The number one freshwater fish eaten today by Americans is tilapia, with catfish being the number two. One hundred percent of the tilapia eaten in the United States, as well as 90 to 95 percent of the catfish, are raised on fish farms. No matter where you live, you can cash in on this new crop, or raise fish on a smaller scale to offset your grocery bill and have some fun.
Dr. Jesse Chappell, Extension Specialist and Associate Professor at the School of Fisheries, Aquaculture and Aquatic Sciences at the University of Auburn, chose to become a fish farmer in 1974 when he and his family discovered there was more money to grow fish than to plant row crops. At a row crop farm in central South Carolina, Chappell had grown up.
“My dad was an innovative farmer who embraced new farming technology to increase the amount of money he made per acre,” recalled Chappell. “Our family farm produces at least two and sometimes three crops per year.”
Today, Chappell travels the globe teaching farmers how, instead of raising crops, to make more money farming fish. His father, who told him, “We have to learn how to farm smarter and produce more cash per acre than we currently make,” was the driving force behind Chappell’s decision to make more cash raising fish rather than row crops.
Today, he’s in collaboration with his brother Clay and David Burnside, in addition to Chappell’s other duties, to raise and market fish commercially from 60 ponds. “You don’t even have to have a pond to raise and sell fish for profit, with the technology we’re learning,” Chappell said.
The family farm of Chappell had a pond mostly stocked with sports fish, but the family also had several ponds where shiner minnows were raised to sell to bait shops. Chappell discovered after college that the newest fish farming technology was provided by Auburn University.
“Originally, I wasn’t there to get a Ph.D. when I joined Auburn’s Ph.D. programme in agriculture,” Chappell explained. “I was primarily interested in getting better information about the commercial harvesting of fish on our family farm.”
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Chappell took a job in Arkansas for three years after finishing his Ph.D. job in 1978 on a large commercial catfish farm to learn the practical applications of the expertise he had gained. He then returned home to Central South Carolina, where he started applying for, borrowing, and renting equipment to create catfish ponds.
“I would take that money and build more ponds once I sold a crop of fish,” he said.
The first pond at Chappell was 0.5 acres, and he kept building larger ponds, with 12 acres being his largest.
Catfish were frequently overfed by farmers in the 1980s to get them to the market more quickly. The conversion rate was 1.3:1; about 1 pound of catfish was produced from every 1.3 pounds of food fed to the catfish. Both catfish sold for $0.65 to $0.66 per pound at that time, the farmer was able to raise them for about $0.55 per pound, and the profit was about $0.10 per pound.
Today, an effective catfish farmer can grow catfish from conventional catfish agriculture for about $0.98 per pound, and catfish are sold for about $1.08 per pound. But modern methods of raising catfish now reduce the cost by approximately 30 percent, meaning you can raise the fish for around $0.75 per pound. This new technology enables you to make more catfish for less money and less risk, and instead of $0.10., the catfish farmer earns $0.33 per pound.
Tilapia’s Larger, Stronger
In the 1960s, fish scientists at Auburn University explored the potential for tilapia to be grown as a cash crop by fish farmers.
“Chappell said, “The first challenge they found was that the tilapia reproduced so quickly that the fish would seldom be larger than 2 inches. It had to weigh about 0.75 pounds in order to commercially sell an entire fish. It had to weigh about 2 pounds or more to market a tilapia as a fillet.
A tilapia in fillets produces approximately 33 percent of its live weight. Auburn researchers working with tilapia learned that if they placed a little bit of hormones in the food of the tilapia when the fish were about 0.5 inches long and fed them with the hormone in their food for about three weeks, they changed the fish to 99.9 percent males that would naturally grow up to be females. This all-male tilapia stock would not reproduce, but would develop and not overpopulate a pond very quickly.
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Normally, when they weighed 0.25 pounds, female tilapia started developing muscles and began producing eggs,” Chappell explained.” “The catalyst that created the worldwide tilapia market was the production of all-male tilapia, giving fish farmers the opportunity to raise tilapia and earn more money per pound of fish than they would raise and sell catfish.”
At the same pace, the all-male tilapia population being grown for meat increased, and all could be harvested at the same time. As this new technology progressed, many fish farmers found that they were able to make more money than catfish raising tilapia. Selling tilapia on the market as live fish allowed farmers to make a profit of $1 per pound.
The Business Another
Another market was created by this tilapia study. As tilapia grew very quickly in a mixed sex population and reproduced rapidly, scientists realised that they could sell tilapia to landowners to put in sport fish ponds (stocked with bass, bluegills and catfish) and add another forage fish (bait fish) for these sport fish to feed.
“The fact that tilapia are tropical fish was an issue that scientists at Auburn had to overcome,” Chappell explained. The tilapia could be stored in ponds around May, but it had to be harvested by the end of October, due to the water temperature falling below 55 degrees, no later than Thanksgiving. When harvested in October, a 6-inch-long tilapia stocked in an Alabama pond can weigh 1.5 to 2 pounds. If you were to properly feed tilapia, they would eat 1.2 pounds of feed and yield 1 pound of weight.
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Chappell suggests that the prospect of growing tilapia as a cash crop is regarded by new settlers moving from the city to the country because they can make more money raising tilapia, and demand is higher than for catfish. While a farmer needs 150 days to grow tilapia in outdoor ponds with water temperatures above 75 degrees, there’s a solution.
“Many tilapia are grown indoors in tanks throughout the U.S. in closed environmental systems with biofilters that keep the water in good shape,” Chappell said. You can grow six or eight tilapia to market size within a cubic foot of water. But the water needs to be taken care of, so that the tilapia can develop rapidly. It will cost the farmer around $1.25 per market-sized fish to grow tilapia like this, which can sell for $2 to $2.25 live weight.’
You’ll need a well-insulated system where you can regulate the temperature in order to increase tilapia in northern climates. Farmers can use greenhouses to grow tilapia in more southern locations. Many farmers erect structures specifically for growing tilapia, and others transform old warehouses or industrial buildings. There’s no need for tilapia to have sunlight to grow and do well. The building does require lights, however, so you can check and feed the fish.
“Two products are produced, including liquid nitrate fertiliser and manure solids, in addition to the profit the farmer makes from raising tilapia,” Chappell said. To fertilise pastures, vegetables and/or fruit trees, the nitrate dissolved in the water may be used.’ The solids of manure can be used in compost and to fuel machinery to make methane. We are cautious to use these solids in this country away from food processing because of federal guidelines.
Chappell also clarified that it’s not financially feasible to use these solids to extract methane on a small farm. But by extracting methane from the solids, large-scale farmers can get extra revenue. These organic fish solids, including nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, provide all the plant nutrients industrial fertiliser does. You save money on fertiliser by using the nitrogen in the water and derive additional income from your fish farming business.
The Family’s Feed
You can do it in a 0.25-acre pond if you only want to grow tilapia on a small scale to provide fresh fish for your family and friends. Catfish could be a better option if you don’t live in the southern climate.
You may have a catch-out pond where consumers pay by the pound for the amount of fish they catch, in addition to selling tilapia or catfish from a small pond. Fish farming is just like raising chickens or goats, Chappell also noted. Without caring for these fish, you should not be gone for periods of time. However, within seven months, you will normally raise a crop of fish, leaving you five months to raise another crop or take a holiday.
You do not have to work all day, every day, depending on the size of the pond or the tanks where you grow fish, but the fish must be fed and the water checked every day.