Nutrition for Alpaca

Good nutrition is basic to good health and production in people and animals. Determining nutritional needs is a complex process but plays a part in the health of the alpaca, including fiber quality, immune system, and production. It is more than the specific feedstuff (ie, hay, pasture, water, grain, supplements), although each of those is a consideration. Feedstuff constitutes a major portion of the cost of raising alpaca, so it is important to have a diet that has the right nutrient content and encourage consumption without waste. Understanding their digestive system helps understand the process and select the correct nutrients, method of delivery, and administration methods most effective for non-nutritive additives ie, medications.

Alpaca are considered a modified ruminant. Each step of digestion is important to the process. They are polygastric, meaning they have more than one compartment (different than 3 stomachs). Physical and chemical changes in their feedstuff occur within the gastrointestinal tract. The first two compartments are for fermentation and absorption of water. The third compartment is where the absorption occurs. The small intestine further breaks down proteins and carbohydrates while the liver breaks down fats. The last two sections of the small intestine is most actively involved in nutrient absorption.

Pasture grass and hay are important for 80% of the diet; grain and other supplements are important to add nutrients that are deficient in either of those two areas. Proper feeding means the owner knows

• what nutrients are available in the feedstuffs compared to their need;
• knowing how the nutrients are being digested, absorbed, utilized and excreted;
• eating behaviors; and
• ability to adjust to meet those needs.

Nutrients are substances classified as water, proteins, carbohydrates, fats (lipids), vitamins, and minerals. Dietary essential nutrients are provided in the ration (feedstuff), and nonessential dietary nutrients are manufactured in the alpaca's body.

The most important nutrient is water – it is involved in all body functions. Factors that affect the animal's water consumption are the alpaca's size, dry matter intake, environmental temperature, humidity, and water quality. Water is also the most abundant and, therefore, the cheapest nutrient. It is received by drinking as well as from feedstuff that contains water such as the moisture content in hay and pasture grasses. An animal that is not receiving enough water will not eat well, and digestive processes will be affected. Keeping access to cool, clean water is important to their well- being.

Proteins are the second main component of organs and structures of the body. They are composed of amino acids that determine the quality. They are a high dietary requirement in young, growing animals and the most expensive portion of the diet.

Carbohydrates are formed in plants and are 75% of the dry weight of plants and grain. They serve as a source of energy in the body. A surplus of carbohydrates is transformed into fat and stored.
Fats serve as a source of energy and function, much like carbohydrates. They produce more energy when digested; therefore, a smaller amount is needed to serve the same function.
Vitamins are effective in small amounts to develop normal tissue. They are classified as fat-soluble or water-soluble. Vitamins are necessary for metabolic activity. When vitamins are not available in the correct amounts, a deficiency or toxicity disease can result. Examples include rickets or anemia.
Minerals function in protein syntheses, oxygen transport, skeletal formation, and maintenance. They are classified as micro minerals and macro minerals. Calcium makes up nearly 50% of the total body mineral, and phosphorus composes 25%.

Like humans, more is not necessarily better. Overweight or underweight alpaca can each have problems such as difficulty getting pregnant, difficulty producing milk, immune deficiencies, or long term skeletal issues. Looking at the feedstuff is a first and easy step to evaluate. When evaluating hay, consider the smell, freshness, stem to leaf ratio of hay, or and amount of dust. In grain, evaluate the percentage of grain products such as corn or roughage products that will lower the digestible energy content. Consider the cost of the grain compared to the product – paying less might seem most cost-effective, but not if the grain content requires that you feed more to accomplish the same outcome.
Since 80% of the alpaca diet is dependent on foraging, the pasture grass and hay quality are important. Testing is simple, and analysis of soil, water, and hay provide a complete picture of the alpaca diet you are feeding. High levels of one nutrient can affect the absorption of other nutrients since water is the most important nutrient and consumed in the largest qualities; it should be tested and monitored annually. It is also important to evaluate the alpaca behaviors to be sure that the cause of high or low weight isn't due to food aggression or submissiveness or a physical problem such as poor dentition.

Nutrition management strategy should be determined to maintain the health and well- being of the alpaca so that they will produce quality fiber, babies, or pleasure for many years. Like people, the wrong combination or amounts of nutrients can result in health issues. Incorrect nutrient ratios can result in poor fiber quality- comparable to people having hair that is of poor quality, skin conditions, lost pregnancies, or other issues. Often when owners are having difficulty with an animal, there are numerous suggestions to try – none of which will be as effective as working with a veterinarian to determine whether the alpaca is getting the correct amount and combination of nutrients. Knowing the nutrients in the soil, hay, water, and grain are the most effective first step to providing the quality diet that your alpaca deserve.

Resources: Holmes Laboratory
County Extension Service
Evans, N: Alpaca Field Manual 3rd ed