The Upper Southeast livestock industry is booming, with North Carolina consistently placing in the top 10 in swine, poultry and cattle production in the nation. However, the region’s ongoing grain deficit -- combined with high grain and freight prices -- has put many livestock operations in jeopardy.

The grain deficit situation has been a particular problem over the past few years. For example, if North Carolina was a sovereign country, the state would be the fifth largest importer of grain in the world.

Last year, North Carolina livestock feeders imported 30,000 bushels of wheat. Though wheat is not a traditional feed grain of choice by livestock producers, the high cost of freight within the United States has forced them to make many changes in their feeding practices.

While this ongoing grain deficit situation produces a readymade local market for grain grown by Virginia-Carolina grain farmers, it has pushed many livestock producers to the brink of destruction.

Feed is the highest cost of livestock production, comprising about 70 percent of the cost of hog production. The high cost of Midwest grain and/or feed grains imported from off-shore countries is an ongoing challenge to all livestock industries in the Southeast, but none more so than North Carolina’s booming swine industry.

The state ranks second among hog producing states in the U.S., surpassing traditional hog producing states in the grain rich Midwest in recent years. When corn sold below $4 a bushel and freight rates were significantly lower, Carolina-Virginia farmers were more than competitive with growers in the Midwest. Now, the competition for grain has switched the competitive edge back to the Midwest.

Unfortunately for North Carolina’s swine industry, feed costs are not the only challenges.

This past fall, the state was struck with one of the biggest outbreaks of Porcine Epidemic diarrhea Virus in history. It spread quickly this fall, leaving many operators wondering, “what’s next?”

Going into the fall season, North Carolina had approximately 8.7 million hogs and a breeding herd of about 10 percent that total.  More than 150,000 sows were infected by the disease outbreak.

Tom Ray, director of livestock health in the state, says the disease is fatal to baby pigs, with the death rate in some litters as high as 80 percent.

The sporadic occurrence of rapidly spreading diseases in confined growing conditions, combined with high feeding prices has led to a coalition of grain growers and livestock producers, called the North Carolina Grain Initiative. 

Initiative works to increase grain production

Spearheaded by the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, grain grower associations in the state and feed buying giant Murphy Brown, this initiative has significantly amped up emphasis on increased grain production in the state, including production of alternative grains, like grain sorghum, rapeseed, oats and rye.

Dan Weathington, director of the North Carolina Small Grain Growers Association, says this emphasis has caused a significant increase in grain sorghum acreage in the Carolinas and Virginia.  “Last year, we planted about 100,000 acres of grain sorghum and had a beautiful crop until heavy rains just washed away about 25,000 acres.”

Though the 100,000 acres of grain sorghum represented a huge jump in acreage, it was tempered by the inability of many growers to plant the crop because of delays caused by excessive weather.

“The market is there and there are many good reasons for growers to plant grain sorghum,” says North Carolina State University grain crops specialist Ronnie Heiniger. In areas of the state with soils not ideally suited to double crop soybeans behind wheat, the N.C. State specialist says grain sorghum can be a good option.

Rapeseed is another fall-planted crop that has captured the attention of several growers in both North Carolina and South Carolina.  Last year, Weathington says, North Carolina farmers harvested 22,000 acres of rapeseed.

Statesville, N.C., father and son farming team Phil and Phillip McLean planted more than 1,000 acres of rapeseed. Though they intended to use the crop for their on-farm oil crushing facility, they found that the distillers meal left over from the process produces a high-quality livestock feed.

The primary grain crops grown in the Upper Southeast remain corn and soybeans. Last year, North Carolina growers broke and all-time record with 142 bushels per acre of corn.

In Virginia, the story was much the same. Corn yields averaged about 145 bushels per acre, but total production topped 46 million bushels, up 29 percent from 2012.

Soybean yields in Virginia were down by two bushels per from a record yield of 42 bushels per acre in 2012. Production on an estimated 600,000 acres is expected to total about 25 million bushels when final totals are calculated.

In North Carolina, soybean yields fell by seven bushels per acre from last year’s record statewide production of 39 bushels per acre.

Charles Hall, executive director of the North Carolina Soybean Growers Association, says continued good prices for beans, combined with a determination among growers in the state to produce more grain for livestock producers, will likely keep acreage high in 2014.

“We can help offset this grain deficit situation for our livestock industry by increasing acreage and by increasing production efficiency, but we also need to take a close look at the infrastructure of agriculture in our state.”

Hall says improving the road system and increasing storage facilities both on the farm and at buying points will also help expand soybean acreage in the region.

The continued high prices for soybeans will likely influence Virginia-Carolina growers to plant more beans in 2014.  Projections are for a small increase in Virginia from last year’s 600,000 acres and perhaps as many as 1.7 million acres, an increase of 100,000 acres or so, in North Carolina.

Unfortunately, the outlook for corn production in the region is not so bullish. With corn production costs running the $500 per acre range, not including land costs, the need to produce high yields is greater than in recent years, as prices hover in the $4.50 to $5 per-bushel range.

Weathington says he expects about a million acres of wheat, barley, grain sorghum, rapeseed, oats and rye has been planted in North Carolina.  “We have a market for small grain, and our growers are dedicated to helping offset this grain deficit to help our livestock industry, Weathington concludes.