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sheep vs alpaca

 
Simone Gar
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Location: Alberta, zone 3
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I was wondering how alpacas compare to sheep regarding grazing. Plan is to eventually rotational graze a la Mark Shepard (cattle, pigs, alpacas and potentially chickens or turkey?!)
I would prefer alpacas to sheep and I am wondering if they have similar grazing habits and how the stocking rate would compare to sheep. Any idea?
 
R Ranson
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Very good question, and one that is a lot more complicated than it first appears.

Right away, stocking rate is going to depend a lot more on you and your land than anything anyone on the internet can tell you. We can give you a general idea based on where in the world you are and if you can tell us a bit about your land. It could be 6 sheep per 1/4 acre, or 6 acres per sheep. There are so many factors involved in deciding how dense you can keep your animals AND (in big capital letters, 5 miles high) keep them healthy. When I was starting out, I wish I had taken the suggested stocking rate and divided it by 10 - and started with that many animals. Instead, I took the suggested number, divided it by half only to have problems with overcrowding.

Some questions for you that will help us give better answers?

  • Have you kept livestock before? If so, what kinds?
  • Have you lived on the land for several years? The ability to observe your land is the best resource you can have.
  • If you feel comfortable sharing - what part of the world are you writing from?
  • What products do you want from your alpaca/sheep? Meat, wool/fibre, manure, lawn mowing?
  • Will you be breeding your wooly jumpers?




  • I have both alpacas and sheep, so I can give a bit of info. To be honest, I like the sheep worlds better than the alpacas.

    That said, there are those who love alpacas far more than they could ever love a sheep. To each their own.


    Here are just some of my experiences. Where you live, things may be very different. Please don't take what I say as gospel.

    My sheep are much easier to handle and are far less susceptible to diet-related ailments. Alpacas can be very sensitive to high nitrogen feed. My alpacas are also very fussy about which plants they eat, often leaving large amounts of grass/weeds that they won't touch. The sheep eat the green things. Both alpacas and sheep like brows (shoulder height food) as well as pasture (foot height food).

    The breed of sheep will have a huge influence on how it grazes. The older breeds are willing and eager to eat just about anything. Some of the post-industrial sheep are a bit more fussy. Similar seems to hold true for alpacas. My alpacas are ancient, all about 30 years old or over, rescue alpacas. They seem very hardy with what they eat, especially when compared to their younger, smaller counterparts. According to my llama-lady and alpaca-guru, my alpacas are from a different line that is much closer to the ancestral alpacas that lived in the andes. Modern alpacas are sickly creatures compared to mine - or so I'm told.

    The alpacas give me easy to gather manure and fibre for spinning. The sheep give me meat, wool and well distributed manure. No one eats alpacas in our part of the world. Alpacas are more expensive to keep, needing extra nutritional supplement daily because the plants available here are not the same as what their ancestors ate. Sheep shearing is easy and affordable - about $8 a sheep or $1 to $2 dollars per pound of fibre - and that includes shots, health check and foot trim. Alpacas are time consuming and expensive to sheer. It takes about 6 hours (and 6 helpers) to sheer my four llama/alpacas. They are rescues so they are a bit more difficult to deal with than normal - also mine are much larger than normal alpacas, one being over 500 lbs (and yes, he is an alpaca and not a llama). It costs about $200 to $300 for the shearing, shots, health check, and foot trim. That's between $5 and $10 per pound of fibre. The sheep can give two fleeces a year, the alpacas one or for better fibre, one sheering every two years (but still need the shots, foot trimming, health check, so we get the bill with or without the fleece).

    I can't remember of the top of my head, but there were issues with pigs and sheep in the same rotation - some sort of parasite or disease.



    Not a question you asked, I know. Hopefully it's a moot point and you've already thought about this: Looking at your lovely list of animals I think to myself, that's a long list of animals. From personal experience, it may be challenging to start with that many different kinds of animals all at once. If I had to start farming again, the one thing I would do is have fewer animals. I would probably have one kind of animal, maybe chickens, then watch the land for at least two years while I learn how to care for the chickens. Then, add the next animal to the equation - sheep. spend a couple of years letting the sheep train me how to keep them in optimum health before getting the next animal. There are so many things to learn and so many things that can go wrong - I've seen so many farmers get over excited and fill their farm with animals, only to have the animals health (and the farmers') suffer for lack of time and knowhow. Of course, if you are already familiar with keeping livestock, you know all this already.




