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Conservation award winners share 6 beneficial strategies

Photos courtesy of Blair Brothers Angus Ranch A man kneeling down and showing two kids tall grass
LAND FOR GENERATIONS: Siblings EC and Kate Blair sit and listen to their uncle Britton Blair during a farm tour. The Blair Brothers Angus Ranch is passing down its stewardship tips to the next generation.
The South Dakota Blair Brothers Angus Ranch was named the 2020 Leopold Conservation Award winner.

For more than 115 years, members of the Blair family have ranched on the native prairie north of Sturgis, South Dakota. They credit a commitment to range management and conservation through the generations for allowing their family ranch to survive, grow and thrive.

In April, Blair Brothers Angus Ranch was named South Dakota’s Leopold Conservation Award winner, which includes a $10,000 cash prize. Currently, brothers Ed and Rich Blair and their families raise Angus cattle and yearling stockers across 40,000 acres of deeded and leased land in Meade and Butte counties, as well as operate a backgrounding feedlot.

The partnership representing the third, fourth and fifth generation of Blair family today includes Ed, his wife Wanda; their son Chad, his wife Mary and their three children, EC, Kate and Clara; and Rich, his wife Jeanie, their son Britton, his wife Amanda, and their two boys, Jack and Colt.

The Blair’s hosted a ranch tour and shared conservation and management strategies that bolstered their success.

A family portrait, a group of people of varying ages standing in front of a metal fence with mountains in the backgroundFAMILY RUN: The Blair Brothers Angus Ranch today includes four families all looking out for the farm and the land. Pictured are EC (left), Clara, Mary, Kate and Chad Blair; Chad's parents Ed and Wanda Blair; Rich and Jeanie Blair; and their son Britton and his family Jack, Colt, and Amanda Blair.

1. Water access. Ask Ed what helped the cow-calf operation the most and his response is simple: “Water. Water. Water.” With only 15 inches of annual precipitation, he credits the development of water sources for allowing Blair Brothers to run more cattle and keep cattle on the range longer into fall and winter.

He also says access to good, clean water has boosted calf weaning weights and production. The family prefers a tank on every quarter section, or every corner of the pasture. They use 10- to 12-foot tire tanks recycled from equipment used in mining. Between the two ranches, the Blairs installed nearly 100 miles of water pipeline and about 75 tanks.

2. Grazing plan. Chad says the family began testing rotational grazing four decades ago when he was just a child. They started with a group of yearling heifers, simply moving them every week to 10 days through several small pastures. The Blairs were quickly sold on the regrowth and improvement to their pastures with rotational grazing.

Since then, they’ve cross-fenced all the rangeland into pastures from a few hundred acres to 1,200 acres. The Blairs monitor the range and move cattle based on precipitation, grass growth and cattle condition. Rotational grazing has also allowed them the flexibility to avoid grazing certain pastures if sage grouse mating and nesting is occurring.

“I enjoy seeing the long-term results from water development and grass management that will benefit the generations to come,” Chad says.

3. Seek better markets. The family credits the addition of artificial insemination, particularly through synchronization programs for increasing the genetic merit of their cowherd and progeny. As a result, the bulls and females they market have high quality genetic traits. Today, the family’s fed cattle have a high percentage grading Prime, which earns additional market premiums.

Ed points to his brother Rich’s 40-year career in cattle marketing, including time with CattleFax, for helping the family tap better returns.

“Learning how to market is just as important as learning how to conserve your grass,” Ed says.

4. Work with partners. The Blair family has worked with numerous partners over the years to garner technical expertise as well as cost-share dollars for cross-fencing, protective hay fence to keep wildlife out, rebuilding dams, water developments and other practices.

Their list of partners includes the Natural Resources Conservation Service, South Dakota State University, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Sage Grouse Initiative, Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, South Dakota Game Fish and Parks, and the Bureau of Land Management.

5. Look for ideas from others. The Blairs enjoy attending industry events and field tours to glean knowledge and ideas from others, whether it’s about building a new calving barn, fencing ideas or an ag waste system.

When putting in an ag waste system for their feedlot, Ed brought home an idea for a vegetative treatment area from an Iowa feedlot tour. It had never been done before in South Dakota, but the Blairs worked with NRCS and SDSU to make it a reality.

6. Involve the next generation. Rich notes that having the next generation return to the ranch — his son Britton and nephew Chad and their families — has been key.

“It has allowed us to grow,” he says.

Aerial view a cattle feedlotVAST EXPANSE: The cattle and farming operation of Blair Brothers Angus Ranch can be seen for miles outside of Sturgis, S.D.

In 2014, the family purchased a second ranch location 30 miles north of Belle Fourche, S.D. Chad and Mary Blair live on that ranch with their three young children.

“Buying that ranch allowed us to run more cows and control the development of the bulls and heifers we raise to be sold as breeding stock,” Rich says.

The Blairs help their children understand what it is like to be good stewards of the ranch. All generations are often out moving cows or assisting with feedlot chores.

“It’s great to watch my husband pass on the understanding of why conservation practices are so important,” says Mary. “As a family, sharing with the kids is building a foundation for the kids to have the same care and knowledge. It takes a lifetime and constant effort to keep conservation at the top of your priority list.”

“Without healthy rangelands, the delicate balance of man and nature cannot coexist.”

Gordon writes from Whitewood, S.D.

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