Raising catfish in Dallas County

Published 12:47 am Sunday, August 16, 2009

In the late 1980s, August was designated as National Catfish Month.

That tradition has continued, but with advances in technology and an increasingly competitive global market, winds of change may be in the air for the industry.

Whether this change is for better is not yet known, but its impact will be felt on an industry that has shrunk around 40 percent over the last five years. Over that same time span, Alabama’s catfish industry has not.

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“That’s because we produce more catfish per acre than the other states, so cost of production is low,” said Butch Wilson, a catfish farmer and former president of the Alabama Catfish Producers. “Alabama has not shrunk, but we’re on the verge of it if we don’t get some feed-price relief or higher prices on fish.”

Wilson’s farm has two pieces of equipment on his property that may reduce costs and allow the production, harvesting and selling of fish to become a year-round moneymaker.

The first is part of a demonstration project done in conjunction with Auburn University. The catfish are maintained in a pen as paddles replace the water every 8-10 minutes.

Other forms of aquatic life — paddle fish, shell crackers, fathead minnows and tilapia — filter out the snails, plankton, algae and parasites that could otherwise have a negative effect on the catfish.

It sounds complicated and expensive, but Wilson said his system is a prototype, and reproductions would probably cost around 40 percent less for other farmers.

What the new technology has done is produce a very eye-catching stat. In most Alabama ponds, it takes about 2.2 pounds of feed to raise each pound of catfish in the lake. In Wilson’s system, it takes about 1.5-1.6 pounds of feed for each pound of fish.

“That’s roughly 35-40 percent savings,” said Wilson. “Feeding is about 55 percent of our cost of production. You’re talking about 75-85 cents out at the pond and you’re talking about 55-65 cents here.

“What we’ve got to do is figure out how and why and try to eliminate that.”

If the correlation is determined, it could mean big savings to many of Dallas County’s catfish farmers.

“The main thing is, it’s like any other business. It has its cycles,” said Jim Whidby, general manager of the Uniontown-based Alabama Catfish Feed mill. “Right now, we’re in a state of — a lot of it brought on by our economy and its costs and expenses, high feed prices, fish prices are kind of low and it’s crunch time, like any business right now. We hope to cycle out of it, and farmers get back to making a good, nice profit.”

Whidby said one of the toughest problems catfish farmers have faced is the importation of fish from other countries, like Vietnam.

“Foreign countries are not restricted on pesticides like we are here,” said Whidby. “Our fish are clean of pesticides and things of that nature.”

Part of the reason farm-raised U.S. fish have fewer of those problems is because of the controlled environment they are raised in. The mill makes a high-protein feed of corn, soybean, wheat, pork meat and bone meal and cottonseed meal. The feed floats to the top, preventing the fish from bottom-feeding tendencies. The pH levels and water quality are regularly measured and heavily regulated as well.

“Before a farmer can process his fish at a processing plant, he’s got to take up to three samples of that pond to the plant ahead of time,” said Whidby. “The day before they harvest that pond, they make them take another sample. It’s tested really close.”

Another difficulty catfish farmers face is the weather. Catfish metabolism slows during the winter months. As their metabolism slows, the business does as well, and less money is made.

But, the winds of change may be at work again in another piece of equipment on Wilson’s property — an indoor, closed raceway system. The system is a joint venture among Auburn, the United Soybean Board and Weissinger Lakes.

It recirculates, filters, decontaminates and reuses the water. The waste will be used in an aquaponics system.

“We’re trying to create environment that will use up everything that we produce, then leave a clean footprint,” said Wilson. “The main thing this system is going to allow us to do is raise fish year-round, where we do it outdoors about nine months of the year. We’ve created the environment for them so they don’t have to live with whatever nature throws at them.”