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Success Story

Restoring a Savannah Landscape in a Suburban Rural Neighborhood

Man and woman walking in pasture

What does someone do who buys out a dairy farm wanting nothing to do with cattle, but rather to return the land to the thriving tall grass prairie it once was? She gets help from NRCS and other partners leading her back to cows to reach her goal.

Story and photos compiled by Adele Swearingen, Public Affairs Specialist, Bryan, Texas

Who buys out a dairy farm wanting nothing to do with cattle, but rather to return the land to the thriving prairie it once was?

Julie Mattox of Mattox Prairie Farms in East Texas—that’s who.

Woman standing in tall grass prairie pasture
Julie Mattox, owner of Mattox Prairie Farms in Yantis, Texas, is passionate about restoring the tall grass prairie that was historically part of the Texas landscape and home to many species of wildlife.

Sometimes misunderstood by her neighbors in her intentions, Mattox doesn’t mind, but rather looks at the challenge as an opportunity to educate her community about what’s going on behind her house in Wood County.

When you take the time to walk through her pasture, soaking in the natural beauty of the native grasses and wildflowers, including waves of tall sunflowers that provide a vibrant swath of yellow across what not too long ago had been a dismal field of overgrazed Bermuda grass, you can see why she is doing what she’s doing.

“My role here is the land steward, the landlord—I help to take care of it. I am the guest here,” she says with the modesty of someone who, deep down, knows the land is just as grateful to have her here as she is to be here.

Mattox purchased a house in Yantis in 1996 on 1.2 acres of land, which at the time had been surrounded by a 70-acre pasture consisting of mainly Bermuda grass with remnants of native grasses, that served as home to everything from some cows, to bobcats, to roadrunners, to rabbits, to a variety of grassland birds. 

“It was a pretty cool little place,” says Mattox.

Back then, she was busy working as a surveyor in the oil and gas industry, a career that required her to travel across the country up to six or seven months at a time.  

About three years in, Mattox says she returned from one of those long work trips to find the owner of the pasture had reopened an old dairy farm that sat right next to her property—an operation she had thought had been permanently closed.

“And that’s when all the fun started,” she says.

Landlord of the Flies

Mattox says the changes to the land just beyond her bedroom window were fast and dramatic.

“The dairy reopened and there was 100+ cows back there, 30 feet from the backdoor here.”

What she’d once considered to be a beautiful sanctuary to come home to after traveling the country had turned into nightmare. Fast. The wildlife she’d so enjoyed watching had disappeared, right down to the snakes and insects. Except, seemingly, only one thing: flies.

“I don’t mind cows,” says Mattox, “but what I did mind was the flies and the flies became so bad we could no longer sit out back.”

At one point, Mattox sprayed her entire backyard for flies. The spray didn’t hurt the flies one bit, but it did manage to kill every beneficial insect that was left on the place. 

Feeling somewhat desperate, Mattox weighed her options, narrowing it down to staying at the house and putting up with the cows and the flies, selling her home, or buying out the dairy.

In 2010, after about 10 years of negotiating, Mattox was able to buy out the dairy, along with the first 25 acres.

“I proclaimed to the world, ‘I never ever want to see another cow on my property again’,” she says.

Learning to Grow

Life went on and Mattox maintained her newly acquired land, cutting and baling the hay like most of the rest of her neighbors. 

A few years later, Mattox says she was out for a walk with her dog, Zoey, one hot summer day and leaned up against a bale of hay. It was in that moment she realized something wasn’t right.

“I closed my eyes and I listened,” says Mattox, who says she didn’t hear anything. “I have a dead zone here. I have a monotypic stand of Bermuda grass that provides no habitat for just about anything.”

This “aha moment,” was what pushed Mattox to reach out to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department (TPWD) for help.

From there, Mattox was approved for the agency’s Pastures for Upland Birds Program, which she says helps landowners restore native grasses and forbs on pastures and hayfields dominated by exotic grasses.

