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The Alpaca Lifestyle – Getting Started, Part 1 – Pastures, Shelters, Water, Hay

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The Alpaca Lifestyle – Getting Started, Part 1 – Pastures, Shelters, Water, Hay

You’ve learned a lot about alpacas. You’ve done your financial homework. Perhaps you’ve found breeders you can trust and work with, and picked out your starter herd – or perhaps that is still underway. Before your herd arrives, it’s time to get ready. Here, we’ll talk about pasture, shelter, water, and hay.

Planning your pastures: Think fencing first. Alpacas normally will not challenge a reasonable fence, so 48″, no-climb horse fence supported on t-posts is great for this job. A small tractor, a fence stretcher, a post-hole digger, and a good pair of gloves and fencing pliers, and you’ll have the job under control. Work with the breeders you’ve met to develop a pasture plan based on your herd composition and pasture health. Just pets? One pasture might do, but having more will let you rotate the herd to replenish the pastures. Breeding stock? You’ll want separate pastures for boys and girls, and possibly another for mothers with nursing crias. You’ll need access to shelter, water, and hay in each pasture. You’ll also want a convenient way to move your herds from pasture to barn or catch pen for toe shearing, injections, vet visits, and so on. Design your pastures with exercise in mind. They should be shaped so that your alpacas can get in a good run – great for body conditioning!

Planning your shelters: Yes, you can accuse alpacas of not coming in out of the rain sometimes. But that doesn’t mean shelter is optional. Think summer shelter and winter shelter in each pasture. What does shelter mean? A roof and enough walls to break the wind and keep out sun, rain, and snow. A floor that will stay dry, with a surface suitable for cushing. Coarse gravel is not a good idea, nor is concrete slab. Horse stall mats (3/4″ recycled rubber) are great. Packed dirt works fine, so long as it is reliably dry. Make sure that there’s room enough for however many animals will have to share the shelter. Alpacas don’t tend to line up nice and parallel, all in a bunch. Most important is to make sure that all your animals can stay cool enough in hot weather, and keep dry. Good air circulation is key. Also important is to make sure that very young animals can stay warm in very cold weather (though coats can help with this). We’ll talk about barn layout in another article.

Planning for water: Alpacas must have a ready supply of clean, fresh water. Automatic filling equipment is not needed, so long as someone reliably keeps the tanks or buckets filled. One thing we’ve found useful is keeping the water supply up off the ground. Our buckets are suspended at about shoulder height for our younger animals (26″ to 30″), and we use the 24″ tall version of metal stock tanks. This keeps animals from pawing at the water, making it muddy. In case someone spills a bucket or your stock tank springs a leak, it’s a good idea to have a second water supply in place. In winter? Frozen water is a problem for your alpacas and your tanks and buckets. Alpacas also tend to drink too little if the water is too cold. Consider heated buckets (about $50 each) or stock tank heaters (about $90 each) in cold climates. Finally, it’s a good idea to be able to control access to all your herd’s water. Sometimes, medications like coccidiastats are administered through drinking water, so you’ll want to ensure that your alpacas use the right supply.

Planning for hay: Hay should be available all day, every day. Here in the Pacific Northwest, we see annual consumption of 700 to 800 pounds per alpaca – roughly 1 ton of hay per 2.5 to 3 alpacas. What kind of hay? Alpacas do best with a diet of 8% to 12% protein. That makes orchard grass an ideal choice. Second or third cutting orchard grass avoids seeds and stems, and we’ve found this generates less waste. Cost? In 2007, prices here in the Northwest for 2nd or 3rd cutting orchard grass were at $260/ton. In late 2008, prices stood at $300/ton. Handling? We recommend what many hay suppliers call two-string bales. These weigh in the neighborhood of 80 to 90 pounds each. The larger, three-string bales (110-130 pounds each) are harder for a single person to move. A garden cart can be your friend when it comes to moving hay! Storage? Hay needs to be stored dry, preferably not directly on a concrete slab. We use recycled wooden pallets for hay storage, and we keep the hay a few inches away from barn walls. This improves air circulation, helping to avoid mildew.

There are many opinions about which hay feeding stations work best. Tub-style feeders, where alpacas graze on hay in tubs below head level, can help keep hay out of that spot just above the shoulders where it tends to collect and make a mess. On the other hand, wall-style feeders don’t take up as much floor space in your barn, and let animals graze with their heads and necks in a more upright position. If you’re handy, you can build your own. We did, and you can see an example in our Video section at our ranch website.

Nutritionally, orchard grass won’t do it alone for breeding animals and young animals. Supplements in the form of grain and mineral salt can make up the difference. For pregnant and nursing dams, and for young cria, you may also want to have a few bales of alfalfa on hand. We’ll talk about grain and salt in another article. Good luck! We hope this helps you get prepared!

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