South Carolina Commissioner of Agriculture Hugh Weathers doesn't just represent farmers from his lofty perch near the State House in Columbia, he IS a farmer.
Though the emphasis of the farming operation that he runs with his brother, Landy, in Bowman, S.C., is a 600 cow dairy operation, he recently joined several hundred farmers in South Carolina by adding peanuts to his operation.
“Our first year was a steep learning curve, our second year was still on the learning curve, and we are hoping to start on the earning curve with our 2006 crop,” the first term ag commissioner says.
“The primary use of our land base is to supply feed for our cattle, and the way we calculate it for our farm, that is about 600 acres just to support the mature animals we have in our dairy operation,” he explains. Another 400 or so replacement calves adds to the on-farm feed demands.
“We like to supplement our summer corn silage forage with a winter forage, ryegrass. It is labor intensive and an extra crop and cost, so most farmers don't do it,” he says. With ryegrass coming off in early May after a second cutting, it provides an ideal opportunity for a second crop on the ryegrass land. “Ryegrass and corn are good rotation crops for peanuts. So, we decided in 2004 to put in 180 acres of peanuts,” Weathers explains.
Most of the peanuts on the Weathers farm that first year were bedded and planted on traditional row spacings, with all the recommended inputs. Fortunately, Weathers recalls, they planted a few acres, using a neighbor's strip-tillage rig, directly into the ryegrass stubble.
“That was a real learning curve, the commissioner says. The strip-tillage acres were so much more productive, so in 2005, they planted 400 acres of Virginia-type peanuts directly into the ryegrass stubble, with promising results.
“We had a good crop yield in 2005, but we got caught with a late season rain that we believe reduced our yield by up to a 1,000 pounds per acre in some fields,” he says. Despite the late season harvesting problems, they still made over 3,000 pounds per acre on their Bowman, S.C., farm.
“Our farm is about half way between Columbia and Charleston, and the sandy soils there are better suited to the Virginia type peanuts, he notes. “I don't know the exact percentages, but I think as much of 40 percent of the state's production is in those soil types, making Virginia types very popular in South Carolina — probably 3:1 over runners,” he explains.
Weathers and his brother took different routes to their present-day farming operation, though both grew up on the farm. “I got an accounting degree from the University of South Carolina and he got an agronomy degree from Clemson,” Commissioner Weathers explains.
After a couple of years in the banking business, Weathers returned to the family farming operation in 1980. The following year, they added a successful dairy hauling operation. “We had one seven-day a week business, so we figured we might as well have two,” he laughs.
We go to 30 or so dairies and pick up their milk and deliver the bulk milk to processors. We only have 82 working dairies in South Carolina, so we feel like we are providing a valuable service to our dairy industry,” the commissioner says.
A side benefit of growing peanuts, he says, has been using peanut hay for cattle feed. “I don't know all the technical reasons, other than peanuts being a legume, but our cows love it,” he notes. “When you look at it right after the combine has gone over it, peanut hay looks like alfalfa hay laying on the ground,” he adds.
“We put up a couple hundred bales of peanut hay. Our steers and young bull calves eat leftover milk cow feed and peanut hay, so we had no feed cost in them and they grow like crazy,” Weathers notes.
With contracts coming out for $425 per ton for Virginia type peanuts, based on 75 percent of last year's yield, Weathers says they will probably cut back to about 200 acres of peanuts. “We will grow all our peanuts on irrigated land this year and should be able to boost our yields sufficiently to make 75 percent of last year's production on 200 or so acres,” Weathers speculates.