DTN/Progressive Farmer's America's Best Young Farmers and Ranchers program profiles AJ and Kellie Blair, Dayton, Iowa.
AJ Blair is making the final passes on an oats field, a yellow Challenger pulling a Vermeer baler, round straw bales kicked out onto ground seeded with a red clover cover crop. The diverse, fourth-generation Blair Farm LLC, headquartered in central Iowa, near Dayton, is managed by AJ and Kellie Blair. Their farm is corn and soybeans -- this is Iowa, after all -- a large beef feedlot and more recently, a cow/calf enterprise. They also run a new COVID-era direct-to-consumer frozen meat business.
And oats. The oats, part of a three-year project with an oat milk producer, is a good example of how the Blairs merge market opportunity with time management and soil improvement. Along the way, they vacuum data from the field and partner with experts to better understand the potentials of their businesses.
The request for food-grade oats came to the Blairs by way of Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI). Its goal is to build sustainable farms. The Blairs were already considering a third crop when PFI called to see if they'd be interested.
"A third crop could help us break up our weed cycles," Kellie says. More, oats would likely improve corn and soybean yields and soil structure, and breathe flexibility into their fall by staggering the harvest schedule, oats harvested in mid-July.
OATS WITH BENEFITS
Oats provide another benefit, as well. "We have something growing in the soil throughout the year," Kellie says. "Diversifying your crop rotation, taking a few acres out of corn and soybeans helps improve water quality," AJ adds.
The project involves three fields, each with a three-year rotation. Oats followed by red clover (or another crop after the oats) the first year, a year of corn followed by a year of soybeans.
Oatly is the potential buyer of the oats. Based in Malmö, Sweden, Oatly sells alternatives to dairy products from oats in retail stores and coffee shops. Of Oatly's requirements for oats, test weight tops the list. With a variety developed at South Dakota State University, the Blairs had several loads test over 41 pounds, exceeding Oatly's standard.
The Blair cattle operation gives AJ and Kellie a relief valve. "If we aren't able to meet the test weight, we work with our nutritionist to add the oats into our feed rations for the cattle," Kellie explains. "The cattle make all this work."
He grew up in western Iowa in the Loess Hills on a crop and livestock farm. She earned a Bachelor of Science degree in forestry and agronomy from Iowa State University (ISU), worked as a nutrient planning agronomist for hog-producing giant The Maschhoffs and, later, did contract work for the Iowa Soybean Association. He is a fourth-generation farmer with a degree in ag business from ISU. His working philosophy focuses on people, "people who get things done, make changes and continually improve things."
Kellie and AJ met while studying at Iowa State. They married in 2007 and are raising two children, Wyatt, 12, and Charlotte, 10. AJ manages crop and livestock marketing; mechanical work; people directing and overall high-level managing. Kellie oversees the books and records, agronomy and cattle herd health.
Blair Farm's rotation includes the oats and also alfalfa-hay. Cover crops are seeded annually ahead of all soybeans and some corn. No tillage is done prior to soybeans. Strip tillage is used ahead of most corn. "Our focus on Blair Farm has been on conservation and continual improvement," Kellie explains. Cropping practices have migrated from corn-on-corn and tillage to 90% no-till and cover crops.
The Blairs are building an interesting water-quality project. In the middle of one field, graders are working the edges of what will become a large water-retention pond that will capture tile water. That water will be recycled back though a center-pivot system, irrigating 110 acres.
The Blair's project is one of two in the state, both sponsored by the EPA and Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship. "We have wet soils, and we need to tile that land," Kellie explains. "But, when we do that, we speed the water going downstream, which adds nitrates downstream. The purpose of this is to slow the [water] down, to filter that water, to hold nitrates on our farm."
The Iowa Soybean Association, PFI, NRCS, ISU and EPA all have been invited to the Blairs' operation. The couple wants to understand where they've been and build a good vision of where they want to go. The Blairs and their partners "collect data in real time. We use that data to statistically analyze what's going on in our farm fields," Kellie says.
They also are at the root of a manure-management project in Iowa. The Blairs feed pigs for Smithfield. Smithfield and PFI visited the Blairs to learn about their manure-management practices. As a result of that close investigation, Smithfield provided Iowa farmers with a cost-share benefit for more than 500 acres of oats grown in 2021. The oats acres provide a place to apply manure in the summer before corn and soybean acres are harvested. It is a management model that allows farmers to spread manure applications over more weeks in a year.
The fed-cattle business was added to Blair Farm about 10 years ago, the cow/calf operation about six years ago. Cattle are key to what the Blairs do. Oats, cover crops, alfalfa, corn (fed through earlage and the grain) and corn stalks have utility as grazing, in mixed feeds or bedding, in addition to their value as cash crops.
"We raise alfalfa, which is a higher dollar crop," AJ says. The issue in Iowa is rain, one cutting often ruined by it. "We can sell all the high-quality cuttings. The cow herd is the risk management. The cows get that low-quality cutting."
OPPORTUNITY AND CHALLENGE
Cattle brought another opportunity to the Blairs. It was during the early weeks of the COVID pandemic when the Blairs saw their markets all but disappear. "When packing plants [and auctions] began to shut down, that got us scared," Kellie says.
The Blairs turned to direct-to-consumer sales as a way to further diversify their beef income streams. They designed a brand for frozen cuts and secured the necessary permits. It's a unique product sold now in a couple of local grocery stores.
Commercial cattle bring tight margins. Retail sales are markedly better. "We decided we need to take some of what the [packers] are getting," AJ says. The business is not going to consume the entire herd. "It's probably not even 10% of our feedlot cattle, but it's pretty beneficial to us," Kellie adds.
One day, the Blairs received a call from a retail store. "They said somebody came in, bought steaks and cooked them. They returned and bought all their roasts and steaks. That's exciting," Kellie says.
As young farmers especially, the Blairs contend with what most young farmers and ranchers do: finances. "Financially, we live off the farm," AJ says. "All this works down to a small margin for income. So, you better love this."
Family and work balance are a second challenge. The kids, Wyatt and Charlotte, will be grown in not too many years. Kellie and AJ both see it. The kids are active in school and sports -- young Wyatt already dreams of an NFL career.
"This is a busy time with the farm, with a young family and the kids," Kellie says. "But, we only have so many years, and they'll be gone. We have all the time in the world to work on the farm once they're gone."
"This business has taken a lot of time and a lot of dollars," AJ says. "But, on the other hand, how do we do this and also raise the kids? Do we go to that event? Or, do we stay home, clean things up and get ready for the next season? The time struggle has been a real challenge."
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