For two South Carolina dairy farmers: Peanuts means profits

When peanut acreage began its meteoric rise in popularity in South Carolina in 2003, Landy and Hugh Weathers took a wait-and-see attitude. In 2004, serendipity stepped in and they began growing peanuts, which has had a positive effect on their dairy operation.

Weathers dairy was established in 1927. Though it remains their primary farming enterprise, the addition of peanuts to their row crop rotation has indirectly affected their cost of producing feed for their 600 or so head of dairy cows, and has improved the quality of milk they get.

They jokingly refer to their business relationship as a split family. Landy earned a degree in agronomy from Clemson University and Hugh earned a degree in business accounting from the University of South Carolina. Both are active in farm leadership. Landy is one of four vice presidents of the South Carolina Farm Bureau. Hugh is Commissioner of Agriculture and Industry in South Carolina.

Since 2002, peanut production in South Carolina has grown from 10,000 acres to over 60,000 acres, with nearly 50 percent of that production in a small area in the central part of the peanut belt that stretches in a two-county wide belt from Georgia to North Carolina. The Weathers brothers farm in the heart of that peanut hub, in Bowman, S.C., which is about 50 miles from Charleston.

How the Weathers brothers got into peanut farming is a little bit of luck — both bad and good, and some careful planning for the future. Circle W Farms is the Weathers brothers' agronomic crops operation, and is responsible for providing feed for their dairy operation.

“The primary roughage for our dairy has always been corn silage. We have always known that there are other ways to feed cows that are more efficient and healthier than a corn silage ration. We have dabbled in wheat, oats and ryegrass over the years. The best of those options is clearly ryegrass, but it creates major problems because it is such a tough crop to get rid of once you harvest it,” Weathers said.

“In the summer of 2003, we had a terribly wet summer, and we didn't get all our corn harvested before it over-matured. We ended up with about half a crop of corn, and we knew we wouldn't have enough silage to feed our dairy cows, so we planted ryegrass in the fall. By green chopping the ryegrass in the fall, we were able to make enough silage to get by until the 2004 corn crop was harvested,” he said.

In 2003, a number of their farm neighbors in Orangeburg County planted peanuts, but the Weathers brothers took a wait-and-see attitude. Their ryegrass crop provided enough silage to significantly reduce the amount of corn they needed. Typically, they would chop the ryegrass in early April and plant corn, but they didn't need corn. They decided to re-nitrate the ryegrass and make a second chop, which put them too late to plant corn, but perfectly timed to plant peanuts.

At that time, Roundup Ready silage varieties of corn were readily available, which allowed them to plant some corn behind ryegrass. It also made it economically feasible for them to use Roundup to burn down ryegrass to plant peanuts.

Another factor in their decision to get into peanut production was the opportunity to switch to strip tillage on most of their row crop land. Though they had used no-till systems for many years, strip tillage fit better into their cropping practices. In 2004, they planted their first crop of peanuts, including a 10-acre test strip of ryegrass, using a neighbor's strip tillage equipment, and it worked well.

With the stage set, they purchased an Unverferth ripper stripper and planted 400 acres of Virginia type peanuts in 2005, strip-tilled, with most acres behind ryegrass. The peanuts planted behind ryegrass did much better than peanuts behind corn.

Another factor was the purchase of a row guidance system, which allowed them to plant peanuts in 30-inch rows and eliminated the need to get a second set of planting equipment. They also dug peanuts using the tractor equipped with the Trimble Guidance system.

The guidance system is part of the long-term plan for Weathers farms. Between them, Landy and Hugh Weathers have four sons, all of whom have expressed some interest in the farming operation. Landy's son, Landrum, is a senior at Clemson University and interested in computerization and precision farming. Hugh's sons Gill and Edward are students at Clemson University, while younger son Julious is a high school junior.

“We don't know how many — if any — of our sons will want to make farming their career, but we know there is more interest in row cropping than dairy farming, so peanuts are likely to continue to grow in importance in our farming operation,” Weathers notes. The use of high tech equipment is an integral part of their college studies, and it is clear to the South Carolina farmer that the next generation of Weathers will make precision farming a big part of future operations.

Weathers says the decision to invest in high tech guidance systems, rather than equipment strictly to plant peanuts, has paid off in both his peanut and corn crops. For example, using the guidance system to apply lime in the spring eliminated overlaps and skips and takes the guesswork out of it. “We have seen big benefits in lime, pesticide and fertilizer using the guidance system because we can precisely calculate how much we need to use and use it more efficiently,” he says.

Peanuts have made the use of ryegrass more practical in the Weathers' dairy operation. Ryegrass, Weathers says, is now an integral part of their dairy program. Prior to peanuts and ryegrass, he says a typical ration for their dairy cows would have been 60 to 70 pounds per cow, per day of corn silage, depending on time of year and other factors. “Now, we use 18 to 20 pounds of ryegrass silage and 40 to 45 pounds of corn silage.” Ryegrass has allowed them to reduce corn requirements by one-third.

By reducing corn acreage, he can utilize irrigation on most of that crop, significantly reducing the weather-related risk of growing corn. Ryegrass produces a higher quality ration and higher quality milk, all of which helps the bottom line. The land that was freed up was a natural for peanut production.

Gregory is the primary variety for the Weathers brothers, though they grow a few acres of other varieties. All Virginia-type varieties require landplaster, or some source of additional calcium, but the large-kernel Gregory variety has high calcium needs. Always inventive, the Weathers brothers used sludge from the nearby Santee-Cooper electric plant, with good results.

Since peanuts is not their primary farm enterprise, being creative and innovative has been a way of life for the long-time dairy farmers. “We bought a used two-row combine, which we hook up to a 100-horsepower tractor. That rig picks every fourth wind row, which allows our six row combine to come back and pick the remaining three wind rows,” Landy Weathers said.

“The only thing new we bought strictly for use on peanuts was a digger. We bought two used combines, and the rest we already had. So, getting into peanuts both fit into our farming operation and was economical to get into,” he explained.

“The combination of peanuts, ryegrass, Roundup technology and strip tillage has made a tremendous positive impact on our farming operation,” Landy Weathers said.

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