Shepherd reshaping land management in the South
by Clay Neely
I’m riding to a pasture on the outskirts of Luthersville with Brian Cash. The Ford-350 Cash drives tows an animal trailer filled with 30 sheep and two dogs. We hop out of the truck making our way to the back of the trailer where Cash opens the doors. The sheep slowly pour out, bells clanging, while Cash whistles to Kyle, the Border collie, to lie down.
“They’re the best employees you’ll ever meet,” he says referencing Kyle. “Their enthusiasm can be a bit overwhelming.”
Kyle eagerly herds the flock into the field and soon the sheep are safely in the pasture, Cash closing the door behind us. The heat is in full force this afternoon, a blunt reminder that summer is still in session. We make our way to the side of the pasture, into the shade.
“So what would you like to know?” asks Cash.
It turns out that this modern day shepherd is actually a native of the Atlanta suburb of Dunwoody. He’s the son of two very patient parents whose child dreamed of one day being a farmer.
As the years passed, Cash’s enthusiasm never waned, only increasing with each new duck, chicken, goat, pig, sheep, and quail that found a way into their house.
“In those days, you couldn't have a chicken in Atlanta. Nowadays, we have the great ‘farm-to-table’ movement and people are bringing chickens back to city. Almost everyone I meet on the job has a chicken coop in their backyard. I love it.”
His enthusiasm continued all the way into high school, when his dreams met head-on with a bemused high school guidance counselor.
“You want to be a farmer?”
“You really need to take things a little more seriously, Brian,” the counselor said. “You need to figure out a real career.”
“It was like ‘well, thanks for telling me it’s an impossibility,” laughs Cash.
Immediately following his graduation in 1998, Cash headed straight to the interior of Alaska in search of adventure.
“I just thought it would be fun to go race sled dogs,” he says. “I only planned to stay there six months but wound up staying four years.”
Cash eventually found himself in northern California, training competitive dogs. It was there that he really began to see the working relationship between dogs and sheep. He also saw how the sheep were being used to clear large parcels of overgrown land instead of chemicals.
“It’s a pretty common concept in California,” says Cash. “I thought it would be an awesome idea for Georgia, since there is no natural alternative to herbicides for kudzu eradication -— and it’s faster.”
Upon his return to Atlanta, Cash set up ‘Ewe-niversally Green.’
Immediately, one job became many. Even with no advertising, Cash had 4,000 people on his waiting list by last July and now he’s staying out of Atlanta media to avoid more.
Cash currently employs 300 full-time sheep in metro Atlanta that travel from site to site. He uses 25 to 30 sheep for an eighth of an acre — usually a two-day job. Large-scale jobs call for around 60 to 100 in a group.
Last year, Cash demonstrated a one-week trial run at Hartsfield-Jackson Airport to propose a way for year-round weed control for a 5,000-acre area. He has also worked in the city parks of metro Atlanta, backyards, and even kudzu and ivy removal for the Beltline Project in Atlanta.
Cash touts his operation as being totally portable and using all sustainable resources. “Every aspect is mobile,” he says.
He begins by implementing a solar-powered, temporary electric fence. Then he drops off the sheep, the guardian dog and the water. He visits the job site daily to feed the dog and check progress.
“The homeowner gets to sit back and watch — and have the fun of having sheep in their backyard. The sheep tackle super-steep areas that would be almost impossible with machinery. Sheep love poison ivy and they chase yellow jackets and snakes away, too,” boasts Cash.
Once, a copperhead snake bit one of Cash’s sheep on the face. The vet said, “Don’t worry about it. Sheep are resistant.” And in 24 hours, it was like it never happened, Cash said.
“All a sheep wants to do is eat,” says Cash. “Every other obstacle supersedes it.”
According to Cash, the sheep can reach areas of up to 6 feet in height. There are a few exceptions, though. The sheep don’t like azaleas or vinca, and rhododendron is toxic to them.
His flock is generationally bred so “they learn in utero which plants are good to eat and which aren't,” he says. By storing information from their mother’s taste, their taste is finely-tuned with each subsequent generation.
“The first generation didn’t really like English ivy, so I had to diversify with other food. But now the current generation loves ivy and can graze on it all winter,” says Cash.
What about the maintenance of the sheep? By using a composite breed of Katahdin and Dorper sheep there is no shearing needed.
“Also, the sheep are constantly being moved from place to place. So there is no need for dewormer as they’re going to places never inhabited by sheep prior to their arrival. As long as they have food, they’re fairly hand- off,” says Cash.
And what about goats versus sheep?
“We have a few goats, but I prefer the sheep,” Cash says. “The dog is tied in (with the sheep) and the sheep are so much easier to contain. The goats are generally looking for a way out. The sheep aren’t as demonstrative or creative as the goats, which makes life easier for me. Most of my problems are usually started by goats,” he laughs.
And how do the dogs fit into the picture? Cash uses three breeds: Border collies to herd the sheep, and either an Anatolian Shepherd or Great Pyrenees for protection. They grow up with the sheep in the pasture and consider themselves great protectors.
The dogs are aggressive against other outsider animals but not people. However, some dogs will have no interest in people whatsoever. They bond to the sheep as family.
“If anything, I’m a good acquaintance to the dog,” says Cash. “At the end of the day, they go home to their family and I go home to mine.”
This year marks his fourth herding since returning home from out West.
“I remember when I said ‘I’m going to be a sheep herder in the city of Atlanta.’ My friends and family were a tad skeptical but I think they see how it has come together,” says Cash.
And his experiences being an “urban shepherd” have been amusing and rewarding.
“You don’t expect to see a flock of 100 sheep walking down the road in West End or Buckhead, so you have to field quite a few questions. I’ll have someone ask me ‘What kind of cows are those? or What kind of sheep is that?’ and I have to tell them that it’s just the dog,” he laughs.
“I really would like to see the concepts of farming brought back to the city, helping children understand the food chain. Maybe there is the one kid in Atlanta who wants to be a farmer and maybe I can reach him,” says Cash.
Prior to being hired by a horse farm near Newnan, Cash had never even heard of the area.
“I drove down to Exit 47 and thought ‘that was that.’ I had no idea about Bullsboro or downtown Newnan. Once I did, I found a house immediately. I love the area; it still feels like a small town and it’s the best commute in the world to Atlanta.”
Cash would like to see more work on this side of town. He recently purchased 31 acres in Luthersville where his next-door neighbors raise Black Angus cattle. After watching Cash and his flock work, they also now employ a Border collie and sheep.
“The Stricklands are converts,” laughs Cash, referring to his neighbors.
As we make our way back across the pasture, Cash whistles to Kyle who immediately begins to round up the herd.The sheep file past us, back into their trailer as Cash closes the gate behind them.
Kyle opts to ride in the back.
“It’s really cool,” Cash muses. “Every day I wake up and wonder ‘How did this all happen?’ It seems like an impossibility.”