Calhoun County poultry farmer Michael Drake has been growing chickens for 15 years at his farm in Sunny Plains.

This year's story has been the changes and enhancements in growing and feeding chickens by Columbia Farms, with whom local chicken farmers contract. Growers are seeing healthier birds.

"The quality of baby chicks has improved dramatically, so we are getting good-quality chicks to start off with," said Drake, who has four chicken houses with about 25,000 chickens per house or 100,000 per flock. He does between four and five flocks a year. He raises 8-pound to 9-pound birds.

The reason behind the improvement? A new chicken hatchery built near Monetta in Aiken County by Columbia Farms, which is an affiliate of House of Raeford Farms.

Under the arrangement with Drake, Columbia Farms provides the birds, the feed and the veterinary services. Drake provides the labor, housing, litter and utilities.

Drake says the chicks are not only healthier due to the hatchery but also because of a change in processing feed. Columbia Farms has changed to a pellet seed, which has also helped older chickens.

"Instead of being power-like corn meal, the chickens as they get older eat the pellets better," Drake said. That helps with growth and health of the bird.

Drake also praised Columbia Farms for being proactive when it comes to chicken welfare and biosecurity.

"We want to do the same thing," he said. "We want to take good care of the birds and deliver a good and healthy product to your dinner table."

As part of the biosecurity, the farm monitors who can and cannot enter chicken houses. There is also a foot bath to prevent spread of any possible contaminants.

Drake said the county was also spared from Avian flu, which did make an appearance in Tennessee but did not come into South Carolina.

"We prepare for the worst and hope for the best," he said.

Ensuring a healthy bird also means dealing with Mother Nature.

Drake's chicken houses are kept at a comfortable 79 degrees in the summertime, which makes for a happy chicken. He says the chicken houses also utilize 800-cubic-foot-per-minute blowers.

"It feels good in there to me," Drake said. "The birds love it."

The cooling was needed for the chickens during the hot summer months said Drake, noting he did lose power to the houses for a short period of time when Hurricane Irma came through in early September.

But with a 165-kilowatt generator as backup, the birds were protected from the storm.

Drake said energy costs have stabilized.

"The energy costs kept going up and up and up but they have finally come down and leveled out on the propane side," Drake said. "The electricity side is still up, but with new changes in the (presidential) administration, we are looking at all alternative energy sources that are not totally green. We will utilize what works and if something comes along that works, then we will try it."

The increasing integration of the poultry business has impacted the volume of chicken growers in Calhoun County over the years. There are only a handful of them.

Even though his adult sons have chosen not to continue farming, Drake is optimistic the industry will grow into the future due to the continued increase in demand for chickens as well as the available land.

"The only direction Columbia can grow is toward Calhoun and Orangeburg," Drake said, noting Orangeburg and Calhoun counties provide the rural space needed for chicken farms to flourish.

Cattle

Fort Motte cattleman and Orangeburg Area Cattlemen’s Association President Larry Elmore described 2017 as an unusual year, especially in terms of weather feed production.

"We had a couple of dry periods and the winter grazing was wilting," Elmore said. "We had a late frost and a lot of hay fields started putting out new green growth."

He said the frost ended up harming the hay even more.

Then the rains and rain chances picked up, making farmers afraid to cut.

"A lot of the harvest was delayed longer than it should have been," he said. "Hay got over-mature and it was not the best quality."

As a result, farmers who normally have three hay cuttings or maybe four had a difficult time even getting three.

"Hay may be short this winter," he said.

Elmore said beef cattle farmers also saw a new problem in 2017: the arrival of the bermuda grass stem maggot. The maggot reduced grass yields by as much as 50 percent in some cases.

"It is a very small fly that lays an egg on the grass stem and the egg hatches and burrows into the stem and stops the upward growth," Elmore said. "We knew we had these in scattered pockets for several years, but they never have been a problem."

Elmore blames the pest on two consecutive mild winters.

In light of the reduction in hay and grass, he says cattlemen resorted to rye grass and clover. But rye grass has also been in short supply and costs have gone up.

He said most of the rye grass comes from Oregon and Mother Nature was not too kind to rye this year.

As far as cattle are concerned Elmore said farmers are expanding their herds, helping to increase supply and reduce prices.

"A lot of economists tell us it costs us $750 to $800 to carry a cow for a year and that figures in direct and indirect costs," Elmore said.

He said  400 to 500-pound calves are about $1.38 a pound, meaning $585 to $700 for a calf is "not going to cover all the costs incurred to keep that mama cow. Prices last year were slightly higher than this year."

"People are looking to keep lighter-weight calves to put additional weight and to sell at a later time so they can get more for them," Elmore 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 to mid-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 as 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 cash cattle was in a free fall from the March peak of $139 per cwt to the October low of $98 per cwt.

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

Elmore said the demand for beef has "held up very well" with its competitors of pork and chicken.

"Even for the very highest priced times we had three years ago and the demand for beef was down, we had a good following," he said. "We want to continue to maintain that market."

Another positive for the beef industry is opening of the Chinese market, Elmore said.

"They are very specific in what they want," he said. "This is a major plus for the beef industry."

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, projected at 27.4 billion pounds.

This would be a record level of U.S. beef production, exceeding the previous high of 2002 with 27.0 billion pounds.

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

For Calhoun County cattleman John Nelson, the big news in 2017 was a reduction in his herd size from about the middle 60s to 20 head.

"We were overstocked for our size," Nelson said, noting he has gotten out of the brood herd business and is now strictly raising steers. "We are trying to keep smaller replacement steers and produce in a manner that is consistent with our pasture-raised, grass-fed beef."

The reduction in herd size is part of a business model shift for Nelson, who will focus on a smaller but leaner operation.

"We are producing our own food now," he said. The feed supply should be able to take him through the winter.

"The spring was great," he said of his hay crop, which is grown using natural fertilizers. "We had a good first cutting then there was that drought in July and we have been drier since then. We were pretty lucky early on."

Overview

Livestock as well as dairy are important to Calhoun County's economic engine.

According to the 2012 U.S. Department of Agriculture census, there are about 77 beef cattle farms in the county.

The county ranks 15th in the state in the value of livestock and poultry, 36th in the number of cattle and calves, and 12th in the number of broilers produced.

Swine

There are currently no independent hog producers in Calhoun County as the industry has transitioned from privately owned to contract producers.

The transition caused all of the county's hog producers to leave the industry.

The expense of contract production was too much for hog producers to handle, causing them to leave the industry altogether.

Most hog houses were also old and were not well-suited to do what the new-age contract situation required.

In the middle 1990s, Calhoun County was home to about 30 to 35 independent swine producers.

Dairy

Calhoun County does not have any dairy farmers and has not had any for several years, county officials say.

The Sandy Run Dairy is situated in the northern part of the county just off Interstate 26 at Exit 125 on S.C. Road 31, but the cows that produce the milk for the ice cream it makes and sells are raised outside of Calhoun County.

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

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