News MAKING WAVES: New System May Be Wave Of Future For State

MAKING WAVES: New System May Be Wave Of Future For State

MAKING WAVES: New System May Be Wave Of Future For State
July 31, 2007 |

Alabama’s catfish industry is still in its infancy compared to other agricultural enterprises in the state, but work funded in part by producer checkoff funds could help tip the scales and put more money in producers’ pockets.Using different aspects of various aquatic operations, a new raceway system has been installed at a catfish pond owned by Alabama Farmers Federation State Catfish Committee Chairman Butch Wilson in Dallas County. It is believed to be the first on-farm application for the system in the United States.Dr. Jesse Chappell of Auburn University is an assistant professor and Extension fisheries specialist. He has worked with Wilson to install the system, which consists of six, 16-foot by 35-foot connecting raceways built inside an existing pond. The long sides of the raceways are built of concrete block with metal screens at each end of structure. Each cell contains 12,000-13,000 catfish, and each cell is stocked with different sized fish. Some cells contain hybrid catfish, others have channel catfish.Huge paddle wheels, along with aerators are positioned just outside one end of each cell, providing fresh water and additional oxygen for the fish. The other screened end has a stainless steel trap at the bottom of the cell to collect manure and unused feed. All these elements help provide optimum water quality — the key to any successful fish operation, according to Chappell.”Water quality is the single-most important thing in assuring the health of your fish,” Chappell said. “Plus, removing the manure turns it into a resource. Because Butch also raises cattle, he can take the manure and use it as an organic fertilizer on his pastures.”A pumping system attached to the trap at the end of the cells, runs periodically to remove the waste which is siphoned into a large holding tank outside the pond. A polymer is added to the waste as it is removed, forcing the solids to settle quickly to the bottom. The remaining clean water is passed back into the pond.Each of the huge paddle wheels works at 1 to 1 1/2 rpm and is run separately by three-quarter horsepower motors. Although they appear to be moving slowly, the big wheels exchange the water in each cell every 20 seconds. Air blowers between the cells help provide additional oxygen and aeration.For now, feeding is done manually with five-gallon buckets so the amount of feed per cell can be monitored carefully. That data will be used to study feed conversion for each cell of fish.
Eventually, the system will be fully automated, Wilson said.Chappell said he believes the new system will significantly improve feed conversion for catfish. He is hoping to see the fish gain one pound for every pound and a-half of feed they eat.
But raising the fish in a smaller area does more than improve water quality. It makes life easier and more economical for the producer, too.”By having the fish in a smaller area, we can more closely monitor the health of our fish because they are right there where we can see them,” Wilson said.Chappell said this project could eventually improve the way fish are harvested from the pond.”Even if we used the traditional method of a large net affixed to a crane, this system would make collecting the fish much easier and faster,” he said. “Plus, growing the fish at different stages would allow the producer to have a steady cash flow — producing exactly the size fish the processor is wanting at a particular time.”This system could even include some new methods of collecting fish. We could build a channel at the end of the cells that would allow us to literally herd the fish like cattle into a collection area. Projects like this hold a lot of potential because they allow us to start to think about what we do in different ways.”Mitt Walker, director of the Federation’s Catfish Division, said that’s one of the most exciting aspects of the projects.”I think about the way people used to raise chickens,” he said. “For decades they were raised out in the yard. Then they were raised in a coop, and then raised in large numbers in well-ventilated, monitored poultry houses. That is sort of what we’re doing here, except no one has done it with catfish until now.”Chappell said other aquatic industries such as those that specialize in trout, have used some of the technology put into place at Wilson’s pond. He’s borrowed some of that for this project, plus injected new ideas.”Another exciting aspect of this is that we could raise several types of fish at one time in the same pond using the raceways,” Chappell said. “Or, in the wintertime, when the water is too cold for some species, a producer here could potentially raise trout on a commercial basis. This system could open a whole, new world for Alabama’s aquatic industry.”In addition to funding from checkoff dollars, the project also used funds from the Alabama Black Belt Initiative (funded through the Alabama Legislature and Auburn University) plus Wilson’s own money, according to Dr. David B. Rouse, head of the Department of Fisheries and Allied Aquacultures at Auburn University.Chappell said while Wilson’s is the first on-farm application of the system, others are planned for the near future. Wilson’s project began in February, with the first fish going into the system in May. The first fish will be harvested in September when they reach 1 1/2 to 2 pounds. Chappell said data will be published once it is compiled, including production costs, the application of the organic fertilizer and feed conversion.Wilson, who has 430 acres of water in catfish production, said he doesn?t know if he feels like a pioneer or a guinea pig when he thinks about the new system installed on his pond. But, he admits the project has forced him to think about his farm in a different way, adding that the raceways are the biggest change he’s made since he began raising fish in 1987.”A project like this will make you more than a little nervous, but we hope to recoup our costs in two to three years,” he said. “I think it holds lots of potential.”The Federation’s State Catfish Committee recently toured the raceway operation at Wilson’s farm, and committee member Paul Wheeler, who also serves as president of the Perry County Farmers Federation, said he’s excited about what he saw.”We need projects like this to spark our creativity,” Wheeler said. “In the state committee meeting we just had, we spent a lot of time talking about things we can’t change or control, like market prices and the drought. But this is something we can actually do. It might be a way for us to reduce our input costs and increase our productivity. That’s really exciting.”

View Related Articles