BLACKSTOCK -- The yellow loader hums as it drops a bale of hay near the gathering crowd of hungry black Angus cows, their breath still visible at 9:45 a.m. The gray-blue skies are giving way to the mid-morning sun on this recent Thursday as Sharon Furr and her father, Joe, roll out a meal for their dark bovine beauties.
"The men in this field tell me that my problem is that everybody is a pet," says Sharon, the 42-year-old Blackstock farmer who has named all of her roughly 100 head of cattle, which she raises at her Chester County farm to sell to other breeding programs.
Wearing stone-gray overalls and a striped turtleneck sweater, she repeats the advice of one of her friends, a lifelong cattle farmer: "Sharon, you know, your real problem is that you love them. You gotta get out of that. ... Right now, we're selling. Everybody's selling. Sell everything you got."
She first heard that cry in the summer. The drought had scorched the hay crops. Corn prices continued to climb as they had for months, in part because of the increased demand for ethanol. Higher corn prices meant more expensive feed. Sharon watched her feed prices triple in September. With those skyrocketing rates, some farmers stopped feeding grain. But there was no local hay to turn to.
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"We had a double-whammy this past year," said Brian Beer, a local livestock agent for Clemson Extension who has helped area farmers cope with the drought. "We didn't have any moisture in the spring and we didn't have enough in the summer, either. So we didn't make a decent crop of hay at either time."
Unlike past years, this drought was a problem for the Southeast region.
"Usually, (when) we have droughts like that, they're fairly localized," said Beer, who also helps his father manage a small beef cattle herd outside of Richburg. "Getting hay is not something that you have to think about, 'Well, I'm gonna have to haul it in from 400, 500, 600 miles away.' But that's what we had to do."
Along with the higher costs of feeding the cattle, other essentials also became pricey. Diesel fuel shot up. So has fertilizer, which is needed for the hay crops. The woes have become a perfect storm of issues, a painfully ironic term for a cluster of problems that includes a lack of rain.
To cope with the times, many farmers have unloaded their cattle. Some searched for weaknesses in their herd, hunting those animals that could be culled.
At the Chester Livestock Exchange on S.C. 9, farmers brought 3,000 more cattle in the last two months of 2007 than they did during the same time in 2006, said owner Blake Wisher.
Although the numbers weren't so high in January, he said, "people sold off all they could sell."
"It's hard enough to justify keeping cattle to make a living before," he said. "I guess you just gotta want to do it now."
That's what Kenneth Johnson of Clover is doing.
"I'm 75 years old," Johnson said. "I'm just hanging on. Only reason: I just, I don't wanna quit. I mean, long as I'm able to get out and do something, I'm not gonna sit in the house and look out the window.
Johnson lives on 100 acres, part of the farm where he was born. Last summer, he started scaling back his herd. He now has just over 90 head of cattle. He once had 150.
"You can't encourage anybody to farm," he said. "The fuel like it is and the price of fertilizer, you'd be better off doing something else. A whole lot."
Billy Wishert, a Great Falls farmer, had hoped to retire next year from his job with Duke Energy and farm full-time. But the drought and fuel prices are causing him to rethink that plan.
"It's a heap of ifs," said Wishert, 54, who's been farming since 1981. "Everybody's in the same boat and this boat is on dry land."
He owns 45 acres and leases up to 300 acres for his 70-head of cattle. He's already spent twice on feed what he did last year because of the hay shortage. In addition, his cattle is smaller because of the lack of grass and not bringing the price what it used to.
He planned to sell some cattle this winter but the price wasn't good.
"It's been a rough year," he said.
Sharon Furr admits her situation is better than most. Her farm got a little rain last year, which meant they had more hay than their neighbors. And her husband, Sheldon Groner, works in hydro-maintenance at Duke Energy, meaning they have a regular paycheck to pay bills. For now, they also have hay.
"We've purchased four tractor trailer loads of hay," she said. "Several from New Orleans, out of Lafayette, and now we're getting hay out of Florida, you know, truckloads of it, just to get through without having to sell our herd. I don't know how many people in this area have just completely sold out."
She doesn't understand why South Carolina won't follow North Carolina's example of helping farmers get hay. Last year, leaders in that state agreed to buy out-of-state hay, bring it to North Carolina and sell it to the state's farmers. The idea was that the program will save farmers the cost of shipping.
Furr said local farmers aren't looking for hand-outs, just some help. But even that is a tough for them to ask.
"You gotta leave your pride at the door right now," she said.
Right now. Those are the key words. This juggernaut of woes -- no rain, no hay, expensive grain, fuel and fertilizer -- is a rare, snowballing struggle.
"07 is the driest or hardest year that I have ever experienced," said Howard "Bubba" Colvin, a 77-year-old cattleman who lives on 270 acres in the northern part of Chester County with his wife, Becky, a retired teacher. "I've seen some tough ones, but not that long and not that hot and dry."
Colvin had dairy cows for 30 years before going into the beef business in 1986. Last fall, he cut his Angus herd from 90 to 70.
"Normally, you don't do that," he said. "But I knew I wouldn't get through the winter with that many head of cattle."
Now, he hopes he'll have enough hay, between what he's purchased and what little he was able to harvest, to get him through March.
"You ask a man, 'Why does he continue to do something like this?" Colvin said. "He's got to have a love for it. I mean, you have the land. What do you do with it, just sell everything you've got? You have to have a love to go through these kind of things. And you go on faith. That's what gets you through these kinds of years."