Colossal grasshoppers scattered in every direction, landing in the grass with heavy thuds as we cut through a pasture to take a look at cattle huddled in the shade of a wide oak tree. A fluffy, rust-colored tail flashed ahead of us, and a sly fox was hiding in the low brush.
The cattle we were going to see are the work of husband and wife Brandon and Stefnie Howley. They’ve been breathing fresh life into the ranch that Brandon’s grandfather started in the 1970s.
After Brandon received an honorable discharge from the U.S. Navy, the couple were anxious to start a business.
“As soon as we got married, I was like, ‘OK. What business are we going to start?’” Stefni said. (Just for reference, the young couple tied the knot just 90 days after their first date: They know what they want when they see it and go after it.)
Brandon always wanted to get back to this ranch that his grandfather, Chuck Howley, bought after retiring from the Dallas Cowboys.
The linebacker, who played 15 seasons in the NFL, most of them with the Cowboys, holds the distinction as being the only MVP of a Super Bowl from the losing team. His team won Super Bowl VI the next year. After retiring in 1973, Chuck purchased this land in Wills Point — less than an hour southeast of downtown Dallas — and named it Happy Hollow. At the height of his ranching days, he managed more than 1,000 head of cattle on his land.
Around 2012, Chuck retired from ranch life and the herd dwindled down to about 250. The family needed someone to step up to manage it. Brandon knew he always wanted to be a part of that ranch and to continue to follow his grandfather’s vision of the place, so the timing was ideal.
“When we came out here to do this, we knew we had to focus on how to get the ranch sustainable and how to successfully run a business,” Stefni said.
So, Brandon started researching land, agriculture and the science of raising cattle. He started with the dirt and followed all the way through to the manner in which the cattle are slaughtered. He looked at targeted genetics and purchased bulls that would naturally complement his grass-fed and grass-finished program.
The result is that in just two years they have 620 head of cattle that are locally raised, grass-fed and finished, non-GMO, certified by the American Grassfed Association and free of antibiotics and hormones.
“Grass-fed and finished takes everything from the soil, grass and bugs and then looks at how the animals are consuming it,” Brandon said. “What nutrients are they retaining, then what are we putting back down into the soil? We even brought people out to evaluate the wormer we were giving the cattle to make sure it wasn’t affecting the dung beetle population, which breaks down the organic matter to sequester the carbon in our soil.”
Partnering with Dallas ISD
While Brandon and Stefni continue to expand and grow the operation at the ranch, they’re also working on a collaboration with Dallas ISD.
“We’re going to make a carbon copy of our grass-fed and finished program for their Wayne Phillips Agricultural Center program,” Brandon said.
The plan is to sell their steers to Dallas ISD and guide the students through cultivating their own herd. The full curriculum will teach students what goes into raising cattle, from top to bottom, including nutrition, soil health and, hopefully, see the project all the way to the tables inside the cafeteria.
Farm to Table Dinners
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Perhaps one of the most exciting aspects of their plan is a Cowboys and Bohemians Brunch: a health and wellness champagne brunch every other Sunday, with rotating menus and guest chefs. It’s an opportunity to not only share their country retreat but to also introduce guests to a sustainable way of raising cattle on natural prairie land.
They'll charter a bus to bring brunchers from Dallas to Happy Hollow, serve a meal under shade trees, surrounded by a myriad of bird whistles and chirps. Each week they intend to highlight a different nutritional aspect and, depending on the chef, menu.
Brandon and Stefni had to postpone the launch of the brunch due to the coronavirus pandemic. But you can sign up for a newsletter on their website to get updates, or follow their Instagram page for more information.
For now, beef orders can be placed through their website, including a whole or half cow. If your freezer isn’t up for that job, there are 5-, 10- and 15-pound-packs with a variety of cuts ($97, $150 and $245, respectively) all fresh from their ranch to your table.