Llamas are one of four main species of New World camelids. The other three species are the alpaca, guanaco and vicuna. These species are thought to have originated from a common ancestor that came across the Bering Strait land bridge. Camelids are thought to be related to Bactrian and Dromedary camels of Asia. The high dependence of Incan Indians of South America on llamas and alpacas for food and fiber is analogous to the Plains Indians of North America and their relationship to the bison. Incas carried their relationship with llamas a step further through domestication and controlled breeding for beasts of burden. With the collapse of Incan culture, llamas were nearly pushed into extinction and only survived in the harsh upper regions of their natural territory. The last 25 years have seen a resurgence of interest in llamas, especially in the United States.
Llamas are first and foremost pets and companions. They are ideally suited to this task because of their predictable low-key temperament, intelligence and ease of maintenance. Wilderness packing is probably the second greatest demand for llamas. Llamas make ideal pack animals for the western mountainous regions of the United States because of their inherent thriftiness in this climate, their low-cost maintenance and their durability as pack animals. Wool may represent another use for llamas, although, with a large number of natural and synthetic substitutes for wool, it seems unlikely that llama herds will be maintained for wool production. In some instances, llamas have been used as a sheep guards against predators. The potential of this market has not yet been verified, but may hold some promise in the future. In some foreign countries, where the resident llama population is quite high, there is interest in using llamas as a food source. But, because of a relatively low population of llamas in the United States (about 35,000 animals in 1992) and a relatively high price, llamas are not likely to become a food source for Americans.
Llamas are 40 to 50 inches high at the withers and 60 to 72 inches tall at the poll. They weigh 18 to 31 pounds at birth and should weigh 250 to 300 pounds at maturity. Female llamas reach mature size at 2 years of age and males mature at 3 years. The average life span for llamas is 20 to 25 years. Llamas have a long graceful neck and a relatively small head with large eyes and large curved ears. Llamas are covered with wool which may be 3 to 8 inches in length. Wool covers the neck, back and sides of the animal while the head, underside and legs are covered with short hair. A thick covering of wool enables llamas to withstand cold, wind, snow and rain. Short hair elsewhere on the body enables the llama to dissipate heat when placed in warmer environments. Unlike sheep wool, llama wool does not have the protection of lanolin to make it water resistant. Llamas have a tail that measures 12 inches in length at maturity. Llamas have characteristically high-cut flanks accented by a pendulous abdomen and a slightly forward-leaning carriage.
Llamas come in a range of colors and body shapes although these differences are just variations in type and not of breed. Llamas may be brown, red, black or white or a combination of these colors. Llamas can be short, broad and wooly or tall and large-framed with short wool. There is no specific nomenclature to refer to different classifications of llamas other than males, females and babies. Breeding males are sometimes referred to as studs and babies as crias (Spanish for baby). Neutered males are called geldings.
Llamas are generally healthy, thrifty animals. A llama requires 10 to 20 percent of the feed of a horse. Llamas are most often compared to horses because of physiological similarities. Llamas are quite efficient in using available forages. They can use a much lower grade forage than most ruminant species. They can maintain condition by foraging on low-quality range on about 5 percent of the area required by a horse. Llamas tend to be browsers, eating a small amount of forage intermittently. This feeding characteristic prevents them from being poisoned by ingesting toxic plants. Llamas' inherent hardiness helps them withstand extremes in feed quality and climate. The notable exception is extreme heat combined with high humidity. These types of conditions can adversely affect fertility and general health causing the animals to exhibit heat stress.
Llamas are markedly territorial. The animals originate from relatively low-productive, fragile environments where even small increases in animals above the carrying capacity can have grave consequences for the entire herd. This background probably explains male llamas' unrelenting aggression against invading males, excess breeding females and weanling-age young. Invasion of territory by another llama results in a series of posturing gestures. If the intrusion continues, the resident of the territory may spit at the intruder. Conflict is usually settled at this point between females; however, males often continue into physical contact by biting, kicking and ramming into each other. The fighting between males is a rather noisy affair of screaming and squealing, reminiscent of stud horses fighting.