     
    Katy Whitby-last
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    The issue with pigs and sheep is copper. If the pigs are fed pellets their manure is high in copper and many breeds of sheep are susceptible to copper toxicity so it is not advisable to graze the sheep after the pigs in a rotation.
     
    Simone Gar
    Posts: 86
    Location: Alberta, zone 3
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    Wow, thanks a lot! Great post R!

    We are only in the planning state right now so I was just wondering about the stocking rate in theory.
    Definitely are going to start slow and introduce livestock in small quantities and type by type. We are experienced in horses and cattle only so far. Well, I am. My husband has worked in ag and livestock all his career and worked with all kinds. He doesn't want sheep at all. I want alpacas and he says that would be ok. However, I would want to work with a breeder or the seller for a few weekends before I take home an alpaca as I have no clue about them. And again, this is in a few years.
    I was just reading about Mark Shepard's rotational grazing and wondered how alpacas would do instead of sheep. Again, great information in your answer. Thanks so much!
     
    R Ranson
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    Sounds like you have a good grounding in livestock. I like your plan. I think it could work well.

    I wish I could be of more help with stock rate. Even on our land, it varies drastically with the time of year. Some seasons, the land can easily handle one alpaca per couple of hundred square yards. Other times of year, it's two acres per alpaca. We have to supplement hay and llama text year round - even though our plants and land are surprisingly similar to their ancestral diet, they are not domesticated the same way a sheep is. Sheep are use to adapting to where the humans live. Different breeds of sheep for different environments. I don't know enough about alpacas to know if there are different kinds for different landscapes. I imagine it's the different approach to domestication - old world / new world.

    I was a lot like your husband. I thought sheep were weird looking, almost demonic, creatures that were only good if knitted or roasted. That's because I had only ever met modern sheep. When my friends lost their farm, we boarded their Icelandic sheep for almost two years. It was amazing. These were independent sheep. They could eat all manner of food. The only issue we had was overcrowding and Selenium deficiency. I learned that sheep can be intelligent and affectionate. Keep the minerals balanced and their health takes care of itself. Now that we have the minerals almost right, their feet hardly ever need trimming. I have on girl that's gone almost two years with no need for a trim. Minerals can also reduce parasite issues - see the book natural Sheep Care by Coleby. With a small flock and daily interaction, it's easy to spot parasite build up. It's nice being able to worm and medicate on demand with my sheep. Many other farmers in our area worm to schedule, sometimes monthly. Ours is one of the few farms with virtually nil parasite issue AND no wormer resistance. I highly recommend Coleby's writings - she writes about goats, and I think some other animals - if you are interested in preventive care.

    The other thing that has me praising sheep over alpacas is the vet. There is only one vet in our area, maybe three in the province, that will touch alpacas. Legally, where I live, there are a lot of medicines and supplies that can only be bought through the vet or under their guidance. If my alpaca gets sick, needs his balls off, has trouble popping out the babies, you know, Vet-stuff... If something happens, and it happens on a Sunday or after hours, the animals dead. If it happens during vet hours then it's a 2 hour drive to the nearest alpaca vet, or almost a grand for the vet to come to the farm (not including care for the animal).

    On the flip side. I do enjoy my alpacas. They are cute, funny, and overflowing with personality. Their fibre is soft and a delight to work with. The fibre isn't high enough quality to sell raw, but sells well as handspun yarn. Llama/alpaca berries go for about $5 a gallon here. Another good source of income if we didn't use it all on the farm. A sparse sprinkle of llama berries on the surface of the soil twice a year and the plants grow strong roots and circulatory systems. Alpacas poop in the same area, making collection of their berries easy.

    Alpacas haven't been my passion, so I don't tend to stay up late reading veterinary manuals about their health. Instead, I have two local-ish gurus that I consult. Our main guru, the Llama Lady, and her teacher the Alpaca Lady. One of both of them come 'round twice a year to do the health check, shots, and anything else that needs doing. They've known my llamas and alpacas for a decade or two, so they can see year to year how the animals are doing. I ask their advice, they give it, I do it (which is apparently unusual), and the animals stay healthy.

