Norway dairy farmer Allen Riddle is a fourth-generation dairyman.

Riddle bought his first 20 cows while still in high school at about 16 years old. After high school, he got a bank loan to buy 80 more cows and put them in with his parents’ herd.

The family formed a corporation and bottled their own milk until about 1988.

The Riddle brothers ended up selling the operation to another farm that was interested in bottling milk.

They bought a new farm in 1993 along with about 250 cows and grew their herd steadily over time.

Today, Allen and his son, Josh, have about 1,100 cows on 1,300 acres.

"We continue to pump out a huge amount of milk," Allen said. "It increases constantly."

The flow of milk comes as commodity prices for corn and soybeans are lower -- about 25 percent lower than they have been in the last four years, Riddle said.

With the price received for milk reasonable at about $20 per hundredweight (cwt) and their costs down with lower commodity prices, "We can keep everything paid," Allen said. A hundredweight is roughly equal to 100 pounds.

"We are not piling up a lot of money but it is a fairly comfortable margin," he said.

Last year, milk prices hovered around $17 per hundredweight. Earlier in 2016, milk prices were $13 per hundredweight. The last time prices fell below $12 was in 2009.

Three years ago, milk prices reached near record level highs, averaging about $28 to $29 per hundredweight.

Riddle said milk prices do tend to fluctuate, tending to be higher in the early fall after a hot summer reduces milk production. Production increases over the winter and spring, and prices tend to drop. He said this past spring milk prices were about $16.

"The one bright spot for the whole dairy industry is the big demand for whole milk and butter," he said, noting new medical studies have shown whole milk and butter are not bad for the heart. "McDonald's is changing their menus to real butter and that has helped us tremendously."

He said other restaurants have also jumped on board. Pizza restaurants have also done well with cheese demands.

Riddle said butterfat prices are the best since 2014 at about $2.60 a pound.

"Over half my milk check comes from what butterfat brings," he said.

Bowman dairy farmer Kent Whetsell has been in business for seven years and farms about 175 cows, which is slightly below his herd of 190 last year.

Whetsell says the dairy story as it is every year revolves around milk prices.

"Over the past two months, they are coming up," he said.

Whetsell said he would like to see milk prices over $24 in order to be able to make a profit.

"There is so much milk in the market right now and exports are not where they have been in the past," Whetsell said, noting exports to China have been going down since 2014. Another big exporter of milk is Russia.

"People in other parts of the country can produce it a lot cheaper and more efficiently than we can," he said.

In order to deal with the lower prices, the farm over the last couple of years has transitioned to processing its own milk.

The farm has its own label -- Lowcountry Creamery. The creamery produces whole milk, chocolate milk, greek yogurt and buttermilk.

Input costs have generally been lower, helping to offset less-than-desired milk prices, Whetsell said.

Whetsell feeds his cows corn silage and citrus pulp. He is concerned about the future of citrus pulp.

"There was the hurricane in Florida and I am sure it (citrus pulp) will be going up here in the next few months with their citrus being damaged," he said.

Mother Nature has been relatively kind to Whetsell this year.

Summer temperatures were on average lower than last summer.

"It has not been terrible," he said. "You always have some depressed production during the summertime, but once it starts cooling down, the cows start producing a little more."

Whetsell is one of a handful of dairy farmers left in Bowman, which used to be considered the dairy capital of the state.

Dairymen estimate that in the 1970s, there were about 30 dairy farmers in the Bowman area.

Today, there about about six, Whetsell said.

"There are no new people coming on board," he said. "It is pretty hard to be optimistic right now."

Riddle echoed Whetsell.

"It takes a tremendous amount of investment of about $4,000 to $5,000 per cow," he said. "It is hard to cash flow that."

Finding labor is a challenge for existing dairymen but it could also mean the eventual demise of dairy in the county.

"Labor is always an issue," Whetsell said. "Most people can find a better job elsewhere than working physical labor."

Riddle agreed.

