Veteran Orangeburg County farmer David Funchess wears two hats.
As both a poultry and row crop farmer, Funchess does not have all is "eggs in one basket," allowing him to fall back on the more steady income source of the year-round poultry business during those years when Mother Nature is not so kind.
The poultry farm and his row crops also have somewhat of a symbiotic relationship, as is evident as Funchess prepares his fields for the annual spring plantings in March.
As temperatures warm and spring nears, Funchess is ensuring his corn and soybean plantings this spring will reap the benefits of his chickens.
"We are putting out the chicken litter for fertilizer for the corn and soybeans," said Funchess in February from is farm south of Orangeburg off Charleston Highway. "We are trying to start now but it is wet in the fields. We can run in the higher fields but some of the fields we are bogging down in."
Funchess, who operates the farm with his son David Jr., has six chicken houses and on average has about 19,300 chickens per house. The farm houses 9-1/2 pound birds for about 63 days.
Like many Orangeburg County poultry farmers, Funchess contracts with Pilgrim's Pride. Pilgrim's provides the bird, feed and veterinary services, while the growers provide the labor, housing, litter and utilities.
The chicken business is pretty much the same year round, Funchess said.
"There is not a lot of difference from the summer to the winter except in the summer you use cooling systems and in the winter you burn gas."
But Funchess says the spring does bring its own unique requirements.
One is equipment readiness.
"It keeps us going," Funchess said, explaining how on the farm there is no time to kick back and relax. "We are maintaining the little spreaders. We also completely overhauled the gear boxes, the chains and greased them up pretty good."
Funchess says new tires were also added.
Preparations for row crops also are on top of the expenses and duties involved with the chicken farm.
Funchess sees about five flocks of chickens annually come through his farm, which is up slightly due to the increased demand for chicken on the market.
"We have not had the out times some people have because of the demand," he said. The birds are raised primarily for their breast meat and used in the school lunch market.
Between every seven to 14 days a new flock comes, which requires much preparation work during this time period.
"We do a little clean up and disinfect the houses," he said, adding a 10-day window is not a lot of time. "We need some time to let the houses dry out."
Funchess says another challenge on the farm has been increased expense in running and maintaining the chicken houses.
2018 does not look any different.
"The prices of everything we buy is going up," Funchess said.
For example, he said the light bulbs he needs to use in the chicken house cost about $15 each.
"That is a lot of bulbs," he said.
In addition, the former incandescent light bulbs once used in the chicken houses are now being replaced with LED lights, which are also not inexpensive.
Then there is the cost of heating and cooling the houses.
"No matter how cold it is outside, they want us to keep the first week at 93 degrees to start those baby chicks off," he said.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the poultry market has been stable.
Projections for prices were slightly decreased, and year-ending stock projections were increased on recent data.
Egg prices have continued to soar, leading to higher price projections for the current quarter and 2018.
Hatchery data, indicators for future production, have revealed that producers may expand their flocks.
Turkey prices remain below historical averages, indicating that demand is weak relative to current supply levels.
Prices are expected to average 93 cents to $1 per pound, about 1 percent higher than prices in 2017, while the production forecast is unchanged.
Funchess is a part of what can best be described as a stable industry in the region.
According to the latest 2012 U.S. Department of Agriculture Census, Orangeburg County is ranked eighth in the state in the number of poultry and eggs, and third in broilers behind Lexington and Oconee counties.
Calhoun County ranks 12th in the number of broilers produced, according to 2012 census data.
Most of the poultry farmers in Calhoun County contract with Columbia Farms. Columbia Farms also provides the birds, the feed and the veterinary services. The farmer provides the labor, housing, litter and utilities.
Census data shows that Bamberg County ranks 24th in the state in the number of broilers produced.
The county reported two chicken farms and 10 hog and pig farms, according to the 2012 census.
As spring nears, cattle and dairy farmers need to keep a few things in mind, according to Scott Sell, manager of the Edisto Forage Bull Test based at the Edisto Research Education Center in Blackville.
"As the weather warms, dairy and beef producers need to be thinking about spring pasture and hayfield fertility by soil sampling and fertilizer according the need and sample results," Sell said. "It is also time to be thinking about planting warm-season annuals such as pearl millet and/or sorghum for grazing."
Another springtime concern for both cattle and dairy farmers is weeds.
"Weed season will quickly be upon us, especially with this early green-up we are having," Sell said. "They need to scout pastures and hayfields for broadleaf weeds and apply herbicides accordingly."
Clemson Extension Livestock Economist Bernt Nelson said the market for ranchers is looking up in 2018 compared to 2017.
"There is money to be made in livestock," Nelson said. "Prices were good in the recent months with resilience even during times when meats were not in peak demand."
Nelson says cattle prices typically dip beginning in October when demand for beef tends to dwindle.
"This year (2017) was a bit different in that prices were resilient during this time," he said, noting a new presidential administration helped prompt the stock market to rise. "Americans have more money in their pocket than they have for a while."
"This translated into good demand for high-quality beef products throughout the grilling season," Nelson said.
Globally, Nelson said, the beef markets also grew.
"China began importing U.S. beef for the first time in 13 years," Nelson said. "This made the three Asian countries -- China, Japan and South Korea -- account for 51 percent of U.S. beef exports. Good demand both foreign and domestic has kept beef prices holding at profitable levels."
In light of this, Nelson said live cattle and feeder cattle futures are in a good price range (August feeders at $151.725, August live futures at $113) but well below their contract highs.
