Recently, I started researching llamas and alpacas for my homestead, and I had no idea where to start. When I worked at a veterinarian’s office, I learned a lot about the proper food for cats and dogs, but llamas and alpacas are a completely different story. I wanted to learn more about their food requirements, including what they eat, what supplements they need, and how often to feed them. So, I did a bit of research and gathered some details. Here’s what I found.
Llamas and alpacas are herbivores that require a diet of grass and leaves from shrubs, bushes, and trees. Their efficient digestive systems help them process the high fiber content from these plants. When there’s less grass, usually in the winter, they’ll need lots of hay and access to a mineral block.
Llamas and alpacas have been fully domesticated over time and now no longer appear in the wild. When they were in the wild, they’d eat wild shrubs, weeds, and fruit. But what do llamas and alpacas normally eat today, and how much do you feed them?
What Do You Feed Llama and Alpacas?
Llamas and alpacas feed on grassy pastures in the summer and are fed hay in the winter. When grazing, they’ll do well entirely on the grass with some alfalfa added. In the winter, llamas will eat 1 bale of hay per week and alpacas about 1/2 a bale. Occasionally, you might need to supplement minerals in their diet.
While the majority of a llama’s and alpaca’s diet should consist of grasses and other vegetation, there are some other things you can feed them (in moderation).
Let’s take a closer look at the types of grasses, hay, and other foods these camelids can (and should) eat.
|Cool/Temperate Grasses||Warm/Tropical Grasses|
|Orchard Grass||Bermuda Grass|
|Fescue Grass||Bahia Grass|
|Perennial and Annual Ryegrass||–|
As mentioned, the majority of a llama’s and alpaca’s daily diet should be from grasses and leaves from shrubs, bushes, and trees. While there isn’t an exact percentage, aim to have this as high as possible. If the weather is suitable and there’s enough grass on the pasture, they should be out there grazing (and fertilizing your land)!
Generally, llamas and alpacas should eat young grasses and leaves, as they provide more nutrients and digestibility.
If you don’t have a pasture that’s sufficient in grass, there are a few things you can do to feed llamas and alpacas:
- Provide them with pruned branches and leaves from trees
- Supplement the missing amount of grass with hay
- Plant more grass seeds at the start of the season
Planting grass seeds at the beginning of the season can help greatly increase the volume of food llamas and alpacas can graze on. For a good source for grass seeds, Nature’s Seed carries pasture seed mixes that are optimized for camelid grazing and tailored to growing conditions in different regions in the U.S.
If you already have a pasture and you’re not sure what grasses you have growing in it, you can contact your local cooperative extension to identify or test the nutrients in the grasses.
Compared to young and tender leaves, stems are denser and have thicker cell walls, leading to poor digestibility and nutrients for llamas and alpacas. So, what should you do if you have a lot of brush or thick weeds?
Can Llamas and Alpacas Eat Weeds?
If you’re looking for a livestock animal to help reduce more mature brush and weed growth, then consider running goats on your pasture first. After the rougher and drier vegetation is gone, the llamas and alpacas can benefit more from the new, tender weeds and grass.
Remember to also check for and remove any poisonous weeds in your pasture (this is usually done in the summer). For a list of some of the most common poisonous weeds that grow in pastures, check out this page from Pennsylvania State University.
Since hay is dried grass, it’s a great way to feed your llamas and alpacas when the pasture has little to no grass, such as in the winter or during drought.
Here are some of the most common hays to feed llamas and alpacas:
- Orchard grass
- Brome grass
- Oat hay
- Oat straw
However, like most dried foods, hay often doesn’t have the same level of nutrients as fresh grass. Because of this, feeding mostly hay can result in insufficient protein and other nutrients. To combat this, some owners like to supplement their livestock with high-protein grains. However, this isn’t a complete solution since grains are high in starch.
One way to supplement protein levels while feeding hay is to supplement with legumes such as alfalfa and clover (more on calculating protein content later).