In 2015, they sprayed the first 25 acres with herbicide, and it was only then her neighbors took notice of the pasture and began wondering what Mattox was up to.

Shortly after, Mattox purchased the remaining acreage, which went into the same program. She signed a 10-year contract with TPWD, which provided her with guidance for the duration. They brought their expertise and a no-till drill. Things were looking up.

And while this may have been a “problem solved, and they all lived happily ever after” moment for some landowners. Mattox was just getting started.

The work she was doing through the program, including planting seed, resulted in some forbs, which encouraged some of the wildlife to return, including grassland birds like the Dickcissels that nested there in the winter.

Still, things weren’t coming along quite as Mattox had envisioned.

“Over the next two years things didn’t improve, they got worse. We’d planted the seed and everything and I’m so excited,” recalls Mattox. “You have this vision that the only thing is going to come up is what you’ve planted. This is exactly what did not happen.”

An abundance of cool season grass, like winter rye, had come up almost right away, growing tall and matting over, not giving the warm season grass a chance to grow.

She says they tried practices like shredding, but it didn’t seem to make a difference. In 2018, the idea of a burn was tossed around as a possible solution, but just as quickly ruled out as Mattox was advised she didn’t have enough fuel to burn, as a result of too much annual rye.

It was at this point Mattox says the idea of bringing cows onto the property for a short time to help with the rye was discussed.

Her initial reaction was, “I don’t need any cows; I don’t know anything about cows.”

One thing she did know was that she wanted the tall grass prairie to come back. That’s when she contacted District Conservationist, John Stone, with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), an office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

You Can Do This

According to Mattox, Stone soon came out to the property to see what was going on, telling her, ‘Julie, you can do this, it’s really easy’.”

Like the advice given to her by TPWD, Stone agreed bringing cows back onto the property was a highly effective solution if she ever hoped to reach her objectives.

“The first concern she showed me was that she had a lot of cool season annuals out here, a lot of rye grass, and they were competing with her restoration of the warm season grasses. We discussed the soil health principles and I told her she was hitting four out of five.”

The soil health principals include armor on the soil, minimizing soil disturbance, planting diversity, incorporating live roots, and livestock integration. Mattox had achieved the first four.

“I said, how about we shoot for that fifth principal of soil health, and so I talked to her a little bit about that and Julie, being Julie, she jumped on the internet and started doing her research and decided maybe she would try that,” says Stone.

It wasn’t long after, he got a call back from Mattox letting him know she was in fact going to go against her own proclamation of never wanting to see another cow on her property again. Mattox started by talking to a neighbor about borrowing cattle to control the grasses.

The following grazing season, in 2019, she put in a temporary electric fence and created a paddock or small field for the cattle.

“She called me during that grazing season and said she thought it was going great. She was liking the results she was getting. She was controlling the rye grass and seeing a response from her native grasses.”

Now the only issue Mattox was having had to do with her water sources. 

She’d begun rotating the cattle around the property using the temporary electric fence and a temporary trough, along with a water hose that she dragged between paddocks. 

Although Mattox was enroute to meet her goals, it was via a labor-intensive route and an uncomfortable one, especially during a hot Texas summer. Stone had a plan. “I said how about we go out of the technical assistance realm and start getting into programs,” 

Stone told Mattox about NRCS’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP), which provides both financial and technical assistance to producers to address natural resource concerns, such as the ones she was dealing with.

Mattox considered the idea, and after agreeing to sign on, they came up with a plan, which included putting up concrete water troughs around the property, providing a more permanent water source, as well as pipelines in heavy-use areas. The strategic water management plan allowed Mattox to fence off more areas to help her to improve her grazing system.

“It seemed like it worked real well and ever since we’ve been good friends,” says Stone. 

A Different Type of Place

Mattox Prairie Farms is a “different type of place” than what NRCS typically sees, according to Stone, who describes it as the sort of place that enables him to be learning all the time.

“She calls me regularly and keeps me updated and we bounce ideas off each other, and I come out and visit the farm—always learning off each other all the time.”

