for growing or pregnant alpacas. In winter, when they need extra energy, expect alpacas to need about double their usual feed.

Provide feed during the winter, and expect it to rise to at least double the usual amounts (maybe even more if you have lots of crias). This is because alpacas need more energy in this period, but also as with snow underfoot they will have no access to the grass grazing that normally makes up a significant part of their diet.

Bear in mind that even different alpacas in your herd will have different lengths of coat so feel the cold differently. Keep an eye out for any with shorter coats or who are thinner, as they’ll need extra food as well as extra care during this period. Some people choose to separate their alpacas to have a ‘skinny herd’ that has access to more food.

It’s generally advised to judge if your alpacas are getting enough food by the shape of their back cross-section, which should be a healthy V shape. Too rounded a back can be a sign of obesity, just as too sharp a V can suggest malnourishment.

Don’t worry too much though — American domestication of alpacas generally tends more on the loving side, and veterinarians have commented that undernutrition is particularly rare in alpacas kept as domestic livestock!

Pro tip: It’s a good idea to stock up on winter food stores for your herd in advance. Rough hay can keep for up to a year before losing its nutritional value, and it’s of course always better to have too much than to not have enough!

Nearer the winter months, it will become harder to get hold of high-quality foods, so be ready before that time comes… Plus, who wants to pay winter hay prices?

How Much Does it Cost to Feed an Alpaca in The Winter?

On average, feeding an alpaca in the winter costs about $130 per alpaca. Of that amount, $110 of it is due to feed and grains. Another $5 covers the cost of electricity to keep the alpaca’s water drinkable. And the other $15 is to replace a stepped-in and broken bucket.

The good news is that, as long as you stock up in advance, the cost of the actual food and supplies shouldn’t be higher than in normal seasons. However, you will need to feed double the amount compared to normal, so expect the cost of feeding your alpacas in the winter months to be double that of normal months.

You can mitigate the cost by being prepared well in advance, as hay is cheaper in the summer months, and can keep easily for up to a year or more.

It’s also worth bearing in mind the other extra costs of looking after your herd in the winter. Expect to pay for heating water as well as any blankets or coats. The cost of a single de-icer is pretty negligible – we calculated it to cost less than $5 for the whole winter.

However, the money is offset by the effort of keeping alpacas in the winter, which is actually much easier. Rather than cleaning dung piles, some owners choose to cover the manure with straw and let the composting process provide some underfoot warmth for your herd.

How Much Does it Take to Feed an Alpaca For a Year?

On average, it costs between $130-$220 to feed an alpaca during the year. Keeping an alpaca costs less when the alpacas can forage for grass in pastures. Feeding alpacas is more expensive when there’s not enough pasture and the alpacas rely on hay year-round.

We calculated these costs based on average, mid-summer hay prices in Utah. So keep in mind that if hay prices are abnormally high, then these costs can go up. Even so, here’s how we did our calculations. That way, you can figure out the approximate costs at any time.

An average alpaca weighs about 150 pounds (70 kg). They eat between 2-4% of their body weight per day in food.

Using the 2% figure means that each alpaca will need about 3 pounds (1.4 kg) of forage per day. So over the course of a year (365 days), an average 150-pound alpaca will eat 1,095 pounds of forage (just shy of 500 kg).

However, this doesn’t include that all-important extra winter feed! So the way we do it is by splitting the difference. Rather than calculate half the year at 2% of an alpaca’s body weight and then the other half at 4%, let’s just split the difference and calculate it at 3%.

By using 3% to calculate an alpaca’s food needs, will give us a much better year-round figure for how much feed an alpaca will need. Let’s stick to the 150-pound average weight.

An average, 150-pound alpaca will consume 4.5 pounds (2 kg) of forage per day for a yearly total of 1,642.5 pounds (747 kg) of food.

Now you just need to multiply that number by the cost per pound of hay in your local area.

Just remember that most hay isn’t sold by the pound – it’s sold by the bale. And bales can vary widely by how much they weigh, depending on how large they are. So make sure you figure out the price per pound to get a more accurate idea of pricing. I could go more into that, but that’s a topic for a whole other article!

The good news is that, even for pet quality alpacas, this cost is pretty small compared to the cost of actually buying the alpaca. However, don’t forget that these costs can rise and fall based on hay demand and quality, and you’ll also need to make sure that you have plenty of budgets left for other alpaca-related expenses.

How Often Should You Feed Alpacas in The Winter?

Alpacas should generally be able to forage, feed, drink, and graze on-demand. Aim to provide your alpacas with all the hay and supplements that they need every day. This is around double whatever you normally feed them. You can also refer back to the earlier section of this article to calculate how much your alpaca needs to eat, based on their body weight.

While this seems extreme, bear in mind that a significant part of your alpacas’ diets is normally made up of grazing grass, so you’re actually replacing a lot of that rather than just doubling their amount of food.

Provide approximately 3-4% of each alpaca’s body weight in food per day. As in all cases with animals, if you’re unsure of exactly what to feed then try consulting a veterinarian or animal nutritionist, preferably one with camelid experience if available!

Final Thoughts on Feeding Alpacas

Alpacas are lovely, graceful animals. They deserve all the wonderful things. And that includes eating well – even during the winter months. So make sure that your alpacas have plenty of on-demand forage, water, and energy-rich treats to stay warm throughout the winter.

Because come spring? You’re going to get to harvest all of that beautiful fiber – and then you’ll be plenty warm next winter!

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