Alfalfa hay is a common choice when feeding livestock, but it also needs to be feed in moderation. Too much of it can result in excess protein, becoming toxic to the animals. For this reason, it’s used more as a supplement rather than the primary hay.
The majority of hay provided should consist of hays such as oat hay, pea hay, fescue, brome, timothy, orchard grass, clover hay, and some straws.
Additionally, when selecting hay for your livestock, making sure it is quality will save a lot of potential issues down the road. As hay sits it loses nutrients, so things like age can impact the quality of hay drastically.
Here’s what to look out for when buying hay:
|Poor-Quality Hay||High-Quality Hay|
|Interior bale color that is pale green or yellow (most vitamins are depleted)||Pure green (contains good amounts of vitamin A, D, and E)|
|Little to no leaves (no protein)||Plenty of leaves (sufficient protein)|
|13% moisture or above can cause the hay to mold within a few weeks||12% moisture or less, promotes softness, consumption, and digestibility.|
|Musty or moldy||Fresh, grassy smell|
|Dusty||Little to no dust|
When it comes to the feed, hay is an easy option, but it shouldn’t be the first choice. Ideally, the goal is to maximize the food llamas and alpacas get from grazing on pastures. Other than maintaining healthier livestock, this will also help minimize the number of nutrients you’ll need to supplement. Feeding hay is ideal when the grass isn’t available (commonly during the winter or a drought). Of course, this depends on the quality and nutrients in the hay.
If you’re not sure about the quality of the nutrients in your hay, then consider performing a hay analysis. This typically costs $10-$40 and is worth checking, especially as a benchmark or if your llamas or alpacas are having health issues. You can get hay testing done from your county’s extension office. To learn more about testing hay, check out this post by River Hill Ranch.
Grains and Pellets
Grains are seeds from mature grasses. Because they’re low in fiber and high in starch, they can be digested quickly. They’re also high in protein.
Here are the standard grains that llamas and alpacas can safely eat in moderation:
However, it typically isn’t a good idea to provide these grains on their own.
According to urbanlivestockvet.com, freely fed grain can cause some health issues for llamas and alpacas. Instead, consider providing commercial pelleted feed. These commercial feeds are specially formulated with grains to make sure the animals get the right nutrients. Also, provide the pellets individually to ensure other llamas and alpacas aren’t over or under-consuming them.
To help give you a better idea of how grains contribute to a llama’s and alpaca’s diet, here’s a list of the most common grains, hays, and straw, and their crude protein and fiber levels:
|Type of Feed||Crude Protein %||Fiber %|
|Brome Grass (Hay)||12.1%||31.2%|
Llamas and alpacas generally need about 8-10% crude protein from their food.
While llamas and alpacas normally get the majority of their protein from young, tender leaves and quality hay, there are some exceptions to feeding them grains (in the form of pellets) to supplement their protein.
Some exceptions are pregnant or nursing camelids, and babies that are 6-months or older. These llamas and alpacas can benefit from 10-12% crude protein. Babies under 6-months should still be nursed with milk. If they aren’t able to be nursed, babies under 6-months can benefit from a feed with 16% crude protein.
It’s important to note that while grains and pellets are often used to increase crude protein levels in feed, they should be fed in moderation as they can be high in sugar and lead to overconsumption and obesity. This is true for any sweet feed.
Additionally, avoid using grains as a mineral supplement since they’re relatively low in minerals compared to other supplements.
Let’s take a closer look at the minerals and different ways to supplement them.
While fresh vegetation can provide llamas and alpacas with the majority of what they need, sometimes it won’t be a complete balance of nutrients. Nutrient supplements can help llamas and alpacas achieve the proper levels of nutrients and minerals.
Here’s a list of nutrients that llamas and alpacas require:
Llamas and alpacas will get most of these nutrients from fresh grass and being outdoors. Grazing on a variety of different plants means they’ll get a variety of nutrients. Quality hay will also provide sufficient nutrients, but a few nutrients might still need to be adjusted.
