No work is ever written alone. This article is no exception. I am grateful to all who have written articles and books before me, shared their stories and given me advice. I am especially thankful to those who have researched llamas and continue to do so. Please re-read the title of this article—it is written as very basic information for the new llama owner or the person who is about to become a new llama owner.
An important part of your llama business will be your veterinarian. You should establish a relationship with him or her before you have a problem. Prior to receiving your llamas, you should go to the office, introduce yourself and ask if (s)he knows about the care of camelids. If so, you’re in good shape. If not, perhaps you can be referred to another who does. If you live in a rural area (translate that to mean there is NO ONE around who knows about camelids), then find one who is willing to learn and work with you. Buy the reference books, one set for each of you. Then, YOU read them. This is a smart investment in your business.
Proper nutrition is the foundation of any successful llama program. Without it, all the shots, toenail care and fiber maintenance is void. In some early studies, it was determined that llamas could function on 10 or 11 percent protein levels in their diets. Although this study was done over several years and with laboratory studies, its study group consisted of non-working geldings. Since then it has been determined that growing babies, pregnant and lactating mothers need a higher protein level in their diets. Even without the additional studies, common sense should tell you that mothers who are nursing babies and growing another baby at the same time need increased protein in their diets. Somewhere in the 13 to 14 percent range is more than adequate. It is helpful for milk production to give these mothers about one pound of cracked corn per day, starting one month before parturition (delivery date).
Llamas are forage animals and as such enjoy cafeteria style feeding. You will see them nibble on hay, graze on grass and stand tall to reach leaves on trees. If you produce your own hay, you should send it to a reputable laboratory and have it analyzed for content. If you rely on an outside source for hay, you should try to use the same source each time. Again, you should send a sample to a laboratory for analysis. Random samples of your pasture grasses also should be checked. With these analyses in hand, you can then select grain supplements and feed that best meet your particular needs.
At this point you may be saying to yourself, “Why do I want to spend money on analyses?” Money spent on the front end of a program is better than money spent with a veterinarian over and over when most of what (s)he sees is a result of poor nutrition. Poor health in general, pregnancy and birthing problems, lack of adequate milk production and failure to grow often can be tied directly to improper nutrition. Hmmm…sounds like we’re talking about humans instead of llamas. The principles are much the same for both.
There are several llama supplements (feeds) on the market. Suri and Silky fibered llamas, especially the young ones, need extra nutrition to maximize their growth and to maintain their fine fiber. Feed them a larger amount of high protein hay and use a supplement made for fiber producing animals. Be sure to determine if your llama feed contains the proper amounts of minerals, protein, carbohydrates and fat. Choose one that complements your hay. For example, if the protein level of your hay is low, choose a feed with a higher level of protein to achieve a balanced blend overall.
There are some llama specific minerals available from several sources. Whether you top dress the grain or leave them out free choice is a personal preference. Mineral blocks are also available. If you use a block, make sure it does not have high salt or copper content. In other words, it should be a mineral block, not a salt block. Check with the county extension agent in your area. He can be a valuable source of information concerning the mineral content of the soil. Have your soil analyzed and apply the necessary fertilizer, lime, etc. to keep pasture areas in proper condition.
There are several types of fences that are adequate for llamas—board, slick wire, chain link and others. The two types you do not want are barbed wire and four-inch cattle wire. Curious by nature, a llama will stick its head through both of these. The barbed wire could hang on the llamas’ fiber, resulting in a torn ear, cut neck or other injury. The four-inch square cattle wire is easy for the head to go through, but somehow it usually doesn’t come back out. Fences should be four to five feet tall.
You should plan for a minimum of two pastures—one for females and one for males. This will prevent surprise babies at unwanted times. At a later time you can add weanling pastures, for both males and females, as some llamas have bred at eight months of age.
Some herd sires are fine with other males or geldings. Others will require a separate pasture. Generally, if males are raised with other males, they will feel comfortable in a pasture full of males. The most important thing to remember is that boys will be boys and from time to time they will spar. They must have plenty of room to participate in these games and each male must have his own “designated corner”. Males who injure other males in this kind of circumstance usually do not have enough room and the weaker male cannot get away from the more aggressive one.
Llamas should have shelter from the sun and very cold weather. In warmer climates open-sided barns work best, as the airflow is better. To prevent frostbite of the ears, llamas should be protected from the wind and cold in areas where the temperature is freezing or below for extended periods of time. Suri llamas especially need protection from the cold as their fiber is open and does not protect them as well as other fiber types. If your shelter (barn) has concrete floors, you should spread hay for body warmth. Many times in milder climates, llamas will stay outside at night. You should not be concerned. They know exactly where to position themselves for maximum protection.
Prevention is the key word here. If you are in a climate where the temperature and the humidity combine to a number greater than 110-120, you should shear all your llamas in the spring, either with hand shears or electric shears. Heat is dissipated in llamas from the belly area and arm and leg pit areas. A barrel shear or show shear will suffice in most cases. Males do well with cuts that take off the fiber around the testicles. Their tails may also be trimmed. Even a mild case of heat stress can render your herd sire infertile, perhaps permanently. Imagine yourself in a fur coat in the summertime. Yuck is right!
Shelters should have air movement with fans or coolers. Electrolytes in water should be offered daily. However, this should not be the only source of water for your llamas as some do not like the taste and will not drink electrolyte water. This water should be changed every day as the sugars in the electrolytes can grow bacteria in as little as 12 hours. Misters may be placed in the barn or in the trees. Wet sand may also be offered as well as kiddie’s pools full of water placed in the shade. You may also hose down the legs and bellies, but do not get the full coat wet; this holds in heat.
Feed in the early morning. Heat stress is a cumulative process, not a one-day event. At night when it is the coolest, your llama’s body is cooling. Do not feed late in the day as the digestive process generates heat and does not allow your llama to cool. Do not feed alfalfa because it is too “hot”.
Llamas need their toenails trimmed on a regular basis. If you have rocks or gravel, they will not need it as often. Each individual is different. Some have toenails that require trimming every other month, while others have nails that will only need to be trimmed once or twice a year. Failure to trim toenails can result in unnatural gaits and arthritic problems. Future articles will deal with the particulars of the technique.
Inoculations are a must to control parasites in llamas. Check with your veterinarian on what kinds of vaccinations are commonly used in your area. It is not necessary to vaccinate for diseases that are not found in your part of the state. If you live in an area with white tail deer, you must inoculate for meningeal worm. It is endemic in white tail deer and its intermediate carrier is snails or slugs. Llamas graze on blades of grass or leaves where the tiny slugs are attached. It is very difficult to cure a llama of meningeal worm. Many times it is misdiagnosed as heat stress.
Your llamas need to be weighed twice a year at a minimum. If you are unable to weigh them, then you should body score each month. This is simple to do. Place your hand just behind the withers; it should make a nice ninety-degree angle. Any less and your llama is underweight; any more and your llama is overweight. If your hand is flat, your llama is morbidly obese. Future articles will deal with these subjects.
In summary, llamas are easy to raise. This is especially true when a few, simple care guidelines are followed regularly. Although some care is involved with llamas, this is by no means a full time job, unless you have a large herd. Llamas are unique and can be trained with minimal effort. Their companionship and gentle natures make them ideal animals to own for fun and for profit.