A member of the camel family, llamas are adapted to the harsh conditions of the high Andes Mountains, where they subsist on a wide variety of grasses and other plants. But here in the United States, where the landscape and vegetation is different, what do llamas eat?
This is one of the main questions that any homesteader or farmer must ask before committing to llamas, which are raised as pets, guard animals and for their fiber.
In the U.S., a llama’s diet usually consists of foraged plant material, hay and a limited amount of specific grains and supplements. Here are some tips from experts on what llamas should eat — and what they shouldn’t.
Llamas are herbivores that are built to forage on a wide variety of plants, much like goats and sheep. They eat grasses, flowering plants, shrubs and even trees.
“They keep the pasture clear of brush,” said Michael Sheridan, who has been raising and breeding llamas for more than 25 years on the historic Hemstreet Farm in East Aurora, New York. “[My pasture] looks like a freshly mowed lawn.”
Approximately three to five llamas can be grazed per acre, according to the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service, depending on the quality of the forage material.
Forage quality is based on the species of plants as well as their stage of maturity. In general, alfalfa, clover and a variety of grasses are considered to be high forage quality for llamas, but other plants, such as blackberries and dandelions, can also be a great source of nutrients.
Farmers have different opinions about whether or not llamas are picky eaters. Sheridan, who currently cares for a herd of seven llamas on his farm, has noticed that they’ll skip over some plants while grazing. But most plants in his pasture appeal to his llamas.
“[Up] to a level of about 6 feet to the ground, they just eat all that vegetation,” he said. “They do like to eat the leaves on trees, and one has to be careful of what type of trees. Wild cherry is not good. It’s toxic to them.”
Several common plant species, including buttercups, azaleas, rhododendrons and yews, are poisonous to llamas and other livestock. Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences keeps an extensive list of these plants, as does the University of Illinois and Colorado State University.
Hay and Grain
Hay is usually a diet staple for llamas in the U.S., especially in regions where foragable plant material is scarce or dies during the winter. Such is the case on Sheridan’s farm, where the pasture is buried in several feet of snow each winter.
“We just got our hay in about a week ago,” Sheridan said. “A bale of hay will last a week with one llama. That’s sort of my way of figuring it. I’m talking about small bales, the old fashioned type, weighs about 50 pounds.”
In addition to hay, a limited amount of grains are often fed to llamas for energy and some nutrients, such as calcium and phosphorus.
“Providing grain is just a mechanism of trying to better complement the forage that they normally would consume and allowing the animals to achieve their genetic potential,” said Robert Van Saun, a veterinarian for PennState Extension who has done extensive research on llamas in the U.S. and in South America.
“Llamas and alpacas down in South America, which is their native country, don’t get any grains at all, but it’s because they don’t have that capacity,” Van Saun said. “As a result, what I’ve seen in my research is their animals grow to a smaller size and don’t reproduce as efficiently as our animals.”
Van Saun has written multiple articles on llamas for PennState Extension, including an article in which he breaks down the nutritional composition of different grains and how that relates to the dietary needs of llamas and their close relative, the alpaca.
“[Llamas] aren’t really good at dealing with starch,” Van Saun said. “So when I talk about grain in many of my articles, I’m usually talking about wheat bran, wheat middlings and soybean hulls. I always emphasize the product should not be high in starch.”
Even low-starch grain should be fed to llamas sparingly, Van Saun said. If overfed, llamas can become overweight, which can lead to a variety of health issues.
Sheridan uses a scale to keep an eye on his llamas’ weight, but he also inspects them by sight and touch to determine whether or not they’re in good condition.
“Each llama is sort of a different size and shape, like humans,” he said. “So what you do is measure them on a scale from one to five. So if you can feel right down on a backbone and your thumb and index finger is pretty close, it’s a 1. That’s severely underweight.”
This 1-to-5 scale is used for scoring the body condition of sheep and goat as well. Van Saun adapted it for camelids in his article “ Body Condition Scoring of Llamas and Alpacas,” published by PennState Extension.
“Overfeeding is really not good because when a llama is overweight, there’s not much you can do to get rid of that weight,” Sheridan said.
One option is to separate the llama from its herd, at least temporarily, so it can be fed a specific diet.
“I have one female, for example — that’s Nina — who is a beautiful white llama,” Sheridan said. “And when she was in with the other llamas, she was so bossy that she’d just control the feed bin for hay and force the others away.”
While most of Sheridans llamas are about 350 pounds, Nina grew to be 440 pounds.
“I put her in a special stall that had a hill behind it,” Sheridan said. “To eat the grass, she had to walk up the hill. I started this program this year and she lost 40 pounds.”
In the U.S., farmers often feed their llamas supplements to make up for any nutrient deficiencies. Often in the form of pellets, these supplements are usually commercial products that may or may not be made especially for llamas.
“I give them a little supplement called llama pellets,” Sheridan said. “They cost about the same as a bag of oats. I like to do a 1 to 4 ratio of llama pellets to oats. It’s pretty easy.”
Because llamas have adapted to live in the Andes, some of their nutritional needs are not always met by foraging in U.S. pastures. For example, llamas in the U.S. will sometimes be deficient in vitamin D because in the Andes, they had more exposure to strong sunlight, Van Suan said. In addition, certain areas of the U.S. are deficient in trace minerals such as copper and selenium.
In addition, people raise llamas for different reasons, and this may factor into whether or not they provide supplements. For example, some people focus on breeding and selling llamas, while others may raise them for the fiber they produce. Other people simply have them as pets.
“It depends on your intent,” Van Saun said. “If you want to be breeding and raising babies, obviously these are different feeding circumstances then just what I’d describe as the living, moving lawn mower.”
Water and Treats
On Sheridan’s farm, he organizes llama walks and other llama-themed events. He also shows his herd at local fairs. So he’s used to people wanting to feed his llamas, and it’s something he has to keep an eye on.
“Llamas are quite accepting of treats,” Sheridan said.
Even when they shouldn’t be.
Some foods are difficult for llamas to digest, while others are too difficult for them to chew. Llamas don’t have top front teeth. Instead, they have long bottom teeth, and they have molars on both top and bottom to grind vegetation.
“They’re not set up to eat apples and carrots and things that people give to horses for treats,” he said. “They can choke on things like apples.”
Nevertheless, llamas love fruit and vegetables. Therefore, some llama owners will cut up these treats into small pieces that their animals can consume safely.
And lastly, llamas — like all animals — need water.
“They drink about a gallon a day,” Sheridan said. “Their water consumption isn’t very much. They’re members of the camel family, and camels are known for being able to go long distances without drinking — but they do like water.”