I?m not a fan of all the hype and discussion these days about climate change so I shall keep off the subject lest I betray myself! None the less it has been an unusual year weather wise; this year?s summer seems to have been split into two and when delivered, it was with plenty of rain! Unfortunately this has made it a difficult year for grass conservation. Some of our best weather was in April that was too early for hay making but a small amount of silage was made in the south of England and after that everything was running a month late due to a prolonged spell of wet weather. Our hay was made in early August when the grass was past its best and it had started to die in the bottom and re-grow at the top, but many people were only able to make their hay or haylage even later in the year. This has implications for all of us as alpaca keepers as we approach winter with poorer than average conserved fodder, on which to maintain our animals. We are likely to need to supplement this with some substitute feeds this winter.
I remember it used to be suggested that because alpacas came from the altiplano of South America and were efficient converters of their food, some 25% more efficient than sheep or cattle, they could be put onto poor pastures and yet do well. That was wishful if not simply misguided thinking and thankfully these days we don?t hear it put about any more. The truth of the matter is that if we expect our animals to thrive and breed efficiently over their lifetimes they have to be properly fed by us. So what does this mean in practical terms?
There are some basic concepts that need to be understood and followed. An alpaca can eat about 1.5 kilos of dry matter a day. A lactating female might achieve two kilos a day if fed the right mix of foods. Many alpacas on the altiplano of Peru are lucky if they get one kilo a day of dry matter and therefore are often on a declining plane of nutrition. Dry matter is the weight of the food after all water has been removed and its use gives us a comparative analysis of feed/nutritional value. Hay and manufactured feeds have very little water in them and are about 86 -90% dry matter but grass, haylage and silage have considerably more water in them with a correspondingly low dry matter of about 26 - 35% for silage and 50 ? 70% for haylage. Grass is therefore a bulky wet food taking up space in the gut, but giving a sense of fill to the animal. If we want to increase the nutritional density of the total food intake in a day we can do so by replacing some of the bulky feeds with more concentrated foods such as cereals, pulses (peas, beans or lupins) and dried fodders such as alfalfa (higher in protein than grass or hay) and sugar beet pulp, which is high in digestible fibre (a source of energy for ruminants).
We have to be careful how we balance the ration fed. We cannot simply replace everything with cereal grains and pulses because ruminants need fodder (fibrous plant material) as the mainstay of their diet. Their digestive tract is designed for a fodder based diet and we should adhere to that, but we can replace some of the lower feed value fodder with higher feed value constituents to raise the overall nutrient intake. As well as maintaining a balanced ration we need to introduce changes to the ration slowly and continue feeding combined feeds over long time spans (e.g. winter) monitoring our progress with condition scoring at least monthly if we are to have success. It is unhealthy for ruminants to experience rapid changes in the makeup of their diet or large increases in concentrated feeds over short time scales. They can become seriously ill in these circumstances.
Not all our animals will need supplement feeds. After condition scoring (CS) our herd we usually find that we have a group of animals that are thin (CS 2 to 4 out of 10) that need supplementing to get them to CS 6 or 7. A lactating group that are supporting crias at foot that need supplementing if they are not to milk off their backs too much, and of course some that are simply doing too well and are getting fat. These latter guys are going to stay on grass with only hay as a diversion ? tough but fat alpacas are bad news for lots of reasons! The others will get supplements of peas, oats, legumes and/or sugar beet pulp. The peas and oats can be replaced with a proprietary manufactured feed if you prefer but it may cost more and gives you less control over what your animals are fed. These feeds are generally referred to as concentrates because of their higher feed value than fodders. I like oats (and whole oats is best as whole grains are digested more slowly than rolled grains) because there is something in oats that is beneficial to gut health. Not very scientific perhaps, but most horse owners believe it too, so I believe that there is some truth in that assertion.
So how do we go about supplementing our alpacas? diet? Let?s go back to our dry matter intake of 1.5 kilos and divide that into five parts of 300 grams. Alpacas are modified ruminants and as such their primary source of food should be grass, hay or haylage. I haven?t included silage though alpacas will eat it, but reluctantly. It is too wet and probably too acidic for them. A healthy alpaca with CS 7 should be able to maintain condition on all five parts of the diet coming from grass and hay. If it has a cria at foot then it will need supplementation to maintain lactation and the commencement of the next pregnancy. When supplementation is necessary or desirable I believe that three of our five part diet should be made up from fodders ? two parts should come from grazing grass and one part from hay, legumes such as alfalfa and or good sources of digestible fibre such as sugar beet pulp. This leaves two parts that can be substituted with other more concentrated feeds such as oats (cereals) and peas (pulses) or a proprietary manufactured animal feed.
In my experience during spring and summer, when grass generally has a high feed value (good protein and sugar levels) we would only be substituting concentrates for fodders for a ?thin group? of animals. The lactating group(s), if not thin, should only need supplementation with a legume such as alfalfa or alfalfa and sugar beet pulp combined. We have an allowance of up to 300g for substitution of this part of the diet. To date I have never needed to use all this up. Currently the maximum substitution we have made has been 200g alfalfa pellets plus 50g Camelibra per adult head per day. We feed Camelibra daily to all stock regardless of condition as an underpinning mineral and vitamin allowance.
During winter the situation is different. Grass no longer has a high feed value and hay or haylage will not be as good as spring or summer grass was. It may be significantly poorer in feed value but that depends upon when it was made and the growth stage of the grass plant at the time. Given a late and difficult season this year we should expect this to be the case. Thin groups and lactating groups will need substitution of three parts of the diet. For example up to 300g oats plus up to 300g peas plus up to 300g alfalfa. In practice we have only ever used half these daily amounts over the full period of the winter months except for seriously thin animals and then usually there are other factors contributing to the poor condition of the animal, such as disease. The remaining two parts of the diet come from free access to grazing and hay or haylage put out, again with free access. We don?t measure these last two parts. Condition scoring now becomes most important! Our animals have grown some fleece and can hide their condition easily from our eye, so it becomes imperative that we become ?hands-on? and measure their progress making adjustments accordingly.
The key to success is to take a long-term view of feeding your animals over several months, not just a few weeks, and to start supplementing with small amounts, say 50g per head per day of each substitute part and build up monitoring your CS counts. For example 150g of oats plus 150g peas plus 150g alfalfa per head per day, with free access to grazing and hay over three to four winter months transformed 180 animals in my care from an overall CS of 2.5 at the start to 5.5 by the end. There were still a few thin ones at the end of that period but they caught up in the spring. It is fundamentally important to give your animals sufficient trough (and hay racks) space so that they can come to the trough without others intimidating them. We use 150mm gutter as troughs and allow 1 metre per adult head to allow everyone to feed at the same time.
Finally introduce new foods gradually; the alpacas may take time to accustom themselves to the new tastes, so be patient. Don?t overdo the amount you substitute, these foods are very effective and alpacas are most efficient at exploiting them. If you like to use manufactured feeds take the advice from the manufacturer into account and adjust accordingly.