Camels are a rarity in the United States, even though there are 20 million roaming throughout the world. That said, odd as it may sound, farmers in the Northeast are raising camels for their milk. What are some things to consider with this type of livestock? Although camels are associated with the Middle East, raising and managing camels in this area of the U.S. is more realistic than one would think.

Climate

David Marcinkowski, associate professor and Extension dairy specialist at the University of Maine, explained how New England and Mid-Atlantic weather affects camels: “With the colder climate up here [in Maine], I would imagine if you’re trying to raise any livestock here the weather’s a little more severe. I would guess you would probably need some pretty good shelter if you’re going to raise camels,” Marcinkowski said when comparing climates throughout the Northeast. “In the Mid-Atlantic, New York and Pennsylvania, I think you can get by with quite a bit less shelter than you would up here.”

Things to consider about raising camels

In Pennsylvania, camels are raised for milk for consumers. Amos Miller, owner of Miller Organic Farm in Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania, explained that much like cows, camels naturally want to stay in a warm and dry environment and spend their time in a barn during the colder winter months.

Marcinkowski explained how camels compare with more common livestock. “I don’t think it would be dissimilar to raising any other types of livestock, although dairy cattle are usually much more intensively managed. Raising camels would be more equivalent to raising beef cattle, sheep or goats,” he said.

“I have seen some pictures of basically the same kind of dairy barns that we have for dairy cows that house camels, with stalls in them [in Europe, for example]. They’re just larger for the camels than they would be for the cows.”

He explained how they can be raised in stall-type setups. Unless you have many camels, you may be able to use pens or an inside/outside lot for small-scale operations, according to Marcinkowski.

Feed considerations

For feeding requirements, camels can have similarities to cows. Grass consumption begins about two or three months after birth, and they are weaned between 1 and 2 years of age, with calves weighing about 55 to 115 pounds, according to the San Diego Zoo.

Marcinkowski said a camel’s digestive system is comparable with more mainstream livestock. “They’re similar to cows. They’re basically a ruminant like cows, sheep and deer and other camels like llamas from that standpoint; they’re not different,” he said. When it comes to foraging, “If they’re eating pasture or dry hay, I don’t think they’re that different.” How much grain you want to feed them or how much would be necessary may differ. However, when it comes to formulating a diet, it’s not difficult.

Gestation and lifespan

In contrast to a camel’s digestive system similarities to many common livestock, when managing reproduction and the ability to calve and produce milk, Marcinkowski said that a camel’s reproduction life cycle starts off much later than dairy or beef cows. “When they have their first calf is quite a bit later than when we would expect a dairy or beef cow to have their first calf. We want our cows to have their first offspring and start to produce milk at roughly 2 years of age. Camels are 4, 5 [or] 6 years of age before they usually have their first calf. So that’s a long period of time that you’d be raising an animal and feeding them with not a whole lot of return on your investment.”

Reproducing once every two years, camels are normally born during March and April and the gestation period usually takes approximately 12 to 14 months, as the San Diego Zoo noted. Much like with cows, Marcinkowski said the potential to reduce the time to reproduce is plausible “depending on the plane of nutrition.” The San Diego Zoo explained that females reach full maturity at approximately 3 to 4 years old, with males becoming adults between 5 and 6 years.

However, Marcinkowski noted that a camel’s lifespan has the potential to make up for the greater front-end nutritional investment, living longer than a few generations of cows. Generally, camels can live up to 50 years. However, the potential for lactation and fertility would be in question.

Additional nutritional considerations

Even though camels may be more suited, compared with other domesticated livestock, to eat and digest lower quality feeds, this may be something to examine when the animal is nearing reproduction ability. However, when it’s nearing this capability, including lactation, lower quality feeds may not be a feasible alternative.

“In a lot of different livestock, as we [are] really close or towards the end of gestation, as the fetus gets really large, like in cattle, we concern ourselves with the nutrition of the baby calf, inside the mother, about the last two months before they calf,” Marcinkowski said. “That fetus is large enough at that point where it is drawing sufficient nutrients that we need to adjust the mother’s diet.”

