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HomeMoney MattersEcosystem ServicesBlair Ranch - Investing in Water for Ecosystem Services and Economic Success

Blair Ranch – Investing in Water for Ecosystem Services and Economic Success

The Blair Ranch is a great example of how good livestock stewardship reaps both economic and ecosystem rewards. As Ed and Rich describe in the video below, their initial focus was on providing good forage and water for their stock. With a better water system, weight gains went up, and by piping the water across the landscape, they had more grazeable acres.

But they couldn’t have added all that water without support. With the help of the Natural Resources Conservation Service, they were able to use Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) funds to pay for a portion of the well-drilling and pipelines. This federal, taxpayer funded program is designed to enhance producers’ ability to grow the food we need while protecting and improving the environment around them. The investment in the Blair ranch has provided an excellent return, providing high quality rangeland, reducing runoff, and supporting birds and wildlife.

Not every grazier needs to drill a 1,780 foot well or run 20 miles of pipeline. But we all can improve weight gains by providing plenty of quality water, and by distributing it well we can create more grazeable acres. And, we can follow Rich Blair’s example when he says, “We want a high quality rangeland. We want high quality water. We want bird species. We want wildlife. We want to raise a high quality cattle product. We want to treat the cattle right. I think it’s a whole mindset to everything you do is about, “Let’s do a good job of it. Let’s do a quality job on everything we do.” And I guess in my mind, it’s always paid off.

Enjoy the pasture walk!


Ed Blair, Sturgis, South Dakota: Dad came to this property in 1954. One of the biggest struggles that we had was water. There is no shallow water here, and shallow water to me is anything under 500 foot deep. When starting out, probably in the late 50s, Dad had a Great Plains Contract and they went to building dams on this ranch. Moving on into the ’60s, we’re in a multi-year drought and the property that we were on this morning, why, Dad took 100 cows over there and they were there three weeks and he had to bring them home because they ran out of water.

So, in ’62, we drilled our first deep well. The well that furnishes this ranch is 1780 feet deep. It is free-flowing. It’ll flow about 100 gallons per minute with 50 to 60 pounds of pressure behind it. So I’ve got twenty-some miles of pipeline on this ranch that I’ve put in over the years. I’ve got two rural water systems that we’re tied into now. I’ve got one on the south end of the ranch – Bear Butte Valley and I’m on the board of Bear Butte Valley water. And also from the North I’ve got Butte Meade water. So this ranch isn’t ever going to run out of water again.

Chad Blair, Belle Fourche Ranch: Well, we’re still putting some pipeline in down there at the home ranch. We’ve done quite a bit of it and the first ones we kind of learned what we should not do probably, or that maybe there’s a better way to do it. The later ones we put in down there at the home ranch have been working really well. We have as much or more pipeline in on that ranch down there that we do up here.

After putting pipeline in  down there for years, we kind of had an idea what we wanted to do and we saw the benefits of the pipeline and water tanks down there on that ranch: The calf health and heavier weaning weights, and being able to move the cattle around a little bit and getting them to use the grass where we wanted to instead of just on the dams or the low spots.

So we knew what we wanted to do when we got this place bought. We had a pretty good plan in mind and talked to the NRCS. When we got a chance to actually get possession of this ranch, we kind of hit the ground running and had the well drillers lined up and drilling the well and digging pipeline in. I remember I brought Gary up here form the NRCS office in Belle and showed him where I wanted to put the storage tanks, showed him where I was putting the well. And we looked up to these rocks and Gary said, “I don’t think you  can hire anybody to dig up through them rocks,” And I said, “You let us worry about that. We’ll figure it out.”

So we leased our own excavator and Ed went to digging and we got her put in. We got quite a little done that first year. I think by the end of the second year, we pretty much had the main plan with the EQIP done for pipeline and tanks.

Britton Blair, Sturgis, SD: My uncle, Ed, and Dad, Rich, are partners in the operation and I was fortunate enough to come back after college. By the time I was growing up they’d already made the decision to start rotational grazing and the land management stuff. So I was brought up with no other way of thinking than to rotate pastures and manage our grass and manage the land.

Tanse Hermann, NRCS District Conservationist: The Blair Ranch is in Butte County and here on the home ranch in Meade County. Grass is abundant. And it’s not just because we had some adequate rainfall through the growing season, it’s that way every year. You’ll always notice that they seem to have more grass than the conventionally managed or the season long grazed pastures that are just across the fence or just down the road. That’s not by accident.

Map of measured Gulf hypoxia zone, July 25-31, 2021. (LUMCON/NOAA) This is an area of low to no oxygen that can kill fish and marine life. In 2021 it was approximately 6,334 square miles, or equivalent to more than four million acres of habitat potentially unavailable to fish and bottom species. The average hypoxic zone over the past five years is 5,380 square miles, which is 2.8 times larger than the 2035 target set by the Hypoxia Task Force. Since records began in 1985, the largest hypoxic zone measured was 8,776 square miles in 2017.

What does that mean for the general public or the taxpayer in New York City or Tampa, Florida? It means that the watershed up here in the Northern Great Plains that eventually hits the Missouri river and then the Mississippi and then the Delta in Louisiana is cleaner. The raindrop that falls on this ranch or the one up in Butte County will find it’s way into the soil rather in the form of runoff carrying any nutrients that might be on the surface with it. This ultimately leads to reduced impact or footprint for the hypoxia in the Gulf of Mexico. It means there’s abundant wildlife and clean air. It means that there are fewer needs for inorganic compounds to combat pests, insects and fungus and disease because the ecosystem is in a healthy state and a healthy ecosystem doesn’t require those unnatural inputs. Not to say that zero are needed or used on this ranch. But it means that far fewer are necessary to continue doing business and being economically viable.

Rich Blair, Sturgis, SD: We want a high quality rangeland. We want high quality water. We want bird species. We want wildlife. We want to raise a high quality cattle product. We want to treat the cattle right. I think it’s a whole mindset to everything you do is about, “Let’s do a good job of it. Let’s do a quality job on everything we do.” And I guess in my mind, it’s always paid off.

Ed Blair: We involve my nephews and we involve my kinds in the operation so they’ve got an appreciation for it. And I think that if they’ve got a good appreciation for it, they’ll want to come back some day.

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Kathy Voth
Kathy Voth
I am the founder, editor and publisher of On Pasture, now retired. My career spanned 40 years of finding creative solutions to problems, and sharing ideas with people that encouraged them to work together and try new things. From figuring out how to teach livestock to eat weeds, to teaching range management to high schoolers, outdoor ed graduation camping trips with fifty 6th graders at a time, building firebreaks with a 130-goat herd, developing the signs and interpretation for the Storm King Fourteen Memorial trail, receiving the Conservation Service Award for my work building the 150-mile mountain bike trail from Grand Junction, Colorado to Moab, Utah...well, the list is long so I'll stop with, I've had a great time and I'm very grateful.

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