Catfish producers are doing whatever it takes to lower their costs of production to survive until fish prices rebound. In many cases that means cutting feeding rates and reducing overhead.

Three catfish producers from Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas compared their survival strategies at the 10th annual Fish Farming Trade Show in Greenville, Miss. While their costs of production varied somewhat, all three repeated the same story of lower inventory numbers and a need for higher prices.

John Grant of Yazoo City, Miss., says his cost of production exceeds 60 cents per pound. “We're getting killed right now,” he says. “We're in a very depressed situation, and we're in survival mode. We're selling fish below our costs, and we're trying to cut costs.”

“Our breakeven level is somewhere between 62 cents and 65 cents per pound,” agrees Tim Sampolesi of Lake Village, Ark. “I've only been farming catfish for six years, so you can imagine I have a large debt to service. Right now, we're trying to survive the low, and we're trying to keep our debt serviced so we don't fall deeper in debt.”

The low-cost winner of the day was George Smelley of Greensboro, Ala., who says 50 cents per pound net is his breakeven. “We really need to be at 60 cents, though,” he added.

While pond inventory numbers across the Mid-South often vary — depending on which coffeeshop clientele you survey — catfish inventory numbers appear to be down overall. Depressed prices forced many producers to cut feeding rates last summer, which in turn lowered inventory supplies. Those same low prices have pumped up demand, further decreasing pond supplies.

“Fish are lot tighter than this time last year due to increased demand. I'm happy the fish are going out the back door. Even though they're cheap, we are getting rid of them, which is what has to happen before prices can rebound,” says Smelley.

Grant says, “We're starting to deplete the bigger fish, which is causing prices to firm up somewhat and should cause some more movement in prices. Things are going to turn around though, like they always do.”

An upward movement in prices can't come soon enough, according to catfish producers who have already slashed feeding rates, eliminated excess labor, and whittled down their electricity and fuel bills as much as possible.

Sampolesi is one of those farmers who cut back his feeding rates, watched his electricity and fuel consumption closer, and had his row crop labor doing double duty on his fish ponds. Still, he says, it's not enough. “I've changed more than I wanted to in order to improve my cash flow. I fed every other day until last summer, and then I began feeding every third day. It was the best I could do,” he says.

To cut overhead, Grant fed every other day last summer. “We're going to have to raise our volume of production to cut expenses further, so we may have to go back to feeding every day. We've already cut out all excess labor, electricity, fuel and feed — trying to recoup our losses.”

In comparison, Smelley takes the opposite tactic, believing that quantity and quality become more critical in a low-price scenario.

“If anything, you need to be feeding with the best feed you can get when prices are low. When times are tough, we monitor ponds every day, and in some cases we have fed twice a day if the fish didn't eat in the morning,” he says. “My approach has been to feed more in tough economic times. We need to push as many pounds through the farm as possible, because anything I can do to increase volume decreases overall cost.”

When it comes to choosing a feed, Grant says, the least-cost option isn't always the best way to go. “It may be best for the mill, but it's not necessarily the best choice for the producer.”

The person doing the feeding also affects feed conversion rates.

“The number one on our farm is the person feeding the fish, and then the quality of feed. “He's the most important person on the farm. If he's over-feeding or under-feeding, he's costing me money.” Smelley says. Grant and Sampolesi agree, and say the second-most important factor in feed conversion is fish density.

“Feed and fingerlings are about 63 percent of your cost,” says Smelley. “Stress is what kills us on our farm, because any kind of stress later develops into a disease problem.”


e-mail: dmuzzi@primediabusiness.com.