Coping with Drought (originally published as a supplement to the Yaca, issue 36)

by R T Dixon B.V.Sc.

After months of drought-feeding my alpaca, I was feeling glum and downcast. Then I heard a voice that said 'Smile! Things could be worse': so I smiled, and they were !!

This prolonged drought is starting to bring home to members - and their alpaca - just what a prolonged drought entails. We think of this in terms of a shortage of water, and this may well be the most obvious shortfall. The more insidious shortage occurs following a failure of the seasonal rains responsible for a pasture that carries you through into the next favourable growing phase - usually Spring.

We are now experiencing a protein drought of two colours; depending on whether you have had a few showers of the wet stuff or not, you are experiencing a green drought or a brown one. In the green drought the pasture looks green, because of a small sparse shoot that is 90% water, so does not provide sufficient protein to fatten lambs or maintain late pregnant animals in adequate condition. The brown variety does not even have the green shoot, because gale-force winds rip the moisture from the soil before the stunted/ overgrazed grass can respond.

Alpaca are very canny critters. If energy and protein levels cannot be replenished by continuous grazing, they sit around for increasing periods, rather than mooch for the occasional gleaning. However, for an animal that is a continuous grazer, sitting around increases their stress level. Stress increases with high winds - they hunker down for prolonged periods. Dry cold such as -4 degree frost, or snow, does not seem to worry them, but rain and wind are the ultimate bad combination. I have already heard of alpaca losses under these conditions.

It is now too late to double your property size, plant forage crops, or even to sell off 'excess' stock (unless you can tap into a market in an area where the drought has ended and pasture is growing like the national debt!). However, you can very profitably do some nutritional sums which should enable you to decrease the stress level in your flock to the point where you - and your alpaca - come out in reasonably good shape.

If you have not already done your sums - or if you don't do them NOW, you can expect a lower percentage birth rate, due to mid and late term foetal loss; a decrease in fleece production, because your critters are putting energy into keeping warm and staying alive, rather than producing fleece; and a lowered conception rate when you re-commence mating in late Spring, because of lowered male and female fertility.

So, do not despair !! DO THE SUMS !!!

The following ground-rules apply:

  1. It takes two or three times the protein and energy intake to restore a thin animal to good condition, compared to the intake required to keep a well-conditioned animal in that state.
  2. Your property has a Dry Sheep Equivalent (DSE) rating. This is the number of wether sheep that can be run per acre or per hectare. On native pasture alpaca are some 30% more efficient than sheep, but on improved pasture the performance is equal. The DSE allows for lean times, not drought, and does not allow for the needs of pregnant or lambed ewes - or alpaca. If your DSE rating is 1/acre, and you are running 3 alpaca/ acre, you are now operating on a feed overdraft, and the interest charges are just as horrendous as any charged by the Fantastic Plastics. It is not time to get your feed account out of 'overdrawn' and into credit balance, however small.
  3. If your pasture - or what's left of it - is native (Kangaroo Grass or Poa Tussock, you are looking at a protein content of 5% tops. If your pasture is Kikuyu or paspalum-based, the protein level may be down to just 3%. You therefore have not only a deficiency of Dry Matter for the critters to eat, but what they are eating doesn't contain enough protein and energy. You therefore have to supply some extra Dry Matter, such as hay, as well as some additional protein.
  4. If your pasture is improved, and particularly if it contains clover or Microlaena, what is there may have a protein level of 10-12%, but there is still insufficient Dry Matter to keep the spitter's stomachs and intestines functioning efficiently. Provision of oaten, wheaten, or pasture hay that contains no clover may be sufficient to do the trick, but it is more likely that you will have to supply an extra protein source as well.
  5. Alpaca wethers seem to be able to stay in good condition and produce fibre on an 8% protein intake. Weaners need something like 12-14% if they are going to go ahead; early and mid-pregnant mums should not drop below 12% if they are not going to jettison their cargo after 90 days, and milking mums deserve 14-16% if they are to maintain good milk production as well as a respectable Body Condition Score. Our males are maintaining good Body Condition Scores on the wether regime, but I would suggest raising the protein intake to 10% for at least three weeks before you expect them to be firing live rounds.

WAIT ! ! ! before rushing out and converting your feeding overdraft into a bank one, do two things:

  1. Feel your animals and write down a Body Condition Score for each one. If you don't know how to do this, either phone the AAA National Office and ask for a copy of Alpacanote No. 4/03 - Body Condition Score (BCS) of alpacas or download the Alpacanote directly from the AAA website.
  2. Decide if your paddock arrangements will allow you to run separate groups of wethers, weaners, tuis and early pregnant maidens, middle stage experienced mums, and last trimester and birthing mums, PLUS two or three yards or small paddocks for critters whose BSC indicates the need for extra supplementary feeding. Alternatively, if paddock numbers won't allow this kind of separation, you may consider running non-pregnant females and some wethers as one group, with other wethers being put with late pregnant and nursing mums, and the weaners and tuis being a third group. Be on the look-out for individuals in the groups being bullied away from hand-fed supplements, and always have a yard or three to accommodate the thinnies. Incidentally, are they thin because they have developed increased parasite ingestion through close grazing near poo-piles? Feeding worms is even more expensive than feeding stock and the worms produce no fleece, so have a worm check done of your flock, especially the thinnies.

