Global genetics, local beef

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click image to zoom Kevin Blair sees his family’s Saskatchewan ranch as a crucible for genetic improvement from Alberta to Nebraska and from Argentina to Australia. He also markets the results of his genetic selection to local consumers in the form of retail beef products.

The Blair family operates several separate enterprises near Lanigan in central Saskatchewan. Kevin and his cousin Darren operate Blairs.Ag Cattle Company as a part of Blair’s Family of Companies which also includes a fertilizer, seed and crop-protection business called Blair’s Fertilizer Ltd., with seven retail outlets in the region. In 2006, the cousins added the seedstock business as a division of Blair’s Fertilizer. Blair says the family has roots in beef-cattle breeding, as his parents formerly raised purebred Simmental cattle.

Another cousin and brother operate Blair West and TJ Farms, with 10,000 acres of pasture and grain production and commercial cow herds of 450 Angus-Simmental crossbred cows.

The seedstock business runs 250 purebred Red Angus females, 175 purebred Angus, 40 horned Herefords and 250 commercial cows. They hold an annual bull sale in April and a female sale in the fall.

The Blairs operate in an arid region in Saskatchewan, with average precipitation of about 15 inches. If the winter produces adequate snowfall, spring soil moisture will produce enough hay for one cutting. Sometimes a small second cutting is possible later in the season. The family also relies on snowmelt to fill stock ponds, and irrigation is virtually nonexistent in the area.

Blair says his production environment dictates his genetic selection and results in cattle that will perform consistently in challenging conditions just about anywhere. During January and February, temperatures in the area commonly drop to 30° F below zero, and heavy snows are typical. The short growing season runs from about May 1 to Oct. 1. Cows need to be moderate in size, broadly built and structurally sound with thick hides and good winter hair coats. They need to be able to graze over large areas and have the volume to efficiently convert forage.

Genetic traits that allow cattle to perform in that harsh environment work exceptionally well across a range of more southern geography, Blair says. A narrow, “chisel-fronted” heifer, he adds, will deliver a calf, but only after losing considerable body condition through the winter. He selects against that type of animal, stressing that females need to remain in good body condition through a cold winter on native range and into calving.

Blair says he relishes the opportunity to advance beef-cattle genetics and work in a global market. Blairs.Ag now markets live cattle to producers across North America and has sent semen and embryos to Europe, South America, Australia and New Zealand, giving the operation a truly global reach.

In Argentina, Blair says, the climate and production environments are similar to many areas in North America, and the quality of cattle equals or exceeds that in the best U.S. or Canadian herds. Argentinean producers, however, continue to import North American genetics to expand their gene pool with cattle of similar type. Argentinean ranchers tend to use British breeds selected for moderate size that are stout and heavy muscled and can efficiently gain weight in a grass-fed production system. Blair believes their genetics will work well there, and the Blairs also plan to import Argentinean genetics to use in their herd for the same reasons.

The United States represents the biggest market for Blair genetics, and Blair says they routinely ship bulls and females across the northern states and as far south as Texas. Blair sees a trend, particularly among bigger ranches, toward less variability in their genetic selection. They want more full and half siblings in their bull batteries and cow herds to produce more consistency in their calves’ appearance, performance and carcass characteristics.

The family implants about 250 embryos each year to produce multiple full-sibling calves, and Blair foresees a time when ranchers could forward contract with seedstock producers to supply groups of full- or half-sibling bulls with specified genetic traits. The process will take commitment and planning on the part of the seedstock supplier and customer and will not be cheap, but the potential for building consistency into a herd is considerable.

For example, if a rancher wants 15 full-brother 2-year-old Red Angus bulls delivered in 2016, the seedstock supplier would probably need to produce 20 such bulls from which to choose the 15. Producing those 20 bulls would require implanting 40 full-sibling embryos. Assuming each bull breeds 35 cows, the commercial producer would have the potential to market as many as 525 halfsibling calves. In addition, the producer could retain the heifers to build a cow herd comprised of half-sisters and then in the future breed them to full brothers to raise three-quarter siblings for even further consistency.

Along with other farmers and ranchers in the area, the family holds shares in Poundmaker Agventures, an integrated ethanol plant and cattle-feeding operation. The facility is the first of its kind in Canada, with the ethanol plant and feedyard built together, such that the feedyard’s cattle consume all the wet distillers’ grain and thin stillage that is produced in the plant.

While the Blairs focus on international marketing of genetics, they recently added another local venture, marketing branded beef from the ranch to Saskatchewan consumers. They are taking a measured, cautious approach toward the local-beef enterprise, preferring to grow the business slowly rather than take excessive risks. In planning the venture, they realized product shelf life and supply-chain logistics create considerable challenges for marketing fresh beef, so they decided to create and market beef-jerky type products marketed as “Blair’s Premium Angus Beef Jerky,” capitalizing on long shelf life and ease of transport and storage. Meanwhile, the family is working to help consumers recognize the value of locally produced, aged beef from top-quality genetics. A retail grocery store in Saskatoon called “SaskMade Marketplace” currently carries the product line.

Blair sees the enterprise as a way to connect with consumers and capitalize on a growing trend. When consumers purchase meat products, they increasingly want to know about how the meat was produced and want assurances the animals were treated humanely. He believes ranchers have a great story to tell and an opportunity to help consumers feel good about their meat purchases and enjoy the experience of eating top-quality beef.

For more information about Blairs.Ag, visit the website at blairscattleco.com.


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