As the 2019 planting season nears, Calhoun County row-crop farmers have a number of decisions to make.
What to plant? How many acres to plant? Which varieties to plant?
Calhoun County farmer Jeffrey Kaigler already envisions what he will plant in 2019.
"The peanut prices are just too low," he said. "I feel like we need to cut back on peanuts and try to get the stocks down to get prices back on the peanuts."
Currently, Kaigler said the contract prices for peanuts is about $425 to $450 a ton, well below the $600 a ton farmers would like to see for the crop. Contract prices were hovering around $425 last year as well.
"Stocks are up and they have plenty (of peanuts) on hand," he said.
About 8,000 acres of peanuts were planted in Calhoun County in 2018.
Calhoun County Clemson Extension row crop specialist Charles Davis foresees peanut plantings being down again this year.
"Maybe as low as 7,000 acres," Davis said.
"Cost of production and the flat contract prices over the last several years seem to be the influencing factors that I hear farmers talk about," Davis said. "Harvesting issues related to heavy rains for the past several years have also scared a few folks off."
"Peanuts are a lot of work and require a lot of labor during planting and harvest," he said. "Finding dependable labor during these critical times has also been an issue adding to the down side for peanuts."
In reducing his peanut crop, Kaigler said he will increase his cotton acres by about 200 this year growing about 1,700 acres and will plant about 1,000 acres of corn.
Prices for both commodities are not much better than peanuts, but "we got to keep farming," Kaigler said.
"Nothing looks good," he said.
Kaigler said cotton is hovering in the lower 70-cents-per-pound range and corn was hovering in the $4 range, continuing a trend of poor prices for the crop. Farmers typically like to see corn in the $5-per-bushel range and cotton over 80 cents a pound.
But, as with any year, no matter the commodity prices, if the weather is not beneficial then it won't matter what prices are.
"Ever since '15 -- we had the flood and we have had hurricanes every year since," he said. "It has been frustrating. I am hoping we will have a decent year this year without a hurricane."
In fact, Mother Nature's faucet was turned on so much last harvest season that Kaigler still has about 45 acres of cotton in the ground he never harvested due to wet fields.
"The quality is too bad now," he said, noting the 45 acres will have to be abandoned.
About 26,000 acres of cotton were planted in 2018 and about 8,000 acres of corn were planted.
This year, Davis sees corn acreage remaining stable and cotton increasing to about 28,000 acres.
"With more irrigation and less acres planted to peanuts than in the past few years, there needs to be a rotation for cotton," he said. "Corn prices have been relatively stable, and it is an earlier crop than cotton, so there isn’t the harvest conflict."
Cotton acres are expected to increase to about 28,000 in the county, Davis said.
"Cotton as seed cotton is back in the farm program as a covered commodity, which gives it some price protection," Davis said. "Most of our producers in Calhoun County are cotton producers historically, so adding some acres in place of peanut acres is the logical choice."
Davis said cotton prices can often be more contingent on weather, meaning an increase in cotton prices is possible unlike with peanuts.
Davis said the Farm Bill is a psychological boost for cotton growers.
"It does provide a safety net that had been lost," he said. "The loss of the generic acres program has also had an effect on peanuts and cotton."
Cameron farmer Drake Perrow , who owns Perrow Farms with Moss, Stewart and John Perrow, said 2019 will be a year to be extra diligent on input as commodity prices will be lower than they would like them to be.
"We as growers just have to be very careful on our input cost this year, but so many inputs like seed are just plain expensive," he said.
Perrow said the plan is to keep plantings pretty much in line with last year.
"We will plant about 1,500 acres of cotton and 900 acres of peanuts," he said. "In the farming world today, you cannot afford to plant another crop unless you are already set up for that crop."
"We have not planted any grains for the past 15 years," Perrow said. "To go out and purchase equipment to plant and harvest most grain crops, then put up a grain facility, is just cost prohibitive. There is just not enough profit margin in any crop to get in and out of that crop if you are not already set up for it."
Farmers in 2019 will also be contending with the new Farm Bill passed last year.
Perrow said he is generally pleased with the legislation.
"It provides a little better security blanket for those who experience natural disasters," Perrow said. "The continuation of the Seed Cotton ARC/PLC program, effective crop insurance for crops, no reductions in arbitrary payment limits, and the opportunity for growers to update yield data are just a few of the very important parts of the Farm Bill."
Davis said Calhoun County will remain a low soybean producer with about 1,500 acres. About 1,400 acres of soybeans were planted in 2018.
"Too many deer, conflicts with peanut rotations and stagnant prices are to blame," he said.
Soybean prices are about $10 per bushel. Last year, soybean prices hovered around $9 a bushel.
