Alpacas are quasi-ruminants with three stomachs. They chew just enough to mix their feed with saliva to form a bolus to be swallowed. While resting, the alpaca will bring up the cud (bolus) and chew it, and then it is swallowed again. It takes about a third of daylight hours for an alpaca to pick enough food.
When we feed alpacas we are actually feeding the bugs in their stomach, which in turn process the food to feed the alpaca. There are hundreds of species of bacteria and protozoa in the alpaca digestive system.
Making any dietary changes should be done slowly, with changes of feed introduced gradually, as the micro fauna and flora are sensitive to change.
We need to feed protein to the bugs in the alpaca first stomach. The bugs are crucial to the fermentation process. The bugs excrete high quality amino acids to be absorbed by the third stomach compartment (C3) of the alpaca.PROTEIN
The critical nitrogen balance in alpacas is very efficient, as they recycle urea through saliva, and return it to the C1 and C2 parts of the stomach. Urea is utilized by the stomach micro-organisms for the synthesis of protein.
As a rule of thumb, the greener the pasture, the greater it is in protein - unless it is artificial fertilizer-driven nitrogen flushes.
Alpacas have a range of nutritional requirements based on who they are – weanling, pregnant or male. Requirements change when the dam gets to the latter stages of pregnancy, and also in the first weeks of lactation. At that time a crude protein intake of 12% - 15% is required. This requires the best paddocks, and/or supplementation.
These crude protein requirements for alpacas at differing stages of their lifecycle should be related to the seasonality of feeds and their characteristics at different times of year.
Alpacas need % crude protein
Maintenance mode / Males 8-10%
Growth (cria) 15%
Late gestation 14%
Pastures differ in crude protein (CP) at different times of the year. The same pasture can be 20% CP in spring, but 6% in summer drought. On 20% CP pasture a maintenance alpaca will add 7 lbs of live bodyweight per month and suffer a detrimental effect on fiber (called “blowing out” the fiber). Free choice grazing with little stock in the paddocks can lead to obesity, just as overfeeding supplement can lead to obesity.
Protein requirements are in direct relationship to the need for energy. Energy is sourced from carbohydrates (including sugars), starches, hemi cellulose, and cellulose, through volatile fatty acids from carbohydrate and protein fermentation.
Alpacas have a lower energy requirement than other ruminants due to the extra length of time food stays in their gut (48 – 54 hours vs. cow at 24 hrs).
They have a more efficient digestive system and are able to extract more energy from the fiber part of their diet. Most ruminants get energy from cell contents, and generally not from cell walls (hemi cellulose, cellulose and lignin). However alpacas can get some energy from hemi cellulose and cellulose and hence are more efficient digesters of all food.
The alpaca's energy requirement depends on environmental conditions (cold or heat stress requires more energy), activity levels, and animal insulation (hide thickness, length of coat, coat condition -- wet, dry, muddy etc).
Supplement the soil rather than supplementing the animal directly feed. Alpacas have only been in the U.S. for three decades, coming from the high desert Alta Plano. They cannot digest complex carbohydrates like the grains and pellets offered in the stores. They are able to absorb very little, if any, of the nutrients in the feed.
That said, we do feed our alpacas molasses horse feed as a treat upon occasion. If we have a farm visit, people love to hand feed the alpacas. Or, if I am walking through the pasture, I usually have a handful to give an alpaca here and there, knowing that it is simply candy to them.
You can get your forage (grass and hay) analyzed and this will tell you how much is available from there. We feed our alpacas 2nd cut grass hat with 8-12% protein. Minimize the stems from the alfalfa, as the alpacas will pick through the hay to reach the leaves, wasting hay and your money. It takes more energy to try and digest the stems than the stem can nutritionally offer, so they bypass this part of the hay. The hay should be soft and supple.
In general, alpacas will eat roughly 1.5% of their bodyweight per day. They should have free choice of feed at all times unless they begin to get overweight. We estimate 1/3 to ½ ton of hay per alpaca per year, feeding had October through May in Montana.