During the winter my thoughts drift to concerns for care and management of livestock during the often-harsh environmental conditions of the season. In general, llamas and alpacas are well suited to cooler temperatures. After all, winter in the Andes can be trying on the soul if one is not prepared for it. However, camelids are susceptible to extremes of environment, hot (hyperthermia) or cold (hypothermia). The highest risk animals on the farm are very young, very old, very thin, or diseased camelids.
Perhaps the biggest concern we have for hypothermia are newborn crias. Crias are born without the stores of fat needed from which to draw energy to maintain body temperature. Newborns are dependent on the dam’s colostrum and milk to provide glucose, fat, and protein. Early and frequent access to these nutrients is critical for the cria to survive the first few days of life. Without the milk fat, crias have a limited ability to maintain body temperature and blood glucose, both of which are necessary to survival.
When crias are exposed to extremes of temperature, they must burn energy at a much higher rate to maintain body temperature and the remainder of the body systems may become starved. At some point, the cria is unable to ingest adequate milk to survive and hypothermia begins. These crias are often found down in the pasture with the head and neck extended in front of them on the ground. This posture is designed to close off all areas where heat is lost around the tail (perineum), between the legs (axilla and groin), the underside of the belly (ventral abdomen), and the base of the neck (sternum and thoracic inlet). At this point and if body heat and energy are not restored quickly, the cria will die from hypothermia and hypoglycemia (low blood glucose) within a few hours.
Treatment of hypothermia involves warmth, nutrition, and correction of underlying problems (e.g. milk supplements for crias whose dam is not lactating). Critical hypothermia occurs when core body temperature drops below 90 F.
Tips for Prevention
Camelids must be provided with a shelter from which they can seek protection form environmental extremes. These facilities should have sufficient width, length, and height to allow protection from wind. If three-sided shelters are used, a portion of the open side may be enclosed to provide a more effective windbreak. The orientation of the shelter should be such that the open side is not presented to prevailing winds Our research has shown that llamas and alpacas will “loaf” (referring to relaxed cushing rather than seeking shelter for protection) in shelters that provide approximately 36 square feet per animal. During environmental extremes (e.g. cold below 20 F, high wind, hard rain, sleet/ice, heavy snow) llamas and alpacas will utilize shelters at a rate of 18 to 24 square feet per animal. Inadequate shelter space will cause animals to be “left out” without protection from the environment. Remember – the single most important toll to prevent hypothermia is to stay dry. The second most import is to protect against wind. Wet + Wind = Hypothermia. Thin and young and old animals are the most susceptible to these effects.
Bedding should be sufficient to help camelids close off their natural thermal windows. Remember, in summer we are trying to increase the thermal window. In winter, our goal is to decrease this thermal window. I prefer straw for this purpose. Straw is inexpensive, clean enough to use for birthing areas, has adequate insulating features, and can be easily cleaned from the floor and fiber coat.
Water is a critical nutrient in all seasons. Ingestion of water fluctuates with the temperature of the water. When water is near freezing or frozen, water intake is decreased. Insufficient water intake causes decreased feed intake and the ability to regulate body temperature becomes impaired. In lactating females, milk production suffers and crias will fail to gain weight or will lose weight. If passive waterers are used (e.g. buckets, troughs), the water should be refreshed daily or several times a day as needed. I prefer heated automatic waters to optimize access and decrease labor.
During extreme cold, camelids have a vital need for energy. I am often asked to consult on farms during winter months because females are losing weight, crias are not gaining weight, or hypothermia cases have been seen. Many of these problems can be tied to inadequate winter nutrition. Grain feeding may be increased to provide rapidly metabolizable energy sources, but this must be done cautiously. Over feeding of any grain source can cause acidosis in the fermentation chamber (C1) of the stomachs and this will exacerbate the problem.
Corn is the “hottest” grain in that it provides the most readily fermentable carbohydrates of the cereal grains, but this also makes corn the riskiest for causing acidosis. I prefer to add oats to a winter ration because this feed provides more fiber than corn and is less prone to acidosis. For example, if a herd is feeding a commercial camelid pellet ration at 0.5 lbs. per head per day, oats may be added at 0.5 lbs. per head per day to increase energy intake. The addition of the oats should occur slowly over two weeks to allow the flora of C1 to adapt to the change in diet.
Hay should be analyzed before winter months. I prefer to test each new shipment of hay and make acceptance of the hay contingent upon this analysis. Total digestible nutrient content of the hay should exceed 55% and is most desirable to exceed 60% for winter forage. I recommend that every animal in every herd have a BCS (body condition score) done every month. Loss of body condition score should be addressed quickly unless it can be explained (e.g. females are expected to lose 1 to 1.5 BCS during the first 2 months of lactation).
Provided by David E Anderson, DVM, MS, DACVS. Head and Associate Professor of Farm Animal Surgery Director, International Camelid Initiative Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine.