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Blair Brothers Angus Wins South Dakota Leopold Conservation Award

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Lori Walsh: Leave it better than you found it. That's the ethic that drives Blair Brothers Angus, the recipient of this year's South Dakota Leopold Conservation Award. Given in honor of renowned conservationist, Aldo Leopold, the award recognizes private landowners for outstanding stewardship. Blair Brothers Angus Ranch spans 40,000 acres near Sturgis and Vale in Western South Dakota, where brothers Ed and Rich Blair and their sons Chad and Britton embrace conservation practices that enhance soil, water, livestock, and wildlife. Ed Blair is joining us by phone this morning. Mr. Blair, welcome. Thanks for being with us.

Ed Blair: Well, thank you, Lori. Good morning to you.

Lori Walsh: And congratulations on the award. It's quite an honor.

Ed Blair: Yes. It's really nice that basically your peers nominate you for this award and also they do have some content in doing the judging of it. So yeah, I'm really appreciative of this award.

Lori Walsh: What can you tell us, as we begin our conversation, about the history of this land? How far back does your family's connection to it go?

Ed Blair: Okay. So my grandfather came from Missouri in 1907 to the Sturgis area. Basically, him and his four brothers and a sister homesteaded south of Sturgis, South Dakota and he was right there by the national cemetery, south of the national cemetery. And the place that I'm on today, he and his sons had ran at this for several years and then bought it. My dad then moved to the place in 1954. So I'm the third generation on this ranch and we've got the fourth and fifth generations involved in the operation.

Lori Walsh: Wow. Tell me a little bit about what the operation includes.

Ed Blair: Our business operation is that we're basically a seed stock operation in that we raise cattle to sell to other producers to increase their cow herds or they buy bulls from us. Right now we market some 450 bulls a year and also roughly a thousand females that go out to other producers to increase their herds. Also, we have a calf buy back program that we buy, producers that use our bulls will buy their calves back. The females go into the breeding program to sell to other producers, where the steer calves, we will either sort them, the heavy end of those we'll sort off in the fall and send them to feed yards in Kansas. And then they will be harvested at US Premium Beef, which is a producer-owned harvest facility that pays you on a grid system where the high premium kind of cattle, they'll pay a higher price for it. And also then there's a profit-sharing deal if the packing industry make some money. It's worked really well for us the last number of years.

Lori Walsh: I think a lot of people know, a lot of our listeners right now have an idea of what premium beef looks like on their dinner plate. But what does it look like on your end? How do you make some of those genetic choices, the range land choices? How complicated is that? And how do you do all of it at once?

Ed Blair: Yeah, we've been doing this for ... Well, to start off with, our total artificial insemination, every cow that we have, we mate with a bull that we pick out of a catalog. And we'll look at his EPD records, what expected prodigy differences and there's probably, I don't know, 30 traits that are measured. Basically, you look for a bull that's in the top at least 25% of each trait within the industry. And so what you do, you stack generations of like cattle. So the national average for a prime animal is about 8% but taking and stacking generations of animals, we've got the prime level up to where we're seeing upwards of 72% prime.

And we synchronize animals to where over a three day period, we will breed every animal and then come back in 19 days and we'll pick up natural heats on those animals. And we can get 87% of mature cows bred in like 25 days.

Lori Walsh: Wow. All right. Let's talk about some of the elements that go into the Leopold Conservation Award. And some of that has to do with rotational grazing or just how you have this successful business model, but also you're very concerned about passing this on to the next generation. So talk a little bit about some of the rotational grazing challenges and how you've met them and the difference it's made in your operation.

Ed Blair: So this has been a process over a number of years. When my dad came here in '54, one of the problems with this ranch was that it didn't have any surface water and there was no water underground either, shallow water where he could dig a well to obtain water. And by shallow well, I'm talking 300 feet or less. But anyway, so at that time they had what they called the Great Plains program where the US government was helping producers that had problems like that to go in and put in water sources, whether building big dams or dugouts. A dam would be putting an earth berm across the grassy draw area and backing the water up and a dugout, they'd go into a bottom of a draw and they would dig out a hole.

