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
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
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
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
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org)
if you have any questions or comments.