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Larger state catfish are going to market
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- The recent market's demand for larger catfish has helped the industry become more efficient, but it also increases the risk to producers.
Harvest-ready catfish today weigh between 1 1/4 to 3 pounds and average 1 1/2 pounds. Until recently, catfish averaging 1 1/4 pounds were considered market-size fish.
"Growing larger fish extends by about six weeks the period of time the fish are in the ponds. That has the effect of increasing the size of the standing crop that is being held in ponds," said Jim Steeby, aquaculture specialist with Mississippi State University's Extension Service in Belzoni.
Growing larger fish means more investment per fish to produce them. It takes three pounds of feed to grow a 1 1/2 pound fish. It also increases the producer's risk that the fish may be lost before it reaches sale.
"The market is forcing us toward greater risk," Steeby said. "Every day the fish is in the pond is another day something can happen to it."
Mississippi catfish are facing market competition from other white fish such as flounder and tilapia, and from imported catfish. Prices to producers this year have been around 68 cents a pound, down 10 cents from last year. Prices and demand are usually highest in the early months of the year, and then prices level or decrease by July and August.
"Given the high risk of producing a catfish crop, prices below 70 cents a pound are barely adequate to compensate for the investment," Steeby said.
Feed prices have remained low, reflecting low soybean prices, the major component of catfish feed. Feed costs $210 a ton, a price that has held steady during recent years.
"All of our profit in the last three years has been from reasonable food prices," Steeby said.
Temperatures around the 80s since mid-April were ideal for hatching a good crop of catfish fry, but slowed the feeding of larger fish.
"Eighty percent of the hatcheries were done by the third week of June, which is about two weeks early," Steeby said. "When we get our fry into the ponds early, we have an adequate growth period before temperatures cool again in the fall."
Larger fish thrive on daytime temperatures in the upper 80s and low 90s, with nighttime temperatures dropping to the upper 60s or low 70s. Rains reduce temperatures and often bring a round of diseases to fingerlings and foodfish if cool weather persists.
"Catfish health and appetite is best at the warmer temperatures," Steeby said. "The fish are more vulnerable to diseases at cooler temperatures.