Llamas and alpacas are becoming increasingly popular animals to keep here in the USA. Native to South America, these camelids are mild-mannered and relatively easy to keep. So if you’re considering llamas or alpacas for your homestead, the first thing you need to know about them is what they like to eat.
Llamas and alpacas are a type of herbivore known as pseudo ruminants. So this means that most of their diet should be made up of grass, hay, and foliage. But sometimes, particularly in the winter, they may also need grains and pellets in their diet.
In this guide, we’re going to take an in-depth look at the diet of llamas and alpacas. This way you’ll have a good idea about what they like to eat.
Understanding the Digestive System of Llamas and Alpacas
When it comes to learning about the diet of llamas and alpacas then first it’s a good idea to learn about their unique digestive system. This way you’ll have a deeper understanding of their overall diet.
Llamas and alpacas are known as modified ruminants. This is because they have three stomachs instead of four like true ruminants such as sheep and cows. Their three stomach compartments function like the four compartments of regular ruminants.
A ruminant’s digestive system is very efficient. And llamas and alpacas in particular can squeeze the maximum amount of nutrition from a simple basic diet. As well as this, their diets tend to be a bit more diverse than sheep and cows.
The thing that makes ruminants special is that they don’t just eat and swallow. Instead, the food passes into their first stomach, the rumen, and then it’s regurgitated back up again into the mouth for further chewing.
This is known as chewing the cud. And ruminant animals do this to get the maximum amount of nutrition from their food.
Here’s What to Feed Alpacas and Llamas Every Day
On average, an alpaca or llama will need to eat around 2 percent of its body weight in food per day. However, a llama or alpaca might need more food if it’s old, young, pregnant/lactating, there’s crazy weather, or the animal is very physically active.
There are four basic components to a ruminant’s diet and we’ll take a look at them below.
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Food #1: Grass and Hay
The main part of a camel’s diet should consist of grass, in the form of fresh pasture, or hay. These foods are also known as forage. And ruminants need lots of forage to keep their digestive systems running smoothly.
Food #2: Pellets
Alpaca pellets are supplementary food that can be fed when pasture isn’t so nutritious. Pellets are usually made up of compressed forage as well as grains and other supplements. And they’ll usually be fortified with minerals.
You can buy pellets for alpacas and llamas from online retailers like Amazon – click here to shop Amazon’s options now or click here to go directly to camelid feed on Amazon. Just be sure to shop local, too. You can usually get better prices from your local feed store, provided they carry camelid feed.
Food #3: Grains and Treats
Grains and treats are concentrated foods. This means that they should always be fed in moderation. Grains and treats can be used to supplement a camelids diet with extra protein, fats, and carbohydrates. Grains that are good for camelids include corn, barley, and oats.
Food #4: Minerals, Vitamins, and Micronutrients
Your camelids may also need various minerals and micronutrients (like vitamins) to stay healthy. You can check out your local feed store for camelid-specific options or you can check this mineral blend option on Amazon.
Feeding Individual Animals Throughout the Year
When it comes to feeding camelids, you also need to take into account their personal circumstances. Some animals will need more food depending on the season and their condition for example.
So below, we’ll take a look at some general feeding guidelines for llamas and alpacas of all ages. And we’ll also look at how their diet will change with the seasons.
A cria is a baby camelid and for the first month of life, crias will live mostly on their mother’s milk. And when they’re growing, crias can consume up to 10 percent of their body weight each day.
From a few weeks old, they will gradually start nibbling at grass and hay as well as drinking mothers’ milk. And they can start eating hard foods such as pellets from around two months old. Though if they have good pastures, they might not be interested in them.
After weaning at around six months old, crias will no longer have access to milk. But by this time, they should already be eating pasture and/or pellets. Keep an eye on their weight after weaning and increase food rations if you think a cria isn’t gaining weight.
An adult is a camelid that’s over two years old. A normal, healthy adult camelid that isn’t exceptionally active should eat around two percent of its weight in food each day. And this should be in the form of forage and pellets and possibly grains in the winter.
Pregnant/feeding a baby
If a llama or alpaca is pregnant or lactating then she needs enough nutrition for two. Pregnant and lactating camelids should always be fed around 4 percent of their body weight. It’s also a good idea to supplement their diet with grains or pellets to make sure they’re getting enough calories to be healthy.
