Crawfish Production in Reestablished Wetlands

Project Overview

FNC03-443
Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2003: $6,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2005
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $5,650.00
Region: North Central
State: Missouri
Project Coordinator:

Commodities

  • Agronomic: millet, rice
  • Animals: shellfish

Practices

  • Animal Production: free-range
  • Education and Training: extension, farmer to farmer
  • Farm Business Management: marketing management, value added
  • Natural Resources/Environment: habitat enhancement, wetlands, wildlife
  • Pest Management: prevention
  • Production Systems: agroecosystems
  • Sustainable Communities: new business opportunities, employment opportunities, sustainability measures

    Summary:

    PROJECT BACKGROUND
    In southeast Missouri there has been an increased interest in utilizing wetland and re-established wetlands for crawfish production. The Southeast Missouri Lowland area has numerous old sloughs and wet areas, which are marginal for crop production. The land leveling and improved drainage of these areas are, in many cases, not economically viable.

    The development of crawfish production systems has the potential to offer a sustainable farming alternative that would utilize a natural resource (wetlands) and allow farmers to make a profit from this resource. Inputs into this system in the form of fertilizers and herbicides would be minimal or non-existent.

    The Southeast Missouri Lowlands initially consisted of large wetland areas teeming with both natural wildlife and natural vegetation. In the early 20th century, economics and the pressure to develop the area for agriculture facilitated the draining of these wetland areas. However, with the recent farm economy consisting of low crop prices and minimal agriculture profitability, many farmers in the region are reconsidering the value of wetlands.

    PROJECT AND FARM DESCRIPTION
    The objective of this project is to evaluate the effectiveness of utilizing a re-established wetland for crawfish production in southeast Missouri. The grant funds will be used to evaluate this system and assist in the acquisition of small-scale production equipment specifically for crawfish production. Additionally, Ben Hunter will explore both federal and state programs to help increase the understanding of their use for re-establishing wetlands for economic use.

    The Ben Hunter Farm is a family farm that consists of approximately 1,800 acres of rice and soybeans. Ben is the third generation of this family that has farmed in southeast Missouri. Ben’s hope is to assure the ability for any of his three children to perpetuate the family farm enterprise. The addition of alternative agriculture systems into the farming operation such as crawfish production will assure the continuation of the family farm.”

    Ben Hunter Farms started in 1991 with 240 acres. That year we had 80 acres of rice, 80 acres of beans, and 80 acres of milo. In 2004 we had 1,200 acres; 1,000 of that is rented and 160 acres was purchased in 2001. We try to have at least 500 acres of rice and 80 acres of corn and the rest is planted in soybeans.”

    Project Beginnings
    Before I received the grant, I was trapping crawfish in a natural slough that was on some land that I rented at one time but do not have now. The last year I farmed that land is when I bought the land that now has our own crawfish pond in it.

    The first year we owned the farm, crawfish could not be propagated in the slough because it was open on one end and would not hold water to a substantial depth. Before impounding the wetland, several agencies had to be considered. The Army Corps of Engineers wanted a report and pictures of the designated wetlands showing my plan and telling how it would benefit from such a plan. They agreed to turn it over to the county Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) office and I worked with them until I got the design I needed to flood and drain the pond.

    The plan Ben Hunter proposed was to develop a crawfish production system on the Hunter Farm on a 3.5 acre re-established wetland in Stoddard County, Missouri. This area was a farmed wetland that was certified as a wetland by USDA-NRCS and the Army Corps of Engineers concurred.

    RESULTS 2001 – 2003
    Levees were constructed around the wetland area: a drainage pipe with a water control structure was placed in the levees. The water is from three to five feet in depth, which is perfect for crawfish production.

    In July of 2001, a forage crop of pearl millet was planted and a stand was achieved. The millet grew tall and in October the pond was flooded to a depth of about three feet. The flood was maintained throughout the winter. In early May of 2002, crawfish were seeded at a rate of approximately 100 pounds per acre. In July the pond was drained and dried up to allow the crawfish to burrow. Once the crawfish burrowed the next forage crop could be planted, however the rice which was planted developed into a poor stand. This was significant because alfalfa hay had to be bought to supplement the forage the following spring. In March of 2003, alfalfa hay was dispersed in the pond at a rate of 600 pounds per acre. This process was repeated twice more during the season with the last application taking place in mid-June.

    Crawfish trays were placed in the pond during mid-April at a rate of 25 traps per acre; however crawfish activity was limited due to the cool, wet spring. Significant activity did not occur until the last week of May. Once activity increased enough to sustain trapping, the crawfish were harvested at a rate of 10 pounds per acre per day. As the season progressed the rate of harvest was proportionate to the increase in daytime temperatures. Thus during late June the harvest reached a peak of about 20 pounds per acre per day. Once the day time temperatures reached the high 80’s, activity started to drop off slightly and crawfish began to burrow.