    The one thing I've learned about sheep and alpacas is that there are a lot of opinions and different ways to keep the animals. With my alpacas, I'm fairly hands off because they were treated so badly by humans in the past. Our goal with these animals is to keep them healthy and happy. They have come to trust us and like being near humans, so long as it's on their terms. We worm on schedule because I don't know how to tell if an alpaca has a heavy parasite load.


    This is Beau. Think 550+ pounds of opinionated alpaca. Yes, he is an alpaca, or so the experts tell me. My llama is only just 500lbs.

    With my sheep, I'm more hands on. I check their health casually at least once a day, and manage their health primarily through diet - consulting the vet if there is something I don't understand. Applying medicine on demand only. This is not a popular method of sheep care in my area. I get a lot of flack from other hobby farmers and professional shepherds. The only people who seem happy with my method is my sheerer - who says I have the healthiest sheep on The Island (an island with about 30,000 sheep), my vet, myself, and my sheep. Everyone else seems to think I should medicate if the critters need it or not.



    Lary as a lamb. He's a buddy sheep. Supposedly a wether (balls off) he actually has one left behind but thankfully isn't aggressive. Whenever I need to learn something, I take lary (now a good 250lbs sheep) to the vet and ask the vet to show me how to... ... give shots... or whatever I need to learn. That way it saves me several hundred dollars on having the vet out to the farm.




    Ops, this got way-away from your question. Let's see if I can condense my thoughts a bit better. Take what you want from it. I certainly don't know everything.

  • Your land is your best teacher. Observe it at every opportunity.
  • There are a lot of different styles of animal care that work. Finding one that works for you may take a bit of trial and error. Don't feel you have to do it one way just because someone told you so.
  • What works in some parts of the world (aka, in books and websites) may not work for you.
  • Or it might work wonderfully for you. You won't know 'till you try it.
  • Gather gurus. This is a good place to focus on. At least one guru per animal type.

  • Choose a guru that fits your values and ideas. Choose on the bases of their animal health rather than bravado. Someone who's been doing this for 20 years may be terrible at it and have sickly creatures. Ask your would be guru questions that you already know the answer - if they answer differently than what you know, ask them why - if they can explain in a way that makes sense, maybe they are on to something and are worth listening to. You don't have to do what your guru says - these will be your animals after all - but it is worth having someone to consult with.


    Hoping someone here will chime in with ideas about stock rate. All I know is for my land. I've had everything from 2 sheep to 60 on our 2 acres of pasture (there's no legal limit here - something else to think about, legal issues as to animal density where you live), and I've observed how the land reacted and how it recovered from overgrazing. I've come to the conclusion that 4 to 8 adults, plus their lambs, is a good amount of sheep for this land on an average year.

     
    Katy Whitby-last
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    Another issue to consider regarding stocking rate is that the number of animals on your land will vary throughout the year if you are breeding. We started with 6 ewes and because they are a slow growing breed that we eat as hogget we have had 30 animals on our land at one time - the previous year's twins and triplets and the current year's twins plus a tup.
     
    Simone Gar
    Posts: 86
    Location: Alberta, zone 3
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    Again thanks so much R! Fantastic information!

    I think the stocking rate has to wait until we get to the point of buying alpacas. We are not looking to get many anyways. They are more a side project and I like the idea of taking in rescue alpacas! Probably understock if anything.

    I will check into vets and costs though! Very good point!! We have a couple of breeders close by. I do like the guru idea. It might take a bit to find somebody with the same approach (don't medicate to follow a schedule etc.) but it's worth it! I talked to one before the he was stunned I would be interested in working at his place for free to learn before getting alpacas. I thought it would be a good trade and he said there is always work and learning if I want it.

    I might get the sheep book, it sounds interesting, when we get closer. Maybe my husband will warm up to the idea after all.

    Thanks again!

    PS: Two pretty boys you posted there!
     
    Leslie McHugh
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    Location: Central Illinois
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    Hi Simone, I am new here but I have had alpacas since 2007. I do not have sheep (yet) so I can't give you first-hand experience comparing the two exactly, but here are some of my experiences.

    When I first started researching alpacas, I can tell you that all resources I checked listed a stocking rate similar to goats and sheep. As others mentioned, this will vary at different times of the year but my local ag office stated that the stocking rate for sheep in my location was 10 sheep per acre.

