Bamberg County dairy farmer Anthony Heatwole, 30, is a third-generation dairy farmer.

Currently, he milks about 200 dairy cows at the family farm in Govan. He ships about 1,200 pounds of milk every other day.

This year, 2017, was one he would not like to see again anytime soon.

"The price of milk has been way down," Heatwole said. "The price of feed has been way down too, so it has not been too bad."

Heatwole says he is getting about $16 per hundredweight (or 100 pounds of milk), which is consistent with 2016 prices.

"Twenty dollars would be more than great," he said. "Even if it could stay at $19 or $18, you could afford to grow your business. Where it is now, you can pay your bills."

"We made a little bit," Heatwole said. "But there is nothing to brag on. I would not go out and buy nothing right now."

Fortunately for Heatwole, he grows all his own silage, including soybean meal, which also helps reduce input costs.

"If we had to buy all our feed that would be another $250,000 a year," he said.

Heatwole has seen a lot in the dairy business, having grown up on the farm and then taking it over about five years ago.

He says this is one of the worst years he remembers, but he is keeping his hopes on better times.

"That is how the dairy industry is," he said, noting 2010 through 2012 were good years with 2015 being OK. The last two years have been difficult.

In addition to low milk prices, the price of cows is also low, Heatwole said.

"You can get 50 cents a pound," he said. "A couple of years ago, you could get $1.50."

Currently, Heatwole milks Holstein cows but has begun cross-breeding with Jersey cows.

"The Jersey cow has better heat tolerance than the big black and white ones," he said.

The dairy business in Bamberg County, like the rest of the state, has decreased significantly since the 1980s.

There are eight or nine dairies remaining in the county. Heatwole said while there are fewer dairies, herd sizes are most likely getting larger.

He says he thinks the trend will continue.

"You won't see any new dairies coming in," he said. "If you don't have the land and don't have the infrastructure, there is no way you could buy a dairy."

But dairy farmers could see an expansion of herd size in the next five years from an average of 200 today to about 350, depending on milk prices, which do tend to go through highs and lows.

"This is the second bad year in a row," he said. "Hopefully, next year will be better. Something has to give eventually."

Overview

According to the 2012 U.S. Department of Agriculture Census, Bamberg County ranks 16th in the number of cattle and calves and 24th in the number of broilers produced.

The county is ranked 16th in swine production, according to the census.

The census notes that Bamberg County had $11.2 million in livestock and poultry sold, according to the 2012 census.

The census notes Bamberg County had 39 beef cow farms and 12 dairy farms and a total of about 1,545 beef cows and 1,900 dairy cows.

Bamberg County's dairy and beef cattle industry has seen a decline since the mid-1980s due to rising operation costs that have forced many farmers out of the business.

Herds have fallen an estimated 50 percent, from 50 herds in the 1980s to an estimated 15 to 25 herds today.

The county reported two chicken farms and 10 hog and pig farms, according to the 2012 census.

Cattle

Spring Branch beef cattle farmer Henry "Hot Rod" Herndon has a 200-head cow/calf operation.

"It was just another day in paradise," Herndon said, describing 2017 as a year with little great fanfare or news. "We are fighting the normal ups and downs of the market and whatever trends are going on at the time."

Perhaps the highlight for the year was good production and cattle prices slightly higher than in 2016.

"We had a lot of rain in the spring and the summer," he said. "We were able to make hay."

Cattle prices were relatively steady compared to last year.

According to the South Carolina Department of Agriculture Market Report, medium and large high-quality feeder steers sold for an average of $125 per cwt for a 720-pound steer and $158 (per cwt) for a 343-pound steer in late October.

"There is not as many cattle in the pipeline as there were a few years ago," Herndon said. "But herds are rebuilding, which means people are adding to their herd."

Herndon said the demand for beef is still there -- "everybody likes hamburgers and everyone likes steaks."

"The biggest obstacle is just the cost of production," he said. "It is hard to get into the cattle business. It is just cost-prohibitive for a young person to want to get into it."

For one thing, finding space is a major challenge.

"It has a very large footprint," Herndon said about the beef cattle industry. "You need an acre-and-a-half or 2 acres for every cow you are going to run."

Herdnon, who has raised cattle his whole life, said staying in the cattle business is not easy.

"I am not smart enough to do anything different," he said. "If you sat down and made a business plan, agriculture does not fit in a traditional business plan. It just does not work. There is a high turnover. You deal with a lot of money to make a little bit."

Currently, Herndon estimates there are about 10 large-scale beef producers and 25 altogether in the county.

"The inherent problem with a cattle producer is that most of them are old," Herndon said, noting most of the cattle farmers he knows are 65 to 70 years old. "I see maybe one or two coming in, but if you have to buy the land and start raising cows, it is probably not the most productive thing you could do."

Poultry

Bamberg County poultry farmer Myron Brubaker has been raising birds for the past four years.

He has two houses that can hold about 36,000 birds at one time. The 8 to 9-pound birds are rotated out every nine to 10 weeks.

Brubaker, who contracts with Columbia Farms, said there were no big news stories in the poultry business in 2017.

"It is steady," he said. "There is no big money. You just work at it. I have been able to survive."

The 63,000-square-foot hatchery in Monetta in Aiken County continues to be a positive for local chicken growers.

The hatchery came online in the last couple of years and features advanced technology designed for production efficiency and is fully automated to allow for high levels of biosecurity, quality control and operational analytics.

"That has improved the bird a little bit," he said.

Brubaker said the poultry business in 2017 has not been a big moneymaker and continues to take a lot of hard work and due diligence.

"It is something you have to keep up with and keep track of," he said. "Our main thing we have to worry about is getting their feed right and ventilation right."

He said ensuring the birds are "healthy, happy and growing well at the least possible cost" is always a balancing act for poultry farmers.

In Bamberg County, Brubaker estimates there to be about 10 chicken farmers.

He says he believes the industry will remain steady over the next few years, but he is hoping it will see some growth into the future.

""It (growth) is good for the economy and good for our community," he said.

Swine

The hog industry in Bamberg County is virtually non-existent.

According to farmers familiar with the swine industry in the county, about 70 years ago the number of hogs increased, but the number of hog farms went down.

In the late 1990s, hog prices fell to 8 cents per pound -- a full 40 cents under cost, prompting many to get out of the business.

Today, the hog industry is heavily vertically integrated and is controlled by large companies like Tyson and Smithfield, causing more hog farmers to get out of the business.

Many hog farmers were unable to invest in new hog houses to meet the demands of the new-age contract situations.

What is left in Bamberg County today are predominantly hog farmers raising animals for a hobby.

Hog prices continue to be at historic lows at about 41 cents a pound for a 200-pound to 250-pound hog, according Oct. 25 Orangeburg Stockyards data.

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

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