Now, the operation consists of 103.5 water acres in 10 ponds. Kevin and Edith own 65.5 acres and rent 38 acres from their son, Kevin R. Shirk, who got out of catfish to concentrate on poultry and row crops. The catfish farm is operated as a multi-stock grow-out system, with per acre production consistently above industry averages.

“Our primary product is channel catfish,” Kevin says. “We’ve experimented with hybrid cross catfish (channel/blue), but we’ve found that in our operation they have a negative impact. Due to cannibalism, they must be grown as a single batch in a pond. Our multi-batched channel catfish have a significantly higher production history than single batch hybrids. We’re keeping a close watch on developments in hybrid production, and we’ll try them again if we feel we can realize an economic benefit.”

The Shirks buy three- to four-inch fingerlings from Thompson Fisheries at Yazoo City, Miss., and raise them to seven- to nine-inch stockers, which are then moved to grow-out ponds for finishing to approximately 1.8 pounds and about 18 inches in length.

“We try to tailor fish size to what the market wants,” Kevin says, “so, size will vary some year to year. Raising our own stockers gives us advantages of availability when needed and cost savings for fingerlings, plus our home-grown stockers finish much faster than those shipped into our area from the Delta.”

Fingerlings are started on 35 percent protein pellets. “A key to making a nice profit with fingerlings is survivability,” he says. “The industry norm is 60 percent survival —we consistently run above 85 percent.

“Stockers are moved to grow-out ponds twice yearly — about 5,000 fish per acre are put into each pond in July or August, and the remainder are transferred in January. We use Sam Saul Seining Service to move our stockers. He does a good job, is dependable and fast, and is our least expensive option for that operation.

“We use 28 percent protein feed, mostly from Land O’ Lakes at nearby Macon, Miss. They have consistently given us good feed, good service, and good results at a competitive price. We book feed ahead when we can lock in a price that will give us a profit. We follow Chicago Board of Trade prices daily, which helps us keep ahead of local market price movements.

“Our strategy has been to give each fish as much feed as it will eat each day. In peak growing season, we feed twice daily, starting when water temperature stays above 80 degrees. This increases feed consumption about 10 percent, but it pays off in production.

“Quality and grade for our finished catfish have been excellent, which has resulted in good demand from processors. We attribute this to the extra care in general husbandry practices, particularly feeding and aeration.

“We sell our fish direct to processors. Superior Catfish at nearby Macon, Miss., is our primary contract harvester and buyer.”

Each pond is harvested two or three times per year, Kevin says, normally in June, August, and mid-winter. “These times seem to be when there is a lull in other farmers’ harvest schedules, and it’s much easier to sell then.

“Three times is also ideal for our goal of selling 1.8 pound fish, a size that seems ideal for maximum annual production, and a size that’s in demand in the marketplace. Research has shown that channel catfish loose feed conversion efficiency when they are larger than two pounds.

“With the high demand for catfish this year, we have increased our stocking density to 13,000 fish per acre in order to harvest smaller fish more often. When demand slackens and processors ask for larger fish, we will resume a 10,000 per acre stocking rate.”