Shrinking Giant

Once upon a time, the Matador Ranch was a cattle empire of more than a million acres. Today its herds graze a mere 128,000. That transformation is a tale of modern Texas.

FOR SEVENTY YEARS THE MATADOR RANCH, WITH MORE than a million acres of grazing land, was one of Texas’ mythic, mammoth cattle empires, along with the King Ranch in South Texas and the XIT and the JA in the Panhandle. In the early part of this century the Matador’s holdings were scattered from West Texas to Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota, and Canada. What’s left of the Matador today—128,000 acres spread over Floyd, Motley, Cottle, and Dickens counties northeast of Lubbock—is a fraction of the original ranch. “The days of sun, sweat, and saddle leather of the past have gone,” says William Pearce, who lives in Lubbock and is the author of a definitive early history of the ranch, The Matador Land and Cattle Company, published in 1964 by the University of Oklahoma Press.

The story of the Matador parallels the big changes in Texas ranching—dwindling acreage as large ranches downsized or were broken up, a trend toward corporate ownership, fewer employees, less big-sky romance, and more bottom-line reality. But the Matador also anticipated some of the changes, surviving and even prospering because for more than one hundred years it has been run like a business. Since 1953, under the ownership of the wealthy Koch family of Koch Industries, based in Wichita, Kansas, the Matador has remade itself as a ranch that can do more with less, rewriting the Texas myth espoused in books and movies like Giant. “You’ve got to really cut out the fat and do things differently sometimes, and that’s hard in the ranching business,” says Bob Kilmer, who started out as a ranch hand at the Matador in 1976 and is now its manager. “It’s a very traditional business, and it’s hard to get some people to change.” But his bosses aren’t afraid to break with tradition and neither is he. “It has always been understood that things weren’t going to stand still around here,” Kilmer says. “We’re expected to continue to improve and be innovative and entrepreneurial. That’s what it takes to survive.”

In late May Kilmer, dressed in the rancher’s uniform of jeans, long-sleeved cotton shirt, cowboy hat, and boots, showed me around the ranch in his white pickup. It’s colorful, rough country—green mesquite brush, tawny native grasses, red canyons carved by winding creeks, far blue ridges. This land on the edge of the Llano Estacado, the high plateau stretching across the

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