By Paige McGrath
It's no secret to llama owners that llamas use communal dung piles—often multiple piles—but communal just the same. However, many are surprised to learn that llamas will use litter boxes. Most don't believe it until they see it. Training your llamas to use a litter box not only helps keep your barn clean, it can also reduce the amount of time and energy you use to keep it that way. Our llamas have been using litter boxes for about 15 years. And, with 100 llamas, this poop management tool is a lifesaver.
The Birth of the Litter Box
For the first three years we owned llamas — back when we had about a dozen — we tried everything to manage the manure in the barn. Coming from a horse background, the thing that made the most sense was shavings but we were afraid of the mess it would make in the llamas' coats. So we tried straw and hay to soak up the urine, but found it inefficient and it tended to produce a worse odor than the urine alone. Then we tried sand… which produced yet a bigger mess. Although sand was nice in the summer because you can wet it down to cool off the llamas, it was backbreaking to move and managed to get deep into the llamas’ coats. Eventually, we broke down and decided to try pine shavings/sawdust.
It worked great! It soaked up the urine, was lighter to shovel and the pine made the barn smell good. (I've always loved the smell of a freshly bedded horse barn.) But the llamas were kicking and tracking the litter all over. So we kept sweeping the loose litter into a corner, but found that the llamas followed the pile. So we installed a retaining rail to keep the litter in the corner and thus created our first "litter box."
How To Train Your Llamas
Start by spreading pine sawdust or fine shavings over their dung pile area. This will soak up the urine. Sweep the tracked litter back into place. Replace with fresh shavings after each cleaning. If the llamas continue to use the same dung pile with the shavings/sawdust and you're satisfied with the location, construct retaining "walls" with 4" x 4" wooden boards (or two 4" x 4" securely nailed on top of one another to create your "wall”). Then fill the area 4" deep with shavings/sawdust. The smallest box we use has an area of 3’ x 6’— this has worked well with small groups of llamas (one to four). Our largest litter box is 8’ x 8’ and takes two wheelbarrows full of sawdust (or two bales of shavings) to fill. There can be as many as four llamas using this box at one time (including babies who quickly emulate their mamas' toilet habits).
After you've been using shavings for a while, you'll find that your llamas will associate the smell of the shavings with their dung pile. This makes it very easy to assign the location of the litter box in new barns. Our barn was a six-stall, center-aisle stable. The llamas were using the stalls to poop and kept the aisle clean. So the litter boxes were located in the stalls. When we added a 30' x 30' extension on the barn (about 14 years ago) we put in an 8” x 8” litter box in the corner and filled it with sawdust. The llamas instantly knew what it was for and promptly christened it. While we have the occasional "miss" just outside the boxes, the rest of the barn has remained poop free ever since.
We now have a herd of 100 and spend less time cleaning than we did when we had twelve. Our main barn houses about 60 females using two large litter boxes. Four of the six stalls are assigned to herd sires, each having a pasture and a private smaller litter box. The boys' boxes usually require cleaning once a week or less. When the weather is nice, the girls' boxes get cleaned out once or two times a week. In hot or rainy weather, the barn gets cleaned out as often as every other day.
We use a front-end bucket on our tractor to clean out the litter boxes. The bucket gets dumped into a manure spreader. The stripped stalls then get sprinkled with Sweet PDZ Stall Freshner and then filled with fresh pine sawdust. A full barn cleaning takes about two hours.
A dump truck full of fresh pine sawdust is delivered from a local mill about three times a year. The "dust" is relatively coarse and very fragrant. Bagged kiln-dried shavings are used in a pinch — and is kept in store during the winter "just in case." While bagged pine shavings are usually absorbent and light, the quality can be inconsistent, ranging from really fine powdery sawdust, to curled shavings, to wood chips. The powdery dust will turn to paste: the curls get caught in the llamas' coats; and the wood chips offer little absorbency. We prefer to stick with the fresh sawdust.
Now that you have your llamas litter box trained, you should have a cleaner barn, fewer flies, and more time to play with your critters. On the downside, your llamas may now see sawdust-covered show rings as a giant litter box. A small price to pay for a clean barn.