High-Intensity Raceway Production Could Put Catfish Producers in the Fast Lane

YSI Environmental

     An experimental, high-intensity raceway production system designed by researchers at Auburn University could drive Alabama producers’ catfish production costs – currently well above 70 cents per pound – down to about 50 cents by improving feed and energy efficiency.
     Carefully managing fish in tightly populated raceways could yield 25,000 to 35,000 pounds of catfish per acre per year, more than three times the state’s average of 8,000 pounds per acre per annum.
     “The main goal of the system is to produce a high volume of fish in a small area with minimal energy input and lower production costs than traditional methods,” says graduate research assistant Travis Brown, who is managing the project as part of his dissertation through Auburn’s Department of Fisheries and Allied Aquacultures. Though converting a traditional earthen pond to a raceway system may cost as much as $7,000 to $8,000 per acre, Brown says the reduction in input costs associated with increased production, as well as the tripling of production are likely to< pay off quickly.
     Butch Wilson, president of the Alabama Catfish Producers Association and the producer hosting the research project on his 450-acre (182-hectare) farm near Marion Junction, Ala., says his industry’s future depends upon cutting per-pound production costs and boosting output. “If we’re going to compete in a world market, it’s critical,” he says.

Tight Fit

     The high-volume system packs an acre’s worth of fish into each of six concrete raceways that are 32 feet long, 16 feet wide and 4 feet deep (9.75 meters by 4.9 meters by 1.2 meters). The raceways are arrayed side-by-side in a portion of a traditional, 6-acre (2.4-hectare) earthen pond.
     The series of raceways comprises a multi-stage system. Though they contain fish of a uniform size and age – minimizing predation – each is stocked at different times throughout the year to stagger harvest dates and prevent the pond from carrying a full load of harvestweight fish in each raceway at one time.
     In addition to concentrating fish in the raceways, the system concentrates aeration efforts where the fish are located, notes Brown. Instead of running conventional paddlewheel aerators that require three to five horsepower per acre, the Auburn system requires just 0.5 horsepower per raceway to operate a slow-turning paddle wheel.
     “Our paddles are just for current flow, not for aeration,” Brown says. “We have a large paddle
running at 1.2 rpm to create a constant current through the raceway, counterclockwise around the pond. We can evacuate the water from the raceway every three minutes, and we’re trying to keep the entire quantity of water thoroughly mixed to prevent stratification during the summer months.”
     An air diffuser system located at the head of each channel is operated by 1.5 horsepower, low-pressure blowers activated intermittently by the system’s water quality monitoring instruments to provide supplemental oxygen in each raceway as needed.
     As the water travels away from the raceways and out into the rest of the pond, it encounters an array of biological treatments – a menagerie of aquatic species that keep it aerated and clean. A stable
bloom of algae thrives on dissolved nutrients from manure and bits of feed, adding oxygen to the water. However, notes Brown, pumping solid manure out of a trough at the end of the raceways minimizes nutrient overloading that can cause boom-and-bust algal blooms. Brown says a bloom heavy enough to consistently maintain 20 to 30 cm of Secchi disk visibility represents the ideal level of algae to manage the system’s water.
     Beneath the surface, paddlefish graze on zooplankton. Tilapia control blue-green algae that can cause off-flavors in the catfish. Fathead minnows eat the flatworms that can cause proliferate gill disease, or “hamburger gill.” And red-eared sunfish or “shell crackers” keep mollusks under control.

Boosting Feed Efficiency

     Keeping fish in a raceway also makes it easier to deliver food to them quickly, efficiently and frequently, notes Prof. Jesse Chappell, who heads up the study. “We’re not trying to feed the same way other growers are feeding,” he says. “We’re feeding multiple times per day, getting feed efficiency in line with what the animal will do. We try to reduce stress and get the animal in the best possible position to obtain the best possible feed efficiency.”
     Chappell points out that most Alabama catfish farmers achieve feed conversion ratios (FCR) in the range of 2.8:1 to 3.0:1. His goal through intensive feeding is to improve FCR to 1.5:1. With today’s
feed costs nearly double what they were in early 2007, improving feed efficiency has a profound impact on the producer’s bottom line.
     In any fish production system, a significant proportion of the nutrient inputs end up as waste. Brown points out that collecting waste solids in a trough at the end of the raceways will allow high-intensity producers to recapture some of their feed investment.
     “Only 30 to 35 percent of the nutrients in the feed are utilized in fish growth and maintenance,” he explains. “If we can reclaim some of that money by using the fish waste in a slurry on farmland or as
compost, we have made this even more profitable.”

