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Calcium / Phosphorus Ratio

One thing to be sensitive to with llamas aside from good general nutrition is the calcium/phosphorus ratio.  The ideal ratio in most mammals is theoretically 1/1, however, reality is different.  This is because typically any phosphorus in excess of calcium will pull calcium from the bones.  This not only causes a decrease in bone density, but the robbing and restoration cycles in the bone causes the bone to form irregular growths and deformations.  Conversely, if calcium is in excess of phosphorus, there are no serious ill effects until the ratio gets way out of balance, e.g., greater than ~5:1.  With a large imbalance in that direction kidney stones become much more likely.  The excess calcium will also inhibit absorption of other minerals, e.g., zinc, copper, etc., which creates other deficiencies.

So it is important to make sure they are getting enough calcium to assure the ratio never drops below 1.2:1.  A good target is 1.5:1.  The ratios in feedstock can vary quite a bit depending on soil conditions, variety of plant/grain, time of harvest, etc.  Short of analyzing everything, it's possible to roughly estimate intake by using averages for various common feedstock.

Alfalfa runs about 5.5:1, which makes it a good supplement to offset calcium deficiency in the regular feedstock. (It doesn't take very much.)   Note that llamas should not be fed just straight alfalfa.  Not only is the calcium/phosphorus balance way off but the nitrogen, protein and caloric levels are too high.  Llamas are designed to subsist on browse that consists mostly of grasses.  Other legumes, like clover, have a ratio similar to alfalfa.

Grasses often run below the target 1.5:1 ratio.
While orchard grass can run as high as 1.1:1, it more typically runs only about 0.8:1, which can be a real problem if that is the sole diet of llamas.
Bluegrass is about 1.1:1
Tall White Fescue is about 1.2:1
Oat grass is about 1.2:1
Bermuda grass is about 1.6:1
Timothy is close to 2:1

Whole grains being rich in phosphorus have a very skewed ratio, running under 0.3:1.
Corn  0.2:1
Barley  0.15:1
Oat  0.15:1

Grain bran is even worse.
Wheat bran  0.1:1
Rice bran  0.06:1

Obviously one should never feed a lot of bran, especially rice bran, unless supplemented with a lot of calcium.  Pelletized rice bran sold as feed supplement for horses is fortified with calcium and is good for llamas needing extra calories for weight gain.  Some come with added joint health supplements, making it a good feed supplement for elderly llamas having a harder time keeping the weight on.

Feeding Alfalfa to Llamas

Advantages:  Alfalfa is higher calorie/energy than grass, so they don't need nearly as much to maintain weight.  Consequently the intake must be carefully regulated via individual haying.  The resulting advantage is that it is much cheaper to feed alfalfa hay than grass hay.  It's also more readily available (except perhaps in the southeast).  Alfalfa is typically very high in calcium so there aren't any issues with calcium deficiencies and resulting skeletal problems from that.  With less to chew, teeth should last longer in llamas (though this is potentially a problem for alpacas who's teeth grow continuously).

Disadvantages:  Intake must be carefully regulated for each llama (more work -- can't pasture on alfalfa).  There are mild toxins in alfalfa (some books even list it as a poisonous plant), and much higher protein content, that puts greater strain on the kidneys and liver compared to grass (potentially a problem for compromised llamas, and calcium or oxalic kidney stones are more likely).  Effects are lessened by restricting intake. The lower bulk intake makes them more susceptible to cold if in a cold environment, but at an advantage in a hot environment.  The disproportionally high percentage of calcium combined with the lower bulk intake makes vitamin and mineral deficiencies more likely compared to grass fed, but this is highly variable depending on local soil conditions and maturity of the plant.  The low bulk diet makes the llama feel hungry most of the time.  Consequently they are at higher risk of eating things they shouldn't if the opportunity arises, such as poisonous weeds that sprout in the enclosure or if they should accidentally get out of the enclosure.  Lower bulk means less cud chewing, so acidosis and ulceration is more likely.

Bottom Line: Straight alfalfa can be fed to llamas but at significantly higher risk of adverse health effects.  Some folks choose to feed a blend of grass with alfalfa in about an 80/20 ratio, which can be a good choice particularly if available grass is a variety that happens to be low in calcium.  Given free choice in a pasture setting with both grass and alfalfa available, llamas will not eat straight alfalfa.  They will choose to eat mostly grass and nibble on comparatively small amounts of alfalfa, typically limited to about 10%.

Haying in the Winter

Contrary to the stated belief of some, there is no need to elevate protein levels in the hay during Winter months.  Healthy llamas will do just fine on low protein hay and the studies I have read indicate that protein needs in llamas is low relative to other livestock, apparently due to greater efficiency.  Also, old llamas with reduced-function kidneys will be under greater renal stress with a high protein intake.  What llamas need in the wintertime when it is cold is lots of volume.  Free choice low protein hay is much better than restricted quantities of high protein hay or grain supplement.  Nothing is better for keeping a llama warm than a full stomach of lots of fiber for the rumen to digest, which is a mildly exothermic reaction.  The larger quantity consumed in the winter will elevate the total quantity of everything else going in, including protein.  They will get enough.  Consequently, if you can get lower protein hay that horse owners would reject at significantly reduced cost than the premium stuff and can then provide much more of it, they will be better off.  Free choice premium hay will instead lead to overweight llamas along with keeping them warmer.

This doesn't mean they should be fed garbage hay or just straw, but I think folks get too concerned about hay that is 8-10% protein and think it must be more like 14-15% to be optimal for them in the Winter.  Even 6-7% protein is of no concern to me as free choice to a healthy herd that is not very active in the Winter.  We supplement our llamas with the NW llama supplement and supply granular salt to assure they get the vitamins and minerals they need.  Of course lactating or pregnant llamas are an exception and should get a bit more protein than others.

Vitamin E

Dry hay is very low in vitamin E and absent in older hay, whereas llamas seem to benefit from higher levels of vitamin E compared to other livestock.  Keep this in mind when feeding hay -- especially lower "quality" hay.  The d-alpha tocopherol form is natural vitamin E, which is derived from soybeans. The dl-alpha tocopheryl acetate form is a man-made synthetic vitamin E.  Supplement hayed llamas.

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Last modified: 15 May 2012