My farming operation is somewhat non traditional in that I am a part time farmer. I own only 40 acres and work with other neighboring landowners. Collectively we currently manage about 2980 acres for crop production, timber production and wildlife management including fee hunting for whitetail deer and wild turkey. I also have started an aquaculture project through this grant. My primary involvement is with the fee hunting and aquaculture. The other farmers do the crop production on their own acreage.
Before receiving the SARE grant I had utilized several sustainable practices on my farm including CRP filter strips, terraces, waterways, conservation tillage and no till, crop rotations with small grains, cover crops, timber stand improvement, timber establishment and wildlife food plots.
PROJECT DESCRIPTION AND RESULTS
My goal was to demonstrate a system for converting a freshwater spring into a productive and profitable aquaculture enterprise. Originally the grant called for the creation of two ponds which would be used to produce rainbow trout and walleye. Unfortunately after the grant was received it was necessary to change from walleye to another type of fish because the walleye would not eat the fish food. I am told by the fish hatchery walleye only eat minnows so I switched to smallmouth bass (with SARE approval) because they will eat the food, seem to be easy to raise, and are in demand for stocking purposes as well as recreational interests of my fee hunting clients.
Well in advance of receiving the grant from SARE, I contacted a couple of land contractors who own track hoes used for digging ponds to obtain estimates for the construction costs. I broke my own rule by relying on personal recommendations from neighbors instead of consulting with the Natural Resources Conservation Service staff to determine who was best qualified to do the work on a timely basis.
Once I received word my grant had been approved in July of 1998, I contacted the contractor to begin the work. He indicated he could do the work with only a weeks notice. Once the crops were out in September I called him again. To make a long story short he didn’t get the work done. The fish I had ordered could not be delivered. I had to find another contractor to do the work. The new contractor did the work in April of 1999 when the conditions were finally favorable. Video footage was taken to document the work.
During the summer while waiting for the fish my brother helped take measurements of the ponds to document actual size and depth to determine appropriate stocking levels. In addition, water temperatures were recorded at various depths to guarantee summer water temperatures would not become too warm for the fish.
The trout and smallmouth bass were ordered as soon as construction was completed. The trout and smallmouth bass could not be delivered until the weather got cooler in order to insure the best survival of the fish. They were delivered on November 1, 1999. The fish hatchery delivered 312 rainbow trout and 175 smallmouth bass.
Muskrats were causing problems by burrowing into the levy. They have been controlled and the levy was repaired in the spring of 2000. The problem was not severe but will require constant monitoring to prevent the levy from failing. Rip rap will be used on the levy to prevent burrowing. I have found in other cases as well, when both sides of a levy have water against it there is a very high incidence of muskrat damage.
The fish were fed 3 to 5 times per week by hand until I purchased an automatic feeder. The automatic feeder is the way to go if you do not live on the farm. It allows for multiple feedings per day, which will increase the efficiency of the fish production. Partial ice cover during times of cold temperatures does not allow for automatic feeding in the winter without an aerator to keep the water from freezing on the surface. Eight pounds of minnows were added in April 2000 to the ponds to supply a natural food source along with fish food because some of the fish would not eat the fish food. This should help increase fish growth as well. The smallmouth bass will need supplemental minnow stocking each year until they are restocked into another pond unless baitfish such as bluegill are introduced.
The Rainbow Trout grew from an average size of 8 inches when stocked to an average size of 15 inches in one year. This is about the right size for retail sale. Some of my fee hunting customers caught Rainbow Trout when they were not hunting. This added to their overall positive experience! If I had purchased the automatic feeder earlier I am convinced they would have grown even more with a daily feeding schedule.
The Smallmouth Bass have grown from an average size of 4 inches to an average size of 8 inches in one year. Stocking minnows earlier would have allowed them to grow faster the first year. The Smallmouth do not readily eat the fish food like the supplier had said they would. I feel they need minnows in addition to the fish food. No death loss has been observed from the Smallmouth Bass although a 1 to 2 percent loss was observed from the Rainbow Trout (which resulted from fish activity).
I have noticed blue herron around the ponds and believe they have taken some fish but have no evidence of it. I had anticipated this to be a potential problem so the sides of the pond were dug at a steeper grade to reduce the amount of shallow water available for fish feeding birds to wade in while feeding.
A small scale operation is viable at this size for selected markets, specifically for on farm recreational and fee fishing and for personal use but would not be viable for most markets because of the limited volume of fish produced. Also in Illinois retail sale of dressed fish requires a permit. I intend to continue raising fish in my spring fed ponds. It is a nice complement to my other on farm fee hunting and agritourism activities, which include 4-H wheeling and camping.
Start up cost may be prohibitive for some farmers to get into aquaculture at this scale but for my operation it provides another recreational experience for my family and paying customers.
A field day was held on September 5, 2000 at the farm. Attendance was not as high as expected. Only 36 people attended. Feedback during and after the field day revealed the day following the holiday was a bad choice because of family commitments by several sustainable farmers who had planned to attend. Enterprises discussed during the day included Rainbow Trout and Smallmouth Bass aquaculture, fee hunting Whitetail Deer and Turkeys, grape production and vineyard Management, forestry management for timber, medicinal-mushrooms-ginseng production, honey bees, carbon sequestration and conservation program opportunities. The SARE and Illinois Sustainable Agriculture Grant Program were also highlighted.
Information about the field day was distributed through the area Soil and Water Conservation Districts, Cooperative Extension Service Office, Farm Bureau, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Resource Conservation and Development (RC&D). local newspapers and radio were utilized to promote the field day and we received very good coverage. Members of the organizations listed above gave many of the presentations during the field day. All of the presentations given during the field day were video taped and I hope to make them available at a later date even though this was not part of the original grant.
Results of the project were made available at the field day, as well as additional information and fact sheets about various sustainable ag systems.