Catfish Culture, Primer and Considerations

Checklist and Considerations Before Getting Into Catfish Raising

To help you determine if catfish farming is feasible for you in your particular situation, a checklist is provided below. It does not cover all of the possibilities, but it does list most of the important considerations. Answering “yes” to all or most of the questions does not guarantee success, just as answering “no” does not mean failure.

Management

  • Do you already have suitable ponds or a pond site?
  • Do you have most of the equipment (tractors, pumps, storage building, etc.) needed?
  • Do you have the necessary financial resources?
  • Have you made an estimate of investment costs and annual cost and return?
  • Have you estimated the impact of changes in fish prices and feed costs on projected income?
  • Will current interest rates and interest costs on investment and operating capital permit a reasonable profit?
  • Will the expected profit provide an adequate return for your labor, management and risk?
  • Is catfish farming the best alternative for the land you intend to use?
  • Can you afford to forego income until you sell your first crop (usually 15-24 months after starting)?
  • Have you looked at record systems available and picked one best suited to your situation?
  • Can you afford to absorb occasional losses?
  • Are you willing to devote the time and effort required?

Marketing

  • Do you know of an established market for your fish?
  • Is there a market for your fish at the time of year you plan to sell them?
  • Will you have harvesting and transport equipment, or do you have a suitable arrangement for harvesting your fish?
  • Will you be able to harvest fish year round?
  • Do you have an alternative marketing strategy?

Physical Factors

  • Will the soil hold water?
  • Is the topography of the land suitable for pond construction?
  • Is there adequate ground water close enough to the surface for catfish farming or is the amount of rain run-off from your watershed sufficient?
  • Is the water quality suitable for fish farming?
  • Is the pond area protected from flooding?
  • Are the drains in existing ponds adequate for rapid draining?
  • Can you prevent wild fish from entering the pond?
  • Is there daily access to the ponds, regardless of weather, for feeding, treating, and harvesting?
  • Is the pond bottom suitable for harvesting (smooth and stump free)?
  • Will someone live close enough to the pond to allow frequent observation and necessary management?

Production

  • Are good quality feeds available at competitive prices?
  • Is there a convenient source for drugs and chemicals?
  • Are fingerlings available at competitive prices?
  • Can you make or purchase needed aeration equipment?
  • Is dependable labor available?
  • Is dependable diagnostic service available?
  • Do you have adequate storage facilities for feed?
  • Are you aware of the government agencies that can provide you with educational and technical assistance?

A Note to Non-Farmers

Most farmers were born and raised on a farm. Very few learned how to farm as an adult. This puts the non-farmer at a considerable disadvantage. Non-farmers will need to go through a period of on-the-job training. Are you the kind of person who does most of the maintenance and repair work? Can you put up with outdoor work during bad weather and odd hours? If so, great – these are skills and tolerances you will need on a fish farm. If not, you may wish to reconsider before getting into fish farming. In addition, farming today requires much more than just being able to produce a crop. Successful farmers must have a sound understanding of the economics of their operation, keep good records and work to find the best markets for their product.

Small Scale Catfish Production

Small-scale catfish production is a lowercost option that can provide an income opportunity for individuals willing to market their fish directly to consumers. There are a number of important considerations before beginning small-scale catfish production and direct marketing.

Like many agricultural crops, there are economies of scale in commercial catfish production. Larger farms are able to produce fish at a lower price per pound than smaller farms. For example, large farms can buy catfish feed in bulk by the truckload while smaller producers, in order to have fresh feed, must purchase bagged feed which costs 10 to 20 percent more.

Intensive catfish production on a part-time basis is risky because the farmer cannot watch the ponds on a regular basis, day and night. If an aerator fails, fish may die in a matter of minutes. Large farms have nighttime oxygen crews that monitor ponds regularly. Small-scale producers generally get lower yields because they stock and feed at lower rates to reduce the risk of water quality problems.

Advantage of Direct Sales

A small-scale producer must look to other markets to sell his or her fish rather than selling only to a large processor. The key is that profits are made by selling the fish, not by raising them. The distribution of processed fish through food brokers and supermarkets adds a mark-up to the price of fish, so the consumer pays far more for the fish than the processing plant receives. Bypassing these middlemen avoids such markups, allows directs sales of fish to the consumer to be profitable, and provides the consumer with a less expensive product, especially if the consumer will dress their own fish.

