Norway dairy farmer Allen Riddle, a fourth-generation dairyman, milks about 800 to 900 cows on 1,300 acres.
Feb. 2, 2020, will mark 50 years on the farm for Riddle.
Each year Riddle embarks on another venture in the dairy business and 2019 was no different.
"2019 is better than 2018 so far," Riddle said. "The price is gradually coming up."
Riddle, who works on the farm with his son, Josh, says farmers this year have been supported by two government programs -- the margin-protection program and the market-facilitation program. Market facilitation helped with milk prices affected by disruptions in the dairy market from tariffs.
"We got a 20-cent-per 100 (weight) payment from the FSA (Farm Service Agency) to offset the disruption of the market," Riddle said.
At 20 cents per cwt, the 2019 dairy payments are up from the 12 cents per cwt paid in 2018.
"Two government programs and the price is starting to come up now," Riddle said. "It looks a little more promising for the rest of 2019 and 2020."
Prices are improving for dairy farmers, upward of about $18 per hundredweight. This is up from about $1.51 last year at this time, Riddle said.
But analysts say it’s not enough to overcome financial losses over the last couple of years when milk prices got as low as $13 per cwt in March 2018. Milk prices were as much as $24 per cwt back in 2014.
Low prices have coincided with soft global markets and low dairy exports, global market disruptions, trade disputes and tariffs.
But smaller herd sizes are keeping dairy prices up.
Dairy demand is the highest it has been in 56 years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But this is no thanks to fluid milk sales, which have been on the decline for the past decade.
USDA data shows per-capita cheese sales have tripled since 1971, and per-capita butter usage is at its highest since 1968.
Riddle's milk is marketed by Southeast Milk, which is a Borden supplier. The farm's product can be found in Publix grocery stores.
Another issue impacting dairy farmers in 2019 was heat.
"The hot weather impacted us dramatically at the end of August and for September," Riddle said. "We normally have a lot of cows bred to calve in September when the weather is starting to cool off. September weather was just like July weather."
"We had 400 cows calve in September and we lost 20 cows due to the heat," he said. "And we had lower production. They are just like us: They don't work good when it is hot."
Riddle said despite using mists and other means to keep the cows cool, the heat puts a lot of stress on them.
Riddle says the hay crop he planted got rain initially but then Mother Nature shut off any showers.
"We have quite a bit of irrigated land and we were able to raise enough silage and pasture," Riddle said. "The land not under irrigation is less than half a crop of what we normally get."
But Riddle says he will have enough feed to get through the winter.
"If we have extra, I sell hay for horse people," Riddle said, noting due to the drought, he will have to maintain his hay crop for his own cows this year.
According to the 2017 ag census, Orangeburg County ranked second in the number of milk cows at 3,100. The census shows the county has 20 dairy farms.
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 10 dairies remaining in the county. Despite this fact, the county ranked third in the number of milk cows at 1,800.
Calhoun County does not have any dairy farmers and has not had any for several years.
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.
Holly Hill beef cattle farmer Buddy Felder's family comes from a long line of dairy farmers.
Felder was the third generation to follow in his dad's footsteps, getting out to the barn early every morning and afternoon to milk the cows.
But escalating expenses and stagnant milk prices forced the family out of the dairy business about 13 years ago.
The proverbial saying that you might be able to take the boy out of the dairy business but you can't take him off the farm holds true for Felder, who has entered into the beef cattle business and currently has about 100 cows at this Branchdale Highway farm near Holly Hill.
"There have been challenges with the weather, but we have had a decent year," Felder said. "Hay was droughty there in the summer, but it helped the hay we did put up. It was a high-quality hay."
Though the dry weather did reduce hay production, the "extra heat units helped get hay cured out good."
Felder says he has plenty of hay to help him last through the winter months.
Clemson Extension's Edisto Research and Education Center's Research Associate Cattle and Forages Scott Sell describes the year as one of weather extremes.
"It has been incredibly dry for two different six-week periods this year with a wet three to four weeks between them," Sell said.
Conditions have made available forage a premium for farmers requiring them to supplement feed and purchase stored forage, which can increase production costs.
"The biggest issue will be having to buy hay and feed hay early due to a poor hay-production season and the drought," Sell said.
The drought has also increased the chance for nitrate poisoning of feed. This means the testing of hay is important.
The need to supplement has dipped into profit margins for farmers.
In terms of beef prices, Felder describes the year as "kind of flat."
