Most of the several thousand camels in the United States are in zoos and animal parks, so camels on a farm are a rarity.
Camels are associated with deserts, however, they’re extremely adaptable creatures, and some thrive in the cold of Russia. Camel owners are all over the United States; farms have started anywhere from Amish country to Arizona.
“Hay is for horses,” and is a sore subject when it comes to camel diets. Some owners are adamant about supplying hay; others believe a camel’s diet should be high in grains. In its native habitat, the herbivore will eat just about anything it can find, including shrubs, leaves, grasses and even thorn bushes.
Dr. Gerald Parson, an Oklahoma veterinarian specializing in large animal care for more than 25 years, recommends avoiding grains. Sue and Scott Menges of Oklahoma keep their camels on pasture full time and provide a grain free of antibiotics. Because camels feed on the ground, worming is imperative. When the time comes for camel dairies to distribute their milk, they need a wormer safe for dairy cows; other such medications may not be safe for dairy animals when the milk is used for human consumption. Also, camels like a lot of loose salt. “Other places we go, I see blocks of salt, but camels’ tongues are not like cows’ tongues,” Menges says. “It needs to be a loose salt.”
Unfortunately, camels experience a high stillborn and miscarriage rate. According to Dr. Millie Hinkle, founder of Camel Milk USA, one in four pregnancies will be unsuccessful. It’s doubtful that such statistics will stop the spread of camel dairying, though, and better feed and herd management may help improve fertility and birth rates, according to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Also, Dr. Hinkle says don’t be duped into buying a camel that can’t produce milk; make sure and have a pregnancy test done, and be sure the adult comes with the calf. Females can’t produce enough milk to dairy without the offspring attached.
Although each state’s law is different, in most states, it’s permissible for a camel dairy to sell milk directly to customers, in opportunities called “camel sharing.” These entail multiple people investing in (or leasing) a camel, then each “owner” takes a turn in receiving the milk produced. Other U.S. camel owners use the milk for other value-added niche markets, like soaps, until proper dairy regulations are established. Until then, those interested should do their due diligence in learning everything possible about camel care.
“Get books and learn as much as possible,” Parson says. “Read up and visit the farms.”