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AQUACULTURE ADDS DIVERSITY TO AG OPERATIONS

by: Clifford Mitchell

Alternative agriculture is a phenomenon that has come to the aid of small farmers looking to add diversity to current enterprises or is a by-product to some form of government payout plan. The range and scope of the products produced by this form of agriculture is astounding. Innovative marketing practices have led entrepreneurs willing to try something new to be called genius in some respects; however, most of the specialized products produced through this system will not stand mass production due to significant increases in input costs.

In areas where a constant water supply can be achieved, aquaculture is becoming as common to some as traditional crops or agricultural practices. After all, aquaculture is simply defined as the cultivation of fish or produce in water.

Malaysian Prawn, or to most, freshwater shrimp (Macrobrchium Rosenbergi) production has become a viable enterprise for farmers located in states ranging from Florida to Southern Indiana and Illinois. Shrimp is big business in the U.S. as over 4 billion dollars (800 million pounds) of this tasty entrée is imported every year.

“Fresh water shrimp production would add diversity to any operation looking to add income during the summer months. When done right, small scale shrimp production is a low risk high reward type of business,” says Craig Upstrom, Aquaculture of Texas Inc, Weatherford, Texas. Aquaculture of Texas Inc. is the only year round hatchery/nursery in the United States and has been in its current location for 19 years.

Like a seed farm or a genetic supplier to the beef industry, Aquaculture of Texas produces the shrimp that will stock ponds on each individual farm. The firm maintains brood stock and sells three different age shrimp to individuals.

“I maintain about 4,000 animals as brood stock. I keep brood stock three to four years. By doing this I am not inbreeding as much, which could turn out to be important,” Upstrom says. “I sell post-larvae, 30-day and 60-day juveniles. People like to stock different age shrimp and there is a three to four month period depending on the area when a lot of stocking occurs.”

To get the best results in traditional farming practices, facilities and equipment play an important role in the success of the operation. Faults with either could end up as big numbers in the loss column. According to Upstrom, several practical steps must be followed to get ready to stock shrimp ponds.

“Fortunately, there is a lot of information available from several Eastern universities that will help potential farmers get started. The basics are a levied type .25 to one acre pond, three to four feet deep, equipped with an aerator and drain for harvest,” he says “The soil type has to be right and site selection is key. Shrimp are a very hardy animal. Stock the ponds, feed them and they'll grow.”

Ponds must be man made ponds, current stock ponds will not provide the right environment for the shrimp to succeed. Ponds must be prepared for stocking, just like a field for planting or a pasture for steady grazing. The size and shape of the pond will help adequately manage this enterprise.

“You have to have a water source to fill the pond. A one horsepower per acre aerator works well in most ponds that are an acre or under in size. Make sure you mow the grass around the ponds and eliminate predators,” Upstrom says. “Ponds that are two to three times as long as they are wide are easier to manage than a square pond. I would recommend two small ponds for a first-time grower rather than one big one.”

A smaller pond has many benefits to the grower, but the two most important factors are cost and management. In the feedlot, proper bunk space for each animal is critical to grow them in an efficient manner. For shrimp, the size and shape of the pond makes it easier to feed the shrimp correctly.

“Worldwide, for some reason, pond sizes range from less than an acre to two acres. Smaller ponds allow for better use of labor during the growing season and harvest. By buying a one horsepower aerator it keeps costs down,” Upstrom says. “Correctly shaped ponds allow for proper feed distribution and better harvest methods. Broadcasting feed over the entire pond is important. With a smaller pond, you can distribute the feed source more evenly.”

Water availability might be a concern for most states in the High Plains; however, once ponds are filled the water source can be re-usable. There are many potential scenarios for this water, from watering livestock to irrigation.

“Water availability could be a limiting factor depending on the year. The water is ready for use in a variety of other agricultural enterprises after harvesting the shrimp or it can be re-used in the shrimp ponds for next year's crop,” Upstrom says. “Water requirements, depending on rainfall, to keep up with evaporation are minimal most years.”

Stocking rates vary a little for each area according to research, but one number seems almost standard, although researchers continue to refine these practices.

“Sixteen thousand juveniles per acre is a good number to use when the ponds are getting stocked at the beginning of the growing season. An 80 to 90 percent survival rate is a reasonable goal,” Upstrom says. “Be sure you are properly stocking animals to insure survivability. Check the water and acclimate shrimp to their new environment slowly so they aren't shocked. Water temperature needs to be at least 72 degrees without fear of it dropping.”

Since stable water temperatures are a must, different areas have different growing seasons. Compared to wheat harvest, which gets later in the summer as it moves north, shrimp season will vary both on the front end and at harvest depending on climate.

“June 1 is usually a good time to start stocking ponds in most areas. Most of the adjustment period comes toward harvest. As the growing season comes to an end monitor weather patterns and pond temperature,” Upstrom says. “Most growing seasons begin June 1 and end in September. Oklahoma and Texas could have a longer growing season than most, which means bigger shrimp at harvest.”

