A trio of east Mississippi producers has found profitability by diversifying their farming portfolio with a mix of catfish, cattle, corn and soybeans.
“It's better sometimes to have three heads whenever you're making management and production decisions,” says Glenda Taylor, who with her husband, Doc, and son, Vance, operate Taylor Farms in Brooksville, Miss.
The three Taylors adhere to the philosophy of spreading the risks and responsibilities of their family farm — among family members and crops. “We went into the catfish business knowing it would help us spread out our risks, and we definitely plan to stay diversified,” says Glenda Taylor.
Vance Taylor adds, “If we were solely dependent on our row crops or on our cattle, there would have been some very lean years, especially recently. But fortunately, the cattle market has had more ups than downs in the past 10 to 12 years. It makes it so much easier if you have something else generating income when you have a bad crop year.”
Glenda Taylor, who also works for the local Soil and Water Conservation District, was the driving force behind the family's foray into the catfish business. She bought the land and then used it as collateral for a catfish production loan.
“Every time I'd get a little bit of extra money, I'd put it in a little pot, and it continued to grow. Then, I decided to buy 70 acres and get into the catfish business.”
At the time, catfish prices were running at about 80 cents per pound, and the other family members encouraged Glenda's venture. But a depressed catfish market has since forced changes in the Taylor's operation.
Vance says they went to an every-other-day feeding schedule due to the lingering low catfish prices. “The every-other-day feeding has really helped with our oxygen and water problems.”
Compared to their other crops, he says, there's never a sense of closure with catfish. “It's an ongoing process, and you never really know the actual number of fingerlings you've got out there. You know what your feed conversion should be, but you seine a pond and there are some that are a half-pound to the left. Then you drop your fingerlings on top, and you're feeding again, and unless you completely shut down, you'll never know 100 percent where you stand.”
The Taylors know they can't afford to continue raising catfish with prices around 50 cents per pound.
“I'm not being a pessimist, but I don't know how anybody can succeed producing catfish for 50 cents per pound. We might have to shut down our ponds and see, but we know we can't make any profit at 50 cents per pound. If something doesn't turn around, we may have to finish out with what's currently in the ponds and sit on the sideline for a year to see if things turn around,” says Vance.
At prices around the 50-cent mark, he adds, catfish production is more about working for the processors than anything else. “All we're doing is making sure they have an adequate supply of fish.”
While Taylor believes the issue of Vietnamese fish imports has had an impact on the catfish market, he's not sure those imports are the reason for the continuing low catfish prices. “Somebody is making money off our fish because the retail prices haven't changed at all in recent years,” he says.
Ideally, Glenda Taylor says, they could profitably produce fish at a price of about 65 cents per pound.
“We'd like to see prices get above that level, but we could live with 65 cents if feed prices would stay at a bearable level,” she says. “We realize that 80 cents was high, and we're probably not going to see that again. But we can't survive on 50 cents.”
Vance adds, “You can put it down on paper, and even at 50 cents, with a two-to-one conversion, it looks like it ought to work and make you some money. But in a real-life situation, there is no way you can make a profit at that price level.”
A mix of corn and soybeans helps the Taylors to further diversify their farming operation. Corn yields average about 120 bushels per acre and their soybeans — mostly Group 4s and Group 5s — average about 40 bushels per acre.
The Taylors also run about 900 head of cattle during the winter months and anywhere from 400 to 550 cattle on summer grass, depending on the availability of acceptable grass for grazing.