Feeds and Nutrition
Feeding options for llamas are virtually unlimited, providing for many possible combinations of roughages, concentrates and commercial supplements. The predominant factors which enter into the decision of what to feed include feed cost, availability of feed, nutrient balance and energy density required. Young llamas, which are still actively growing, require a greater concentration of nutrients than mature animals because of their relatively smaller digestive tract capacity. Table 1 provides estimates of daily consumption of bromegrass hay, alfalfa hay and corn silage needed for maintenance. Dietary requirements will be different based on animal performance desired, work performed and weather conditions. A 300-pound llama will need about four pounds of alfalfa hay (90 percent dry matter) per day to maintain condition (Table 1).
Llamas adjust well to free-choice feeding or once-a-day feeding schedules. Most llama owners set up a feeding schedule based on owner convenience. Potential llama owners need to be aware that adult llamas on free-choice feeding (ad lib) may become fat, depending on the quality of feed being offered. Therefore, adult llamas may require limits of high-quality feed.
Table 1. Estimated daily requirements of bromegrass hay,
alfalfa hay and corn silage on an as fed and 100 percent
dry matter basis for llamas from 22 to 550 pounds
Bromegrass Alfalfa Corn Silage
Body As Dry As Dry As Dry
Weight Fed Matter Fed Matter Fed Matter
- - - - - - - - - - pounds - - - - - - - - -
22 0.8 0.7 0.5 0.5 1.5 0.4
44 1.3 1.1 0.9 0.8 2.6 0.7
88 2.1 1.9 1.5 1.3 4.3 1.2
110 2.6 2.3 1.7 1.6 5.2 1.4
165 3.4 3.1 2.3 2.1 6.9 1.9
275 5.0 4.5 3.4 3.1 10.1 2.8
385 6.4 5.7 4.3 3.9 12.9 3.6
495 7.8 7.0 5.3 4.8 15.8 4.4
550 8.5 7.6 5.7 5.2 17.0 4.8
Source: Fowler 1989.
Llama males are considered sexually mature at 2.5 to 3 years of age. However, there have been reports of males as young as 6 months of age causing pregnancy. Males are generally not considered reliable breeders until 3 years of age. On the other hand, properly fed and well-grown females may be bred at 12 to 13 months of age. Llamas are copulation-induced ovulators. This means that mature nonpregnant females should mate in the presence of a sexually mature male and will ovulate within 36 hours of mating. Since llamas have no heat cycle, artificial insemination is not used. Gestation period for llamas is about 344 days, which is similar to female horses. In North America, llama males are generally not used to the extent of their servicing capacity, because of limited numbers of llama herds. In Peru, under pasture mating conditions, mature males are stocked at 3 percent of herd size. Female llamas giving birth without major complications or post-partum infections will usually rebreed again within 2 to 4 weeks. Female llamas will generally have only one young, rarely twins.
Crias usually struggle to their feet within a few minutes of delivery and can be standing within a hour. The female will nuzzle and "hum" to the cria; however, she will not lick or clean it. The cria should nurse within four hours. If the young llama has not nursed within six hours, the owner should milk the colostrum (female's first milk) from the mother and bottle feed the young to get it off to a healthy start.
Diseases and Parasites
Llamas are quite hardy, although they are susceptible to many of the same diseases and parasites as cattle and sheep. The most notable disease which infects llamas is enterotoxemia, "overeating disease," types C and D. This disease most often infects young crias. Veterinarians report success in decreasing the incidence of enterotoxemia through immunization of the female and subsequent immunization of young at 4 to 6 weeks of age. Llamas may also be subject to tuberculosis, Johne's disease, anthrax, malignant edema and tetanus.
Llamas can be infected with internal and external parasites. Internal parasites of concern include gastrointestinal nematodes, lungworms, meningeal worms, tapeworms and flukes. These parasites can be eliminated with medicines currently used to treat cattle and sheep. External parasites (ticks, mites and lice) can be treated with pesticides approved for use on cattle.
Alternative Agriculture Series, Number 12, August 1993, NDSU Extension Service
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