"We have several local people who work with us and we have a few Hispanics, but it is hard to find documented Hispanics," he said. "We need a good immigration policy for guest workers."

According to the 2012 census, countywide there are 11 dairy farmers operating in Orangeburg County, with an average herd size of about 300 cows.

The county's dairy industry has fallen from about 48 dairy herds in the mid-1980s.

Despite the decline in dairies over the years, Orangeburg County ranked second in South Carolina in total milk production in 2012 at 48.5 million pounds, according to Southeast Dairy.

Riddle is hoping dairy will be in his family for many years go come.

Both of his grandsons own cows and his 6-year-old grandson has "loved cows since he could walk."

Leader in livestock

Orangeburg County remains the state leader in livestock production.

The county, according to the 2012 U.S. Department of Agriculture Census, ranks ninth in the number of cattle and calves, eighth in the number of poultry and eggs, and third in broilers behind Lexington and Oconee counties.

Orangeburg County had about $10.7 million in sales in milk from cows in 2012, ranking the county second in the state.

Orangeburg County was second --behind only Newberry County -- in 2013 for milk production at 53.5 million pounds, according to the South Carolina Dairy Association.

Swine's place at the Orangeburg County table continues to remain small as integration has kept farmers from entering the business.

Cattle

Sixth-generation farmer and Branchville cattleman Thad Wimberly has about 120 head of cattle on his farm. Amid "flat prices," Wimberly said he is holding his herd steady.

"Prices are still down," he said, noting early October feeder cattle was averaging about $153 per ctw. "We are not making any big moves buying or selling. We need to get prices back up where we can pencil a profit."

Wimberly said about two years ago, beef prices were near record highs of about $173 per cwt.

At the retail stores at that time, beef prices were averaging about $3.40 per pound, though $2.50 per pound would be a more reasonable price to expect and one farmers could be satisfied with.

"We want to make sure the consumer is able to buy the beef. So if they are outpriced, they will not be able to buy it," Wimberly said.

According to the South Carolina Department of Agriculture Market Report, medium and large high-quality feeder steers sold for an average of $116 per cwt for a 805-pound steer and $166 (per cwt) for a 288-pound steer in early October.

In early October, SCDAMR reported prices of feeder steers and feeder bulls were unevenly steady.

The markets were showing slaughter cow and slaughter bull prices were steady. There is a low demand for fleshy, full and/or extremely thin fleshed calves, according to the SCDAMR.

For 2017, cattle prices have held together better than expected, officials say. Prices were generally higher in 2017 than a year ago.

In 2016, the price was in a free fall from the March peak of $139 to the October low of $98.

This year’s peak was in May at $144/$145. Earlier in September, the bottom was made at $105.

Orangeburg Stockyard owner Steve Nash said the year has been fairly typical for beef cattle in the Orangeburg area. He said cattle prices have come back to average after high prices two to three years ago.

"They are similar to where they were five years ago," he said. "It has been a typical marketing season. We are in a period of lower prices, which is typical in September and October."

Strong domestic and international demand for U.S. beef did mitigate much of the price pressure from growing beef production. Continued strong beef demand can limit 2018 cattle and beef price changes to modest declines.

According to the USDA, beef production is expected to increase again in 2018, currently projected at 27.4 billion pounds.

This would be a record level of U.S. beef production, exceeding the previous high of 2002 with 27 billion pounds.

Increased beef, combined with other meats, is projected to push production to 101 billion pounds of total meat in 2018, a new record as well.

As far as input costs, Wimberly said commodity prices for grains and mixed cotton seed are down.

"We had a decent year with hay as there was plenty of rainfall," Wimberly said. "The feed supply will be fine."

Nash said there has not been a "high demand for replacement cattle, which would be cow/calf pairs or heifers going back to the farm for breeding."

Nash said the quality of cattle in the area "continues to get better.

"They are paying attention to what the buyers want and we are seeing improvements to the feeder cattle," he said.

But he said improved quality has not increased the numbers.

"Overall, the numbers in this area are decreasing," he said.