Another factor in favor of direct sales is the freshness of the product. Fish are notorious for spoilage, and consumers are wary of products on ice or frozen. Families, churches, business, social organization and political organizations all hold fish fries. A local producer can supply the desired fresh fish, or he/she can cater these events, selling the final cooked product to the public.

Marketing catfish on a small-scale is not for everyone. It is not a way to get wealthy. It may be best to start as a part-time business as a means to supplement other income. Information on how to raise catfish is readily available from the Cooperative Extension System. Commercial catfish production practices can be adapted to small-scale operations. A successful small-scale operation is possible especially when the producer works to develop a market and sells fish directly to consumers. Before starting a catfish farm, get all the information you can on marketing and know where you will sell your fish. Direct marketing of fish requires time, money, hard work and people skills, but it provides a way for the smallscale producer to make money in the catfish business.

Using Existing Farm Ponds

It is tempting to consider using existing farm ponds for commercial catfish farming because pond construction is a major cost in starting a catfish farm. While it may be possible to do so, it is important to evaluate carefully the condition of an existing pond before using it to start a catfish enterprise. Existing ponds may be suitable for aquaculture. An existing pond needs to be inspected to determine if it is suitable for commercial catfish culture or, if not, what the costs would be to remedy deficiencies.

If you simply want to raise a few catfish as a hobby or to provide subsistence for your family and friends, you should probably consider leaving the pond in its present condition to avoid unnecessary costs. For commercial catfish culture, however, a pond should be accessible by an all-weather road. This will allow daily pond management as well as providing access at harvest time. Roads need to be graveled and of sufficient width and sturdiness to allow passage of a hauling truck.

Many existing farm ponds are constructed away from roads and houses. Distant ponds may suffer from a lack of attention; fish may not be fed and water quality may not be monitored on a regular basis. This is particularly true for a part-time operation where the owner will have many other concerns to attend to during the day. Where there are a number of farm ponds, these are typically some distance apart. It takes more time to feed ponds that are spread out, and management tasks such as moving portable aerators are more difficult.

Theft can be a major problem because isolated ponds away from houses or located near woods are vulnerable to poachers. Security lighting will deter poachers. Installation of three-phase electrical service may involve a charge for ponds located more than several poles away from existing power lines. If power can be provided to several ponds through one new line, there may not be any cost.

Electric aerators are commonly used in commercial catfish ponds and can be used if electricity is available at the pond. Diesel or gasoline powered aerators can be used, but require manual operation. Without aeration, annual fish production is limited to about 1,000-1,500lb/acre, because feeding should be restricted to less than 34 lb/acre/day to maintain water quality.

Modifying Farm Ponds for Catfish Production

Existing ponds may not be suitable for commercial catfish production without modification. Many ponds were originally constructed for watering cattle or recreational fishing. In commercial catfish production, it is essential that you are able to harvest fish from the pond when desired. The only way to reliably harvest commercial ponds is through seining (netting) the entire ponds. Complete or partial draining is usually necessary. Modifications to allow a pond to be seined may prove more expensive than construction of a new pond. Major modifications that may be required by farm ponds are: levee work, silt removal, stump removal, grading of the pond bottom and installation of a drainpipe.

Levee Work

Over time, pond levees can be damaged by erosion and burrowing animals such as muskrats. It may be impossible to cut grass and weeds on eroded dams, and the tops of levees must be wide enough to allow vehicle traffic. If trees and brush have grown up on the levees, their roots may penetrate the dam, decompose, and form channels that can cause leaks or eventual dam failure. Trees will also interfere with harvesting equipment and leaves will pollute the water and clog harvest nets. Most existing farm ponds will need at least some clearing and levee work before they can be used for commercial catfish culture.

For ponds filled by rain water runoff, careful attention must be paid to the pond’s emergency spillway. Most ponds are constructed with a low section to one side of the dam that allows excess water to exit a full pond during heavy rains. This spillway must be kept free of trash so that it can function properly. In order for fish to remain in the pond, water leaving over the emergency spillway should not be over 1 to 2 inches deep. Fencing the spillway is not recommended as trash and leaves can clog the mesh and cause water to pour over the top of the dam, leading to erosion and possible dam failure. A horizontal bar spillway barrier constructed of parallel iron bars, one inch apart, retains fish and is less susceptible to clogging.

source: Compiled and Written by Robert M. Durborow, Ph.D., Associate Professor, State Extension Specialist for Aquaculture, Aquaculture Program, Kentucky State University, Frankfort, Kentucky www.ksuaquaculture.org

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