By Chris Stull, SELR BoA &
Adoption Coordinator, NE PA
Reprinted from the Llama Rescue
Review, September 2007
The basics for feeding any llama are hay, salt, and water, with only as much grain as needed for the animal to maintain good body condition. Hay still is the basis for a good feeding program because it usually can satisfy daily maintenance requirements of energy, protein, fiber, vitamins and minerals, however, depending on the quality, hay can vary in its nutritional content. For example, it can contain less than 8 percent or more than 22 percent protein.
Alfalfa hay may provide much more protein than some animals need, whereas, older, yellowed grass hay might not provide enough. Protein is important for bones, muscles and just about everything else, including coat condition. Too little protein will cause a dull coat. Too much won't hurt your animal but will result in higher urine output (wet smelly stalls, increased water needs). For the average llama, probably 8 to 10 percent protein in his daily diet would be plenty. Naturally, lactating, pregnant, or working llamas may have greater requirements.
Hay analysis can be done by a county agent or any university that has an agricultural department. However, this is not always practical. A rule of thumb for testing grass hay is to look at the distance from the stem to the seed head. The longer the stem, the lower the protein. If stems on timothy hay, for instance, are about six to seven inches long, you probably would have a less than 8 percent protein hay product, and you might need to supplement with a higher protein concentrate. If the stems are all nice and short, barely coming out of the blade of grass, then the protein percentage will be higher, and you probably would not need to supplement.
Watch for moldy hay. Any hay can become moldy because of harvesting or storage problems. It can cause respiratory disease and could be toxic to llamas. Usually, llamas won't eat moldy hay, and you'll see a lot of it wasted. Bales that are heavier than those around them may be moldy. Look for discolored patches of brown or white. Also, be sure to take a whiff. You can smell mold. Good hay is always clean, leafy and sweet smelling.
Sometimes hay can be difficult to find, especially after drought conditions. If this is the case, you can substitute forages such as hay cube products or bagged forage, which are pretty good as hay substitutes. Complete beet-pulp-based ratios are not really 100% adequate to replace hay, but can be used. You need to switch slowly. In both cases, expect increased wood-chewing activity. A llama naturally spends 10 to 14 hours a day eating. A diet of only hay cubes or bagged chopped forage and concentrates can be consumed in less than four hours, therefore, these llamas will look elsewhere to chew and may resort to eating toxic weeds. Grass hay tends to be higher in calcium than phosphorous, but the ratio between the two is fairly narrow.
Your feed room should have one closed container for grain, if your animal needs it, with a couple of bags of hay cubes or bagged chopped forage in case your hay is not the best quality. There should be extra loose salt with some electrolytes to replace essential compounds lost during periods of extreme heat. For animals in good condition, that's really all you need. In our last issue I discussed the different types and qualities of hay and hay substitutes. In some cases it may be necessary to supplement your llama's diet with foods other than hay to maintain a proper body mass. Adding fat in moderate amounts is one good way to keep the weight on an animal without feeding a lot of grain. However, if you start going over one cup of vegetable oil or add too much rice bran, which is popular now, you've got to be careful. Vegetable oil has no minerals but may increase the need for vitamin E. Rice bran is high in phosphorous, and you can get into a reverse calcium-to-phosphorous ratio if you feed them too much. When phosphorous intake is higher than calcium, the animal's body tries to stabilize things by leaching the calcium out of his bones. This causes intermittent lameness, and could cause skeletal disorders and fractures. As I mentioned previously, grass hay tends to be higher in calcium than phosphorous. If you add more than about a half pound of rice bran to that, you can push the phosphorous up to a level that would get into the danger zone, especially if you're feeding grain or a bran product that's not fortified with calcium.
If your llama is losing weight or is sluggish, you may need to add grain to his diet, presuming he is not ill or carrying a heavy parasite load. Oats are not a high-energy feed. Either whole or crimped, one pound of oats contains just about the same amount of energy as one pound of excellent quality hay. Corn is a perfectly good feed for most animals, but people have gotten into trouble by not understanding it. A one-pound coffee can filled with corn contains two times the amount of energy as the same amount of oats, and if you suddenly feed the corn in the same amount as you do oats, an animal can get into trouble. Corn is also prone to mold.
There are many concentrate mixes out there that contain a mixture of corn, oats and/or barley with added vitamins and minerals. Choose one from a reputable company that is designed specifically for the animal in mind. Horse feed is not recommended for llamas. Generally the copper content in horse feed is a bit too high for llamas.
The molasses coating on sweet feed breaks down as simple sugar in the bloodstream and sets off a whole chain reaction within the body—the pancreas produces sudden rushes of insulin, which can be damaging to soft tissue and organs with repeated occurrences. If you need to put weight on an animal rapidly, use a dry pelleted feed mixed with plain soaked beet pulp for added calories. The wet beet pulp adds extra fiber and moistens the dry pellets enough to cut down on the risk of choke. Naturally, this should be mixed at each feeding and not in advance as the beet pulp can sour quickly, particularly in the heat.
Llamas also need free-choice minerals specific to their needs, as well as specific to the area in which you live. Lamas need loose minerals, as they cannot lick adequate minerals from blocks. To find out about mineral deficiencies in your area, you can consult the USGS geochemical maps at: http://tin.er.usgs.gov/geochem/doc/averages/countydata.htm.