Leigh Holland has an easy, honest manner. So if you ask him about the hybrid catfish he's been raising, expect a truthful answer. “There are a few problems, but they're at the forefront of new genetics,” says the Indianola, Miss., catfish producer. “I'm all about genetics and breeding so I'm excited about the hybrids. One thing's for sure: they're an extremely hardy, vigorously-feeding fish.”
Holland moved to Mississippi from Oklahoma in 1981. About a year later, he began Jubilee Farms as a catfish operation with three ponds.
“In the mid-1980s, we began hatching our own fish. Prior to that, I was in food fish and had been looking at some of the studies Auburn University was doing with genetics. It really caught my attention.”
After talking with the Auburn researchers, Holland secured some of their fish and began hatching his own. Shortly after, Holland began selling fingerlings.
“Primarily, we were still in food fish, but the fingerling side of things began to grow. After a while, we switched from food fish to fingerlings. That continued for a number of years with most customers in east Mississippi and Alabama.”
Currently, Jubilee Farms encompasses about 1,100 acres of water with about 400 acres in food fish with the balance in fingerlings and brooders.
About six years ago, Auburn University researchers were working in Mississippi with Goldkist to produce hybrids — a cross of a blue and channel catfish. Holland was able to participate in those studies on a small scale.
“Then, several years ago, I saw the possibility that I could produce enough hybrids to at least provide for my own food fish operation. Based on what I'd seen the hybrids do — especially with their growing characteristics — I felt it was a good chance to take.”
Two years ago, Holland's operation produced right at 2 million hybrids. He kept them all.
This year “we did better than that and got about 9 million. So this is the first year I've had any available for sale. We hatch out about 80 million of the regular fish, so you can see the hybrids remain a small part of the hatchery's big picture.”
Holland believes 2007 will be a watershed year for the hybrids.
“So far, they've been put out in small numbers over a few spots for farmers to try. Auburn is doing the same thing in Alabama. I think there'll finally be enough hybrids out to get a feel for how these fish will perform.
“To be honest, when something new like these hybrids comes along, many people play it up to the point of being overly optimistic. I'm very interested to see what these hybrids will do in the real world, year in and year out.
“I think it'll take two or three more years to have enough data to honestly evaluate how these hybrids perform next to regular channel catfish. Right now, I'm very encouraged — there are many positives they bring.”
Catfish producers want and need a fish that will grow out in a year. With regular channel cats, hewing to such a schedule is very challenging.
“Depending on the size of fingerlings they get, producers can be extremely hard-pressed to turn over a fish in a year. Most don't, so that leads to multi-stocking programs.”
Hybrids allow a crop to be raised in a single year, maybe less. “They allow a farmer to know where he's at much better. He can say, ‘This pond will be ready at X date, and I'll know what kind of production and conversion rates I have.’ That's a big positive and makes catfish operations more like row crop operations.”
The hybrids are very aggressive feeders — much more than regular channel cats. And so far, Holland says, the hybrids are more disease resistant.
“For instance, last year I had four ponds in a row — two channel and two hybrids. Both channel ponds suffered significant winterkill and the hybrids were fine. That leads me to believe the hybrids are a hardier fish.”
But there are also a few negatives associated with the hybrids.
“One big negative is the hybrids won't grade through a sock. Most everyone is now on a cropping program. That helps with cash flow, and means there aren't too many pounds of fish out there at one time.”
But because of the hybrids' body configuration, they won't grade as well as a channel cat and tend to get hung up in the net.
“So you either have to use a bar grader or raise them in a manner so they're all ready to be pulled at once. I use the bar grader. But I've had a few problems with mortality using that.
“Proponents of these hybrids say the bar grader will do the trick. But when you get out under the summer sun, some of the things they'll claim should go off without a hitch aren't that easy.”
As far as production, however, “we've been pleased with the pounds per acre. This past year, I was able to get enough fish. But in the past, my numbers have been so low I haven't been able to stock as heavily as I'd have liked.”
From ponds Holland wasn't able to stock heavily, “we got in the 8,000-pound to 8,500-pound range. In heavier stocked ponds, we got about 10,000 to 14,000 pounds to the acre.”
How does that compare to other farm yields? “Our operation is different than other operations because our ponds are deeper and stocked heavier. But we're at 7,500 to 10,000 pounds per acre with regular channels.”
Hybrids are notoriously difficult to produce in the hatchery.
“That's the big, big, big negative of the hybrids. There have been a number of years we completely struck out on hatching — it wasn't worth the effort. It's very labor-intensive at the same time of year when you're the busiest.”
Why's that? “I have two hatcheries, so we were able to devote one to only hybrids. That's helped us. But you must prepare the females, gather them and put them in holding tanks. They have to be given hormone injections — usually two series of injections starting two and a half days in advance of the day they're stripped.”
With channel catfish, producers put cans in the pond and brood fish lay in them. Producers then simply collect the eggs and bring them in.
“It's easy and you can get 500 egg masses (each containing 12,000 to 15,000 eggs) in a day. But with hybrids, you have to pick the females that appear to be ready, bring them in, do the injections, and strip the eggs out. The blue males are killed for their testes. Then, you mix all of it together and keep your fingers crossed.”
The most agonizing step is watching survival of the egg to the fry. “Maybe you'll see 15 to 20 percent survival. Once you get to the fry stage, though, watch out. Hybrids will zoom from there.”
At this point, Holland wonders if hybrids will “take off” or end up being more of a niche market.
“Right now, it would seem almost impossible to get the number (of fingerlings) that would satisfy the industry. We're learning as we go, though. Maybe someone will find a way to ensure a better survival rate at the hatchery.”
When a hybrid fingerling is placed in a pond, the producer typically expects to harvest it in 10 to 12 months.
“When we harvest them, we average close to 2 pounds. That's the size the processors like.
“That was one of the big question marks going in. How would the plants like the hybrids? Everyone was worried about them fitting the fillet machines. But so far, all that was just empty worries.”
One thing that hybrids have shown Holland is the great potential of genetics in aquaculture.
“Much of what's raised is out of the same genetics from the 1980s. When you see these hybrids growing and their characteristics, it illustrates how much of a leading role genetics can play in aquaculture.”
Holland has also found hybrids are good to turn around a poorly producing pond.
“Everyone has ponds that are poor producers, for whatever reason. This year, I decided to grow hybrids in several of our problem ponds.
“Those ponds turned around to be decent producers. That's another way the hybrids can help the industry.”
Efficiency is key to the survival of U.S. aquaculture. Just look at the country's poultry business, says Holland.
“The reason foreign imports can't get a good foothold is our poultry producers are so efficient. They've got the cost of production down so low, foreigners can't compete.
“Those in the aquaculture business will have to get a similar level of efficiency. The hybrids can help with that.”