In terms of the market, Wimberly said he does not see many people getting into it.

"The whole industry is an up-and-down kind of game," he said. "I would hope we would be near the bottom now."

Wimberly said he does not know of any other cow/calve operations in the county, though he says there are a few feed stockers buying calves in the market, feeding them and then sending them out west.

Like many sectors, the cattle industry in Orangeburg County has decreased in size. There are estimated to be about two dozen cattle farmers in the county.

As for the future of cattle in Orangeburg County, Wimberly said he has two boys, one 12 and the other 10. He is hoping they will consider farming as a livelihood.

"I think the oldest one for sure will, as he really enjoys working on the farm," Wimberly said.

Poultry

Thomas Brickle at the Cope Brickle Egg Farm manages 11,400 chickens in each of his two houses, along with about 1,200 roosters.

The farm serves as a breeder grower, keeping hens for about 10 months of the year and then spending the remaining two months preparing the houses for the next round of chickens. Brickle said the hens will lay eggs and the roosters will fertilize the eggs to be hatched.

The eggs will go to Columbia Farms to hatch and then the biddies will go to pullet farms, where they are grown to be fryers.

For Brickle, 2017 was more of the same as expenses such as fans and cooling cells, insurance and repair costs continue to eat into any profits.

The one positive is that in the breeder side of the poultry business, there are no heating expenses.

But Brickle says a blessing for the year is the fact that South Carolina poultry farmers avoided what is their biggest fear: the Avian flu.

The disease was found on chicken farms in central Tennessee and northern Alabama earlier this year but the cases were relatively isolated and none was reported in South Carolina. Avian flu was also reported in Wisconsin turkeys and Montana ducks.

Two years ago, farmers were concerned about Avian influenza. The disease was spreading into the West and Midwest but never made an appearance in Orangeburg County.

"I hope we don't have any Avian flu," Brickle said. "If you keep that away, it is pretty good."

For many Orangeburg County poultry farmers, Pilgrim's Pride is the company of record. Pilgrim's provides the bird, feed and veterinary services, while the growers provide the labor, housing, litter and utilities.

Pilgrim's is the largest provider of birds from Orangeburg to the coast.

Chicken demand continues to be high, surpassing beef and pork. The demand is causing chicken prices to rise.

The increase of wing and chicken restaurants -- Golden Chick and A Town Wings opened this year in Orangeburg alone -- have fueled demand. And while chicken supplies are increasing, so is American's ravenous appetite for the fowl.

The number of poultry farmers in the county has dwindled over the years.

Like other agricultural sectors, the county's poultry industry is comprised primarily of farmers contracting with large companies to grow chickens.

There are always challenges facing the poultry industry, with a major one being the ongoing costs of maintaining and operating the chicken houses, which need to be cooled in the summer and heated in the winter.

Swine

Hog inventories are generally up compared to last year, but despite more pigs in the production chain, prices are steady. That keeps pig farmers generally profitable during this expansion phase.

The large supply has been helped along by demand both in exports and domestically.

Locally, prices for feeder pigs at the close of September were $7.50 to $30 per head under 100 pounds. Last year, prices for feeder pigs locally were $26 to $29 per head under 100 pounds.

Lower feed costs have helped create a profitable environment for growth in 2017, but experts expect profit margins in 2018 to be lower due to lower hog prices and higher costs of production related to increased corn costs.

Texas-based Cactus Feeders, which purchased Orangeburg Foods in 2015, is the only significant swine player locally.

Swine Graphics Enterprises, a division of Cactus Feeders, breeds, gestates and weans pigs and then transports them to be grown and then sold to packers.

The company also provides farmers with feed and hogs.

Locally, there are about a dozen hog producers in the county, and expectations are the industry will remain stable due to prohibitive entry costs.

Contact the writer: gzaleski@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5551. Check out Zaleski on Twitter at @ZaleskiTD.

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Business Reporter

Gene Zaleski is a reporter/staff writer with The Times and Democrat.

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