Hay Testing- A Necessary Step in Grass Farming (and Alpaca Farming)


I tell our visitors we are grass farmers and ask if they’re excited to look at my grass today…(uncomfortable laughter)…You should see their awkward faces.

You see, the alpacas are fairly easy to care for (see Alpaca Herd Management Routine). It’s the grass I have to be concerned with. Our alpacas’ health and productivity rely on the nutrients we provide them with every day of their lives. Without high quality forage, minerals, and water, our alpacas would not be able to produce low micron (read: soft) fiber, or healthy offspring.

So therefore, grass farming! Alpacas require 80% of their diet to be forage: either pasture or hay. We practice intensive rotational grazing techniques, frequently moving portable fences to fresh pasture so our herd can always have access to fresh forage. We spread compost on the fields to keep the grasses healthy and rich in nutrients.  In the wintertime, we keep the alpacas fenced near the barn and allow our pastures to “rest” for next spring. During this time, we feed our alpacas hay.

Alvina (U.S. Air Force) with Lonzo (U.S. Navy of Ballew Farms : our hay provider.

Every fall, before we purchase hay from our favorite local farmers, we have the hay tested in a lab. We bring bales to our county’s Extension Office, where our super awesome Extension Agriculture and Natural Resources Agent, Brandon Sears, helps us drill a core sample from each bale. Brandon explains it is best to bring more than one hay bale from a cutting to test (3 or more are ideal) so that you can see if they are uniform throughout. Sometimes you can get a different quality of hay cut from the top of a hill than you would from the hay cut down by a ravine, which receives a different amount of sunlight and moisture. We dump the contents of the corer into separate labeled bags, and send them off for testing using SCIENCE!

Around two weeks later, I receive an email from the lab with the results. Y’all, I have to pore over these tests figuring out which is the best…then I have to pour me a beer because my head hurts. Hay is the single biggest purchase for our farm every year so I stress over getting it right.

Hay in our area that is generally best for alpacas is an Orchard grass mix or alfalfa mix (although too much alfalfa can cause some health problems such as obesity or skin problems). As an alpaca owner, it is vital for me to study and learn everything I can about the best care practices for alpacas. According to Norman Evans’ Alpaca Field Manual (an invaluable resource for any alpaca owner), the ideal hay should be dust free, mold free, green, and dry. The most important nutrients to be tested in our hay are Calcium, Phosphorus, Selenium and Zinc, as well as Vitamins A, D, and E. The ideal hay should also have a protein level of 9-12% and TDN (total digestible nutrient) of 55-58% for palatability. Yes, palatability: alpacas are picky sometimes and will turn up their nose at “stem-y” hay (usually caused by the hay being cut late in the grass’ maturity resulting in thicker seed stems). If the hay is nutritionally deficient or if it contains too much of certain vitamins or minerals, this can cause health issues.

Just SOME of the hay we keep stacked in the barn for the winter months.

So we grow grass & buy quality hay to allow our alpacas to thrive so they can grow the highest quality fiber. It takes hard work, time, money, research, testing and care to keep on top of these practices, but we take pride in the health of our herd so we can offer you fine products.  There is so much more to alpaca farming than some fuzzy animals munching grass. The next time you hold a locally grown alpaca fiber product and feel its incredible softness on your skin, remember the hard work and dedication that went into caring for the animal that grew it. Just wait ‘till I tell you about the exciting SOIL farming we do!!! (Seriously, it is AWESOME.)