So, as is similar to cows, Marcinkowski mentioned that the reproduction process would require additional nutrient supplementation to the female’s diet as a growing camel calf is approaching the end of its term.

One of the camels at OASIS Camel Dairy in Ramona, California.

Use as an alternative for cow’s milk

Each mammal produces its own types of protein in milk, such as the differences in A1 vs. A2 casein proteins in cow’s milk. Marcinkowski explained that much like goat milk is less “anogenic than cow’s milk,” there’s potential for the same with camel milk. He noted that milk from all species has many active compounds about which dairy farmers have little understanding. Similar to how milk from cows is filled with hormones, he said that anything that is floating around in the animal’s bloodstream ends up in the milk.

“There are hundreds of thousands of compounds within a sample of milk and we don’t know the bioactivity of some of those compounds. [For example, something] like lactoferrin in cow’s milk is an antibacterial similar to some of our antibiotics.”

Christina Adams with the camel milk she now gives to her autistic son.

As a cautionary note, there is a lot of debate regarding nutrition’s role in medicine and disease treatment. There is no definitive science and there are opposing views and conflicting science on how nutrition may work with traditional western medicine.

Christina Adams, author of “A real boy: A true story of autism, early intervention and recovery,” explained how camel milk came into her life by reporting an improvement in her autistic son’s behavior. After her book became available to the public, she met a dairy farmer who produced soap and lotions from camel milk. While communicating with the farmer, she learned that camel milk “was used in the hospitals in the Middle East for premature infants and was thought to be nonallergenic milk.”

As she put it, she “theorized” that camel milk could have been a good substitute dairy product in her son’s diet and could potentially have improved her son’s immune system. She found a 2005 Israeli study that argued that camel milk may provide an anti-inflammatory effect on a human’s immune system and may benefit her son’s behavioral symptoms associated with autism.

Evaluating the study, the authors explained that camel milk has potential to work with the immune system more effectively. To quote the Israeli study, “As camel milk does not contain beta-casein and beta-lactoglobulin, camel milk does not lead to autism symptoms. In addition, camel milk contains protective proteins, including the immunoglobulins necessary for maintaining the immune system and nutritional advantages for brain development.”

With her son having nut and rice milk allergies confirmed by blood tests, she consulted a licensed physician who supported her idea to combine camel milk as part of a traditional Western and integrative medicine approach that included medications and diet restrictions. Adams gave the milk to her son and reported an increase in her son’s ability to communicate through “eye contact, communication and emotional expression,” according to her published journal article entitled “Patient report: Autism spectrum disorder treated with camel milk.”

Adams explained that she never makes medical claims and advises consumers to check with physicians before undertaking any type of treatment or if treatment is modified.

“I should clarify that improved nutrition and healthy diet, while universally desirable for kids, looks unique for kids with autism due to widespread dairy intolerance, immune dysfunction and genetic issues,” Adams said. “Thus medications and supplements are often used in conjunction with a diet tailored for each child. All diets and interventions should be carried out under the supervision of a doctor familiar with autism.”

Based upon Adams’ experience with camel milk, there exists a potential for marketability. Miller explained that many of his consumers asked for camel milk due to the potential health benefits, especially with parents of autistic children.

Using a third-party website, he sends out newsletters once a month and reports a large number of orders are called in. He also reports that on-farm sales are made available to private members of his farm.

Camel behavior

Miller explained that milking camels can be different in two respects and must be considered for a commercial venture. “The camel knows when the little one is not by their side, when milking,” Miller warned.

Along with his recommendation to keep a baby by the mother’s side when milking, he said that he has to “train a camel [by] holding up one front leg with rope, because it gives better access to the camel for milking.”

FDA considerations

Although international studies do discuss the potential for medical benefits, it should equally be noted that “therapeutic claims,” as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration noted in a Sept. 15, 2016, letter, are under strict interpretation and regulation when making a health claim.

The letter’s explained that a product that is intended “for use in the cure, mitigation, treatment or prevention of disease,” is considered a “drug.”

Further, when it comes to selling a product across state lines, doing so may result in a violation of one or more sections of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.