Blair Brothers Angus Ranch: Good Cattle and Good Grass
Britton Blair’s great-grandfather moved to South Dakota from Missouri with his three brothers and sister in 1908.
“They bought a ranch complete with equipment and livestock,” Britton said. “Initially, my great-grandpa, Enos, and his brothers were in the Hereford business and sold Hereford bulls. The original Blair Brothers split up in the 1940s when all of their sons came back from WWII.”
Britton’s grandfather, Veldon, moved to the place north of Sturgis, that they now call home, in 1954.
“Grandpa made my dad, Rich, and my Uncle Ed partners in the ranch in the 1970s. Dad and Uncle Ed started AIing to Angus bulls in 1989. They saw the need for calving ease when calving heifers, and they couldn’t find calving ease bulls locally that had any growth or milk so they started AIing. A few people saw the calves they were getting with their AI program and asked them to save them some bulls. We got into selling bulls inadvertently but have been doing it ever since.”
Veldon ran about 150 cows and farmed some wheat. The new generation of Blair brothers were passionate about the cattle, but not so much about farming, so Rich and Ed turned the farm ground into hay and pasture land as they grew the seedstock business. They were also founding members of U.S. Premium Beef in the 1990s.
A year on the Blair Ranch revolves around the cattle and the seasons. All of the heifers and the majority of the 3-year-olds are calved out and run on the home place north of Sturgis; older cows run on the Two Top Ranch to the north.
“We start AIing heifers around May 16,” Britton said. “We start breeding cows the first of June. We synchronize all the heifers and all of the cows and AI them. The ones that don’t take on the initial breeding will come back around pretty tight 21 days later, in a 5-7 day window, so we will heat detect and AI that group again before we turn cleanup bulls out. We start calving heifers mid-February. Cows at the home place calve March 1; cows at Two Top calve March 15. We spend most of June AIing; with four groups of cows to set up that’s pretty much all we do for a month.”
The heifers stay at the home place until they’ve had two calves. After weaning and preg testing in the fall of their 3-year old year, cows are hauled up to Two Top Ranch, where Ed’s son Chad and his family live, and where they will stay until they are culled or sold to another producer.
“They will be there till they leave the ranch,” Britton said. “We keep all the AI cows and heifers and sell everything that is bull-bred each year. We have improved our fertility and breedback by doing this.”
All the calves are weaned at a backgrounding yard at the main ranch. Blairs winter all the heifer calves and bull calves there. Steers are also backgrounded and put on feed.
“We breed most of our heifers and sell the bulls private treaty as yearlings,” Britton says. “We start selling bulls about the first of March and we sell bulls a lot of months out of the year. We do sell some 2-year-old and 18-month-old bulls; it’s not unusual to send some bulls to Texas in October and November. We always try to keep some bulls around in case someone needs them. We sell about 450 bulls every year.”
The majority of these bulls have five to 12 generations of AI out of breed-leading sires behind them. In breeding decisions, Blairs aim for balance and strive for a multitude of traits simultaneously.
“We want every trait,” Britton said. “We want a deep-bodied, good-looking cow with some capacity and good feet and legs. We want cows that will work well in our environment and raise a big calf. We want heifers that calve easy. We pretty well retain ownership of all of our calves that aren’t sold as bulls or kept as replacements until slaughter, and we buy a lot of our bull customers’ calves that all get killed on the grid that pays a premium on how they grade, so we want carcass traits too. When selecting AI sires, we try to use bulls in the top 10 percent of the breed for calving ease and the top 10-15 percent of the breed on weaning weights, marbling and ribeye EPDs. We have a lot of parameters. We want good uddered, docile cows. We’re calving out around 400 heifers with only two or three guys, so they need to be trouble free and good mothers.”
In the fall Blairs buy back as many customer calves as they can. Heavier steers are backgrounded for 60 days and then shipped to a feedlot in Kansas with retained ownership. Lighter steers are backgrounded all winter, then taken to grass until mid-August, when they are shipped to Kansas for finishing.
“We harvest almost everything thru U.S. Premium Beef on their grid,” Britton said. “We are also finishing some in Nebraska and have been putting them on Tyson’s grid. Any home raised females, such as heifers that preg test open, we feed out and get carcass data on as well.”
Blairs also buy around 1,000 heifer calves from their bull customers every year, which are bred and sold directly off the ranch.
“We have customers in Kansas, Colorado, Montana, Arkansas, Texas, and of course South Dakota and the surrounding area,” Britton said. “We have shipped cattle all over the country. Last year, during the drought, we were able to help place customers’ cattle when they needed to sell pairs and females. We were able to connect them with people who had grass and it worked out well for everyone, even in a bad situation.”