A Closer Watch

     Intensifying production requires more careful scrutiny of conditions in the raceways. To keep a close watch on temperature and dissolved oxygen levels, Brown and Chappell placed a YSI 5200 multiparameter monitoring and control instrument at the tail end of each raceway, and a seventh 5200 monitors the quality of incoming water. If oxygen or temperature drift outside of acceptable levels, the instruments call Brown’s cell phone with an alarm message. A low-oxygen reading will also activate an emergency blower system as necessary.
     Brown points out that he can also set the instruments to automatically dispense feed in each raceway. YSI software can automatically adjust feed timing and quantity based on biomass in the pond. He says he plans to bring the automatic feeding capabilities online soon. In the meantime, the YSI 5200s keep constant watch on water quality. “The more intensive the operation, the better management and control you need to have,” says Tim Grooms, Global Business Development Manager for YSI. “If you push the envelope too far, you can create a lot of stress.”
     Surprisingly, Wilson – whose Dean Wilson Catfish Farm encompasses 34 ponds – points out that the raceway system was actually his most stable pond during a power failure this summer.
     “We had a six-hour outage, which was very rare,” he recalls. “All we did in that pond was stick in a tractor with a portable aerator. That pond never got close to killing fish. In our other ponds, we were
running around, putting in aerators to keep fish alive.” A backup generator now provides peace of mind, he adds.
     Seeing the raceway system succeed on his farm provides another kind of peace of mind for Wilson – hope that his state’s catfish industry, battered for years by high production costs and competition from imports, can prevail through more intensive management.


For additional aquaculture information including specifications on YSI instruments, please visit: www.ysi.com/aquaculture or www.ysi.com/5200

Ag Roundup!

     Ag Heritage Park will be the scene of a super-sized tailgate party Saturday,Nov. 8, from 9 a.m. to noon as the Auburn Universiry College of Agriculture, the AU Agricultural Alumni Association and a first-ever corporate sponsor farm-equipment giant John Deere-team up to host the 29th annual Taste of Alabama and Fall Ag Roundup. 
     The event has, become an Auburn homecoming day tradition, annually drawing 1,500 to 2,000 Tiger fans who have learned that for a mere $5 admission fee for individuals 6 and up, they can get their fill of a bounty of food items grown and/or processed in Alabama-from fried chicken strips, grilled goat sausage and farm-raised shrimp to boiled peanuts, Satsuma oranges and collard greens. A major hit last year was homemade peach and blackberry ice creams, made with peaches and berries produced at the Chilton Research and Extension Center in Clanton.
     In addition to food, Ag Roundup offers musical entertainment; visits from Aubie and the Auburn cheerleaders; exhibits from academic departments, student organizations and commodity or agribusiness groups; and loads of children’s activities. There also will be live and silent auctions offering dozens of top-quality goods to the highest bidders. Proceeds from the auctions go to fund scholarships for deserving students in the College of Agriculture.
     John Deere, as corporate sponsor, is also donating $10,000 to fund scholarships in the College of Ag.
     Ag Heritage Park is located on Samford Avenue, just across from the AU Athletic Complex and only tWO blocks from Jordan-Hare Stadium. For the homecoming game, Auburn will take on University of Tennessee Martin. Kickoff is set for 1:30 p.m.
     For more information on this year’s Taste of Alabama and Ag Roundup, contact Elaine Rollo at 334-844-3204 or rollome@auburn.edu.

Fishing for a Brighter Future in West Alabama

AG Illustrated
by: Katie Jackson

     West Alabama’s Black Belt region is one of the poorest parts of the state, but it also is an area full of potential economic oppurtunities, thanks in part to the efforts of Auburn University fisheries and allied aquaculture scientists.
     Auburn research and extension experts began working in the Black Belt more than 25 years ago and were primary players in the development of the U.S. catfish industry. In Alabama alone, that industry has grown from a few farm ponds in the 1960s to 25,000 acres of commercially farmed ponds that annually yield some 175 million pounds of fish worth about $150 million at the farm gate. The regional financial impact of the catfish industry at all levels has been estimated at more than $1 billion.
     Needless to say, the catfish industry is an integral and essential part of the local and regional economy, but global competition from imported fish products and ever-increasing production costs threaten its sustainablility.
     For those reasons, Auburn aquaculturists are searching for more cost-effective ways to grow, process and market high-quality catfish and also are exploring options for new fish products and species that can be grown in Black Belt waters.
     Jesse Chappell, assistant professor in the fisheries and allied aquaculture department and an Alabama Cooperative Extension System aquaculture specialist, is helping lead that effort through Auburn University’s Agriculture Initiative, a program designed to help sustain and expand west Alabama’s aquacultural economy. The initiative is funded in part by AU, the Alabama Legislature, private growers, the Alabama Catfish Producers, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Sea Grant program and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
     “The catfish industry has to become more efficient to compete globally, and that requires a paradigm shift,” says Chappell. “Because increased competition has reduced profit margins, it’s no longer just about how many fish you can pull out of a pond, but rather how you can do it more cost effectively and efficiently to compete in a global arena.”

