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State Catfish Recover From Weather Stresses
By Bethany Waldrop Keiper
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Just like Mississippi's row crop producers, catfish farmers have had their share of weather-related problems during the first half of 1996.
An early, cool spring that suddenly turned into hot summertime threw off feeding earlier in the year, but now there is an even keel.
Variations in temperature and pond conditions can stress the catfish, causing them to eat less and grow more slowly.
"The slow down in feeding may keep supplies of food-size fish tight later in the year, especially during the summer," said Dr. Marty Brunson, extension leader of wildlife and fisheries at Mississippi State University.
Food-size fish range in weight from 1 to 2 pounds. Jim Steeby, area extension aquaculture agent in the Delta, said the early cool temperatures held growers back on harvesting fish for processing.
"We've seen a good deal of common spring diseases which are due in part to the changing weather patterns," Steeby said. "We're hoping the weather will stay warm to aid fish feeding and growth."
Catfish processing already has reached record highs for 1996.
"National processing volume in March was at an all-time high -- a record 46.3 million pounds. This tops the March 1992 record of 45 million pounds of fish processed," Brunson said. "The demand for catfish from both processors and consumers is very strong."
Brunson added that Mississippi's processing accounts for about 80 percent of these national figures.
Farm-raised catfish processed during April totaled 38.6 million pounds, up 5 percent from April 1995. The record number of fish coming out of the ponds in March will keep supplies tight, which can be both good and bad news for producers.
"Tight supplies of foodsize fish will mean that if growers have the fish to sell, they will get a good price for them," Brunson said. "If the conditions stay right for good feeding, we should be able to catch up and produce enough fish to meet the demand."
Average prices paid to producers in April was 78 cents per pound.
Prices to growers are not the only things that are high. Feed prices are up significantly from last year due to higher grain prices.
"Current feed prices are ranging from $270 to $280 per ton. This time last year feed prices were about $220 per ton," Steeby said. "But last fall many growers booked as much as half of their feed for this year at the lower prices."
Mississippi is home to about 60 percent of the catfish acreage in the nation, at 99,000 acres. Almost all of this acreage is found in the Mississippi Delta, but new ponds in east Mississippi also are a part of the total.
"We are digging catfish ponds left and right," said Dr. Dennis Reginelli, Noxubee County agent. "Growers are pleased with the prices they receive for their fish and are finding that catfish farming is a good fit into their operations."
There are about 5,000 acres of catfish ponds in Noxubee and Lowndes counties. Alcorn, Chickasaw, Clay and Monroe counties also have catfish ponds.