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 rangelands in 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.
They 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 family expanded by buy-ing 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 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 conservation practices in place to maximize grass production, including: cross-fencing; livestock watering systems; shelterbelts and fabricated windbreaks; riparian fencing, and multi-species cover crops.
These conservation practices have allowed the Blairs to grow more grass and double their stocking rate in 30 years. Rotating livestock quickly through pastures allows the plants to rest and grow taller. This 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 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 Pro-gram.
“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 habitat in the state,” said Gottlob.
Two Top is one of five adjoining ranches that have participated in the Sage Grouse Initia-tive. 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 ranch and enjoy seeing wildlife 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.
“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.”
Brianna Randall is a freelance writer based in Missoula, Montana.