South Dakota ranch finds success in 'doing what's right'

Blair Brothers Angus will receive the 2020 Leopold Conservation award

Even in years of drought, Blair Brothers Angus Ranch has been able to keep its herd in tact. (Courtesy of Bill Krzyzanowski Photography)

STURGIS, S.D. — Decades back, brothers Ed and Rich Blair ran a 50-heifer herd on 700 acres. The land had been used for farming and for haying previously, but the Blairs set up a rotational grazing system on it. And over time, they noticed grass growing where there had been bare spots and that the general condition of the range had improved.

“We probably ran that for five or six years and then decided well, this thing is good,” says Ed. “Look what we’re doing here, you know, got more grass and that type of thing, and we decided then we’re going to go out and do the whole thing.”

“The whole thing” has meant transforming their Sturgis-area ranch to a complete rotational grazing system, complete with miles and miles of piped water and cross fencing. Similar systems were implemented over time on rented land and on a new ranch near Belle Fourche, S.D. They’ve seen economic results in the changes, which allowed them to increase their stocking capacity.

“It seems like doing what’s right is also what’s profitable,” Britton Blair says. “There’s not many things in life that are that way.”

But it’s the improvements made to the rangeland for which Blair Brothers Angus Ranch will receive the 2020 South Dakota Leopold Conservation Award. The award, announced in April, will be presented along with a $10,000 award at the South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association’s Annual Convention in Rapid City, in December.


The award, given in honor of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold recognizes private landowners for their dedication to the land, water and wildlife resources in their care. In South Dakota, the award is presented annually by Sand County Foundation, the South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association and the South Dakota Grassland Coalition.

“Their operation exemplifies how cattle, wildlife and the range can mutually benefit from thoughtful management, while also supporting a multi-generational family business,” says Jodie Anderson, South Dakota Cattlemen’s Association executive director.

Rich, Ed, Chad and Britton Blair run Blair Brothers Angus Ranch. (Courtesy of Bill Krzyzanowski Photography)

Blair Brothers Angus Ranch is run by Ed and Rich Blair and their respective sons Chad and Britton. Their cow-calf, stocker and feedlot business spans 40,000 acres of deeded and leased rangeland, and conservation has long been a part of the operation.

“Dad was always really interested in the grass and the range and improving the range,” Ed says. “When we were in 4-H, why, one of the projects we had was to make a grass book. He was always instrumental in making us get that done and going out and finding the grasses and putting them in the crest and getting the book made.”

In addition to putting together their book, they also watched the way the range changed and what the cows ate while heat detecting for artificial insemination.

“I think it gave us a better understanding of the cycle of the pastures,” Ed says.

Britton describes their grazing system as a “take half, leave half,” system in which cattle are moved rapidly through pastures. Each pasture rests for at least 30 days until cattle come back in. The system has enabled the ranch to remain operating at full capacity even in years of drought in arid western South Dakota, which receives an average of just 14 inches of annual rainfall.


Blair Brothers Angus Ranch has found profitability across the generations in their rotational grazing system, which also has improved the quality of their land. (Photo courtesy of Bill Krzyzanowski Photography)

“I can grow grass on 4 to 6 inches of rain and get along,” Ed says. “That’s not ideal, but we can do that and not have to depopulate.”

At one point, the ranch experienced eight years of below-normal precipitation. During those years, their rangeland actually improved in condition. Britton says they use management tools such as grazing under-performing hay fields and weaning calves as early as 120 days in dry years.

Another detail of Blair Brothers Angus that helps their economic sustainability is that the ranch was a founding member of U.S. Premium Beef, a marketing company that allows member beef producers to retain ownership of the beef they produce from the ranch to retail. They are able to get higher prices for higher quality cattle, as well as take advantage of profit sharing.

“It’s been a really good deal for us,” Ed says.

Blair Brothers Angus Ranch has stayed viable across generations with its focus on improving the land. (Courtesy of Bill Krzyzanowski Photography)

The Blairs say there is no cookie-cutter grazing system, but they have adapted what they do at their original home ranch to fit various leased pastures as well as their newer ranch. They advise other ranchers to attend tours of other ranches for ideas on how to make rotational grazing work on their operations.

Ed says developing water resources is often seen as a block for getting into rotational grazing, but he says there are resources to develop systems. The Blairs have used the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program to help build their system, and the money and time they’ve invested has paid off.


The Blairs say people still question their methods. Plenty of people have commented to him, somewhat incredulously, that, “you guys run a lot of cows, but you always have grass.”

But while some may not understand what they’re doing at Blair Brothers Angus Ranch, receiving the peer-nominated Leopold Conservation Award is an honor they didn’t go looking for.

“It’s a pretty elite group,” Ed says.

Britton says ranching the way they do has never been about winning awards but that it’s a “pretty good honor for what you were doing anyway.”

Jenny Schlecht is the director of ag content for Agweek and serves as editor of Agweek, Sugarbeet Grower and BeanGrower. She lives on a farm and ranch near Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. You can reach her at or 701-595-0425.
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