Nutrition is one of the major keys to animal health. Without a sound nutrition program, an animal will be unable to produce fiber or a cria to its maximum genetic potential. Limitations in the supply of nutrients can and do compromise an animal’s immune system. Therefore, having a working knowledge of the nutrients needed by the animal, and what feeds will supply those nutrients, is one of the most important steps in managing an animal. We strongly suggest that if you do not have a livestock background and are not familiar with herbivorous hoof stock, research the alpaca and what it needs BEFORE you bring it home. There are a lot of questions to be asked before you actually feed an alpaca, and we will attempt to address those in this text.

An animal can live for long periods of time with limited nutrients. The animal body has a unique way of “borrowing” nutrients from other parts of the body to enable life to continue. But there is a price for this “borrowing” and sooner or later those borrowed nutrients need to be replaced or the animal will become ill and may even die. Until the animal “crashes,” it is not obvious that there is a problem, and often the only symptoms that something is wrong may be subtle changes in production, a lower yield of fiber, or a cria of low birth weight and vigor. Records are a vital part of a production system and an alpaca owner needs to record body weights on a regular basis.

In addition to proper feeding management we encourage you to get to know your animals – really know them. Individuals that have worked with livestock previously – cattle, sheep, goats – are aware of subtleties to watch for. These subtleties are factors that can never be learned from a book, little things that can only be learned from actually working with animals. You might hear one of these individuals say, “That animal does not feel well,” and you think the person is “bonkers.” The animal is eating and moving around, adequately in your mind. But beware, it may be the way the animal is holding its head, or perhaps they are standing by themselves. Either way, an individual working/raising alpacas has to become familiar with their animals from the beginning. Get in with your animals. Walk among them, watch them and know what is normal. All animals are creatures of habit and if you are familiar enough to know “normal” and are watching closely, you will be aware when something is wrong. Do not be a “fenceline” manager. Combining these concepts and proper feeding management, you will be well on your way to a successful venture into (the) alpaca husbandry.

Nutrition is not always easy – it is a puzzle. And there are many pieces to that puzzle including management, behavior of the animal, potential disease, physiological status (i.e., pregnant, lactating, growing), economics involved with forage and grains and of course what feedstuffs are available to feed the animal. Becoming aware of these puzzle pieces and how they fit together is a good start when feeding the alpaca. Be aware that the nutrient requirements for the alpaca are not known. Data from small ruminants like the sheep and the goat have been extrapolated for alpaca to obtain an estimated requirement. What that means is that alpacas consume grass, hay and grains of differing moisture contents and it is difficult to directly compare nutrient contents with feeds have varying amounts of water. Thus if one uses dry matter nutrient values (all water removed), this allows nutritionists and producers to directly compare the values. This is done for all other species too.

Alpaca Facts

Life Span: 15-25 Years
Average Height: 33″ to 39″ at withers
Average Weight: 100 to 175 lbs (about 1/2 to 1/3 the size of a llama)
Average Gestation: 335 days: approx. 11 1/2 months
Birth: 15 to 19 lbs at birth. Babies can often stand and nurse within 30 minutes to one hour. Infant mortality is very low. Wean at 4 to 6 months.
Colors: Solid colors. There are 22 basic colors with many variations and blends.
Types: Huacaya, which has a short, dense, crimpy fiber, giving a wooly or “teddy bear” appearance.

Suri, which has long silky, wavy fibers that many say look like dreadlocks.

Baby: Cria

Llama Facts

Life Span: 15 to 25 Years
Average Height: 48″ at withers
Average Weight: 250 to 475 lbs.
Average Gestation: 335 days: approx. 11 1/2 months
Birth: 20 to 35 lbs at birth. Wean at 5 to 6 months.
Colors: White, black, browns and combinations of these
Baby: Cria



Understanding what kind of gastrointestinal tract (GIT) an animal has is an integral piece from the nutrition puzzle, and helps us to understand how an animal is fed. Types of GIT vary among the animal kingdom based on animal diets. The GIT is defined as the part of an animal’s body from the mouth, esophagus, stomach, small and large intestine and down to the anus. For example, a carnivore has a very short GIT because it’s meat-based diet is very digestible and a larger tract would not be needed. An animal that consumes forages like grass and hay (herbivore) must have a much larger tract as it needs to house the symbiotic microbe population. The microbe population is needed to break down or ferment cellulose, cellulose being a major component of plants. Mammals cannot digest cellulose. Yes, cattle, horses, sheep and even alpacas consume forages and seem to do quite well, but it is because of a resident microbe population. The microbes produce an enzyme called cellulase to ferment cellulose found in plants. Without this enzyme forages could not be fed to the above animals. Also, because of the sensitive nature of those symbiotic microbes and how they are affected by what we feed them, great care needs to be taken. If the microbes were to be hampered in any way by what we feed the alpaca, then the animal can be compromised. Symbiotic means that the microbes and the alpaca both are dependent on each other. The alpaca provides a “home” and food supply for the microbes, and the microbes ferment that food and produce volatile fatty acids. Volatile fatty acids provide a source of energy for the alpaca.

The alpaca is an herbivore and is classified as a pseudoruminant. Being a pseudoruminant means that the alpaca (like the llama) is similar to a ruminant animal (cattle, sheep, goats and deer), but is not exactly the same. Ruminants cannot all be fed the same, so care needs to be taken which ruminant model is used for comparison with an alpaca. Cattle are able to do quite well on large quantities of low quality forage, the alpaca cannot. The feeding principles for the sheep and goat are closer to what alpacas need than those for cattle. Because of its size and metabolism, the alpaca needs high quality forages. I will discuss how you can determine what a high quality forage is shortly in this text.

When evaluating GIT differences, the most important GIT difference is the stomach. The stomach of the alpaca is not the same as what we think about for people, for dogs or even the horse. The alpaca stomach has three parts – Compartment I, II and III. Compartment I is the largest and analogous to the rumen in cattle, sheep and goats. It is here in Compartment I that microbial fermentation of the fibrous portion of plants occur. Compartment II is much smaller than the first and it is here that buffering agents and more digestive enzymes are added to the digesta (partially digested food). When the digesta leaves Compartment II, it enters Compartment III where nitrogen (urea) is recycled, and more buffers and digestive enzymes are added. The lower portion of Compartment III is analogous to the stomach of the human, horse or dog – it is here that protein digesting enzymes and hydrochloric acid are added. It is also here that microbes attached to food particles coming from Compartment I are also digested, becoming what we call microbial protein – an important source of amino acids for the alpaca as they are for ruminants like cattle, sheep and goats.


Water is the first nutrient of importance. Good quality water is becoming more difficult to acquire with the increase in human population. Regardless of the challenges of finding a good water source, we must keep in mind that an animal can only survive a brief time without water – the amount depending on environmental conditions. To determine if you are providing good quality water, have it tested. Test your water, even if it is city water, and definitely if it is well water. Many owners, many veterinarians and even nutritionists forget water when problems occur with an animal. But what do you test water for? In Table 2 I have listed a few “good” water standards. There are many other measures (i.e., individual minerals) of “good” water, but this is a start. If your water source meets these requirements and is low in bacteria, herbicides, and other chemicals at least you know that it is probably safe for the animals to drink. But, you also need to be aware of the mineral content of your water. For example, if it is high in iron, that iron may tie up other nutrients like zinc and copper. If zinc or copper is tied up and are no longer available to the animal, the immune system is compromised, as is fleece quality.