When I was researching how viable llamas and alpacas were for a homestead, I was wondering if they can eat the same hay as other livestock. However, being a different species than cows and goats, there’s a chance they have different dietary needs. So, I did a bit more research to find out more. So, which hay is best for llamas and alpacas?
The best hay for llamas and alpacas is a blend of soft, leafy grasses like orchardgrass, brome, fescue, and bluegrass. They should also have a low amount of sugars like corn, legumes, and ryegrass. Alfalfa should only be fed occasionally and in small amounts. Avoid feeding grains due to their complex stomach system.
Pellets can also be a good addition to a llama’s and alpaca’s diet, but only specific kinds and in specific quantities. As herbivores that have historically lived in the high altitudes of the Andes, they’ll try to eat anything green, but not everything green is good for them. So, which kinds of hay are the best for llamas and alpacas?
Is Timothy Hay Good for Llamas and Alpacas?
Timothy hay is chewy, which makes it a good feed for llamas and alpacas in winter when there isn’t much in the pasture to graze on. This hay is also low in protein, so it’s easy for them to digest. However, a balanced llama and alpaca diet also includes other hays and forage, so timothy hay is best in moderation.
Llamas and alpacas are pseudo-ruminants, which means that they have a complicated and very efficient digestive system that uses several stages of chewing, a series of different stomachs, internal fermentation, and a population of microbes to extract every nutrient from what they consume.
This is why grains, which are high in carbohydrates, are inappropriate feed for llamas, alpacas, cows, and goats: their stomachs are designed to complete this complex process on grass and grass alone.
But the beginning of a llama’s and alpaca’s digestive tract is actually in the mouth. Pasture animals can spend up to fifteen hours a day just chewing.
Llamas and alpacas, like cows, “chew the cud”, and this extended period of chewing before swallowing begins the breakdown of the grass’s cellulose, making it easier for their stomach to extract its various parts. Llama’s and alpaca’s mouths have 32 teeth, six of which are true molars and three of which are premolars, all made for grinding grass into a paste for hours.
Chewing is an instinctive behavior of llamas and alpacas, as it is with other ruminants, and tough, high fiber timothy hay helps satisfy this instinct in the wintertime. It’s a versatile and widely available grass, as it’s common hay for cows and horses. It is also low in protein, which means llamas and alpacas can digest it more easily.
If you’re thinking about buying a pasture seeding mix specifically for llamas and alpacas to graze on, timothy is a useful addition to any seed mix. It ripens late in the season and can provide good fall forage when other grasses are falling back.
On the other hand, alfalfa hay, which is also popular hay for other livestock, should not be fed to llamas and alpacas, as its high protein content increases the odds of urinary problems, which can be fatal.
Some farmers choose to give a very small amount of alfalfa to underweight llamas and alpacas, including pregnant and lactating females, but even in these cases, use caution and consult a veterinarian beforehand.
Can Llamas and Alpacas Eat Moldy Hay?
Llamas and alpacas should not eat mold hay as the mold could potentially be or partially contain mycotoxin, which is a poison produced by fungi that can cause health complications. If you have moldy hay, one of the best things to do is compost it. Keep hay covered and off the ground to help it last longer.
If a llama or alpaca is fed moldy hay, the symptoms can include:
- Stunted growth
- Loss of appetite
- Loss of weight
- Poor immune function; often sick
- Respiratory difficulty
Mycotoxin can be transmitted by moldy hay used for feed or bedding. It is very important to store hay properly so that it doesn’t become contaminated.
Keep your storage areas clean, dry, and consistently cool as much as possible. Clean out corners and crevices in your storage areas regularly, and do your best to keep them free of mice, rats, and other rodents.
Use up the oldest hay you have first, and avoid overbuying, so that your feed doesn’t sit around for more than a year. Hay that is older than a year begins to lose its nutritional value, so keep that in mind as you plan and buy ahead.
Ask your hay supplier if they conduct regular tests for mycotoxins in their product. If their answer is no, try to find another source. Similarly, hay that has been treated with herbicides, pesticides, and/or rodenticides can be dangerous to llamas and alpacas and may cause illness or death, so buy organic whenever possible.
Another often used feed source for llamas and alpacas in the winter is pellets, which come as grain, grass, alfalfa, or nutritional supplements. We already talked about how these livestock are ruminants that need grass for proper digestion, but how do pellets figure into your wintering-over strategy?
Is Hay or Pellets Better in the Winter for Llamas and Alpacas?
Pellets should not be used as a total replacement for hay for llamas and alpacas because their ruminant digestive system requires grassy forage to function. Only use pelletized grass, not grain or alfalfa, and avoid using pellets to completely replace hay in their winter diet.
Some llama and alpaca owners use pellets as a less labor-intensive food item, especially in the colder months.
Ruminants and pseudo-ruminants, as we’ve said, can spend up to fifteen hours a day chewing their cud. This is something that they need to do, as it is the starting point for their digestive system. The chewing action itself triggers the production of bicarbonate in their first stomach, which is an important aspect of their multi-stage digestion.
So, hay does not just provide nutrition to llamas and alpacas, it also provides them with something to chew on. Pellets may have the same nutrition as hay, but they lack the forage qualities of hay.
Additionally, pellets can come as pelleted hay, pelleted alfalfa, or pelleted grain, and not all of these are good for llamas and alpacas.
It’s important to be aware of what kind of pellets you’re buying.
Alfalfa can be a useful supplement for pregnant or nursing llamas and alpacas, or for those who need to gain weight. But “too much of a good thing” definitely applies here. Alfalfa is very high in calcium, which can cause urinary tract issues, especially when combined with grain.
Additionally, a ruminant’s system is not capable of handling large amounts of sweet feed or grain, in kernel form or pelleted.
Eating too much grain produces a build-up of lactic acid in a llama’s or alpaca’s system, resulting in a condition that is known as acidosis or, even more to the point, grain poisoning.
This can affect all ruminants, but llamas and alpacas will often not show symptoms or signs of distress until it is too late to successfully treat.
Signs of grain poisoning include:
- Dehydration and intense thirst
- Bloating on the left side of the abdomen
- Unsteady gait or stance
- Excessive lying down
So can you use pellets at all in winter?
Yes, but only pelletized grass, not grain or alfalfa, and you should not use pellets to completely replace hay in llama’s or alpaca’s winter diet.
Offer your llamas or alpacas at least one flake of hay per day, and supplement with pellets. This will give them something to chew on as both their instincts and biology demand.
You can also use pellets that are specifically formulated as nutritional supplements, kind of like a llama and alpaca multivitamin. These should be easily absorbed by their gastrointestinal tracts and can help bolster health in the months when pastures are bare or covered in snow and they may be experiencing some nutrient deficiency.
Supplements can also increase the quality of life for older llamas and alpacas.
The good news is that even though llamas and alpacas require hay, which can be quite expensive, they are still more affordable to feed than horses or cows. Ten alpacas can survive on the amount of feed that one horse would consume in a single day.