Older camelids may struggle to gain weight, especially during the winter. So it’s always a good idea to feed elderly camelids a bit more. Just like young, pregnant, or active animals, sometimes they may need more than the average 2 percent of their weight in food. And they’ll benefit from protein-rich foods such as alfalfa hay.
That said, because older camelids are generally less active, you should make sure that they don’t become overweight.
Seasonal Differences in Feeding
In summer when there’s plenty of grass available, most of the time, pasture alone will fulfill the nutritional requirements of llamas and alpacas.
But in the winter, pasture becomes sparse and less nutritious. As well to this, llamas and alpacas have to burn calories to keep warm. So this means that you will have to feed them roughage or pellets. And you can also supplement their diet with grains.
Energy-rich grains include sugar beet, corn, barley, and oats. But these should only be fed in small rations. Camelids should never have a 100 percent grain diet.
If you live in a really cold climate, potentially you may have double their food rations. And feed them up to 4 percent of their body weight. This all depends on your animals and how well they take the cold. Camelids with thinner coats will need more food than ones with thicker coats for example.
A good quality pasture will usually provide all of your camelid’s nutritional needs. However, there are times when you might have to supplement your diet with minerals.
Your camelids will benefit from having access to a salt or mineral lick, especially through the winter if they’re living on pellets. Usually, pellets are mineral-rich. So in this case, your llamas and alpacas will only need a salt lick or salt supplement.
Here’s a mineral salt lick option available on Amazon, though I’d recommend that you also check out your local feed store’s options and pricing.
But if their diet is mostly forage and grains, then you’ll need to give them a mineral lick. These contain a range of minerals, not just salt. When you’re choosing a mineral lick for camelids, make sure that you don’t choose one with high levels of copper. Too much copper can be toxic for camelids.
Other supplements for camelids include sunflower seeds which are high in beneficial fat and protein. Making them a good supplement for the winter. Balck husk sunflower seeds are the best ones to feed livestock.
And one of the most important things to remember about your camelids diet is water. They will need to have access to water 24/7. And they drink around 2 gallons or 8 liters of water each day. In winter, you have to make sure that it doesn’t freeze over.
A Note About Alfalfa Hay
Alfalfa hay is super rich and nourishing and it’s packed with protein and nutrients. However, alfalfa hay should only be given to camelids when they need a nutritional boost. The high levels of protein can be too much for normal, healthy camelids, especially males. If they eat too much it can cause urinary stones and blockages which can be fatal.
If you want to know more about feeding alfalfa hay to your camelids, then you should speak to your vet.
What can Alpacas and Llamas Eat as Treats?
Camelids can eat a range of fruit and vegetables as treats. However, treats should only make up a tiny part of a camel’s diet. Always feed treats in small quantities to avoid upsetting your llamas or alpacas’ digestive system.
When they’re fed in moderation, it’s good for camelids to have fresh fruit and vegetables in their diets. Just like us, they benefit from added fiber and nutrition. So let’s take a look at what treats are safe to feed to alpacas and llamas.
- Sweet potato
If any of your animals show signs of abdominal discomfort or distress you should always call your vet. If your camelid is sweating, rolling around, straining to poop, or kicking at its stomach, these can be signs of bloat or colic.
If you want a complete list of treats for alpacas, read this article I wrote: 29 Best Treats for Alpacas (and 51 Treats to Avoid). Most of the treats listed there will apply to llamas, too.
How to Feed Alpacas and Llamas Treats
Always introduce treats slowly to camelids, so you don’t overwhelm their digestive system. Only give a small piece at first, then monitor for digestive upsets. If there are no adverse reactions after 24 hours, you can slowly increase the portion size.
Also, you must cut fruit and vegetable treats up before feeding them. Camelids’ mouths are designed for eating grass and foliage so they can have a hard time chewing fruits and vegetables. This means that large pieces can potentially cause a choking hazard.
The best way to prepare fruit and vegetables for alpacas is by shredding them or cutting them into small bite-sized pieces.
You can feed camelids treats from your hand in the same way you would feed them to a horse. Lay your palm and fingers flat out and put the treat in the middle of your palm. Then offer your hand up to the llamas or alpacas mouth and hold it steady. Make sure that your fingers are flat because they might get mistaken for a treat!
Not everyone likes feeding their animals treats by hand, because it can cause behavior issues. If you don’t want to feed treats from your hand then you can always add them to pellets or grain. Or even hide them among the hay to keep your llamas and alpacas busy.