More detailed crop planting projections will be available later this year as the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service contacted producers nationwide to determine their plans for the upcoming growing season.
Survey results will be published in the Prospective Plantings and Quarterly Grain Stocks report to be released at a later date.
In addition to the dicamba herbicide regulations being tightened up a little bit, requiring training, farmers in Calhoun County will have to contend with new state Water Capacity Use Area designation for irrigation in 2019.
"There may potentially be tighter regulation on putting in new irrigation wells," he said. "This is still under discussion, so we don’t know yet what requirements might be put into place if any, but the uncertainty is there."
"Equipment costs have risen due to the steel tariffs, and commodity prices have taken a hit as well," Davis said.
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 and 36th in the number of cattle and calves.
Gene and Jill Crim, owner of Four C Farm in St. Matthews, have raised cows for about 30 years.
This year, they have a 100-head herd of Registered Beefmaster and Black Angus.
Crim said that while he can't predict the future, he foresees cattle prices being low this year.
"I think they will stay like that for awhile," he said. "I sold some calves a couple of weeks ago and did not get good prices for them. I don't understand why."
Crim said he sold a 450-pound calf and got in the 70-cents-a-pound range for it.
"I was expecting $1.25 or $1.45 (a pound)," he said. "I was disappointed in what I got for them."
Crim is hoping the low price was due to the time of year he sold.
"The price goes up the first of April when the spring grazing starts," he said.
On a more global scale, cattle farmers, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Sector's Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry Outlook, can expect to see reduced production with cattle being slaughtered at lower weights and at a reduced pace in the first half of the year.
Fed steer prices in the first quarter of 2019 have increased compared to the December forecast, reflecting a slower pace of marketings.
The beef import and export forecasts for 2018 and 2019 were lowered from the December estimates based on trade data.
Last year, the demand for beef was near records. Beef prices continue to look good into 2019.
The beef market can also be expected to be impacted by the ongoing trade war between the United States and China.
China raised its 12-percent import tariff on U.S. beef to 37 percent July 6 in retaliation for tariffs placed upon the country by the U.S.
Fledgling U.S. beef exports to China have faltered with the trade war.
Both sides recently have said that things are progressing in trade negotiations, and the United States and China have started to outline commitments in principle on the stickiest issues in their trade dispute.
The United States wants China to open its markets to U.S. poultry, beef and other farm products.
Crim is hoping things will continue to get better for the meat market in 2019.
"I think it will, from what I have been reading," he said. "I have just seen on the Farm Channel where they are starting to trade with Cuba right now. When that kicks in, it should help us out."
More immediately, Crim says his cows will be adequately nourished this year.
"I have a good hay season and plenty of hay left," he said.
As winter turns into spring, Crim says he has been soil-testing his land and will begin to place fertilizer down for grass.
Calhoun County ranks 12th in the number of broilers produced, according to 2012 census data.
The 2012 numbers are the latest figures published. The SCDA census is held every five years. The results of the 2017 census are expected to be released in April of this year. The release of the results has been delayed due to the government shutdown earlier this year.
Calhoun County poultry farmers generally contract with Columbia Farms, which also provides the birds, the feed and the veterinary services. The farmer provides the labor, housing, litter and utilities.
Calhoun farmers in 2018 continued to take advantage of a bullish market for chicken as demand for the meat was up.
Farmers in 2019 can expect to see higher prices for their flock as the law of supply and demand kicks in.
According to the USDA Economic Research Sector's Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry Outlook, broiler production projections in 2019 are expected to be lower due to slowed slaughter and lower-than-average live weights.
Broiler exports are, however, expected to increase in 2019 due to relatively low domestic wholesale prices.
Egg production is expected to increase due to layer inventory and eggs per layer. Wholesale egg prices were revised upward based on a recent increase in prices.
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.
On the macroscale, the USDA Economic Research Sector's Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry Outlook reports most global dairy product prices rose from December to January. Tighter milk supplies among some major dairy exporters likely contributed to the higher prices.
The all-milk price forecast is $16.90-$17.60 per hundredweight, an increase from the $16.40-$17.20 forecast in December.
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 mid-1990s, Calhoun County was home to about 30 to 35 independent swine producers.
Those who have remained in the swine business can expect to see a challenging 2019.
The latest available USDA data point to pork production of 27.3 billion pounds in 2019, almost 4 percent greater than the record-high production of 2018.
Hog prices are expected to reflect large hog supplies, with first-quarter prices forecast at about 17 percent below the same period a year ago, and second-quarter prices at 8 percent below a year earlier.
Lower pork prices are expected to drive pork exports higher in 2019. Total exports are forecast at 6.3 billion pounds, 6 percent above shipments in 2018.