Stone says, he decided to reach out to a grazing specialist who could help Mattox best determine the amount of tonnage to grow per acre and the amount of fertilizer needed.

“Ms. Julie is a one in a million producer and this is a one in a million property,” says NRCS Grazing Specialist, Brandon Bing, whose been working with Mattox now since 2020.

To help formulate a grazing plan, Bing first conducted a forage inventory on the property to determine the forage quantity to best match the amount of cattle she wanted to run, her goals and objectives with the wildlife that she wanted to enhance, with the forage resources she had on the property. Her large and diverse cool season and warm season component now allows Mattox to graze 365 days a year.  

Two men and a woman stand in tall grass prairie pasture.
NRCS Texas District Conservationist John Stone (left) and Grazing Land Specialist Brandon Bing (center) work closely with Julie Mattox (right) to help her achieve her conservation goals at Mattox Prairie Farms in Yantis, Texas.

“Being able to work with somebody like Ms. Julie allows me to tap into her knowledge and all of her experience that she has out here,” Bing says, explaining the ability to be up close and personal in a place like Mattox Prairie Farms allows him to get a visual to see firsthand what practices might help lead other producers to their goals and objectives.

“To be able to leverage that information across all of East Texas and leverage her experience is a fantastic opportunity,” he says.

From Foe to Friend

When it comes to her perception of cows and her willingness to let them back into her sanctuary, Mattox has come a long way.

“She actually comes out late in the evenings just to see where the cattle are grazing and studies them,” says Bing, who explains Mattox observes their every move, what they’re eating, what forage species they’re selecting, and in what part of the season. 

“My ultimate goal here is now that I have cattle—you know, I’m the gal who didn’t want to see another cow—I want to produce the best grass-fed grass finished steers that I can,” she says.

Cows grazing in a pasture

Through bringing those cattle back to the landscape, Mattox has since seen an explosion of the right kind of grasses and forbs. The cattle are doing more than just grazing. They’re carrying seed all over the property. With their hoof action, they’re planting seeds with their feet as they walk across the property.

“The prairie needs the cattle just as the cattle need the prairie,” Bing says.

A Blueprint of Success

Well before Mattox Prairie Farms came to be, back in her previous life and previous role as a surveyor, Mattox first noticed the many different ecosystems around her. Out working with grassland specialists in the short- and mixed-grass prairies of the west, she recalls being enamored with the prairie and all its diversity.

“I have read that it is the second most diverse ecosystem on the planet next to the Amazon rain forest, and sadly to say, there’s less than one percent of the tall grass prairie left here in North America. We have farmed most of it,” says Mattox.

“The Savannah landscape is a rare and declining landscape,” adds Bing. “Most of it’s been converted,” he says, “years ago as farmland as the country grew, but since then, we’ve realized we’ve lost some things along the way.”

Species like the Northern bobwhite quail and Eastern wild turkey have disappeared, and agencies like NRCS have determined that’s not a good thing.

“Through Ms. Mattox’s efforts here on her property, though it is small, what a blueprint of success that you can have, to bring in diversity on a Savannah landscape and start to see some of these other species come back in,” says Bing. “Species that hadn’t been there in years. That’s what she’s doing out here.”

Her neighbors, too, now better understand what she’s doing and in response, have taken advantage of opportunities to see the prairie restoration for themselves through community events like pasture walks. Mattox also converted an old dairy building to a homeschool classroom where children can experience the prairie up close and personal.

“Moving here I’d had no plans for a prairie or anything like that, but when the dairy reopened, that’s when my life totally changed,” says Mattox. 

She credits TPWD and NRCS for keeping her going along the path she chose to take when she set out to restore the land.

“They give me some hope, help me along with what I’m doing here, tell me that I’m on the right path or set me on the right path that I need to be on. They were a huge resource in the process of trying to restore that tall grass prairie,” says Mattox.

Bing applauds the conservation practices Mattox has implemented.

“She’s restored the ecology of what the Savannah landscape is all about.”