Sunday, March 6, 2016
By Barbara Patterson, Golden Pine Alpacas Farm
Dryland Alpaca Farming
There is something about watching alpacas graze and pronk in the beautiful lush green pastures of alpaca farms in Western Washington or Oregon that makes me feel a pang of envy. These charming pastoral scenes featuring such fortunate alpacas are prevalent in alpaca publications and Facebook videos.
In contrast to this idyllic vision lies our Golden Pine Alpacas farm, located within the arid area of eastern Washington known as a rain shadow, caused by the Cascade Mountains 40 miles to the west. Goldendale receives shy of 18 inches of rain in a good year and less in the recent drought years. Eight months of the year our pastures are brown with nary a blade of grass to delight the eye. This is what is known as dryland farming. Consequently, year-round our alpacas are fed orchard grass hay grown locally. Pasture irrigation is not an option. Our 15-acre farm is located in a 1,000-acre community with a water system shared by the residents.
Without a doubt, the biggest advantage of dryland farming is a sizeable reduction in parasitic infestation, as compared to wet, humid environments. Parasites can multiply rapidly and, if unchecked, can lead to severe illness and even death in livestock. Most internal parasites enter the alpaca through oral ingestion. Pasture grazing presents a higher risk of exposure than dry lot feeding.
Strongyles are worms that are common intestinal parasites of alpacas on most farms. Their eggs are passed in the feces and under the right conditions of temperature and moisture they hatch into larvae. The mature larvae are found primarily in the lower 2 inches of the plants on pasture. Alpacas become infected with parasites while consuming these plants. In hot and dry climates, such as eastern Washington, these parasitic larvae die faster than in cool, moist regions.
Coccidia, another parasite which infects alpacas, are one-celled organisms that multiply rapidly under certain conditions. They are also passed through the feces and after several days become highly infective when ingested.
The manure pile is a big source of parasitic larvae. Regular removal of manure from the barn and pastures is an excellent way to control parasites. At our farm, this chore is done on a daily basis. Fortunately, alpacas, unlike goats and sheep, have a communal dung (poop) pile which makes the cleanup job fast and efficient.
When we started our farm in 2007, we administered drugs to our herd which were developed to combat internal parasites. This was done every six months - whether the alpacas needed them or not! After a few years, we began to pay attention to warnings that resistance to drugs capable of destroying or eliminating parasitic worms and other internal parasites had become a major problem in veterinary medicine. Drug resistance is considered a threat to animal welfare worldwide.
We decided to invest in equipment to do our own fecal testing so that we could treat with drugs only the alpacas that needed it. Through periodic fecal testing of our herd, we can keep a check on any parasitic load that may be affecting the alpacas. We take three to four random samples for testing. Also, we will test any alpaca which shows signs of loose stool or diarrhea. We prepare slurry of a sugar and water solution and alpaca “beans” which is placed in small vials and spun in a centrifuge. Fecal matter and eggs which have risen to the top of the vial are then put on a glass plate and examined under a microscope. The outcome is usually negative or shows very small numbers, which requires no treatment. Should the sample show significant amounts of parasites, then treatment is in order. Alpaca farms, in conjunction with their veterinarians, should determine what a significant amount of parasite load is.
External parasites such as mites, lice, and ticks are a rare problem in our dryland setting. These parasites tend to like warm, humid, and wet environments.
There is no getting around it – alpacas love to graze on the very grasses that can harbor parasites. When the rains come in the late fall and winter months, the brown pastures in our farm slowly turn that beautiful green color, testament to the alpacas’ ability to graze without pulling up roots. During this time, we close off some pastures until the grasses grow high enough for grazing. Meanwhile, the alpacas stand by these pasture gates after eating their hay and gaze longingly at the emerging grasses. I’ve seen a few informal studies which attempt to determine whether alpacas are colorblind. From my personal observations, alpacas have absolutely no trouble spotting green – or at least their version of what green looks like!
Another area where grasses grow during this time is alongside the driveway from the road up to the barn. We often let our three gelded males graze on this stretch. The boys watch while we place a temporary fence at the road and at the top of the driveway. They know exactly what is happening and start to run and jump with joy at the prospect. Their gate to the driveway is opened and out they bound, happy as can be.
In this dryland setting which is their home, despite the fact that there are not the lush green grasses to graze, our alpacas seem happy and healthy – and rarely bothered with parasites.
Fecal Testing Equipment
Pastures in August
Sparce green grasses Mid-March
Yearlings early summer