Water key to Blair Brothers’ success: Leopold Award Winners share management strategies
It’s all about the…water.
Several generations of Blairs can testify that water management equals grass management, which equals cattle management.
From the time the Blair family took over what is now the headquarters of Blair Brothers Ranch, located about 12 miles north of Sturgis, South Dakota, at the base of Bear Butte, water has been the unlikely hero in the story of this cattle-loving family.
Beginning in the 1950s, when Veldon Blair, Ed and Rich’s dad, began managing the place, earthen dams, and later dugouts, along with cross-fencing – all backed by government assistance – provided the family the ability to better utilize the available grass.
One unique water usage method was a series of ditches that caught water runoff from breaks and other appropriate land formations, and funneled the water into a dam to be used for cattle to drink from. These ditches are still somewhat in use, although many have been breached over the years, said Ed Blair.
Ed, along with his brother Rich and their sons Chad and Britton (respectively), now compose Blair Brothers Angus Ranch, a partnership that began in 1978 with Ed, Rich and Veldon.
Eventually, the family would begin to utilize well water piped to water tanks across the ranch, as backups to the dam, and then finally, in many cases, as the primary water sources. Some dams have even been fenced off.
In addition to well water, two rural water systems serve as last resort water options.
“I ran out of water once, and I’m not going to ever let that happen again,” said Ed.
Ed, Chad and Britton today compose most of the day-to-day labor force for the ranch, which in 2014 grew to include an additional place closer to Belle Fourche that Chad and his family call home. The Belle Fourche ranch, as well as some leased land in Montana, include Bureau of Land Management-administrated land.
Rich is the main bull marketer and helps make breeding decisions.
Ed, Chad and Britton agree that by spreading out water tanks, they can better control where the cattle graze and keep both the cows and grass in better shape.
“We are still putting in tanks and developing water,” said Britton. The NRCS, BLM, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have been instrumental in their crossfencing and water placement strategies, he said.
“Better utilization of water has increased carrying capacity and has increased weaning weights,” said Britton.
Because they are adding water sources across the landscape, the Blair family can more easily utilize rotational grazing, which they all agree is another key to the ranch’s success.
“We added a place in the 80s that had been fenced into smaller pastures, we rotated our yearling heifers, and realized the advantages of moving them more often,” said Britton. More cross fencing on all of the ranch locations has led to the opportunity to rotationally graze all of their cattle. The cattle are moved more frequently in the spring and early summer, and allowed to graze longer as the growing season progresses.
Moving cattle often allows for more family bonding time, which the dads appreciate, and the kids will someday, says Chad.
“It’s kind of neat that when we move cows so often, the kids help and they see the value in what we’re doing. They learn better stockmanship,” he adds.
This kind of thinking isn’t new on the Blair Brothers Angus Ranch.
When many operations struggle to add another family member, or squabble until a place is divided up, the family has been able to keep going and keep growing, made possible by different participants each doing their part, and everyone working toward the same goal, say both Ed and Britton.
“Each of us is more or less in charge of our interest area,” said Ed, and support for one another, not micromanagement and criticism, is crucial to the operation’s success, he said. “You can talk about things that have gone wrong, but there is no use getting mad about it,” he said.
Involving the younger generation is nothing new, either. Britton recalls Ed taking the time to include himself and Chad in meetings with bankers, accountants and more, in an effort to introduce them early on to every aspect of ranch management.
“Chad and I will also do our own things together, like feed some cattle, breed some heifers or run some cattle on shares with other people. This gets us doing things on a small level so when the time comes we will be able to take the reins. I feel like you can know all about things but until you actually do them from start to finish, you haven’t really learned anything,” he said.
Weaning calves “early” or by late August, is not unusual, especially in dry years, says Ed. All of the Blairs agree that this strategy takes stress off the pastures as well as the cows in a dry year.
In drier years, unharvested hayfields can serve as excellent grazing for weaned calves or cows, and the introduced grass species such as crested wheat, can sometimes be less fragile in drought situations than native range, allowing for grazing and supplementation to keep the herd healthy.
Britton says their weaning strategy has allowed them to hold on to their core cow herd, even in dry years, which is a critical aspect to a registered operation.
“We don’t think we could sell our cows, and buy back the same quality. A lot of operations would feel the same way,” said Britton.
Keeping that herd in good shape is another important piece of the puzzle, said Ed, who points out that once a cow falls below a body condition score of about 4, it can be difficult and expensive to get her back into shape to breed and raise a calf.
Ed once saw first hand a unique manure management system in Iowa that allowed the feedlot manure and water runoff to fertilize a nearby stair-step grass/alfalfa area. The family implemented this concept, pioneering its acceptance in South Dakota, with the help of the South Dakota Farm Burea, South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association and SDSU.
The Blair family was recently chosen as the South Dakota Leopold Conservation Award winner. The Leopold Conservation Award “recognizes and celebrates extraordinary achievement in voluntary conservation by private landowners, inspires countless other landowners by example and provides a prominent platform by which agricultural community leaders are recognized as conservation ambassadors to citizens outside of agriculture,” according to the website and translates to a $10,000 cash award to the winner. A Sept. 29, ranch tour allowed interested friends and neighbors to see first hand the Blair family’s ranch improvements.
Along with conservation, “sustainability” is a buzzword within the industry and outside of it. To Ed, sustainability means managing grass optimally in order to maximize production, even on dry years. “You manage so the water goes into the ground and doesn’t run off,” he said.
“It’s pretty simple,” says Chad. “The biggest thing is having good water.”
Ed and Wanda, Rich and Jeanie, along with Britton, Amanda and children Jack (7) and Colt (4) and Chad, Mary and children EC (11), Kate (10) and Clara (18 months) make up Blair Brothers Angus Ranch. F
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