    After about July 10th, the water was slowly lowered, then eventually drained and the pond was dried up. Once all the crawfish were burrowed, the pond was refilled with water and rice seed was sown by airplane at a rate of four bushels per acre. Four days later the seed had begun to sprout and the water was drained to allow the seed to peg. However, pressure from blackbirds was great and the forage crop had to be replanted. On August 8th, buckwheat was drilled into the pond at a rate of 50 pounds per acre. Buckwheat has a 45 day maturity and time was growing short so this made it a logical choice. The second planting was a success and on August 14th a stand was achieved.

    Approximately 1,100 pounds of crawfish were harvested from the three acre pond during the first season. Prices per pound ranged from $1.75 to $2.00. Gross revenue from the three acres exceeded $2,000 or $687 per acre. There was no net gain this year because the cost of production was over $3000. However the following years should be better because most of the equipment will have been paid for in the first year.

    It is essential that the forage crop is successful. I’ve found that without good forage, the crawfish will be small. Small crawfish are no problem to some, but lots of people like to see “the big ones.” The big crawfish have large heads and pincers, thus making more wasted weight. Smaller crawfish don’t waste as much and there are more per pound.

    OUTREACH
    The only tour I had this year of the crawfish pond was by the local cub scouts. They came out with their Den leader and toured the pond while I showed them how to harvest the crawfish. They all took off their shoes, and well, you can guess the rest. Once we finished running the traps we came back to the shed where we were holding the crawfish in tanks. We have two 500 gallon tanks that will hold about 75 pounds of live crawfish each. An air blower with air stones supplies oxygen to keep the crawfish alive. While the scouts looked at the crawfish in the tanks, I prepared boiled crawfish for those who wanted to try them. I think the scout master liked them the most although I couldn’t say the same for his wife. When everyone had their fill, each scout was allowed to take a crawfish home.

    RESULTS 2003 – 2004
    The 2004 crawfish season actually started in the fall of 2003 with the planting of the forage crop. This process was outlined in the 2003 report, but I’ll go over it again.

    I drained the pond in mid-July of 2003 and allowed it to dry enough that the tractor could drive over it. Before it could be dried sufficiently though, rains came and made it muddy for several days. The pump was turned on to flood the remainder of the ground so that seed could be flown on by airplane. Dry, untreated rice seed was sown by airplane in the flood at a rate of four bushels per acre. When the rice had sprouted about a quarter inch, I drained the water so the seed would not float.

    Blackbirds started eating the sprouting rice so I put out propane cannons. After about a week it was obvious the cannon had little effect on the birds. The only place with any seed left was a ten-foot radius around each cannon. All the other seed was eaten.

    The next time the pond dried, I decided to plant something with a shorter growing season. Buckwheat seemed a logical choice because it has a 45 day maturity compared to the 90 days for rice.

    The pond eventually dried and the buckwheat was planted using a John Deere no-till drill. The seed sprouted and had grown to about six inches when we got about four inches of rain. The pond flooded again and the buckwheat wilted and died.

    It was the first week in September and time had run out to plant anything that would grow to any significance. I decided to put alfalfa hay bales in the pond about ten feet apart over the entire area. After I placed the bales, the pump was turned on and the water was brought up to half way on them so they couldn’t float. Every few days, I would turn the pump back on and increase the water level until the bales were submerged. I left the water at about 18 inches until the first of December.

    After the end of November, I pumped the pond the rest of the way up so no freezing would occur on the bottom of the pond. This flood was maintained until the first of April and then water was slowly let out until I had two and a half feet of depth. Shallow water would warm quicker and allow more crawfish activity.

    Around May 1st, more crawfish traps were placed every 50 yards, baited and checked every other day to test activity. With daytime temperatures only in the sixties, and night time only around 45 to 50 degrees, little activity was expected. Once the day temperatures started to reach 80 degrees F, activity increased and traps were laid every 20 feet or so, baited and checked daily.

    At first the catch was good, about 15 or 20 pounds per day was caught. As soon as the temperatures hit around 90 degrees the crawfish started to burrow. It only took about a week and the catch was back to around five pounds per day.

    A little over 300 pounds of crawfish were caught this season. Out of that, 100 pounds was sold to a couple from Marble Hill, MO. My friends and family ate the rest.

    Because the catch was light and we had taken some crawfish out, 300 pounds of seed crawfish were purchased and released before the pond was drained for the summer.

    The scout troop that toured the pond last year was scheduled to come out but I had to cancel the tour due to a lack of crawfish.

    In summer 2004, Van Ayers, Agriculture and Rural Development Specialist, University of Missouri Extension, made a video of the crawfish operation that is available on CD. Shortly after that, we decided to go ahead and drain the pond and get a head start on the forage crop for the 2005 season.

    The pond drained well and this time we planted untreated, dry rice at a rate of three bushels per acre. The stand of rice was good, and in addition lots of barnyard grass and smartweed emerged.

    When the rice was at the five-leaf stage, 100 units of urea fertilizer were applied by ground rig. We received no rain after the fertilizer application, so the pump was turned on to irrigate the rice and flush the fertilizer in.

    The rice and weeds grew well with the irrigation and fertilizer. In mid-September an 18 inch flood was pumped into the pond so the burrowing crawfish could come out and eat while the temperatures were still in the 80s.

    In mid-November more water was added so that the flood reached three and a half feet. After December 1st, the pond was pumped up to full flood.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.