Options for Efficiency

With that in mind, Chappell and other aquaculturists working in the Black Belt are exploring a wide range of freshwater fish production efficiency options – from growing fish in outdoor raceways and indoor production systems in “greenhouses” to better feeding strategies, farm management and marketing systems for catfish to growing marine fish species in Black Belt salty-water ponds.
     “We are trying to use the existing infrastructure to improve production efficiency and ultimately upgrade farm profitablility,” Chappell says.
     Among the ideas they are exploring is the use of in-pond raceways – structures places within outdoor ponds that confine similarly sized fish in groups where they can be managed more intensively and efficiently. This system helps growers get a better handle on fish inventory and on how their fish are performing and offers ways to easily segregate and grow new species, such as striped bass, red drum and tilapia, in the ponds.
     “Farmers can raise an average of 6,000 to 7,000 pounds of fish a year in a typical Alabama production pond,” says Chappell. “Using the raceway production approach, they can raise three times that amount in the same pond with greater feed efficiency, survival and managerial control. Our aim is not to just produce more fish but to do it at less cost per unit.”
     Another option is growing fish indoors in greenhouse-like structures that allow farmers to produce high-value warm-season species, such as tilapia, in a year-round production approach while also reusing nutrients and water routed from fish tanks through a greenhouse plant production system.
     “A simply designed indoor system that is being demonstrated at the E.W. Shell Aquaculture Experiment Station in Auburn has the potential to produce tilapia at 350,000 pounds per acre per year,” says Chappell.
     The greenhouse system offers farmers a double-cropping option. They can grow fish along with ornamental plants such as ferns, lotus and daylilies as well as food plants such as tomatoes, strawberries and other plant crops in an adjoining greenhouse that uses recycled water from the fish production to irrigate and provide some nutrients needed by the plants.

Salinity A Boon

     Another focus of AU’s Black Belt work is the production of new species in the region’s unique waters. Some Black Belt wells yield water higher in salt content than most fresh waters in the state or region. This saltier water can be a major asset for catfish farmers who manage the salinity to keep their fish healthy. But, it can also be a boon to pond owners willing to explore the commercial production of a variety of saltwater seafood species tolerant to low salinities.
     In an effort to tap into that market, researchers are exploring ways to grow shrimp and other marine food fish in Black Belt ponds. Their efforts have already paid off for some farmers who have found shrimp production to be a commercially viable enterprise.
     Currently there are four growers producing about 300,000 pounds of shrimp each year in their ponds. Other species suitable for food production, such as red drum, flounder and hybrid striped bass, are still in research and demonstration stages. Marine bait fish such as bull minnows and croaker, which can be sold to sport fishing markets along the Gulf Coast, are also being evaluated for pond production in the Black Belt ponds.
     In addition to exploring these new aquacultural options, AU researchers are also looking for ways to better market the staple fish of the area-channel catfish. A new marketing effort currently called the Clue Star Program is under way to improve quality, service and value of catfish labeled with the Blue Star brand. Blue Star-labeled catfish must meet stringent production and processing quality standards for taste, food safety and other quality assurance factors in order to earn the label, which means these fish can be sold at a higher price than fish imported from Asia.

Water Workshops Abound

FAA is broadening the scope of water education in Alabama through a variety of projects.

One such venture is the Tallapoosa Watershed Project (TWP), which is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Cooperative State Research, Education and Extension Service. The project teams up scientists from Auburn University, the University of Alabama and the Alabama Department of Environmental Manage-ment with Extension agents, teachers and citizen volunteer water monitors in the Tallapoosa River Basin. Project partners are conducting research, extension and education activities related to environmental conditions of lakes Martin and Wedowee, and the overall health of the watershed. [Read more...]

Fishing For Futures

For the past two years, I’ve spent a week in April fishing at Auburn University’s North Auburn Fisheries Unit with 24 high school students from the Hartford, Conn., area. It’s not your usual fishing trip. Most of the time we don’t use ordinary poles, but we do catch a lot of fish. We “fish” for information about aquaculture by exposing, experiencing and exploring as many aspects of fish farming as we can cram into seven days. [Read more...]

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