Their Home on the Range

Keeping the Cattle Business a Family Affair

November 6, 2014

EUREKA, KANSAS — The Spring Creek Ranch is home to a proud family of cattle ranchers that have worked the land for more than a century. John Douglas Russell can trace his roots as a cattleman to his great-great-grandfather. The deed to the ranch, a vital part of the larger Matador Cattle Company, says Koch, but to J.D., it’s the only home he knows.

 “We live here,” he says. “We live it, breathe it and take care of it just as if it were our own.”

The 49-year-old ranch manager, is a proud, fifth generation Matador cowboy and has been a Koch employee for two decades.  The family history dates back to the early days of the industry. Even his mother and her three brothers were born on the Matador Ranch. Stories of Russell men working the old chuckwagons as cooks, and thwarting cattle rustlers as brand inspectors are common when talk turns to the family trade, as it often does.

“It’s an added sense of pride I have with my connection to the ranch,” J.D. says.

It was in the years following World War II, when J.D.’s father worked as a contract laborer on the Matador Ranch, that Fred C. Koch began acquiring ranches across the Midwest. In 1952, Koch formed the Matador Cattle Company, merging ranches in Texas, Montana and Kansas.

Growing up in “big ranch country” around Quanah, Texas, Mr. Koch “always had a passion for ranches,” J.D. recalls hearing — a sentiment his family most certainly shares.

WAK Captioned Image

As a Koch employee and fifth-generation Matador cowboy, J.D. Russell, takes a seat in the saddle rather than an office chair when he arrives at work.

A Different Breed

After graduating from Texas Tech University with a degree in agricultural economics, J.D. joined the family business. In just a couple years he was reassigned and made assistant manager over some 12,000 head of cattle. While in this position, he put his education and practical experience to work studying the different breeds and researching crossing one breed with another — an industry term called “hybrid vigor.”

The diligence paid off quickly when he and ranch manager Bob Kilmer identified Angus cows with the same genetics as prized bulls that the two had been eyeing, but couldn’t afford at the time.

“I said to Bob, ‘why don’t we just buy these cows and raise our own bulls?’”

The ability to explore without the pressures that other ranching operations face, along with Koch’s resources and culture, benefitted J.D. greatly.  After successfully raising their own Angus bulls, the team applied their knowledge to breeding highly desired, pure-bred Akaushi Japanese cattle.

 “I’ve had a lot more opportunities working for Koch than I would have had somewhere else,” he says. “Be it the education, the business experience or the ability to experiment with different ideas — I feel blessed to be a part of the Koch team.”

Their Home on the Range, Cowboy

Heeding the call at Koch companies to think like a principled entrepreneur and take ownership in your role, J.D. helped identify opportunities for value-added cattle breeding.

The Cowboy Way

J.D. has worked hard to instill in his own children the same values and beliefs he was taught. Values he feels align well with a Koch culture that has allowed his family to have so much success. His son Colton, now grown, works as a ranch hand on Matador’s Russellville Camp.

“He’s a good, young man and a hard worker,” says the proud father. “He has some unique knowledge that I seek out, and vice versa.”  

  • John Douglas “J.D.” Russell is part of a long line of cattle ranchers that trace back more than a century to his great-great-grandfather.

  • The Matador Land and Cattle Company was formed by Scottish investors in 1882. Nearly 70 years later, Fred C. Koch formed the Matador Cattle Company which still uses the Flying V cattle brand and “50” horse brand acquired from the Scots.

  • Spring Creek Ranch in the Flint Hills of Kansas was the first ranch purchased and developed by Fred C. Koch.

  • Matador Cattle Company ranches support a combined total of more than 12,000 head of cattle.

  • J.D. and other ranchers at the Matador Cattle Company have implemented safety measures that include annual horsemanship clinics, environmental compliance and more.

Recently carrying on another family tradition, Colton’s daughter was born at Russellville, just like J.D.’s daughter and great aunt. With a young grandson already comfortable on the ranch, and his daughter-in-law expecting a child soon, he looks forward to adding a seventh generation Matador cattleman to the family legacy. But J.D. would never push the life on anyone. He feels if it comes naturally, then he’ll support it. It’s certainly come naturally for his family so far.

“It’s kind of the cowboy way, really,” he says. “If you take care of your resources, your land and your cattle...they’ll take care of you.”