Antonio Gomes: The Modern Day Shepherd
One could say that Antonio Gomes unintentionally fell into the role of shepherd, as a solution to an unexpected problem his farm came up against: angry neighbours.
Their beef? An unkempt, overgrown backyard – about 65 acres of it.
“We were actually getting offers from our neighbours to come cut our grass,” Antonio recalls.
Rather than procuring his neighbours’ services, Antonio decided that what the farm really needed were ruminants to graze the land.
Not only would the grass be kept trim naturally, but the animals could interact with the soil and plants, improving the land’s fertility.
Cattle and goats were viable options, but Antonio ultimately made his animal of choice — sheep — based on whether he could acquire a mentor who had experience working with them. That person was Jacinto, a close family friend, who had raised sheep back in his homeland, Portugal.
Antonio had extensively researched the best local breeders that he and Jacinto could visit to buy his very first flock. Together, they set out to visit a well-known sheep breeder in Ontario. But before they even stepped out of the car, Jacinto had already made up his mind.
“You can buy those sheep if you want to,” Jacinto had told Antonio. “But I wouldn’t buy them.”
Antonio was baffled. The sheep were standing at least 300 feet away from them.
“You haven’t even seen them,” Antonio countered.
“No, I can see from here,” Jacinto replied, unmoving.
Jacinto clarified that it was simply his preference – the breed of sheep they were looking at wasn’t the kind that he would eat. “Too much fat,” he explained.
Jacinto’s adamant distaste for an award-winning breed clued Antonio in for the first time to the cultural connection between the animal he wanted to raise and the marketable product he was hoping to yield from it.
The way cultures in the Mediterranean region eat sheep meat differs from the tastes of English and Scottish people, who were the groups that established the sheep industry in Ontario.
The kind of sheep Jacinto preferred were bred on his sister and brother-in-law’s farm in Chatham. It was a three hour drive away.
Trusting his newfound mentor, Antonio left the award-winning sheep farm, and said, “Okay, let’s go there then.”
The First Flock
“So, we got into my dinky, little red truck and drove all the way to Chatham,” Antonio remembered. “We put the truck cover on the back using pliers and clamps. It was pretty mickey mouse.”
Upon seeing the sheep, Jacinto immediately started hand-picking a flock for Antonio.
“That one there,” he said, pointing at each sheep of his liking.
Upon being appointed, the chosen sheep would be taken over to a pen. At the end of the selection, there were six or seven sheep gathered.
“They’re all pregnant,” Jacinto explained.
The sheep were loaded into the back of the little, red truck, and rode down the highway, all the way to Cavaleiro Farm. When the sheep arrived at the farm, Antonio surmised that it must have felt like wandering into sheep heaven.
At the farm in Chatham, the grass was short, having been continuously grazed. But here, the grass shot up four feet tall. The sheep wouldn’t be going hungry on this field.
Jacinto had to get back to his home in the city, leaving Antonio and his farming partner Saqib alone and completely clueless on how to take care of the new flock.
“What do we do?” Antonio asked before Jacinto drove off. There was no place to keep the sheep indoors, and no fencing outside to prevent them from wandering away.
“Make sure they have water,” Jacinto instructed. “And tie one of them up. If you tie one of them up, they all won’t leave that one sheep.”
Sheep, as Antonio would soon learn, stuck together like glue. Being prey animal, it was one of their few defense mechanisms against predators.
Using rope, Antonio tied up one of the sheep in a full patch of green grass. Just as Jacinto had predicted, the rest of the herd ate there too, never leaving the sheep.
The Shepherd’s Land
Antonio soon discovered that the Katahdin breed of sheep he had bought was ideal for what Cavaleiro Farm was trying to establish — a sustainable way of farming.
The sheep complimented the farm’s low-input system in which labour and resources were kept as minimal as needed to produce the desired results.
Now that he had a herd of natural lawnmowers on the farm, Antonio could forego paying for expensive grass-cutting services, or using machinery to keep the plants down.
Sheep, in general, are one of the best grazers out there, eating many types of weeds that other livestock animals would turn their noses at. But amongst all sheep breeds, the Katahdin is on the foraging skills A-list, which means that even on rougher or poorer pasture, this breed will do well.
Katahdins also have a reputation for being low maintenance, having sound mothering abilities, and yielding good lamb crops, thus making them highly suited to extensive pasture-lambing systems.
The value of sheep in farming isn’t new. It’s believed that sheep became domesticated about 10,000 years ago to assist human civilizations in their agricultural pursuits.
Shepherding proved to be a lucrative profession. On one hand, shepherd’s costs were kept low — they didn’t own land and their main tools consisted of a knife, rope and dogs to guard and herd their flock.
On the other hand, shepherds were able to offer a profitable service procured by landowners — grazing their land to keep plants and grass down. The sheep could also be sold for meat and wool.
Shepherds were the information gatherers in their region. “They were up early and travelled around everywhere, so they had an eye and info on everything that was going on,” Antonio said.