What Can Alpacas and Llamas Not Eat?
You should never give camelids whole fruits and vegetables. Always cut them into pieces first or they may pose a choking hazard.
You should never feed llamas and alpacas pellets that are designed for other farm animals. This is because other types of pellets might contain high levels of copper which is bad for camelids.
Llamas and alpacas shouldn’t eat too many grains. And they definitely shouldn’t be fed a 100 percent grain diet. If alpacas or llamas eat too many grains this can lead to a grain overload that will make them very ill.
Camelids should never eat moldy or rotten food. Fungus and bacteria can also make them very ill.
Make sure that your llamas and alpacas aren’t getting too much copper, either. They should be given foods formulated for camelids.
You should also avoid feeding camelids any sweet, sugary, or processed foods. Alpacas and llamas are very sensitive to sugar. And their digestive systems can cope with processed human foods.
What plants are poisonous to alpacas and llamas?
You should check your camelid’s pasture regularly for poisonous plants. If you find any, pull them up from the roots and remove them from the field. Toxic pasture plants for camelids include:
- deadly nightshade
If you’re growing any of those plants, make sure to keep them away from your llamas and alpacas with a sturdy fence that they can’t reach over to taste.
What foods are poisonous for llamas and alpacas?
As we’ve discovered, ruminants have complex digestive systems. And sometimes digestive upsets can be fatal. So with this in mind, let’s take a look at the foods that are poisonous to llamas and alpacas.
- Cherries and stoned fruits
- Nightshade plants, such as tomatoes, eggplant, and potatoes
- Animal products
You should never give camelids any of these foods in any circumstance. They are poisonous and can make camelids very ill. If you think that your lama or alpaca has eaten any of these foods then you should call your vet for advice immediately.
Camelids have a relatively simple diet that changes with the seasons. Most of the time they’ll get by on grass alone, but it’s important to supplement their diet when they need it. As well as using well-researched articles, don’t be afraid to ask advice from a vet about feeding your camelids. Especially when it comes to feeding crias, mothers, and older camelids.
Then you can enjoy your fluffy camelid friends as part of your backyard homestead – and all the benefits that come with them.
One of our favorite potential benefits (beyond just the obvious answer of “the amazing fiber, of course!”) is the manure. Here’s everything you wanted to know (and then some) about how to use alpaca manure.
Learning from your own experience is important, but learning from others is also smart. These are the sources used in this article and our research to be more informed as homesteaders.
- “29 Best Treats for Alpacas (and 51 Treats to Avoid).” Backyard Homestead HQ, 23 December 2020, backyardhomesteadhq.com/29-best-treats-for-alpacas-and-51-treats-to-avoid/.
- “Are Alpacas and Llamas Ruminants?” Backyard Homestead HQ, 21 May 2021, backyardhomesteadhq.com/are-alpacas-and-llamas-ruminants/.
- “Australian Alpaca Nutrition.” Australian Alpacas, 2008, https://www.incaalpaca.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/5nutrition.pdf.
- “Feeding Alpacas in the Winter: What, When, and How Much.” Backyard Homestead HQ, 11 June 2021, backyardhomesteadhq.com/feeding-alpacas-in-the-winter-what-when-and-how-much/.
- The Open Sanctuary Project, Inc. “Additional Care Recommendations For Older Alpacas.” The Open Sanctuary Project, 23 Apr. 2021, opensanctuary.org/article/special-care-recommendations-for-older-alpacas.
- The Open Sanctuary Project, Inc. “Daily Diet, Treats, And Supplements For Alpacas.” The Open Sanctuary Project, 12 Mar. 2021, opensanctuary.org/article/daily-diet-treats-and-supplements-for-alpacas.
- The Open Sanctuary Project, Inc. “Things That Are Toxic To Alpacas.” The Open Sanctuary Project, 25 Sept. 2020, opensanctuary.org/article/things-that-are-toxic-to-alpacas.
- Vaughan, BVSc PhD MACVSc, Jane. “Top Ten Tips of Alpaca Nutrition.” Cria Genesis, Nov. 2015, criagenesis.cc/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/CriaGenesis-adult-nutrition.pdf.
- “Weaning.” Bozedown Alpacas, www.bozedown-alpacas.co.uk/alpaca-care/weaning.
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