Dieckhoff Farms currently farms 1300 acres of row crops as well as three empty swine barns and one swine barn that has been converted to a freshwater fish operation. Sustainable practices that were used and are still being used before this grant include a 2-acre lagoon for hog waste that was built in 1974 and terracing and waterway systems that were started in the early 1950’s by my father.
PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
Project goal: To evaluate the productivity and profitability of transitioning a conventional swine operation into a sustainable, closed-system, freshwater fish operation.
Process: After getting out of the hog business, I wanted to do something with our four hog buildings that were sitting empty to generate income. I considered raising catfish indoors but after talking to two universities that were familiar with catfish production as well as three private individuals that were raising catfish, all had the same opinion and advised not to do this indoors as it was not economical. (A very competitive market, current prices for catfish would not even break even for indoor production.) As time went on, I came across a magazine article that featured Lincoln University in Jefferson City, MO which was converting their university hog barns to raising bluegill indoors so I contacted them and visited their facilities. After numerous trips to Lincoln and with a lot of help and supervision and Lincoln coming to my farm several times, we converted our first building which was our iso-wean nursery.
When first thinking about raising catfish, I was put in contact with Crystal Weber with the University of MO Extension. She helped me explore the many different markets that were out there that involved food fish. She put me in touch with many individuals (restaurants, chefs, grocery stores, farmers markets, ethnic markets, etc.). After deciding not to go with catfish, she continued to stay in contact with me and helped me with the SARE grant.
Another individual that has been helpful is Bart Hawcroft with the MO. Dept of Agriculture. He too, like Crystal put me in contact with several people that were looking for a locally grown food fish. Bart also has made trips to my farm to see how I was progressing and to see if he could do anything else to help.
The other people that were involved with this project are all from Lincoln University in Jefferson City, MO. They include Chuck Hicks, Russell Gerlach, Jim Wetzel, and the many other people that are involved with Lincoln’s aquaculture research studies. Chuck, Russell, and Jim have all been a tremendous help in not only getting this project off the ground and running but also with all the information, trouble shooting, answering my many questions, as well as helping me procure my market. Without them, this project would have never happened.
Results of this project varied. There were many variables that affected the results. Listed below are the main problems that affected results.
1. My inexperience: Like anything, there was and still is a learning curve that still has an impact on this project. Until I can totally identify different signs to prevent a problem, this project will not be 100% productive.
2. Water Quality: In order to raise fish indoors, you must have a good supply of clean water. In order to be economical, we are going to change the filtration system in the growout room by putting in a bead filter system. We are using too much new water to keep the fish from breaking with disease or dying. Putting in a filter system will help this.
3. Spawning numbers: This is the main problem with my project. We have changed many things to counter this dismal result and have yet to produce the desired amount of fish that we need to keep our market satisfied as well as be profitable. Therefore, we have decided to build 2-3 small spawning ponds where we will spawn the fish outdoors and harvest in 6 weeks and bring back indoors to finish their grow out. Our plans will be to spawn during the months of April-October and hopefully have enough extra fish to divide out through the winter months.
Economically, this project was not profitable. I do believe that with the above listed changes, it will be eventually. In the 15 months that we delivered, we averaged from 25-115 lbs. per month. On average, we need 80 lbs. per month for breakeven as we are running now. I feel this will drop to 70-75 lbs. once we implement the above changes.
As stated above, the learning curve was quite huge. I expected some challenges but did not think it would be as drastic as it was. There were times that things went very well and I thought I had it all figured out and then there were times that I would ask myself why I even started this project. Frustration levels were high at times, but all in all I am glad I stuck with it. Even though the project is not making money at this time, I feel it will in time. As for recommending this to other producers with empty hog buildings, at this time I would say if you are going to do this be slow in converting a building to possibly just a room. The conversion takes capital and may not return anything for quite some time.
I gave two presentations in the past two years about my project to the MO. Aquaculture Association at their annual meeting and to the National Small Farm Trade Show and Conference. I used a slide show presentation and answered questions. Next month, my farm will be one of the farm tours that is scheduled for SARE’s 20th anniversary New American Farm Conference. I have had two small tours of 4-H members and have had several individuals stop by to see what I am doing. I would estimate that I have shown this project to approximately 100-150 people. I also had a photographer here from University Extension that took pictures but as of this time I have seen no article that has been done on my project.