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Camelid Nutrition

Presented circa 1990/1992

LaRue W. Johnson, DVM, PhD Professor
Department of Clinical Sciences Colorado State University
Fort Collins, Colorado 80523

"We feed our horses hay, with oats,
With grass for cows and sheep and goats.
Chickens look for grain to eat,
While ducks find worms and dogs get meat.
Cats have meat and milk and fish,
To each its own peculiar dish.
Some are fussy, others not,
But pigs of course will eat the lot...

Now when it comes to camelids,
It seems the knowledge ends.
Yet their enlightened owners will
Never starve their friends.
Each new day there's a new form of pellet,
The value of which not all of us can tell it.
So I'm here to tell you with my usual sage,
That llamas will do well with quality forage."

I preface this current presentation on camelid nutrition by explaining to the reader that I have no formal training in nutrition, that I have nothing in the line of camelid nutrition to sell, and that I am open-minded as to what might yet be revealed for the nutritional betterment of our buddies. If I were to total up the numbers of presentations I have given to camelid assemblies on the subject of nutrition, it would conservatively number about 30. So, why am I back talking to the ILA Annual Meeting on nutrition?

It could be because I don't make myself clear...or is it because nobody reads the ILA Brochure #6 Camelid Nutrition (1986). I would like to think that there are some of the old guard that really believe the KISS principle of nutrition has some merit, and that new owners could benefit from it. In addition, Dr. Johnson may just have a couple of new gems to pass along that he has learned in his travels.. As such, you can be assured of something Old, something New, as well as something Borrowed, and hopefully most of it is True.

The old will be much of the thrust of ILA Brochure #6 (1986). Yes, the KISS principle. The new is also borrowed, and it relates to forage/pasture management. I will give credit to where it is due, namely a CSU colleague, Dr. Roy Roath of our Range Management Department in the College of Natural Sciences. Dr. Roath has addressed our food animal veterinary students for the past several years on the topic of forage management. He recently addressed our CSU Llama Workshop for Veterinarians. The following is excerpted from his presentations.

While not all camelid owners have year around or, for that matter, seasonal pasture as a forage source, I am sure that we would all desire for our charges to have abundant hilly pastures to graze, play and pronk on. That being the case, it is desirable to have knowledge of pasture as a resource base and its productive capability. While great variability of plant content exists, the operator must have some knowledge about the types of plants that are present as well as the variability of quality and quantity throughout the year.

Quality of forage is the factor that, more than any other, drives livestock productivity be it growth, reproduction, or simply health. Being aware of forage quality available, maximizing its use as well as perpetuation, is the challenge a livestock manager faces. As such, the challenge is simply to match the available quality of the forage resource with the demand of the grazing animals, or to harvest the best quality forage to later serve as a stored forage, usually in the form of hay.

Leaves are the highest quality component in any forage environment. As such, effective forage utilization is based on management decisions that allow use of leaves when they are young, green and highly palatable. As you no doubt have noted, leaves are not always young and green, so it is important that you maximize the use of the green forage time of the year. It is of interest to note that in their Andean origins, the nondomestic camelids birth and peak lactation demands happen during this "young and green leaf" time of the year. Domestic camelid owners of South America generally take advantage of this season as well. Matching the breeding, criation and nursing period of camelid raising to this maximum forage nutrition time would seem advisable, both for ease of management, minimizing supplementation as well as the maximizing of performance. Obviously, irrigated pastures, whether sub-irrigated/flood/sprinkler, allow a wider period of "young and green", and proper fertilization will further enhance the performance.

