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Pasture management tips for alpaca producers

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Rotational grazing isn’t just for cattle or sheep – it can also be a good management practice for other livestock such as alpacas, says a veterinarian from Tilley.

Dr. Corry Jeanne Mortensen spoke to an alpaca pasture management session at FarmFair International in Edmonton in November.

Mortensen focused on the two major grazing systems; static and intensive.

“I’m not to going talk very much about types of forages. The best person for you to ask is your agricultural fieldman in your area because every grass is going to grow differently somewhere else.”

She said most producers have knowledge of what grows best in their pasture. “A lot of it comes from trial and error. When you go out and plant a pasture mix, you watch what grows really well, and that’s what you grow,” she said.

Mortensen said stocking density can be an effective tool for healthy pasture management. “It’s going to be highly dependent on the feed type, and also if you use confined feeding,” she said.

A good rule of thumb is to aim for four to five alpacas per two acres in a static grazing system, and five to seven in a rotational grazing system. In a static grazing system, animals are placed in the pasture and allowed to graze at will. Intensive/rotational grazing consists of subdividing a pasture into smaller sections and allowing animals small access to small portions of the pasture at one time.

“It’s not rotational grazing if you have eight paddocks, all paddocks are full of animals and you’re moving animals into pens. All pens can’t be occupied,” she said. “You have to have empty spaces.”

Finishing their dinner

The pros to static grazing include low manual labour and less fencing, but there are cons.

“The problem with static grazing is that it leaves the less-palatable plants, which are really not grazed. If they can choose to eat the cream of the crop, they’re going to eat the cream of the crop,” she said. “In a rotational grazing system, they’re in a smaller setup and they have to eat the weeds. They don’t have any choice.”

If animals don’t eat the plants they find less palatable, these areas may go to seed and create more of the unpalatable species in the pasture, said Mortensen. “When you realize what plants they don’t like, you have to deal with some of these issues. Either don’t plant these ones again, or mow them down,” she said.

A static grazing system may also increase the possibility of overgrazing while rotational/intensive grazing with cross-fencing allows for pasture regrowth.

“One key thing you have to remember is that how much of the plant is left is more important than how much of the plant is eaten,” she said. “You want to leave enough plant there to overcome the effects of grazing. If they get it right down and under the root, it can’t regrow.”

“Before they enter an area, you want to make sure you’ve got a fair amount of growth,” she said. Animals will graze most things to about two or three inches before they should be moved to the next pasture. “Intensive grazing is a cool way to let cria and weanlings creep (feed),” said Mortensen. “If you have a good fencing setup, one where you can have a creep panel and let little crias get out and go into a pasture that’s got more lush grass, your little cria will do really well,” she said.

Mortensen said the rest periods also allow manure to dry, and parasites to be killed by sunlight. Animals kept in smaller spaces tend to be cleaner with their dung piles, and tend not to graze beside their dung piles, which can cut down on parasites.

Legumes such as alfafa or clover need to be included in a rotational grazing pasture mix. Producers should pick their pasture mixes to optimize growth at all times. Areas which are shaped like squares or rectangles tend to work better for rotational grazing operations.

“If they get too long, the animals don’t travel the ground very well and it’s not as efficient,” she said.

However, rotational grazing can be very labour intensive as producers move their animals every couple of days. Some producers use semi-static rotational grazing to cut down on labour, said Mortensen.

Producers who practice rotational grazing must ensure animals have access to a water source in all pastures, which can add to the cost.

About the author

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Alexis Kienlen

Alexis Kienlen lives in Edmonton and has been writing for Alberta Farmer since 2008. Originally from Saskatoon, Alexis is also the author of two collections of poetry, a biography, and a novel called "Mad Cow."

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