4 Camelid Herd Health and Nutrition LaRue W. Johnson
In the process of planning or supplying herd health programs, nutrition evaluation for the herd may be as simple as a cursory appraisal of existing pasture, current forage being offered, questions about supplements, and body condition scoring of the animals encountered during a visit. However, a detailed nutritional program may just as well be the approach that will lead to complete forage, pasture, and supplement analyses and determination of current feeding intakes. With this knowledge, one can likely pinpoint excess, adequacy, or deficiency on the basis of current knowledge with regard to llamas and alpacas of all ages and their reproductive or exercise status. Most camelid owners who are likely to utilize and benefit from a veterinarian’s input with regard to nutrition may have been following other camelid owners’ feeding approaches or perhaps have discovered a condition in their animals that incriminates nutritional practices. The discussion on nutritional evaluation in this chapter is, for practical reasons, essentially an outline that should prompt the reader to refer to the section of this book that discusses nutrition in detail. One of the first points to make with clients is that not all of the current feeding practices are necessary or applicable for their animals. Factors that impact feeding decisions include purpose of the animals; size and makeup of the herd, natural feeding options, geographic influences, facility design for feeding, and feed procurement and storage, as well as economic considerations.
Purpose of Animals Within the ownership of camelids, animals with an incredible diversity of purposes exist, ranging from pets or companion types, strictly fiber producers, show animals, working or pack animals, reproductive animals that include gestating, lactating, and breeding animals, and offspring of all ages. Some owners are focused on only one purpose, whereas some herds comprise animals representing all of the types mentioned above.
Size and Makeup of the Herd Generally, individual monitoring of animals’ nutritional performance becomes progressively more difficult as herd size increases. However, for some owners, this is not a problem in that their entire lives and sometimes their life savings are invested in their herds. A large herd comprising groups of animals with unique nutritional needs will also impact the design of the facility.
Natural Feeding Options Although most owners prefer to have a grazing or browsing option for their animals, some animals are strictly maintained in a dry lot. With limited pasture for the numbers of animals, as well as seasonal depletion of forage, a dry lot option is utilized as an adjunct. Not many camelid herds are afforded abundant year-round grazing, and even when that is possible, owners need to understand that the nutrient content of pasture is not consistent. Fertilization history, maturity of vegetation, selective grazing of animals, and moisture received (rain or irrigation) will influence nutrient content. As such, nutrient analysis of pasture is only accurate for the day the sample was taken. When significant pasture is an option, a wide variation of input is possible, ranging from some routine upgrading for an established pasture to starting afresh with selective grasses suitable for the environment. Recommendations from the county extension office as to what grows well in the area are invaluable; generally, a mixture of grasses works best. That being the case, subsequent selective grazing should influence future choice of over-sowing for reclaiming any sparsely vegetated areas.
Geographic Influences Camelid owners should be made aware that all currently employed supplementation may not be applicable to their animals because of geographic influences. Generally, an established veterinary practice in the area will likely have relevant information regarding potential deficiency or toxicity concerns for other animals that would also apply to camelids. Similarly, local veterinarians involved in the care of livestock species will likely have knowledge of what forages grow well for pasture or stored hay crops.
Facility Design for Feeding It would be safe to state that “for any camelid operation, there can never be too many alleyways and gates.” When pasture grazing is involved, the importance of good fencing to keep animals contained is obvious. In addition, however, permanent fencing with alleyways and gates is often used for pasture rotation. The author has successfully utilized movable electric fencing to accomplish strip grazing and thus pasture rotation. Something often overlooked with extensive use of pasture is routine mowing of ungrazed maturing grasses and weeds. By doing this, seeding of more of these less palatable forages is
reduced. In designing a camelid facility that utilizes pasture, a reliable and consistent procedure for moving animals from pasture to a holding or dry lot area is very important. When pasture is of high quality, restricted grazing may be required to prevent overweight in animals. Also, if pasture is limited, good planning will allow rotation of groups of animals for limited grazing. When stored forage is being fed, it should be stored away from all elements that could compromise nutrient content. Abundant hayracks or bunk space is necessary, as timid animals will, at best, get leftovers. Feeding hay on the ground is not ideal, except in winter when there is snow. If grain or nutritional supplements are deemed necessary, ensuring adequate opportunity for all to consume is essential. This, of course, is accomplished when animals are fed individually by patient owners providing the feeds in well-separated feeders. A consistent-quality water supply is essential for maintaining health in camelids. A bulk water tank is adequate for larger herds, but the tank must be periodically drained to remove contaminants, including dust and plant material. Automatic waterers that are float regulated are, by and large, effective, but they also need to be cleaned and regularly tested for function. In cold weather, this becomes a challenge, as the water supply has to be either heated or freshened multiple times in a day. Failure to consume adequate amounts of fresh water will have a deleterious effect on the nutrition and digestion, lactation, body temperature regulation, and general health of the animals.
nutrition program that will dictate any need for macro or micronutrient supplementation. If the facility has good storage potential, adequate amounts of high-quality forage should be purchased in a single lot. Most supplements are purchased in bags and not necessarily as a year’s supply. Nonetheless, storage concerns with regard to protection from the elements as well as rodents should be given high priority. In addition, stored supply should be secure from all possibilities of accidental overingestion by herd animals. Cases of gastric acidosis from overeating are often caused by failure to close the gates of the storage area where the supplement is stored. All supplements purchased should also be identified by lot number and date of purchase and documented in herd records for future reference.
Feed Procurement and Storage
In summary, the following are essential for responsible nutritional considerations: • Forage analysis • Knowledge of local deficiency and toxicity concerns • Determination of needed supplementation • Maintenance of nutrition quality by proper storage • Adequacy of facilities to ensure nutrition to all members of the herd • Consistent-quality water supply • Routine body condition scoring
One of the biggest challenges for camelid owners has been obtaining quality forage consistently. Even a usually reliable source may, in a given year, not be able to meet expectations, particularly because of weather factors. As will be discussed in the section on nutrition later in this text, not having a detailed forage analysis done before purchasing forage is inexcusable. A responsible supplier will have done this in advance. Forage analysis is the foundation for building a comprehensive
Economic Considerations The reluctance of owners to spend money on forage analysis and overall nutritional consultation continues to be a concern in veterinary practice. Owners do consider their animals valuable, but spending money for ensuring their nutritional wellbeing is deemed expensive. Very soon, alpacas will be in the position that llamas reached over 10 years ago, that is, many animals are worth less than previously. The attitude of “nothing but the best” for animals is now giving way to one of opting for “least cost nutrition.” In such a scenario, nutrition consultation is probably an even more pressing need.