When we talk to people about alpacas we often get asked "What do they eat?"
The simple answer is hay and a blended pellet with minerals.
But it goes a lot deeper than that. Much like other animals and even humans, they will eat a great many things - and left to their own devices they can exist on all kinds of forages and grains. But, just like with humans, the issue becomes "What SHOULD they eat?"
Like all creatures, alpacas have nutritional needs, and if we expect them to produce the best quality in fibre and offspring, then we need to pay attention to these needs. You can't feed your animals forage that has minimal nutrition and expect them to produce quality. That's like feeding your child nothing but junk food and wondering why they are not Olympic athletes.
We work with a local feed mill, and a representative I can call on the phone and talk to about what goes into the next batch of feed. A little more of this, a little less of that - all depending on the weather, the nutritional needs of the herd at the time, and the quality of the hay that makes up the bulk of their diet. Every alpaca will eat approximately 2-4 pounds of hay a day. The 1 cup of pelleted feed they eat daily is meant to add the minerals and other elements that the hay doesn't provide.
The widespread drought in North America has meant that the cost of good hay has tripled. We are lucky because we have local farmers who can supply us with just the kind of hay we need for our growing herd. Many people have had to ship in hay from far away. It may be pricey this year, but we are still very picky about the hay we feed our alpacas. A lack of rain this summer left the pastures pretty lean and nutritionally lacking, so we are not seeing the summer build up of weight on our animals - making good hay over the cold winter even more crucial.
So when someone squeezes a skein of our yarn at the market, or holds a shawl up to their face, exclaiming at how luscious and soft it feels, I'm sure they are not thinking about bales of leafy hay with just the right blend of alfalfa, well dryed and crumbling all over your neck as you lift it in to the feeder - but I am.