"Prices are not bad but they are not spectacular," he said.
Felder said he has received prices of about $1.20 to $1.30 a pound but really needs to see prices up around $1.50 to $1.60.
"We have meat packers making record profits and the beef producers are at break-even levels," he said.
According to the South Carolina Department of Agriculture Market Report in early October, medium and large high-quality feeder steers sold for an average of $100 per 100 pounds or cwt for an 822-pound steer and $119.48 for a 320-pound steer.
Last year, medium and large high-quality feeder steers sold for $114.50 per cwt for an 830-pound steer and $173 (per cwt) for a 295-pound steer in late September.
In early October, SCDAMR reported there was an average offering of average to plain-quality cattle with active buyer participation. The SCDAMR says there was light demand for cattle with excessive hair.
Looking at the market as a whole, Sell echoed Felder.
"Prices are down," he said. "Still profitable, but down, mostly due to normal cycles in the cattle industry, but some due to international country-of-origin labeling (COOL) rule changes."
COOL was a labeling law that requires retailers, such as full-line grocery stores, supermarkets and club warehouse stores, to notify their customers with information regarding the source of certain foods.
The 2002 and 2008 Farm Bills and the 2016 Consolidated Appropriations Act amended the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 that required retailers to notify their customers of the country of origin.
But COOL was repealed by Congress in 2015 after the World Trade Organization ruled Canada and Mexico could begin imposing more than $1 billion in tariffs on U.S. products to punish it for the harm the labeling requirements were doing to them.
Cattlemen want COOL to be included in the new North American Free Trade Agreement, saying when COOL was repealed, foreign beef no longer had to bear the label. That caused imports to increase and the prices of domestic cattle — which, critics argue, are now part of an undifferentiated morass of meat — to fall.
Opponents say COOL had minimal effect on meat demand.
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Sell said locally the beef supply is normal to good and is trying to keep up with the steady to high beef demand. The high beef demand has required many cattlemen to find replacement cattle.
"But it is nowhere near as strong as the last few years," he said.
Felder is optimistic the beef market will see a "bump" once a trade deal with China has been ironed out.
"China has lost a big portion of their hogs and they will need to support that with protein," Felder said. "Beef and chicken should be a good alternative from us eventually."
Like many sectors, the cattle industry in the region has generally stabilized after seeing a rather significant decline since the middle 1980s due to rising operation costs that have forced many farmers out of business.
In Orangeburg County, the number of cattle and calve farms actually increased from 197 in 2012 to 220 in 2017.
The number of cattle and calves also increased from 11,768 in 2012 to 12,670 in 2017.
Orangeburg County, according to the 2017 U.S. Department of Agriculture Census, ranks eighth in inventory of cattle and calves in the state.
In Calhoun County, the number of cattle and calve farms grew from 81 in 2012 to 101 in 2017. The number of cattle and calves also grew from 2,291 in 2012 to 3,552 in 2017.
The county ranked 33rd in cattle/calve inventory.
Bamberg County also saw an increase in the number of cattle and calve farms from 55 in 2012 to 78 in 2017. The county, however, saw the number of cattle and calves decrease from 6,919 in 2012 to 5,859 in 2017.
Th county ranked 15th in the state in cattle/calve inventory.
Generally, The T&D Region is among the top agricultural counties in the state.
When looking at the market value of products sold, Orangeburg County had a total of $106.7 million in total sales for livestock, poultry and other products, according to the latest 2017 census. This ranks the county eighth in the state in the total market value of livestock and poultry agricultural products sold.
Bamberg County had a total of $14 million in total sales for livestock, poultry and other products, according to the census.
This ranks the county 27th in the state.
In Calhoun County, there was a total of $21.8 million in sales for livestock, poultry and other products, according to the census.
This ranked the county 22nd in the state.
Orangeburg County ranked second in sales in milk from cows at $9.8 million, and ninth in the market value of poultry and eggs at $92.4 million.
The county ranked 15th in the state at the market value of cattle and calves sold at $92.4 million.
Orangeburg County ranked eighth in the market value of hogs and pigs sold at $699,000.
Calhoun County did rank ninth in the state in the market value of hogs and pigs sold at $549,000 and 21st in poultry and egg sales at $20.2 million.
The county ranked 30th in cattle and calve sales at $829,000.
The county's milk sales were negligible and listed as $0 in the census.
Bamberg County ranked third in the state in sales in milk from cows at $5.1 million and ranked 15th in the state in hog and pig sales at $94,000.
