The responsibility of animal ownership, at first, strikes you fair and square in the face, as very daunting and overwhelming, especially when you have a limited knowledge. Knowledge is key to success in anything in life, so it was with learning to farm alpacas!
That feeling of overwhelming responsibility had us feeling the need to check on our three new additions, frequently throughout those first few weeks. Honestly, we felt like something dreadful would happen to them. It was like being a first time parent all over again, and checking the new baby in its bed, that all was well!
So the alpacas arrived on the 24th December 2012. We had been made aware of, by the previous owners, that there where three things we needed to immediately gain knowledge of. These where:
1) Knowing about and being able to identify, plants that where toxic to alpacas.
2) Understanding what Facial Eczema is, what the signs and symptoms are, and how to help prevent and treat Facial Eczema.
3) Understand what 'Grass Staggers' are, prevention, signs and symptoms of, and treatment.
Lets start with gaining a knowledge of toxic plants. The New Zealand Alpaca Association, list 92 known toxic plants to Alpacas! That is a lot of plant identification knowledge. Not all parts of all these plants are toxic, but even a dry leaf (yes I do mean just ONE leaf) that has blown into your paddock from down the road, from a toxic plant, is enough to make your animal very sick and even kill them quickly.
Quite honestly we were shocked at the number of common garden plants that where toxic to these beautiful animals. To discover that the leaves and seeds of apples where toxic (if ingested in large amounts) was a huge surprise. There were three apple trees alone in one paddock. BUT alpacas love to eat apples, which is just fine, the flesh is perfectly harmless to them.
Arum lilies are also toxic, they will burn the mouth of stock animals and again we found a lot of these in our paddocks!
Deadly Nightshade plants....there were heaps of these in the paddocks. Brassicas (cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli etc) all poisonous. WELL...we were going to need to keep the vegetable garden hedge high enough to keep those long necks from nibbling those leaves!
Plum tree leaves....himmm...got one of those too, azalea, rhododendron, lily of the valley, daffodils, buxus (box hedging), daphne, delphinium, hellebore, kowhai, foxglove, iris, lilies, lobelia, potatoes, sweet peas, mushrooms, to name but a few, are all in our gardens, or paddock areas, and were reachable by the alpacas.
Looked like our first day of ownership would be spent digging out nightshade plants, and arum lilies from the paddocks. That done, we turned our attention to our gardens and what could they reach through or over the paddock fences and into the flower gardens?
We scoped the gardens out, and as we had moved into the property only a month prior to purchasing alpacas, we did not know what plants would perhaps, come up and flower at different times of the year. At that point in time, we could only scope out the current plants in the garden and try to identify what we could, with the use of a toxic plant book and the use of toxic plant websites.
It is not just a case of using chemical sprays to eliminate poisonous plants and weeds either. Some chemical sprays might kill the weed, but for some weeds, they remain toxic even when dead! One really needs to hand dig them out and get them off your property, not just into the compost heap. The wind can carry those dead leaves back into your paddock, the alpaca eats them, and next you know you will have a very sick or dead animal.
Eighteen months down the track and we ran into our first trouble with toxic plants. Believing we had scoped the property for all possible toxic plants, we relaxed, obviously a little too much.
One morning, as is my habit, I ventured out to check the alpacas and change their water and feed them hay. Instead of having them run up to greet me, they stood where they were. As I approached them, I could see that, all three had foam around their mouths, and where not a bit interested in the hay.
Immediately this spoke of trouble to me. You do not spend 40 years of being a nurse, and not know that, although not human patients, these were sick animals! Calling the vet to come out, was imperative, weekend or no weekend.
The 'On Call' vet arrived quickly, and after listening to their hearts, said, that all three had very slow heart rates, and together with the obvious froffing at the mouth, his diagnosis was ingestion of something toxic.
Atropine was given intramuscularly to increase their very slow heart rates and activated charcoal to exacerbate the absorption of any toxic substance in their stomachs (they have 3) that would later be excreted in their droppings.
The vet and I searched another paddock that was beside our main garden although a farm fence separated the two. On closer inspection we noted a small rhododendron shrub that was almost hidden from view by other, taller plants. It had all the signs of having been nibbled at by animals who chew their cud. Here then was the very first hard lesson learnt. A really close inspection for hidden shrubs/plants is an absolute necessity.
The next 12 hours would tell us if we had saved these precious animals lives. I checked their heart rates with our stethoscope, and thankfully, they where in the increase, which told us that they were on the mend.
We were very lucky in this incident, that I had gone out early enough in the morning to find them ill from toxic rhododendron leaves. You can guess what happened next. Out came the chainsaw, and that shrub was cut off at ground level, the stump had holes drilled into it, and then, a good killer of stumps is, Epsom salts poured down the holes. The stump did take a few months to rot, but it did.
We also built a higher fence like a deer fence next to the garden, and also placed very small holed chicken wire over this as well!
We constantly do a 'paddock and garden scan' to ensure the paddock we are moving the alpacas to, is free of toxic plant material.
Reviewing the 'toxic plant list' on a 3-6 monthly bases to refresh the memory, is really good advice we give to others and a great reminder for us as well, especially when you are new to alpaca farming.
In my next blog, I will talk about the second most important alpaca husbandry 'must have knowledge of', that being, 'The Dangers of Facial Eczema'.
Please NOTE. This blog is about our personal experiences of alpaca farming. It does not replace the advice you should always seek from a qualified vet or the NZ Association of Alpacas.