    My alpacas tend to be just a bit picky on their pasture conditions. They do browse somewhat, but seem to prefer younger and more tender grasses above all else. Sometimes life gets ahead of me and I can't keep the pasture up to their standards. When this happens, there will be sections of grass that gets too tall for their delicate sensibilities. They will continue to graze the short grass and let the tall stuff grow ever taller. When this happens, I simply move them into their drylot and cut down the tall grass with a scythe and then throw it over the fence. They eat it all up then. Go figure. Buncha weirdos.

    Otherwise, they're pretty much low maintenance. I keep their water buckets full and free choice minerals available whenever they need. They get hay or pasture only. I do not feed pellets as a matter of course. However, I do occasionally supply pellets to older nursing dams if they need the extra body condition during lactation.

    I do not worm unless an alpaca is showing visible symptoms and I have rarely ever had to worm. I do not want to instill resistant parasites on my property and I want animals that can keep parasites in check all by themselves. The major exception would be the standard practice of monthly shots of ivermectin if you live in white tailed deer country in order to prevent meningeal worm.

    Shearing is indeed more expensive when compared to sheep. Alpacas really need to be restrained on the ground in order to shear them with minimal stress. This is one of the times where I wish they were more like sheep and could be sheared by one person. I have learned how to shear myself, so that helps keep expenses lower. I've managed to get volunteers every year on shearing day so that also helps.

    Alpacas really have their own way of going. When you can alter your techniques to respect this, the handling is much easier and can be done with minimal restraint. Less is better. I really recommend looking into Marty McGee Bennet's Camelidynamics techniques when working with alpacas and llamas. I can do most of my handling with the four fingered bracelet hold.

    It helps to have a good vet around, which can be hard since many vets are not familiar with them. However, I have to say that most alpacas that I have encountered are pretty hardy and rarely get sick. I have only had three vet calls in the time that i have had alpacas and two of the calls involved injury.

    Alpacas are similar to sheep in their copper sensitivity. However, there is growing evidence to show that alpacas probably need more copper than initially thought.

    As I work on incorporating more permaculture principles into my farm, I'm looking hard myself as to how to best integrate the alpacas so I'm really glad you're asking these questions!

    One of the areas that keeps coming up as a potential concern of mine is in the fencing. I currently have 5' woven wire fencing not really to keep the alpacas in, but the predators out. The alpacas do not challenge the current fencing. I have spoken to other alpaca breeders who have had issues with electric fencing. My current challenge is to better rotate my alpacas throughout the entire property, beyond their current pastures. I think if I did any electric fencing, it might have to be the net type. This would provide the visual barrier that the alpacas respect, because many breeders have reported that the alpaca fleece insulates the animal enough that it simply doesn't feel the fence. I hesitate to use any other electric fencing with them, especially where babies are concerned. I'm still researching this one myself.

    I love your idea of visiting with several farms. I really encourage you to do this. I helped out at my mentor farm as well and learned so much hands-on this way. It was invaluable experience.

    Above all, have fun on your journey and if I can ever be of assistance, please let me know!


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    The Heathen Child
     
    R Ranson
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    Great answer Leslie, thanks for joining the conversation. It's great to hear from someone with more alpaca experience.
     
    Leslie McHugh
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    Location: Central Illinois
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    Thanks for the welcome. I am really excited to be here while learning everything that I can.
     
    Simone Gar
    Posts: 86
    Location: Alberta, zone 3
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    Thanks Leslie. Great posts and super cute pic!
     
    Maggie Culver
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    I know I'm a little late here, but I just wanted to add my two cents. I have sheep--- more accurately hair sheep. I've had them for almost 15 years. My experience has been that they are very hardy and somewhat self sufficient. They are parasite resistant (I've chemically wormed about 3 times--that's 3 sheep out of probably hundreds over the years) and they are PROLIFIC. On my very nominal pastures, they average 6 babies in 2 years. They live with cows, chickens, pigs and a mini horse. I do feed a good mineral mix to them that the cows and horse get as well and it does have copper. They've gotten it since I've had them so apparently copper (in this form?)is not a problem for them. They do well with the other livestock and keep things grazed more efficiently. I agree with the person who said to get Pat Colby's book(s).
     
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