Information and advice from the RVC Farm Animal Clinical Centre on the basics of alpaca nutrition, supplementation and vaccination.
Alpacas do well out at pasture, especially if the pasture is well maintained and there is adequate space for the number of animals. It is important not to overstock pastures, both from a nutrition viewpoint, but also for parasite control; an ideal stocking density is approximately 5-7 animals per acre if the grazing is good quality. Ideally, mixed grass species are best, rather than a single species or garden species.
At times when the grazing is poor, such as winter, they can be supplemented with free choice hay or haylage, although beware some animals will gain weight if there is too much.
Fields should be rested and animals rotated onto new fresh fields regularly; this should be taken into account when working out how many animals can be kept on the land. Long grass is not ideal as alpacas struggle to eat this, so fields should be topped as necessary if they have been rested.
Fresh water should always be available and water troughs should be cleaned regularly.
Supplementary feed is used for a variety of reasons; animals in poor body condition may need further feed, and pregnant or lactating females and working males, likewise need further nutritional support.
There are many feed options available for alpacas now in the UK, but there are some things to consider when choosing what to feed your alpacas.
A complete pelleted feed is preferable to a mix feed as they can select from a mix and may miss vital nutrients. A pellet feed which has been specifically designed for alpacas is best for several reasons, including the size of the pellet, which is made so that it can easily chewed, swallowed and digested by alpacas and also because it has been balanced with the right vitamins and minerals that alpacas need, such as Vitamin D and zinc.
Rations which contain corn are best avoided as this can trigger acid build up and ulcers in the 3rd compartment (stomach).
Vitamin D supplementation
Alpacas specifically need Vitamin D supplementation through the winter in the UK. Vitamin D is generated from UV light, which is plentiful in the Andes (where they originate from) but not so in the UK during the winter months.
A lack of Vitamin D in the diet predisposes them to certain diseases, including Rickets, a severe bone disease seen in young animals primarily, but which can also occur in older animals and manifests as lameness, a hunched posture and weight loss.
There is some Vitamin D in feed and hay and the balanced camelid feeds do contain it, however, we still recommend supplementing in addition to this. This is most easily done by oral supplementation by owners.
Each alpaca should be drenched with Vitamin A, D and E paste every 6 weeks, starting from the beginning of November until March; crias as well as adults should be given the paste and dosed according to manufacturer’s instructions.
There is an injectable form, which can be given every 8 weeks instead of the oral form, but this has to be imported for you by your vet and with injections there is always a risk of local infections or trauma.
Body condition scoring
No nutrition topic would be complete, without a reminder of the importance of body condition scoring.
Each animal should be condition scored or weighed monthly and this should be recorded so that any trends, whether it is an increase or decrease, can be observed and dealt with. Body condition scoring is performed by feeling the alpaca’s spine just behind the level of the shoulder and assessing the amount of fat and muscle coverage over the spine.
The score given is based on a scale of 1 to 5, with alpacas in very poor condition scoring a 1 and obese alpacas a 5 (see table below). Place your fingers over the centre of the spine, just behind the level of the front legs and by palpating the vertebrae and either side of it, you can appraise the amount of fat and muscle. Ideally alpacas should be a target score of 2.5-3.
|Body Condition Score||Classification|
|1||Very Thin - Severely concave between spine and ribs|
|2||Moderately Thin - Slightly concave between spine and ribs|
|3||Good Condition - Neither concave or convex|
|4||Overweight - Convex "roundness" makes muscle area hard to palpate|
|5||Obese - Top of the back is almost flat, very difficult to palpate between the spine and the ribs|
Alpacas are susceptible to Clostridial diseases, which are often fatal if they occur and the bacteria which cause the diseases are present in the environment.
This means every alpaca, no matter how it is kept, should be vaccinated using a multivalent Clostridial product. Do discuss this with your vet, but essentially it is important that the first course is started properly in the cria and thereafter that adults receive their annual booster.
Cria (from a vaccinated dam) should first be vaccinated at approximately 4 weeks of age and then given a booster 4-6 weeks later, followed by their annual vaccine with the remainder of the herd.
Pregnant females should receive their annual booster 6-8 weeks prior to birthing so that the cria has some initial protection.
If you have acquired an alpaca, always check which vaccinations it has had and when to ensure the correct course is continued.
In the case of pregnant females who are not used to being handled, a different approach may be taken so that they are not handled when late in their pregnancy. Discuss this with your vet but it is possible to vaccinate the dam when she is open (not pregnant), but then the healthy cria must be vaccinated at 2-3 days of age with a vaccine for younger animals, this is repeated at 6-8 weeks of age and then another vaccine can be given 2-3 weeks after that, before then moving onto their annual boosters.
Dr Alex McSloy wrote an article on this subject for Alpaca Magazine, which is produced by the British Alpaca Society. This Fact File includes the information submitted to the magazine.