Now that you know the overall condition of your flock, and what level of separation you can institute, you can consider which of the following scenarios is the least expensive and time-consuming for you, and the most stress-reducing for your animals.

Large Hay Bales

A large ROUND bale in each paddock is a good method of allowing each animal to eat what it needs. The rural press and most country local papers carry advertisements for supply of these. They are best laid on their side rather than on end, because the alpaca seem to like eating them from the centre outwards; the shell then collapses, and the 'shell' can then be used for garden mulch or compost. Because they can roll, you will need to position them against a fence, shed, or tree. They also come wrapped in a netting mesh which your cria love to mumble and try to eat, so do not leave any laying around after you remove the collapsed 'shell'.

A large SQUARE bale, 6ft x 3ft or even 8ft by 4ft is even heavier and more difficult to move. If you do not have the tractor to unload it/them from the delivery vehicle, these may not be a practical solution to your problems. If you have access to a tractor with a front end loader, and cover in which to store it/them this is a good source of dry matter and protein, but the individual 'biscuits' are 12-15cm thick which is heavy when multiplied by 3ft x 3ft and even heavier if 4ft x 4ft and such a biscuit can be very difficult to break into distributable portions. Watching a member attack such a biscuit with a chainsaw was a sight to behold!

Oaten or wheaten bales probably have a protein content of 8% unless it contains some clover or lucerne in which case the protein level may well be 10 or 12%. Buying such hay 'blind' is just that. It helps if a friend has bought some previously, so that you can ask an opinion, or better, see it for yourself; alternatively, ask whether the vendor has delivered THE SAME hay to someone locally, so that you can phone and ask to go and look at it first before placing a firm order.

Lucerne hay has a significantly higher protein content but alpaca, unlike cattle, are reluctant to eat the stalks, so you can end up with some very well mulched paddocks. You should ask about other grasses or weeds in the hay, as lucerne hay may contain a proportion of thistle, burr, or wild oats that will result in significant contamination of your property. Hence one look before purchase may save you a lot of problems in years to come.

Clover hay is very good in the protein stakes, and most alpacas will eat the stalks, so that the total consumption rate is much higher. It is rarely available as 'pure' clover hay; it usually comes as a mixture of clover and phalaris, or clover and pasture hay, so that the protein content is somewhat lower than the 18% you might expect. If it is not too contaminated with thistles or weeds, it is a good buy. Again, an inspection by you or a third person is recommended.

Small Hay Bales

These are getting hard to get because the machinery for making large bales is more economic to use, and the machinery for stacking them is also more efficient. Most large sheep and cattle operations have the equipment to unload, stack and handle them, which leaves me - and maybe you - one step closer to the dinosaur. At present there seems to be sufficient producers to keep us supplied but for how long is anybody's guess. In times of plenty they are sold by the tonne, but in times of drought they are sold by the bale. The average bale is 3-4ft long and 1.5 x 1.5ft square. They come as a series of biscuits some 10cm thick (sorry for the mixed units) but some operators adjust their balers to make 10-12cm biscuits. In times of plenty one can buy these bales of lucerne - you pick them up from the field behind the baler, at about $5 a bale; in these times you pay $11 to $27.50, depending how far down the selling chain you are buying. These prices are for 'pure' lucerne hay - which may contain obvious thistle or wild oat contamination and should have some 18-25% protein. Oaten and wheaten hay is cheaper, but contains less protein, ie 8-10% depending on whether there is a clover component.

Feeding

Significant savings in wastage can be achieved if hay is fed in feeders. There are generally two types - those that are open and therefore designed to be used under some sort of roofing, and those that are covered, and can therefore be freestanding in a paddock. Like most solutions, the latter are more expensive but allow for more flexibility in use especially if you don't have sheds or shelters to put the open variety in. If you are feeding out by bales or individual biscuits, allow one biscuit (10cm thick) for every four alpaca each day; a bale contains 10-12 biscuits, so plan accordingly.

BIG HINT. These bales are just too long for comfortable handling, unless your arms are exceptionally long. Get a bale hook from your local produce store, borrow one from a friend, or best of all take a friend who can use a welder to look at one, and make one for you. The steel needs to be well tempered - the arch supports for the tonneaux on old Holden utes are ideal, but your friend will get the idea.

Extra Protein

If you have small numbers, or facilities to feed larger numbers in troughs, bowls or other containers, you can add to the protein of the lower 'quality' hays by supplying grains, protein meals or pellets. If using pellets, check on the protein content - some have 10- 12% protein, which is insufficient for milking mums but adequate for early and mid term mums, males, and of course wethers. Others have 14% protein - good for weaners, but still low for milking mums.

