Thirteen Cows and a Community

Published by Jeff Sargent on

Julie Mattox's cattle grazing on her tall prairie grasses and flowers.

By Jeff Sargent
This story is a compilation of an article issued in the NPAT Spring 2022 newsletter and more recent experiences and information.

It was a sunny, crisp Tuesday morning right after the turn of the new year. I arrived at NPAT member Julie Mattox’s farm in Yantis, Texas, about 100 miles east of Dallas along I-30. Her 85-acre property is a former dairy farm that has been transformed. She invited me to her Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Grazing Group meeting and property tour to share what NPAT could offer to other landowners.

I first met Julie at a landowner workshop NPAT Outreach and Stewardship Director Dr. Carly Aulicky hosted two months before at the Dixon Water Foundation’s Leo Ranch, near Decatur. Julie was on a panel that shared their tales of prairie restoration successes and challenges. Her easy smile, dry wit, and engaging storytelling caught my attention. It was there that I first heard about the thirteen cows.

Julie had bought the re-opened dairy farm behind her home because she saw how much it negatively impacted the environment of her property. But she didn’t want to run a dairy. She never even wanted to own cattle. Julie is part of a generation that has been acquiring Texas rural land either as a family inheritance or just to get out of the cities. But they don’t want to farm it or don’t know how to manage it.

In 2015 Julie started her restoration journey with support from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) and the NRCS. She learned cattle can be beneficial to native prairie. She gave it a try with a few head and saw gradual improvements in the health of her grassland. Native birds and other wildlife began to return. She acquired a few more. More improvement. Before she knew it, she had thirteen cows.

Then, in 2020 Julie discovered her first NPAT workshop for landowners exploring restoration. “Having individuals together with similar goals is a win-win,” she said. “I gained new ideas that helped my unique prairie restoration.

Julie now manages a sustainable cattle ranch and community prairie school. She is also collaborating with us to permanently protect her land under a conservation easement. “Working with NPAT could not be easier,” she added, “From the beginning, all the options were discussed. The paperwork was at times overwhelming, but Kirsti (NPAT) was only a phone call away.”

Julie continues to be motivated to share her story with others, thanks to the help she got from TPWD, NRCS, NPAT, and other local landowners like Kelli and Karl Ebel, who also partner with NPAT.

“As I became more aware of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem and how important it is to our grassland birds and wildlife, I began to share my love with others in my community,” Julie explained. “Most individuals in my area did not understand what I was doing so I found the opportunity to educate. When cattle were introduced to the restoration, that’s when the door to education really took off. It turns out that what is good for nature is really good for cattle.

Julie is now known for having the healthiest, happiest herd in Wood County. Even the mayor of Yantis, who has a ranch next door, agrees. And coincidentally, the number of cattle that really made it work is the same amount two other landowners at the Leo Ranch workshop had acquired! Who knew the secret to a successful native prairie restoration was thirteen cows? As the great radio announcer Paul Harvey used to say, “And now you know . . . the rest of the story.”

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