MISSISSIPPI STATE, Miss. — Good prices and lower feed costs are helping catfish producers after they suffered nearly four years of high production costs and low market prices.

Terry Hanson, Mississippi State University Extension agricultural economist, said catfish producers are receiving 70 to 75 cents a pound, and prices have been above 70 cents since October. Market prices in 2002 and 2003 dropped as low as 55 cents a pound. Prices may be helped by increased U.S. interest in eating catfish.

“This is a good level to be at,” Hanson said of the current market.

“When prices got up around 80 cents a few years ago, it invited a lot of imports into the country.”

Feed represents about 50 percent of the variable cost of catfish production and in recent years has been quite high. Hanson said in early summer, catfish feed cost $230 a ton for 32 percent protein feed. A year ago, that same feed cost about $310 a ton.

“Unfortunately, a good catfish feed price means a lower soybean price, which may not be so good for soybean producers,” Hanson said.

He said gasoline and diesel prices are up 46 percent from last June. While a large increase, fuel and electricity account for only about 10 percent or less of total farm production expenses.

Jim Steeby, Extension aquaculture specialist in the Delta, said catfish have not started feeding heavily because of cool spring temperatures. Cool water temperatures also delayed the start of the catfish hatching season.

“Hatching usually starts between the last week of April to the second week of May,” Steeby said. “This year, most growers didn’t really get started until the second week of May. We hope the hatching season will last until mid-July, but brooders stop laying eggs if water temperatures approach 90 degrees during the day and at night.”

There has been a slight shortage of fingerlings to stock in ponds because last summer was cool and ideal for disease. The cost of fingerlings is second to feed as the highest production input.

“Our fingerling survival was not as good last year,” Steeby said “It wasn’t an acute situation, but a constant attrition.”

A good hatching season followed by warmer weather in late summer will help bring fingerling numbers and fish production back up this year.

Bonnie Coblentz writes for Mississippi State University Ag Communications.