By Debbie Bratton of Maple View Alpaca Farm, Brandon, VT
Alpacas are remarkably adaptive creatures and can survive in a wide range of climate conditions. Still, to achieve the best results raising alpacas in cold weather conditions, a little extra care is required. And if this winter is like last winter, those extra measures will be necessary. So here are a few tips to keep your alpacas healthy and happy this winter.
Alpacas must have adequate shelter. If they are in a three-sided shelter, be sure that the opening is away from the prevailing wind and that it is deep enough so they can escape blowing snow. If you have the flexibility, move portable shelters closer to gates and main shelters, making them easier to service.
Plow or move snow if possible to permit the alpacas to have a clear area to get some exercise. On sunny days, place the hay out in the cleared area so the alpacas leave the shelters.
Provide insulation from the cold ground. Many breeders use straw as bedding; others purchase bedding products such as Hunt Club (recycled cardboard). A combination of thick rubber mats with bedding works particularly well in colder weather.
If weather is extreme you may want to consider hanging radiant heaters in protected areas of the barn. These are the most cost effective heaters but must be hung high enough to prevent injury or fire, yet low enough to provide adequate warmth.
Young crias may require special care during colder weather. Having a supply of cria coats in different sizes is a good idea. If there is a sudden, severe drop in the temperature or the wind blows and mom is not coming into the shelter, put a coat on the cria, at least at night. A cria cannot absorb the nutrients from the milk if its core temperature drops below 100F. In extreme conditions, it may even be necessary to layer the coats. But be sure to take the coat off if conditions improve.
And don't forget to check for frozen water during the winter. Alpacas may be cold, but they still need water. Some automatic waterers come with automatic heaters, but they still freeze, as will buckets. Heated water buckets can be used where electricity is available.
The most important food heat source is hay, not grain. Most breeders give free choice hay at all times in the winter. Check your hay bins regularly and keep them well stocked, especially at night. Some breeders add steamed oats and corn to their grain mixtures during the coldest parts of the winter.
It's amazing what a difference a year makes! Just twelve months ago, Ed and Debbie Bratton of Maple View Farm in Brandon, Vermont were anxiously awaiting the arrival of their first 3 alpacas. The barn construction was complete, the pastures finally fenced, feeders and water buckets purchased, and even the farm store was stocked. All they needed was alpacas! Now, as they celebrate one year as alpaca owners, they find themselves with a herd of eleven huacaya and quite a range of colors. Certainly fellow lama owners can appreciate how that can happen!
Three cria were born on the farm this year, bringing the total to 6. The others came various ways and include a mom and 2 of her offspring, as well as other females ready for their first breeding. Sounds like things could get busy at Maple View Farm next year!
But the alpacas are so enjoyable and so easy to care for that the Brattons have hardly noticed the increase in "work". Ed often comments to people that morning chores started taking longer once the first cria were born, not because there was more work to do but because they would spend time watching them play and romp in the pastures each morning! Situated on 100 scenic acres in western Vermont, Maple View Farm is readily accessible off Route 7 just north of Brandon. Stop by if you are ever in the area!