Defining the right age shrimp to stock the pond with has also come under scrutiny to help farmers get the best returns. Finding out which size works best will impact profit with correct stocking rates.

“Bigger shrimp are worth more per pound. Producers need to maximize size of the shrimp while maximizing total pounds per acre,” Upstrom says. “The difference in the size, at stocking, is expense. As shrimp get older they cost more, but returns could drastically increase. Post larvae will yield about 25 shrimp per pound at harvest, while 30-day will yield 16 and 60-day will yield 6 to 10 per pound.”

Proper husbandry, again developed through research at Eastern universities, is as important to shrimp production as it is raising other livestock, although it may not be as intense. Feed resources are developed, the challenge might be finding a local co-op or feed store that carries the varieties.

“A sinking catfish food works really well and Purina has actually developed a freshwater shrimp chow. Feeding guidelines are readily available and easy to follow,” Upstrom says. “The best time to observe the shrimp is at feeding time. Check for unusual behavior and if any predators have invaded the pond. It won't work if you just want to go on the weekends, like any other form of production livestock. You have to maintain a good environment for the shrimp throughout the summer.”

When a farmer plants a crop or turns calves out on wheat pasture, specific production goals are put in place. While goals for traditional crops are pretty variable, shrimp yields seem to be pretty constant.

“Shrimp are a seasonal, short season crop. They are tough and there is no disease in them. It is really amazing how easy they are to grow,” Upstrom says. “If you stock 16,000 juveniles to the acre, a very reasonable goal is 800 to 1,200 pounds of shrimp at harvest. An older pond will yield more pounds than a first year pond.”

The last step in the process is the harvest. Harvesting the product will require additional labor. Techniques at harvest will differ as they are adapted to each operation.

“Harvest techniques should be developed to maximize shrimp quality,” Upstrom stated. “In Illinois, they have developed a harvest technique where they do it with a net as they come out the drain pipe. This is a lot better than looking for shrimp in a muddy pond bottom.”

All agricultural enterprises have limiting factors. In shrimp farming the most challenging aspect is gauging supplies to available market. Profitability hinges on retail price at the end of the growing season. For most, this is between six and $10 per pound.

“Every shrimp farmer has to keep supply in check with his market. This is the main reason it is not a volume business. Each farmer should produce around 1,000 pounds of shrimp per year, market it locally and keep the price at retail,” Upstrom says. “At this level it would be an added source of income to farmers looking to add diversity to current enterprises.”

In the Eastern states where this form of aquaculture has become an income generator for many families, creative ways of marketing this product have surfaced and been accepted by the public. Perhaps, the best advantage this freshwater shrimp offers is its freshness and the safe feeling housewives get from a wholesome locally grown product.

“Farmers have set up roadside stands, had harvest days at their farm and even small communities have had shrimp festivals to attract buyers. These marketing tools are working to help farmers get retail prices for their product,” Upstrom says. “Freshwater shrimp have half the cholesterol and lower Iodine levels than Marine shrimp. Foreign grown shrimp aren't grown and processed in the safest manner. Shrimp boats are out for three weeks. How fresh is their product? This product is locally grown and fresh.”

By establishing shrimp ponds farmers could diversify even more with other food fish. The possibilities are in place to use the pond on a year-round basis or add another product during the summer months.

“Once the pond is established there are other ways to make money using the same pond and water resources at different times of the year,” Upstrom says. “There are guys in Kentucky who raise Talapia in cages right along with the shrimp. Some grow shrimp in the summer and trout in the winter.”

Unfortunately, like many agricultural practices, this is not a get rich quick pyramid scheme. The caution flag is raised to inform farmers interested in this process to take it slow and make sure shrimp fit the operation.

“Shrimp is a low cost, high reward enterprise when marketed right. Start slow and make sure it fits the operation,” Upstrom says. “I encourage people rather than start with an acre pond, start with two half acre ponds to spread risks and establish a learning curve. Different age shrimp might also be used to spread out marketing and see differences in costs and returns.”

With ongoing research this form of aquaculture is moving westward. Currently the primary states are Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Florida, southern Illinois and Indiana with some development in Arkansas and Missouri. The High Plains states offer advantages in growing season some of the other climates might not have available.

With 19 years dedicated to the business of providing seedlings to farmers looking to add diversity to current enterprises Aquaculture of Texas Inc. looks to help potential shrimp farmers get started in a low cost practical manner. The free market society which America boasts offers opportunities not only for the farmer, but also for a buying public intent on protecting local economies and the safety of the food supply.

“I am viewed as a pioneer in the industry, but I want to be known as a company with a lot of integrity that is here to help potential shrimp farmers,” Upstrom says. “I want to inform farmers there is potentially another viable enterprise for their operation. I like to think that I contribute to society and help others reach financial goals.”

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