Winterizing Your Herd
Visitors often ask if our alpacas are immune to the effects of winter chill, due to their fiber. To a large degree, that’s very true. I remember a particularly cold winter night about two years into our alpaca venture. By one o’clock in the morning, the temperature had dropped to fifteen below zero, and I was very concerned. I bundled up and began a trek throughout the farm. There was a very mild, intermittent breeze; and, a light, but steady snowfall. It was too cold for dampness and there was no particularly large wind-chill factor. As I stopped by each pasture, I was surprised to see that not only were the animals quite comfortable, many were bedded down in the snow, with a thin layer of ice building on their outer fiber. In contrast, the first spring in which we owned alpacas I experience quite the opposite. The temperature peaked at a comfortable forty-five degrees, and all was well and good. But later that day a steady, cold, rainfall, combined with a brisk, northwest wind began suddenly, catching our herd off-guard and preventing them from taking cover in our three-sided shelters before becoming drenched. Forty-five degrees combined with sudden, wet conditions made for some very uncomfortable animals. We scurried to bring the herd into the barn, shut off the direct wind, and waited out the dismal weather conditions before turning the animals back into the pasture. Wind, dampness or a combination is your biggest challenge in the quest to keep your alpacas comfortable throughout the winter months. If you can keep your herd out of the freezing wind, and rain, they’ll do remarkably well.
So how do you winterize your animals and facilities?
ü First and most important step: block the north and west winds. Most alpaca breeders have shelters of some sort. If three-sided, hopefully those shelters face south or southeast, thus blocking the worst of the winter wind and offering some warmth from the sunshine during the daylight hours.
ü Heavily bed in straw or hay. Change that bedding daily, or however often is necessary to keep it clean and dry.
ü Is yours an older barn, or one with large gaps allowing wind to enter the building? Heavy plastic sheeting, which you can buy in rolls at any home improvement store, makes an amazing wind block when tacked to the building.
ü What about ice and traction? Ice doesn’t equal traction, and animals can easily twist an ankle, or worse, when navigating these conditions. Remove the source, or create superb drainage so that ice doesn’t form. Never use salt or other de-icing agents. They can do considerable damage to the soft, padded feet of alpacas (or dogs)
ü What about water? Alpacas expend a fairly large amount of energy keeping warm, and dehydration is a real threat. Many breeders use electrolytes even in winter water sources. It is vital to keep that water source thawed and readily available. Material of the container is a big factor. Metal conducts and loses heat rapidly. Deep, dark colored plastics absorb heat and freeze less quickly. If you have a power source in your pasture, there are heated five and fifteen-gallon water containers that make life immensely easier. But regardless of whether or not your water source is heated, check it frequently and make certain it remains unfrozen.
ü Feed management is important. Again, your alpacas will expend a large amount of energy in their quest for warmth through the winter months. Increase their feed, dependant upon the temperature, and expect to micro-manage the amount throughout the winter. Keep a good quality of hay available to them, free choice, at all times.
ü Have one you just CAN’T seem to keep warm? It’s not often, but it does happen, sometimes in older animals, or those who are difficult keepers and which, despite your best efforts, never seem to carry enough weight. For those times, it doesn’t hurt to keep a few adult sized blankets around.
ü Crias are a biggie. Winter births are not ideal, but sometimes unavoidable. Be certain to keep plenty of varying sizes of cria blankets around. There are times we’ve even felt it necessary to blanket a five or six month old individual. Cria blankets exist in everything from newborn up through weanling and yearling.
ü Have a recent birth in very inclement weather? Be certain to keep mom and cria confined and comfortable inside for the first few days. Blanket (or even double blanket) the cria and bed deeply in hay or straw. Many alpacas are leery of their ordinary shelters once they give birth. Instinct tells them that they are more vulnerable to predators within the confines of such a shelter. Instinct does not seem to tell them that remaining outdoors in extreme winter elements is not always the best choice for their newborns.
ü What about our livestock guardian dogs? Nearly all of the above applies to them, as well (except maybe the consumption of hay).
ü Finally, let’s touch on ventilation. I’ve emphasized how important it is to block the effects of wind. However, good ventilation is still extremely important for our alpacas. We know this is true in the summer, but it is of equal importance throughout the winter months. Don’t overheat barns, or close your barn door entirely. Humidity from urine, manure and body moisture may arise and result in respiratory distress and chill. Also, weigh the elements. Just because it’s cold or snowing outside, doesn’t necessarily mean your alpacas want to be kept indoors. Remember the dampness and wind combination as your biggest enemy. Generally speaking, however, alpacas need and prefer fresh air and will go outdoors in what we would consider harsh conditions. Ideally, arrange your facilities so that the animals can choose to go inside or outside, and have an alternative way of confining them should you need to veto their decisions with your better judgment.
Have further questions? Don’t forget the valuable resources you have in your county or university extension service, and your veterinarian.
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