The Iowa Cattlemen’s Association has named AJ and Kellie Blair of Dayton as state winners in the 2016 Iowa Environmental Stewardship Award Program. The Blairs show dedication to the environment on their modern, diversified livestock farm, and have added cattle to the farm because of the conservation benefits cattle have to offer. They now move on to the four-state regional competition.
AJ and Kellie are now the fourth generation on the Blair family farm. Both are graduates of Iowa State University, with Kellie’s degree in agronomy and forestry and AJ’s degree in agricultural business. The couple was married in February 2007 and now have two young children, Wyatt and Charlotte. In 2010, they brought cattle back to the farm with a 400-head monoslope finishing barn and in 2014; they began building a herd of SimAngus cows, as well.
Using various conservation practices to help improve their farm
The Blairs have a holistic, systems approach to reaching their goals, building on improvements until the entire process makes sense from a farm management, environmental and financial standpoint. “It’s a long-term process. Every year we do a little more. It’s hard to know what components are helping with the year-to-year variables we face, but we try to make changes that will be a benefit in the long-run,” explains Kellie.
Every aspect of the Blair farm works in more than one way to improve the farm, grow more food more efficiently, and help maintain profitability even in tough times. For example, cover crops are used on the farm for soil health, water quality and grazing cattle. The monoslope barn provides another income stream, uses corn and soybean residue as bedding, and provides natural fertilizer for the fields. The corn crop is used for earlage, and “wet” corn and ethanol coproducts are part of the feed rations.
Using soil nitrate testing to help meet nitrogen needs of crops
Environmental benefits can be hard to measure. But the Blairs had soil nitrate samples taken in spring of 2015, which were compared to other area fields. The samples showed that AJ and Kellie’s field had more available nitrogen for the crops despite the fact that no nitrogen was applied the previous fall, as it had been on the other three fields. On another field, organic matter increased from 4.025% to 5.063% in only three years, well over the anticipated 1% in 10 years gain usually associated with cover crops alone. AJ Blair credits this accomplishment to the use of cover crops, reduced tillage and cattle manure applied to their fields.
Often, it seems as though increased sustainability can decrease profitability. But the system the Blairs have worked out is intended to increase both factors. As AJ explains, “Production agriculture is a business. You have to make enough money to farm again next year. The hard truth is that farmers don’t care about soil health or water quality if they can’t afford to farm again the next season. So, true sustainability means that you are making a profit. We do a lot of enterprise budgeting and in that process you find yourself questioning why you are creating each expense and whether it’s really necessary. And for us, conservation sits right on the table with the numbers.”
If they win regional competition, the Blairs will advance to national
As Iowa’s ESAP representatives, the Blairs have been nominated for recognition at the regional level, which includes four other states. If they are successful in the regional competition, the Blairs will advance to the national level.
The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association began the environmental award program in 1991 to highlight exceptional work done by cattle producers to protect and enhance the environment. Since its inception, Iowa cattle producers have won 17 regional awards and three national awards.
It won’t be known until July whether AJ and Kellie Blair will be selected as the ESAP Region 3 winner. If they are selected, they will compete for the national ESAP title with six other regional winners. The national winner will be announced during the Cattle Industry Annual Convention and Trade Show which will be held in Nashville, Tenn., in February 2017. ESAP is supported by the National Cattlemen’s Foundation, Dow AgroSciences, USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
About the Iowa Cattlemen's Association: The Iowa Cattlemen’s Association represents more than 10,000 beef-producing families and associated companies dedicated to the future of Iowa’s beef industry. ICA’s mission is to “Grow Iowa’s beef business through advocacy, leadership and education.” More information about the Blairs’ farm (including their 12-page ESAP application) is available at iacattlemen.org/environmentalstewardshipaward.aspx.