Conservation has long been a strong priority for the Blair family. Rich and Ed started doing some rotational grazing in the 1980s and saw improvements in the first year or two of trying it.
“They started rotational grazing on the whole ranch after that,” Britton said. “It took a lot of water development through that process, but we have always tried to rotate our pastures rather than leave cows in one area for the entire season. We saw an increase in grass production, an increase in the plant species in the pastures, and we were able to increase stocking rates by getting on and then getting off and letting the grass rest. That rest period is the biggest thing.”
When they bougt the Two Top Ranch, Blairs had a 3,800-foot deep well drilled and 25 miles of pipeline put in, as well as cross fences so that they could move the cattle around those pastures more frequently and rest the grass.
“It’s a work in progress,” Britton said. “There’s always another project, we can always find another place for a tank. We want to make the land better than it was when we started.”
Blair Brothers Angus Ranch received the South Dakota Leopold Conservation award in 2020.
“It was nice to be recognized by our peers for the work we’ve done, but we didn’t do the work for recognition,” Britton said. “Receiving the Leopold award just gave us more incentive to keep going at it. Range management is a work in progress.”
Family bonds are strong on the Blair ranch and each member of the family has found jobs that fit their individual talents and interests.
“My dad, Rich, makes most of the breeding decisions and does most of the bull selling, and he and I work together buying customer calves,” Britton said. “He also has a commodities office in Sturgis. He’s usually on the phone and in the office all morning. He helps out a lot with calving and AIing too. My Uncle Ed is the guy that is involved in keeping everything functioning from day to day. He is one of the best cowmen I’ve ever met. He does a lot of the cattle rations, can fix anything, and does about everything. Ed and I work together day-to-day on the home ranch. Uncle Ed likes doing big projects. He and dad work well together; they are good at bouncing ideas off each other and keeping the big picture in mind. Ed’s son Chad and his wife Mary, with their children E.C., Kate and Clara moved up to the Two Top Ranch after we bought it. They take care of everything up there. We head up there when they have big cow working projects, and they come down here when we have big cow working projects.”
Britton’s wife, Amanda, works for SDSU, and is working on cattle registrations. “Up until now we have had a lot of unregistered cattle but she is working on getting that all up to date. Our boys, Jack and Colt, help quite a bit; you can find Colt in whatever piece of equipment is being used on a given day. They both show calves in 4-H and help work cattle. They just need a project and they’re ready to go,” Britton said.
“Ed and I are here every day, taking care of the livestock in the feedlot. We put up all the feed we raise down here. I do most of the feed procurement and herd health work and take deliveries when steer calves and heifers come in. I also work on placing customers’ cattle with other buyers. We have placed everything from broken mouth cows to bred cows and heifers, calves, or any class of cattle; we try our best to help place them with people looking for our genetics.”
With the drought conditions in 2021, Britton also helped customers find feed and helped place customers’ bred cows, heifers and even some pairs.
“It is easy to place our genetics all over the U.S.,” he said. “There is always a demand for good cattle. The more people you know the more people you meet.”
Drought and other weather patterns can bring changes, and management practices stay flexible to flow with whatever mother nature dishes out.
“It can be a moving target,” Britton said. “It doesn’t seem like any two years are exactly the same; we change what we need to change to deal with drought and markets. One thing we have definitely learned over the years is how to manage for drought.”
While weather and markets may throw curveballs and bring variables, the goals at Blair ranch remain consistent: good grass and good cattle.
“We try to breed cattle that can do it all: from calving ease to weaning weights, carcass traits to cattle that work in our environment,” Britton said. “We buy a lot of calves sired by our bulls, both steers and heifers, and we try to help our customers in any way we can, whether placing cattle, finding feed, or just putting people together. We are strong on conservation and holistic range management and we try to think outside the box to make things work.”
Blairs breed for good uddered, functional cows that breed back and raise a good calf every year. Docility is an important trait in their herd. “Even the cowboys don’t want wild cattle anymore,” Britton Blair said.
Family members each find their strengths. Rich sells bulls and makes breeding decisions; Ed manages the day-to-day operations. The brothers work well together and bounce ideas off each other. Chad and Mary and their children keep things running smoothly at the Two Top ranch; Britton handles marketing of females and works with Ed to keep cattle fed and healthy at the home place.
Conservation practices are key to operations at the Blair ranch. Everyone is passionate about making the land better. Rotational grazing over several decades has increased grass production, increased species diversity in the pastures and allowed Blairs to increase stocking rates.
Blairs received the Leopold Conservation Award in 2020 for their holistic management practices. “The award gives us incentive to keep working at improving the land and grass,” Britton said.