For example, properly cured hay typically has enough vitamin A, D, and K. However, vitamin E commonly needs to be supplemented. Llamas and alpacas will typically produce enough B vitamins during digestion.
Also, the majority of vitamin D comes from the sun, so keeping them outdoors when possible can greatly benefit their health.
How To Provide Llamas and Alpacas With Supplements
There are a few ways you can feed llamas and alpacas with supplements:
- Fed directly
- Mixed in with their feed
- Offered free-choice
How you provide llamas and alpacas with supplements depends on their feeding situation. If they’re grazing and foraging on a grassy pasture and have plenty of fresh food, providing free-choice mineral blocks might be the only thing you need to do.
On the other hand, if most or all of their diet is hay, and your hay analysis shows a lack of certain nutrients, then consider mixing in supplements in their feed to compensate for the missing nutrients. Provide the enriched feed to each animal individually to limit under and over-consumption.
What Types of Supplements To Provide Llamas and Alpacas
Aside from commercial pelleted feeds, here are the common supplements you can provide llamas and alpacas with a more complete mineral intake:
- Salt blocks
- Mineral blocks
- Loose salt
- Loose minerals
As mentioned, the type of supplement you need will depend on the quality and quantity of nutrients your llamas and alpacas are getting.
Generally, if llamas and alpacas are getting the majority of their nutrients from grazing, providing a free-choice salt and mineral block will likely be enough. They usually regulate the amount they need on their own. However, there are exceptions to this, so make sure to check their health every so often.
Loose salt can also be offered as free-choice. You can place this in a container that’s away from the elements. Most land has a lack of iodine, so, generally, providing iodized salt is a good idea. You can also mix salt with the other loose minerals to encourage llamas and alpacas to not over or under-consume.
If there are more extreme nutrient deficiencies, then consider providing loose minerals in their hay or an enriched pelleted feed.
If you’re looking for a mineral vendor for llamas and alpacas, Stillwater Minerals has a good reputation online. They have both summer and winter supplements.
Keep in mind that since every type of animal has different nutrient requirements, make sure to get the proper supplements for your animals.
Llamas should have their own supplement and not share it with pigs, goats, cows, or other livestock. The same goes for alpacas. While llamas and alpacas are very closely related, they still vary in size and will still need their own curated nutrients.
An example of this is copper toxicity. Llamas and alpacas aren’t able to handle the higher amounts of dietary copper found in other livestock feeds, so getting a proper feed designed for llamas and alpacas is important.
While it may be obvious, llamas and alpacas require access to clean water at all times. If their water bucket is dirty, they likely won’t bother drinking it. A general rule for caring for llamas and alpacas is that if the water is too dirty for you to drink, it’s too dirty for them to drink.
Even though llamas and alpacas belong to the camelid family, they don’t have the same water requirements as camels. This is because they’re native to the Andes, while camels are native to the Sahara Desert.
Check at least twice a day that your llamas and alpacas have enough water, especially in extremely hot and cold weather. In hot weather, drinking water is a primary way llamas and alpacas stay cool. Additionally, in cold weather, water buckets can freeze, so getting a heated bucket can be a good investment (check that it’s not a fire hazard first).
How Much Do You Feed Llamas and Alpacas?
According to the National Research Council (NRC), llamas and alpacas require 1-1.3% of dry feed to their body weight. This equates to 1-1.3 lbs of dry feed for every 100 lbs (45 kg) of body weight. Llamas and alpacas should have at least 1100 calories and 50 grams of protein per 100 lbs of body weight.
|Type||Daily Requirements||Example: 200 lb (91 kg) Llama/Alpaca|
|Dry Food||1% to 1.3% of body weight||200 lbs x 0.01 = 2 lbs|
or 200 lbs x 0.013 = 2.6 lbs
|Calories||60-85 kcal/kg||70 kcal x 91 kg = 2200 calories (kcal)|
|Protein||to maintain body weight: 3.5 g (crude protein) x kg||3.5 x 91 kg = 107 g|
While it can be difficult to determine the exact amount of feed that llamas and alpacas require, you can always have your feed analyzed and get your livestock tested by large-animal veterinarians. It may not be practical to do this often, but it’s good to at least establish a baseline of the nutrients their feed provides as this can prevent health issues down the road.