What are the foraging options available to camelids? They are really no different than for any grazing or browsing animal. We usually tend to think mostly of grasses; however, forbs and shrubs are out there and very desirable, considering the cafeteria preferences of camelids. As Dr. Roath stated: "The whole world is not made of grass". By and large, however, most of our forage mentality tends to hover around grasses. It is important, however, to keep in mind that in most cases a forage resource is not pure grass either by intention or invasion. Broadleaf plants called forbs and woody plants referred to as browse, play key roles in providing quality and diversity to the forage resource. The most commonly utilized forb in camelid nutrition is alfalfa, but plenty of non-cultivated forbs such as weeds (dandelions, mustards, prickly lettuce, etc.) are being consumed as volunteers in your pastures with variable nutritive value, palatability and, of course, in some cases potential toxicity.

Animals with forestomachs (i.e., classical ruminants) including sheep, cattle and goats, as well as the modified ruminants like camelids have the ability with the aid of mechanical crushing (mastication), enzymes, microbial digestion and remastication to digest the bulk of plant material they ingest. What is variable in what they harvest has to do with the quality of the vegetation and the rate of passage through the digestive tract. It has been shown that camelids have a slower rate of passage than conventional ruminants, indicating digestive superiority. What then are the variabilities of quality? In a general sense, quality is represented by the Total Digestible Nutrient (TDN) content of the vegetation. However, more specifically, we could focus on protein content, as generally if the protein content of a forage is high, the TDN is also high.

If one compares the forbs with grasses on a physical basis, the leaf to stem ratio is very high in forbs. As such, since photosynthetic activity is predominantly in the leaf, yielding energy and protein, most of the year the forbs yield high quality nutrition, unless allowed to go to maturity (i.e. flowering and seed production). Left to their own preferences and, in the face of abundance, many animals will become essentially "concentrate grazers” by eating nothing but leaves. This is, of course, also true when leafy hay (grass or alfalfa) is offered in abundance.

Assuming there are grazable forages for your critters, perhaps some food for thought on management is in order. Dr. Roath offers an acronym as a guide...FID or Frequency of defoliation and Intensity of defoliation. Frequency and Intensity are related in that it basically determines the remaining ability of the plant to regenerate if given the Opportunity. How much of the plant is left is more important than how much was eaten. Hopefully, the remaining plant has enough leaf structure or can call on many adaptive mechanisms to overcome the effect of grazing. For example, structural integrity, genotypic variation, protected growing points, mobile nutrient reserves and ability to compete for resources, which will enable it to regenerate new leaves and carry on active photosynthesis.

The opportunity to regrow is, of course, influenced by soil nutrient, moisture and temperature. If intense grazing is anticipated, soil sampling and response with indicated fertilization in the spring of the year is ideal. Strip grazing, or pasture rotation will allow Opportunity to regrow. Unless uniform grazing has occurred, older, less palatable forages will be skipped and, in all likelihood, go to seed to produce more of the less favored plants. When regrazing occurs, the same plants that were previously harvested will again be the most young and green. Ideally, after a grazing period, the minimally or ungrazed forage should be mowed so as to stimulate young and green regrowth, at least during the time of year when regrowth climate prevails. The question then is how long should the Opportunity be? Because of variability of climatic conditions, there appears to be no one answer. During prime regrowth time, as little as 10 days may be required, but ideally 30 days for the best plant health. This may be even longer later in the growing season.

Questions are often asked as to what kind of forage should be planted in my location or what is the best pasture forage for my alpacas and llamas? Again, there is no absolute answer to these questions. First of all, they are related in that in certain locations one type of forage will grow best and as such be the best for your choice of camelid. A survey of what grows best in your area, based on observation, or contact with the extension agents or university in your area will give you a leg up.

Another alternative is to plant a pasture mix that is recommended for your area, with rainfall and irrigation reality influencing the final selection. And then, after time, do some reseeding with what appears to both grow well and be preferably consumed.

The thrust of this presentation has evolved around forage care and consumption. I remain of the opinion that grasses, forbs and shrubs provide the ideal basis for routine camelid nutrition. By analyzing the forage being fed, or at the minimum having textbook knowledge of presumed analysis, a basic mineral supplement should be offered to balance the nutrient intake. Supplementation thereafter is designed for owner mental satiation and entrepreneurial gain.

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