So it's been a number of years doing that type of thing. And then in the droughts of the '60s, why, all the dams went dry. And my dad, he was down to less than 50% of the cows that he'd run. So he took into account that and dug a deep well and the well on the ranch now is 1,800 feet, and we have had to go as far as 3,800 feet to get water for livestock. And so through the period of years, why, we've had some really good range people with NRCS, which is National Research and Conservation Service, and they've been really helpful. And they were the ones that started this into the rotational grazing system, and the system that we use is a short duration system.

And so when we first go out in the spring, we do what we call a flash graze. And my goal is to get, in the first 30 days, through every pasture. We probably run somewheres around 20 pasture and they're from 200 to, I think the biggest one's probably 400 acres. And so we will rotate and the other thing we try to do is start in a different pasture every spring so we don't go to the same pasture at the same time in the year. And so we flash graze through that, moving the cows every two to three days in each one of those pastures. And then after the season gets longer, why, then we'll slow down going through those pastures to maybe up to seven days. And what this has done is we've seen a increase in the amount of forage that we have, the quality of the forage, and it also helps with the animal condition too.

Lori Walsh: As so many Americans are thinking more deeply about where their food comes from right now, sometimes because of shortages, I'm wondering, as you look at the things that your father did and your grandfather did in the '60s and the '80s that turned out to be beneficial for the land and for your family now, what do you think, Ed, some of the innovations are that people need to be implementing now that are going to come to fruition 20 years from now, 50 years from now, a hundred years from now? What's next?

Ed Blair: I would hope that people would become interested like my dad did, like we have, to trying different things, trying new things out there on the land. And this system that I laid out is not the only one, but hopefully they can gain some more information. A good place to do that is with the South Dakota Grasslands Coalition. And also through your NRCS, if you have a range guy there that you can get in contact with them. And they have a lot of good ideas and also help to help you be able to go ahead and improve, teach you how to and then help you improve your land.

Lori Walsh: What kinds of partnerships do you have with other conservation people? Because sometimes if you just read certain publications you would think that ranchers and conservation people or environmentalist are always at odds with one another. And you've really developed some partnerships that have been good for everyone all around. Talk about that for a minute, if you would, please.

Ed Blair: Well, one that it's been really surprising to me that is the World Wildlife Fund and that in the beginning I was a little nervous, honestly, to maybe interact with them. But the more that I have, why, I've got to where I got a greater appreciation for them. And basically, where I'm coming at with that is that I became acquainted with one of the guys out of Billings, Montana. Kevin Ellickson is his name, but he works for, he's the bird guy for the World Wildlife Federation. I met him a few times and he's talked to me and he said, "Well, we're starting, we'd really like to do a bird survey on your ranch."

And I goes, "Oh. Well, what's that do?"

And he says, "Well, we come out and we take a snapshot of the birds population that are on your ranch."

And I said, "Well, shoot, that sounds kind of interesting. I don't know all the species that are out there." So they came in and there was final like 19 different species of birds on the place. And there was some I knew that they didn't see, but it was just like a one-day snapshot. But through that, why, I've been given tours then for some of their donors and that into the World Wildlife people. And it's really something to see people that come from urban areas out and what joy they get to see a meadow lark. A meadow lark to me, I see them every day. They're always there. But they get excited about seeing a meadow lark and that's contagious, I think. It rubs off on you and really makes you appreciate what you do have out here. And I've really enjoyed that, I guess.

Lori Walsh: Well, we would love to have you back on the program in the future because I have lots more questions for you. And one of them, I think, is just important to talk to people again and again about what consumers can do because so many of them are frustrated with not knowing, with country of origin labeling and things like that, how do they get to ... Here we are in South Dakota, but when we go to the meat counter, we might not even know where that meat is from. So hopefully you'll come back and join us again, Ed.

Ed Blair: The biggest thing about it, on country of origin labeling, 92% of the meat in the United States is US. And the 7 or 8% most of the time that comes in is ground lean that goes into hamburger. And most of that is in the, oh, kind of cheaper end hamburger. Food service hamburgers is what it is. So you've got to really look to find the imported meat other than in the ground product.

Lori Walsh: Yeah. That's good information to have. Ed Blair, congratulations to you and your family on winning the South Dakota Leopold Conservation Award. And hopefully you'll talk with us in the future.

Ed Blair: Okay. I would enjoy it.