The county ranked 20th in the market value of cattle and calves at $1.6 million and 28th in poultry and eggs at $7.1 million.
Olar poultry farmer Chad Brubaker, co-owner of Brubaker Farms, has two poultry houses with a total of 30,000 square feet for the chickens.
The farm, which raises poultry for Columbia Farms, typically has about 68,000 chickens, or about five flocks, a year.
"Rising energy and property taxes are making it challenging for us farmers to make ends meet," Brubaker said when asked to highlight the biggest issue facing poultry farmers in 2019. "With these rising costs, it forces us farmers to pay extremely close attention to many small details from conserving water and gas to getting by with housing or equipment that isn't what it could be."
Market-wise, poultry production has created an oversupply in the market, putting pressure on prices and driving them downward.
But the poultry market globally has improved due to better trade balance in key markets, according to experts.
Analysts say rising poultry demand will be seen especially from China as the country sees a reduction in its pork production due to African swine fever, a viral disease that can decimate a hog population.
The demand for poultry generally has been up for several years due to the more attractive price of the protein as compared to beef and seafood.
"As a contract grower it is difficult to see the impact of the market," Brubaker said. "There hasn't been much raise in pay the last number of years, so with the higher input costs, it makes it more challenging to pay all the bills."
Generally, over the last five years, the region's poultry sector has stabilized in chicken farms after seeing a decline over the past few decades.
Production has decreased somewhat though.
There were 59 broiler chicken farms in Orangeburg County in 2017, compared to 57 in 2012. The number of broiler chickens decreased in the county from 4,354,176 in 2012 to 4,129,552 in 2017.
This ranked the county fifth in the state.
Calhoun County has seen the number of chicken farms increase from six in 2012 to nine in 2017. The number of chickens produced decreased from 1,093,600 in 2012 to 925,000 in 2017.
This ranked the county 15th in broiler inventory.
In Bamberg County, chicken farms continue to be a rarity, with five farms in 2017 compared to four in 2012.
The number of broiler chickens in the county was 350,200 in 2017. This ranked the county 20th in the number of broiler chickens. The 2012 numbers were withheld to avoid disclosing data for individual farms.
Like other agricultural sectors, the county's poultry industry is comprised primarily of farmers contracting with large companies to grow chickens.
Many local farmers contract with Pilgrim's Pride or Columbia Farms.
The companies provide the birds, feed and veterinary services, while the growers provide the labor, housing, litter and utilities.
Hog prices have generally been volatile through the year but have seen a falling trend more recently into October.
Locally, prices for feeder pigs at the beginning of October were $26 to $43 per head under 100 pounds. Last year, prices for feeder pigs locally were $25 to $50 per head under 100 pounds.
Optimism from swine producers was that African swine fever in China would cause the U.S. pork market to boom, but trade disputes with China have cooled exports and any potential uptick for hog producers.
Successive rounds of tariffs over the past year or so mean that U.S. pork producers face a 72% tax to enter the Chinese market, compared to 12% imposed on other global competitors.
The ASF is not a concern to humans but severely impacts hogs.
The USDA has implemented a surveillance program for pigs to ensure the virus does not make its way into the U.S.
Domestic pork demand remains strong according to the USDA.
Swine's place at the T&D Region table continues to remain small as integration has kept many farmers from entering the business.
The number of hog farms in Orangeburg County remained steady at 48 over the past five years. Those farms had 3,487 hogs in 2017 compared to 24,681 five years before.
This ranked the county fifth in the state.
In Calhoun County, the number of hog farms decreased from 31 in 2012 to 18 in 2017. The number of hogs in the county fell from 16,963 in 2012 to 3,206 in 2017. This ranked the county sixth in the state.
In Bamberg County, the number of hog farms increased from 10 in 2012 to 13 in 2017. The number of hogs declined from 562 in 2012 to 489 in 2017.
This ranked the county 14th in the state.
Texas-based Cactus Feeders, which purchased Orangeburg Foods in 2015, is the only significant swine operation locally.
Swine Graphics Enterprises, a division of Cactus Feeders, breeds, gestates and weans pigs and then transports them to be grown and sold to packers. The company also provides farmers with feed and hogs.
The hog industry is heavily integrated and is controlled by large companies like Tyson and Smithfield, causing many local farmers to get out of the hog business years ago.
Contact the writer: email@example.com or 803-533-5551. Check out Zaleski on Twitter at @ZaleskiTD.