Healthy Grass Equals Profitable Ranches
March 15, 2021
The Blair family on their South Dakota ranch. Photo: Charlie Dickie, USDA-NRCS, South Dakota.
In western South Dakota, the multi-generational Blair families keep their grazing lands sustainable and profitable through Farm Bill-funded conservation practices. This story originally appeared on Farmers.gov. Reposted with permission.
By Brianna Randall
Water can make or break a ranch in America’s dry western states. This is especially true for families like the Blairs who graze livestock on the rolling rangelands of western South Dakota.
“I want to keep all of the rain that falls on this ranch so we can grow as much grass as possible,” said Ed Blair. Now 68, Ed co-manages Blair Brothers Angus Ranch with his brother, son, and nephew.
The Blairs run cattle on 40,000 acres of deeded and leased pastures where the Black Hills meet the prairie. Ed’s grandfather and his siblings homesteaded south of Sturgis in 1906, and his father moved to their current “home ranch” in 1954. The Blair family expanded by buying the Two Top Ranch near Belle Fourche in 2014.
This region receives an average of 14 inches of rain per year, although “average” is the key word. “Some years we have to grow grass on four to six inches of rain. It’s not ideal, but I can manage for that as long as I’ve got a consistent source of water,” said Ed.
To secure that water, the Blairs started working with the USDA’s Soil Conservation Service (SCS), now the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), in the 1960s. The family has used Farm Bill funding to put in place conservation practices designed to maximize grass production including: cross-fencing; livestock watering wells, pumps, pipelines and tanks; shelterbelts and fabricated windbreaks; riparian fencing, and multi-species cover crops.
According to Ed, these conservation practices have allowed the Blairs to grow more grass and double their stocking rate over the past 30 years. Rotating livestock quickly through pastures allows the plants to rest and grow taller. This in turn creates more profitable working lands.
“Ranching is a business as well as a lifestyle,” said Tanse Herrmann, NRCS District Conservationist in Sturgis, who has worked with the Blairs since 2003. “At NRCS, we want to make sure this multi-generational family stays on their land doing what they do best: raising cows and managing natural resources.”
Based on the success on the home ranch, Ed’s son, Chad Blair, “hit the ground running with rotational grazing” when he and his wife, Mary, began managing the Two Top Ranch in 2014.
Chad and Mary partnered with the NRCS-led Sage Grouse Initiative to install livestock water tanks, pipelines, and fences through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.
“The new water system gives us heavier weaning rates and healthier cattle,” explains Chad. “Plus, it allows us to run cattle here year-round.”
Healthy grasslands also provide valuable ecosystem services for ranchers and rural communities, including wildlife habitat, erosion control, clean water, and healthy soil.
Matt Gottlob, a range and wildlife conservationist with the Sage Grouse Initiative, helped Chad and Mary ensure their fences were wildlife-friendly. Wires are spaced apart or flagged with reflectors so that fences don’t impede migrating deer and pronghorn, or harm upland birds flying low to the ground.
“These ranchlands provide some of the best sage grouse mating and brood-rearing habitat in the state,” said Gottlob.
Two Top is one of five adjoining ranches in the area that have participated in the Sage Grouse Initiative. Along with a host of partners including the Bird Conservancy of the Rockies, US Fish and Wildlife Service Partners Program, Northern Great Plains Joint Venture, South Dakota Game, Fish, and Parks, and Pheasants Forever, ranchers here have conserved over 105 square-miles of working grazing lands for wildlife.
Chad and Mary have three young children who help out on the Two Top Ranch and enjoy seeing wildlife wandering the fields near their home. “Our kids are learning the value of not overusing the grass and making it sustainable for the future, just like I learned from my dad and uncle,” said Chad.
The family’s focus on sustaining natural resources earned the Blair Brothers Angus Ranch the South Dakota Leopold Conservation Award and the Public Land Council’s Sagebrush Steppe Stewardship Award. The Blairs were also listed on the 2020 BEEF Top 100 Seedstock list: through their artificial insemination program, the ranch breeds and sells cattle adapted to withstand South Dakota’s harsh climate while still producing high-quality, marbled beef.
“You can help the environment and yourself by doing these programs,” said Chad.
Or as his father, Ed, likes to say: “We take care of the grass, and it takes care of us.”
The Sage Grouse Initiative is a partnership-based, science-driven effort that uses voluntary incentives to proactively conserve America’s western rangelands, wildlife, and rural way of life. This initiative is part of Working Lands For Wildlife, which is led by USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.