Enter the use of protein meals like LT Soy Meal (36% protein) or grains such as lupins (24-28% protein). If using lupins ensure that they are cracked - not whole - because alpaca digest them better. The added advantage of heat or chemically treated products such as LT Soy Meal is that a proportion of the protein is present as By-Pass protein - ie the protein does not have to be processed by bacteria or fungi in the first compartment stomach, but passes directly into the small intestine for immediate absorbtion which can be critical for weaners who need an uncomplicated protein 'fix'.

How do I vary the protein level I provide?

As an example, suppose you are feeding alpaca pellets with a 12% protein content, and you wish to provide your nursing mums with a 16% protein supplement using LT Soy Meal (36% protein). Fill in the details in the Pearson Square as shown below:

 Pellets (12%) 36 - 16 = 20 parts pellets (16%) The desired protein level LT Soy Meal (36%) 16 - 12 = 4 parts LT Soy 24 parts TOTAL You feed 20/24 parts (5/6) pellets and 4/24 (1/6) LT Soy Meal

You can use the Pearson Square to calculate the proportions of oaten/wheaten/white chaff (8% protein) and lucerne chaff (18-22% protein, depending on supplier), or cracked lupins (the little brown ones are 28% protein, or the fatter yellow ones are 24% protein) for giving a 10% protein supplement to stud males, or 14% to weaners, or 12% to early trimester females.

All right but how much per alpaca per day?

I calculate to feed a biscuit of hay (10cm thick) for four alpaca. Wethers and stud males get this once a day; nursing mums and weaners get this twice daily. If you are feeding bales at a time in covered racks, calculate on getting 10 such biscuits to a bale. Such a bale should suffice for 40 weaners or 20 nursing mums for a day; or, five nursing mums would have a four day supply of lucerne or clover hay, and six wethers should make it last a week.

In addition, I calculate to give a two litre measure of chaff/lupins/LT Soy Meal to each adult animal night and morning, in individual feeders. I am thus giving a higher total protein to the nursing mums by giving them lucerne hay twice daily, compared to the once daily supply for stud males and wethers.

This is intensive feeding, and can, I assure you, get onerous, but it does have the advantage of close quarters monitoring of animals twice daily, looking for signs of seeds in eyes (more common with hays containing seeds and awns) and evidence of individuals being pushed out of the way or hanging back. These animals may have to be transferred to the TLC (Tender Loving Care) yard or paddock. It is amazing how often a usually aloof animal will let you have a quick feel for body condition scoring while you are moving among them breaking up a biscuit of hay.

Relying on large round bales in the paddock is certainly less labour intensive, but does mean that you should attempt to yard and body condition score each mob about once a fortnight, to ensure they are not slipping backwards. You should also move among each group daily to check for watery squinting eyes indicative of seeds or awns in the eye (usually in the pouch of the lower lid) or head shaking with a floppy ear (hay or seed in the ear canal). Burrowing their heads into a bale of hay makes either of these happenings more likely.

Damp vs dry feeding

We dampen our chaff/lupins/Soy mix before feeding, because it is less likely to blow away and will not cause choke if a greedy-guts swallows a large mouthful before lunging for a second. If greedy - or very hungry - animals ingest a lot of dried pelleted food quickly the swelling inside the first compartment stomach can make them quite uncomfortable. Do not flood the feed but add just enough water to make the pellets or chaff stick together as a crumble. This will also prevent the LT Soy Meal from sinking to the bottom and will help it to coat the grain/pellets/chaff components.

Cobalt Supplement?

The crude protein you supply the critters does not get immediately absorbed in the stomach; it gets eaten by the bacteria and fungi and protozoa, which then die, pass into the intentine, where they (and their protein) are digested and absorbed. These bacteria and fungi need Cobalt in order to function well and proliferate, and a Cobalt deficiency results in poor bacterial digestion and therefore poor utilisation of the crude protein you are supplying. The Cobalt is usually obtainable as a trace element in the natural diet, but if this is getting scarce, so the likelihood of a deficiency increases.

Cobalt Sulphate is a red powder and costs approximately $34 per kilo. We use quarter of a teaspoon in enough food for 33 alpaca and for my money it is very good assurance that what I am feeding is being as efficiently utilised as possible.

Shelter

Another approach to reducing drought stress levels is to ensure that there is some shelter if it gets wet and windy. If your property is equipped with sheds or barns, you obviously have the solution to the problem - you shed your critters until the rain stops and the cold wind subsides - especially the latter. Shade is not necessarily shelter. A large gum tree is good for summer shade but very little use for wind protection. A makeshift and effective solution is to put up treated pine poles 6ft high and tack shade cloth to them. We find that the 70% shade cloth is a very efficient break and set up as a 12 x 12ft enclosure open to the east, with a 50% shade cloth roof, we have a shade/ wind break for all seasons that has been very useful in our recent 100 km plus winds.

Perhaps by the time you read this, the drought will have broken, and the hungry looks your critters give you will be a fading memory.

If the drought is still with us do the body condition scoring and nutrition sums now.

New to Alpaca? > Resources > Coping with Drought



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