Alpaca Nutrition News                                                                     March 2008

The question of grain

There is some controversy among alpaca producers about the feeding of grain. Apparently there are questions regarding whether or not it can be digested by alpacas. Or maybe some see it as harmful. Either way, I will try to explain the place of grain in the alpaca diet.

First, it is important to clarify how grain is digested. Alpacas are ruminants (pseudo-ruminants). Normally, ruminants consume a mostly-roughage (hay or pasture) diet. Ninety-five percent of all soluble carbohydrates, such as grain, are fermented by microorganisms in the rumen. Only a very small percentage makes it to the small intestine to be digested by the alpaca's own enzymes. Rumen microorganisms ferment grain preferentially to roughage because it takes less work to break down.

Both the fermentation of grain and roughage yields volatile fatty acids (VFA), which are the predominate sources of energy used by alpacas. Grain yields more energy and faster than roughage. It is almost pure energy. The predominate microorganisms in the rumen will change depending on whether roughage or grain predominates in the diet.

Do/did wild alpacas eat grain? Probably not, or not very often. Would they have eaten it if they had come across it? Definitely. Do/did wild alpacas lose weight during lactation? Yes.

Wild animals normally go through cycles of feast and famine. The mammalian body actually becomes more efficient after a fast. This fact is exploited by cattleman. It also makes it more difficult for humans to lose weight by repeated fasting, and makes weight gain inevitable.

The primary feedstuff in the alpaca diet should be roughage, mainly hays like Orchard grass and Coastal Bermuda grass. Alfalfa should be reserved for lactating females and those which need to gain weight after lactation.

Bagged supplements often contain grain along with vitamins and minerals. To maintain alpacas at a healthy weight and not over-mineralize, it is better to feed grain, as needed, and provide a separate mineral free-choice. The habitual feeding of supplement that contains both grain and minerals has led to the current alpaca obesity problem.

A good grain/protein combination such as corn/soybean meal/flax seed, or corn/soybean meal/alfalfa meal, can be fed to lactating mothers. Grain/protein mixtures can be custom-made at feed mills.

The protein in soybean meal and other protein sources is used by rumen microflora to reproduce themselves. Bacterial protein is the chief source of protein for alpacas. Protein sources such as soybean meal can be fermented by the rumen bacteria to generate energy. However, these are very expensive sources of energy. Ground corn or wheat may be fed alone as an energy supplement to gestating females that need to gain weight.

Alpacas that are overfed have poorer quality fiber, in addition to a greater potential for reproductive and lactation problems.

If possible:

  • Feed a grain or grain/protein mixture that does not also contain vitamins and minerals

  • Separate animals by condition and stage of reproduction, and feed a grain or grain/protein mixture to those under a body score of 5 and to lactating females

  • Regularly evaluate each group and move animals in or out as necessary

  • Make sure a mineral mix is always available to all groups

Please write to Lark Burnham ( if you have any questions or comments.





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