"Cash prices have seen more stability than futures," Nelson said, noting in the Midwest these prices have kept futures up somewhat.
Slaughter pace has been good to high, Nelson said.
Nelson noted choice beef prices and select prices have seen a narrowing spread, meaning high-quality beef isn’t currently valued as highly by the consumer.
Nelson said there are some key factors ranchers should pay attention to related to foreign markets.
"Our trade agreements such as NAFTA play huge roles with Canada and Mexico," he said. "We trade a lot of beef and pork with Mexico and Canada."
In addition to NAFTA, there are other foreign trade issues at stake, Nelson said.
He noted President Donald Trump has recently said he wishes to place a 10 percent tariff on aluminum and a 25 percent tariff on steel.
"This could threaten the stability of foreign trade relations with some of the big players such as China whom just last year opened its doors to U.S. beef," he said. "Trade wars are the current fear. With trade relations such as this, oftentimes the first target involved is agricultural products."
The T&D Region remains a leader in livestock in the state.
According to the 2012 U.S. Department of Agriculture Census, Orangeburg County ranks ninth in the number of cattle and calves,
In Calhoun County, livestock is also important.
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.
According to the 2012 U.S. Department of Agriculture Census, Bamberg County ranks 16th in the number of cattle and calves.
The census notes Bamberg County had 39 beef cow farms and a total of about 1,545 beef cows.
The livestock industry across the region has seen a decline since the mid-1980s due to rising operation costs that have forced many farmers out of the business.
Clemson Extension Dairy Agent Tina Horn is forecasting milk prices to be on the low side, especially through the summer.
"We are hopeful that they will rebound some in the fall, but 2018 milk prices are expected to be $1 to $1.50 lower than 2017," she said. "This is slightly up from the projections just a month ago and is heavily dependent on national milk production numbers and export markets, so it’s a moving target."
Prices the first half of 2018 are expected to bottom out in the high $13 range to mid-$14 range before inching up to an average of about $15.20 per hundredweight, (100 pounds) of milk, according to some economists.
Low milk prices will also come with relatively steady feed costs, meaning good news for the dairy farmer, according to some analysts.
But labor expenses are expected to continue to compete with feed costs on a dairy farmer's bottom line.
Milk prices are often contingent upon the law of supply and demand.
"We lost over 4 percent of our dairy farms in the U.S. in 2017 and the number of dairy farms is expected to decrease at a more rapid pace in 2018," Horn said. "Although we are losing farms, the ones that are staying in are becoming more efficient (they have to in order to stay in business) so milk production across the country is still up."
Horn says domestic consumption of dairy products has leveled off, so "we are very dependent on exports to help raise milk prices."
"Although we are starting to get more competition from Europe in the cheese and powder markets, most economists are expecting modest growth in exports," Horn said. "Some of this is due to the increase in oil prices which has increased the income in many Middle Eastern and north African countries who typically buy our powdered milk."
Horn also points to China.
"China is a big importer of our dairy products, but Mexico and Canada are very important, so what happens with NAFTA will affect dairy trade and in turn dairy prices as well," she said.
Horn says while the U.S. continues to have the cheapest and safest food in the world, prices are becoming more dependent on export markets.
"We need to either find ways to increase domestic consumption and exports and/or reduce the supply," Horn said.
As a result, Horn said many local milk co-ops are looking at supply management plans and ways to level out the amount of milk produced throughout the year.
"We are very good at producing milk in the spring but struggle to produce the same amount in the summer and early fall," Horn said. "So producers being able to keep production up during those summer months is becoming even more important. It is not too early for them to be thinking about and planning for this."
Ways to help increase milk production as the weather warms are key.
"Dairy cows start to experience heat stress at temperatures in the low 70s," Horn said. "Shade and air movement are keys to reducing heat stress. Making sure that fans and mister or soaker systems (systems that wet the cows down to allow for evaporative cooling to occur) are clean and working properly."
Horn says it is crucial for dairy farmers to make sure these systems have not been damaged by winter freezes.
"Producers also need to prioritize," Horn said. "The holding pen (the area the cows wait in before going into the parlor), feed bunks and lounging areas should be the initial focus."
"They also need to focus more on cows close to or just having calved (having a calf) and cows that are not feeling well," Horn said. "Adjustments in rations (what the cow eats) can be made as the hot weather approaches and cows may benefit from changing grouping strategies to give cows more room so that air circulates better."
According to the 2012 census, in Orangeburg County there are 11 dairy farmers operating in Orangeburg County with an average herd size of about 300 cows.
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.
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 with generally larger herd sizes than in the past.
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.
With new record highs for the U.S. pig crop set last year, record high pigs produced per litter, and number of market hogs, expectations are pork producers should still have a profitable year in 2018, according to industry analysts.
Despite a glut in supply, experts say there is both domestic and export growth in 2018.
Greater consumer confidence locally and globally means more high-quality pork demand with the U.S. as supplier.
But trade agreements, which are in flux, could also negatively impact exports, experts say.
Low grain prices are also helping producers remain profitable.
Swine's place at the T&D Region table continues to remain small as integration has kept farmers from entering the business.
The county is ranked 16th in swine production, according to the census.
The hog industry in Calhoun County and Bamberg County is virtually non-existent.
The hog industry is heavily vertically integrated and is controlled by large companies like Tyson and Smithfield, causing many hog farmers to get out of the business years ago.
What is left today are predominantly hog farmers raising animals for a hobby.
Those local swine farmers left are actually seeing an uptick in the hog industry.