Antonio found that this aspect of shepherding has served him well for his other role at the farm. “As manager, it’s my responsibility to go around and see what’s happening on different parts of the farm.
“By being a shepherd, I walk by the planting and plots, and see the changes. I can keep notes and create tasks and jobs. It’s useful in that sense.”
Raising sheep requires a great deal of observation, Antonio has found. Having come from a long lineage of farmers, he finds that observing and understanding changes in the land and animals comes intuitively.
It seems that while Antonio may have accidentally fallen into the role of shepherding, it turned out to be the perfect job.
Let Them Graze Free
The day after Antonio brought his first flock of sheep to the farm, he set up portable, electric fencing to keep the sheep within one area of pasture. The fencing could be moved around each day, so that the herd got to interact with different parts of the land.
But when Antonio’s mentor Jacinto revisited the farm, he immediately looked sick to his stomach. The sheep were too skinny, he observed.
“Get them out of that fence,” Jacinto demanded. “It’s not working.”
Jacinto, after having worked with sheep for so many years, had become intensely intuitive and empathetic towards the animals.
Antonio had already sensed that setting up fences wasn’t the right way to do rotational grazing, despite what all of the books instructed.
It took an excessive amount of labour to move the fencing around. It also didn’t afford much flexibility and consideration for the fact that grass doesn’t grow in sequences.
Jacinto was a man of few words, but what he did say Antonio held in high regard.
So, he took the sheep out of the fence and started grazing with them. He’d walk where the sheep wandered, and observed what they preferred to eat and when.
The sheep started displaying mob grazing behaviours, which meant they were becoming less picky with the way they ate. The flock became healthier and put on more weight.
Managing sheep grazing refers both to having sheep graze the farm pastures at all (versus not having any sheep grazing the land), as well as intentionally directing which part of the land the sheep graze (versus letting them randomly graze anywhere).
Not doing either of these things lead to the same problems, Antonio relayed to me.
One of those problems is soil erosion, a process in which soil is swept away by either water or wind.
While soil erosion is a naturally occurring phenomenon, human activities, such as intensive agriculture and deforestation, have caused the rate of erosion to skyrocket.
The dilemma of soil being swept away is that it literally breaks up the ideal situation in which the soil is held together in clusters.
It’s within those clusters that all the magic happens — where the water, organisms, and other beneficial matter, interact — resulting in a beautiful layer of top soil.
“That top soil is what makes our planet special,” Antonio explained.
The sheep play a key role in keeping the clusters together and maintaining the soil’s fertility. How? The manure they drop while out grazing acts as an excellent, natural fertilizer.
High in nitrogen and potash, sheep manure encourages the soil to be the best that it can be by adding organic matter and nutrients to the mix.
The soil, in turn, is able to retain more water, process air, and sequester carbon, all leading to more fertile land.
Not only were Antonio’s sheep trimming down the farm’s overgrown grass, but they were also laying the groundwork for the healthy planting of crops come growing season.
Modern Day Shepherd
While the profession of shepherding has changed over the centuries, the value of sheep is still very much alive today.
However, the practicality of constantly staying with the herd is much more untenable for the modern-day shepherd, who may even be working another job to support him or herself.
If Antonio had to stay glued to his sheep from day until night, as many of his predecessors did, his business, Sheep Life, wouldn’t survive.
“The goal of Sheep Life is to teach others and get sheep onto other land, so they can improve the environment and pastures,” Antonio said.
“The challenge though is if you had to be there all the time. By implementing lean farming practices and resources, we’ve gotten to the point where I don’t have to be there every time, which makes it much more appealing and sustainable.”
What that system involves is drawing from the farm’s pool of members, and training those who are interested in helping to take care of the sheep.
The work that members contribute to Sheep Life is a service exchanged for other services or resources from Antonio and the farm, such as project mentorship and land use.
This community-driven approach means that Antonio doesn’t have to act as a lone shepherd.
For other modern-day shepherds who may need to work another job, or who have multiple priorities to juggle, implementing a similar system, whereby a community works together to care for the flock, may be what ultimately helps their sheep business thrive.
Antonio has come a long way from his first days of shepherding. From a small flock of six, he now manages almost 50 sheep and lambs, and counting.
Antonio acknowledges that there’s still a lot more to learn and improve upon. He’s in the process of redesigning the sheep barn that originally housed cattle, and implementing a new feeding system that will require less labour hours.
With a modern-day farming lifestyle that involves executing a multitude of tasks every day, efficiency is a must-have for success.
Antonio continues to look to Jacinto for advice on raising his sheep the right way, but explains that he’s also learned a great deal from the sheep themselves.
“I like the work because I learn a lot being around them. They help me to be creative and reflect, because they’re them — natural beings that also have a very integrated relationship with man.
“They depend on you and communicate with you, but at the same time, they are far removed. It’s a bridge to nature for us humans.”
>> Read the next post in the #farmlifebestlife series: Winter Woes