A commonly-quoted stocking rate for alpacas is 4 – 6 per acre. This is fine, provided that the animals can be regularly moved to fresh pasture. So, even if you are just keeping 2 alpacas on half an acre, that paddock will need to be divided, and grazed just half at a time.
Alpacas need pasture all year round; but at any time, if the grass is too long, the arrangement of their teeth makes it difficult for them to eat it. Alpacas can starve in a hayfield. So be prepared to top if necessary. Topping works well if just done a strip at a time. The alpacas will come along and eat up the cut grass, and fresh nutritious shoots will start to grow, which they will also enjoy. In Spring, when the grass is growing very fast, we find that we can greatly increase the stocking rate of our grazing paddocks by this method. At the same time we maximise the number of fields available for hay-making. This works very well.
Plan the siting of water, feed troughs and shelter; these should ideally be on different sides of each paddock, encouraging the animals to move around and achieve optimum grazing.
If you’re taking on new pasture, consider what animals have previously been kept the pasture. Has it been rested prior to your taking over? Or might there be either a worm burden, or even a possibility of other disease or infection remaining from previous occupants? If so, you may need to rest the land for a while, and seek advice from your vet.
Alpacas will not normally eat poisonous plants. However, please bear in mind that standing Ragwort is unpalatable, but becomes dangerous if made into hay, as it then becomes palatable while still remains poisonous. So it should be cleared from pastures using heavy duty rubber gloves, as it affects the liver when in direct contact with skin.
Grasses are relatively short-rooted plants, and so the roots not absorb many of the minerals required by grazing animals, as these may be lower down. For good nutrition a grazing pasture should have a variety of wild flowers, or weeds. Many of these are deep-rooted, resulting in good nutritional value. Old pastures, which have not been treated with modern fertilizers, will probably have well over a hundred varieties of plants, and thus be highly nutritious. Although a top-dressing of nitrogen or other fertilizer will result in a plentiful grass or hay crop, the fertilizer will gradually kill off the wild flowers, and the pasture will become less nutritious. However, a daily supplement of vitamins and minerals is recommended for alpacas, and this will make up for any deficiency.
Rotate your pastures
A rotation of paddocks should be planned so that each paddock is rested, ideally for at least 6 weeks. As soon as the alpacas have been moved on to fresh grazing, remove the dung piles to avoid a build up of parasites, reducing worm related health problems. For a small number of alpacas a horse poop scoop works well. For larger herds there are suction paddock cleaners available, and paddock sweepers that tow behind small tractors.
Groom your pastures and not your alpacas. Clear thistles, brambles, conkers, beech mast, cleavers, brambles and anything else which may invade your alpacas’ coats – time spent doing this will mean you have clean fleeces for processing, rather than spending hours picking out debris, or worse – just discarding their valuable fleeces.
If your pastures are particularly wet, or have been overgrazed for any reason, it may be advisable to bring your alpacas into a lighted barn, or covered concrete area at night, both to give your alpacas a dry place to sit, and to give your paddocks a better chance to recover. This can work well in Winter, as you can make sure your alpacas eat hay, which will certainly be more nutritious than winter grass.
Joy Whitehead has been breeding alpacas in South Oxfordshire since 1989.
This article appeared in Smallholder magazine May 2012