When it comes to protein, the amount depends on the type of feed. Generally, if you’re buying commercial feed (such as pellets), the crude protein will be listed on the product.
Even with commercial feed, keep in mind that llamas and alpacas will need dry roughage to digest properly and remain healthy. If their commercial feed doesn’t have at least 25% roughage, you’ll need to supplement it with hay or other means.
There are also some special cases when you should provide more or less food to llamas and alpacas. Here’s a list of times when you’ll need to adjust the measurements of their feed:
- When you change their feed
- Late gestation and lactation
- Bottle-fed babies
- Babies under 2 months of age
- Mothers who are 3-5 months pregnant
- Overweight or obese
- Extreme cold or hot weather
For more information on what to feed llamas and alpacas during these scenarios, check out this post by the South Central Llama Association.
How Much Does It Cost To Feed Llamas and Alpacas?
Generally, the yearly cost of feed is $150-$200 for llamas and $75-$100 for alpacas. However, this can vary greatly depending on the amount of grassy pasture and the market price of hay. If your pasture has little to no grass, the price of feed can be as much as $400 per year per animal.
“To feed 2 llamas it costs about $300-$400 per year depending on hay prices and pasture availability.”Stone Crest Llamas
Keep in mind that the above quote is assuming your llamas and alpacas will only need 6 months of hay in the fall and winter. If you’re currently experiencing a drought or other circumstance, the cost of feed will likely double as you’ll need to purchase feed for the majority of the year. This can be a yearly cost of up to $400 per llama and $200 per alpaca.
However, the good news is that this cost normally includes the expense of minerals and supplements, so you shouldn’t need to worry about budgeting more for them.
Can Llamas and Alpacas Overeat?
Llamas and alpacas can overeat, especially if they’re getting fed pellets or grains. Because these foods are typically low in fiber and high in sugar, they are metabolized quality and can quickly lead to weight gain. For the best results, aim to have the majority of feed come from grazing a pasture if possible.
How Often Do You Feed Llamas and Alpacas?
Llamas and alpacas are grazing animals, so they do best with all-day access to food. In the warmer months, they’ll get their food during the day from the pasture. In the winter, provide them with hay feeders for them to graze on. However, if you’re supplementing with minerals or pellets, then feed them individually.
It’s possible for llamas and alpacas to under or over-consume loose minerals and pelleted feed, so feeding them separately is probably best. However, if you’re using a mineral block instead, then they’re fine grazing together and can often regulate the amount they need from the block.
Additionally, llamas and alpacas are ruminants, so they’re constantly chewing and processing their food. If they don’t have access to a pasture, providing them with enough dry matter in the winter (such as hay) will help them digest properly.
What Treats Can You Feed Llama and Alpacas?
Aside from growing fodder and giving it as treats to your llamas and alpacas, you can also feed them several different fruits and vegetables from around the garden.
Here are some of the most common treats for llamas and alpacas:
- Green beans
- Sweet Potatoes
On the other hand, avoid feeding your llamas and alpacas these foods:
- Stone fruits (cherries, plums, peaches, etc.)
- Processed human foods (crackers, bread, etc)
- Potatoes, eggplants, and tomatoes (nightshades)
Remember to feed treats in moderation, especially when it comes to berries and fruits. The sugar content in berries and fruits can lead to bloating and other intestinal issues.
Due to the layout of their teeth, llamas and alpacas also have a hard time chewing larger pieces of food, so cut up treats into small, bite-sized pieces before feeding them.