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State catfish grow under tight watch
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- About the only way Mississippi farm-raised catfish resemble other fish found in the state is that they all live in water.
Catfish are grown commercially under controlled conditions. Every aspect of their production is carefully managed to ensure a consistently high harvest and to protect the quality of the product.
Mississippi leads the world in catfish production. In 2000, the state had 110,000 acres of catfish ponds while the nation had a total of 190,000 acres.
Jim Steeby, aquaculture specialist in Belzoni with Mississippi State University's Extension Service, said producers built catfish ponds in the Delta on land previously used for pasture or rice.
"The heavier clay soils wouldn't grow cotton at all and weren't very good for soybeans either, so they were put into catfish," Steeby said.
To make a pond, producers take the top 3 to 4 inches of soil from the 10 to 15 acre pond site and use it to build the levees. Levees on all four sides hold 4 to 5 feet of water. Ponds are typically built side by side, making them easier to service and manage.
"You build the levees up, you don't actually dig into the ground," Steeby said. "This way, the ponds hold water better and you don't disturb the structure of the soil."
Wells drilled 150 to 200 feet deep into the alluvial aquifer beneath the Delta fill the catfish ponds with groundwater. Steeby said these waters are regularly tested by the Department of Environmental Quality and the Yazoo Management District and found to be free of pesticides.
Producers stock young catfish, or fingerlings, in these ponds, and for the next 18 to 24 months feed them a carefully controlled diet of floating food pellets. Soybean meal makes up the largest portion of this food, although some corn and vitamins also are included. Feeders blow food once or twice a day to the catfish, which come to the water surface to eat.
"There are few natural food sources on the bottom of our ponds as insects are almost non-existent in commercial catfish ponds," Steeby said.
When catfish reach market size, they are seined from the ponds and transported live to processing plants. Here they undergo tests similar to the evaluations to which other commercially produced meats are subject.
Modern commercial catfish production began in Mississippi in the late 1960s, with rapid growth starting in the 1980s. While the tremendous growth has slowed, the state is adding a little catfish acreage each year.
"In Mississippi, the newest acreage is around Marks in Quitman County. Most of the heavy clay soils in the mid-Delta have been utilized, but we still have a lot of heavy ground farther north," Steeby said. "East Mississippi production also has grown in the last 10 years."
Humphreys County has the state's largest catfish acreage, with 30,400 acres of ponds in 2000. Sunflower County ranks second with 23,800 acres and Leflore is next with 19,100.