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Three years of low prices starting to add up

Profitability remains elusive for Mississippi catfish farmers

Catfish farming is one of the state’s top agricultural commodities, coming in fifth with approximately $255 million worth of production annually from 405 catfish operations covering about 106,000 acres of ponds.

Mississippi leads the nation in catfish production, and catfish is the largest aquaculture product in the country. But right now profitability for producers is elusive.

“We’re struggling right now,” said Hugh Warren, executive vice president, Catfish Farmers of America (CFA). “Prices could be better to improve our profit situation. The pond bank price needs to be 75¢ per pound just to break even. Many of the farmers are getting 65¢ to 70¢. You can’t continue to use up equity very much longer. Farmers are going into three years of poor prices.”

Warren said there has been some relief regarding CFA’s anti-dumping petition against Vietnam and passage of regulations requiring imported fish to be properly labeled. CFA has charged the fish being imported from Vietnam that were labeled as catfish were actually another species.

Warren says there are still major problems.

“We are encouraging U.S. Customs to be more diligent in enforcing the regulations that we achieved through legal and legislative action,” he said. “Call it what it is. They can no longer market other fish as catfish under the ruling we got. The problem we have is channel catfish are now being imported from China. So the labeling restrictions do not apply to those fish. They are coming in at roughly $1 per pound cheaper than our domestic fish.”

Feed costs a factor

The high cost of feed is also a factor with current profitability. Feed prices are at about $300 per ton. Warren said as a rule of thumb, every $10 per ton increase in feed costs adds a penny a pound to the cost of producing fish. Feed prices have increased about 30% in recent years.
The wet weather experienced in recent weeks has not been a particular problem for the catfish farmers except for getting wheeled equipment around muddy pond banks to feed the fish.

“But with feed prices at about $300 per ton, some farmers are not very excited about missing feed,” Warren said. “Feed is relatively high compared to historical prices.”

Efforts are continuing to make catfish farming more successful through genetic research and improved marketing.

“We’re always searching for innovative marketing efforts through the Catfish Institute, the organization responsible for promotion and advertising catfish,” Warren said. “The Catfish Institute is actively and aggressively looking for the best techniques to promote our product in the marketplace. We need to continue to make the public aware of the health benefits derived from eating fish.”

There is a currently a lot of consumer interest in Omega 3, a beneficial element in fish oil that helps prevent heart disease and improve blood circulation. While some saltwater species of fish have a higher level of Omega 3, Warren said all fish have favorable attributes.

“Catfish have levels of Omega 3 that are beneficial to health,” Warren said. “There is research going with the goal of increasing the amount of Omega 3 in catfish. But the more fish oil, the stronger it tastes. Many consumers really prefer a milder fish.”

Research at Mississippi State
Research at Mississippi State University (MSU) is directed towards cutting production costs through areas such as improved nutrition and lowering disease losses.
Dr. Jimmy Avery, MSU Extension aquaculture leader, said all of their research projects have an economic component in mind. Avery said three major examples of this applied research are:

• Developing ways to make feed cheaper, including alternative feed ingredients or lowering the levels of protein in feed.

• Reducing the incidence of disease in the ponds. Disease issues have been a major issue over the past eight to 10 years. As farmers have gone to higher stocking rates to maximize production, it has led to more stressful situations in ponds that can result in disease problems. Also, new diseases have emerged during the past four or five years.

• Management of water discharge. By changing the way water is managed in the ponds, farmers save money by not having to pump as much water.

“When it does rain, we have the capacity to hold the water in the ponds,” Avery said. “We reduce the amount of effluent we create by catching more of this rainfall in the ponds. If you keep ponds slightly less than full, any rain just stays in the pond. Because of that you don’t have to pump as much to make up for evaporation. We feel in certain years, we have been able to cut our pumping by as much as 80%.”

He said in addition to cost savings to the farmers, better management of pond water saves energy and prevents depletion of groundwater.

Other issues include a fertilization program that saves farmers money by fine-tuning fertilization of ponds where small fish are raised. Another effort is working to develop more efficient nets and harvest techniques so fish aren’t left in the pond that need to go to the processing plant.

In Coastal Mississippi, research at the Gulf Coast Research Lab (GCRL) is underway developing techniques for a closed system for production of saltwater shrimp.
Dr. Jeff Lotz, professor of coastal sciences for the University of Southern Mississippi, said they are in the middle of running the first batch of shrimp through the prototype system at the Cedar Point facility of GCRL.

“Things look promising,” Lotz said. “We stocked about 30 days ago, and somewhere between 12 to 20 weeks we will have the end of the experimental run. Our goal is a target size of 20 to 25 shrimp to a pound.”

The closed systems are consider advantageous because they recycle water, and are protected from diseases being introduced from the wild and from diseases leaving the production tanks to harm wild shrimp populations.

“The overall goal is to develop a closed system shrimp aquaculture industry in the U.S.,” Lotz said. “The immediate constraint is the price of shrimp, which is very low right now. Five years ago it looked pretty promising because the price was pretty high. Now the amount of imports has caused shrimp prices to decline.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

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