Heat has traditionally threatened Mississippi's catfish, but this year's hot temperatures have not been an issue as most producers are equipped for the challenge.
Algae in catfish ponds supply the oxygen catfish require during the day, but at night the catfish rely on aerators. With high temperatures, catfish require more oxygen in the water.
July's near-record nighttime temperatures meant catfish producers had to run aerators all night every night and even some cloudy days.
Jim Steeby, area aquaculture agent with Mississippi State University's Thad Cochran National Warmwater Aquaculture Center in Stoneville, said water temperatures have been between 90 and 95 degrees lately. Ideal temperatures are between 80 and 85 degrees.
"When the water is this hot, we do a lot of aeration, but we're pretty well-equipped for that," Steeby said.
"It's critical that we supply them with oxygen during the nighttime hours. As nights get longer, we will aerate until the water temperatures cool."
With cooler spring weather, catfish production started on schedule rather than early as it has the previous two years. Fish feeding and the hatchery season did not get an early start.
"Catfish grow rapidly once they reach the 0.25- to 0.5-pound range. It helps to start feeding fish early to ensure they reach market size," Steeby said.
Market size is a 1.25- to 1.5-pound fish, or one that measures between 15 and 17 inches. This spring was the third year in a row the supply of market-sized catfish has not been able to keep up with processor demand.
Price has been good so far this year. Current prices are 75 cents a pound for live fish, down from 80 cents in mid-July. With prices for soybeans the main ingredient in catfish feed very low, feed prices are good for farmers, staying mostly around $210 a ton.
Chat Phillips of Phillips Brothers Farm in Yazoo City, Miss., has 1,200 acres of foodfish and fingerling ponds. He said current prices are decent, especially when coupled with feed prices. "We feel fortunate that our spread between feed and fish is still favorable," Phillips said.
Because of the cool spring, his ponds were a little slow starting the feeding season, but feed volumes picked up in June and July, and August production seems off to a good start. The only problem he's had is some catfish deaths when the high temperatures broke in late July.
"We have had some mortality that occurred during the recent cool-off that gives me concern as we begin to approach the fall transition period," Phillips said. "Normally we don't see that happening, and I was real concerned to see it occur in July."
Steeby said when the water cools, bacteria outbreaks become a problem. In late fall, producers cut back catfish feed, as eating less increases the chances of surviving a disease.
Last year, Mississippi's 108,000 acres of catfish ponds produced 385 million pounds of catfish, 65 percent of the nation's total production.