Bill Timpner's strip mine lake provides more than recreation for his family and water for livestock. The 100-acre lake also turns a profit. The Pinckneyville, IL, farmer says raising fish helped him diversify his operation and evened out his cash flow.

“Aquaculture can be a natural fit, especially if you have an existing water source,” says Timpner. “Labor requirements and capital outlay are minimal compared to other livestock enterprises I've tried. It's not nearly as intensive as dairy or hog production.”

The lake was created in the 1950s, following removal of coal from the ground. The farm next to the lake was retained by the family for subsequent crop and cattle production. Today, Bill and wife Nancy's children, Mallory and Will, are the sixth generation on the century-old farm. They raise corn, soybeans and wheat, along with the fish.

“I had always farmed 3,000-3,500 acres with two cousins. But when the operation was no longer able to sustain three families, I volunteered to get an off-farm job, rent my pasture and farm only a few hundred acres,” says Bill. “When the aquaculture industry was introduced here around 2000, I decided to try it as a way to diversify my operation.”

Timpner raised catfish his first year and experimented with hybrid striped bass production. Unfortunately, about the same time, foreign catfish flooded the U.S. market and drove the price down. Timpner switched exclusively to hybrid striped bass. The fish is a cross between marine striped bass, known for large size and fast growth rate, and freshwater white bass, which contributes genetics for survival in fresh water.

“Demand for hybrid striped bass has exceeded our supply. The fish are highly sought by Asian populations in large cities,” he says.

Timpner did not enter the aquaculture business without seeking some assistance. Paul Hitchens, aquaculture specialist with the Fisheries and Illinois Aquaculture Center at Southern Illinois University (SIU)-Carbondale, has a reputation for tirelessly assisting would-be producers with everything from start-up to final sales. Hitchens is the only such specialist in the state, and to test fish for a deadly viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS) disease. He currently works with about 300 people statewide.

“I work with traditional farmers and industry newcomers and others in between,” he says. “I explain the process to potential producers and provide them with an information packet and species recommendations based on their location. Producers then pay a small fee to subscribe to our technical assistance service. I help them with planning their operations, monitoring their harvest and finding markets for their live fish.”

Timpner worked with Hitchens to discuss prospects for their existing lake and to source his fish, which come from Arkansas.

“Spring is spawning time, so we generally get young, 2-in. fish during the June-through-August timeframe and place them in floating, tight-mesh nursery cages,” he explains. “When the fish are 5-6 in. long, they are transferred to floating 6 × 6 × 12-ft. pens that are made from PVC pipe and plastic-coated mesh wire. The fish spend a total of 14-16 months in cages to get them to the 1.25-1.5-lb. market weight.”

HITCHENS COORDINATES Timpner's marketing for him. He says he has no trouble finding customers, and adds that producers face virtually no competition from foreign live fish imports.

“Farmers like to be independent marketers, but in this business, you have to stick together,” says Timpner. “Paul knows how to negotiate the price and get the fish sold. The buyer we work with from Toronto, Canada, sends semi-trucks with tanks on them to our farm. We load the fish, and they are taken back to Toronto for live distribution.”

Hitchens estimates Illinois producers sold some $1.5-2 million in fish last year. Hybrid striped bass bring about $3.35/lb., he says, compared to 80¢/lb. for catfish. Another popular variety, the large-mouth bass, brings from $4.25 to $5.50/lb.

Timpner says his profits are greater than that of other livestock he's raised. “If I figured in all of my costs from feed, power and other inputs, it's probably about $2/lb., or about a 40% return,” says Timpner. “Raising fish spreads out my cash flow. I am usually harvesting and marketing fish from September into the winter.”

He feeds a floating soybean meal-based prepared feed. Carnivorous fish, like the large mouth bass and the hybrid striped bass, require 42-46% protein in rations compared with percentage levels in the low 30s for other fish. Hitchens and his SIU colleagues are researching various soy products to see if they can replace more of the fish meal traditionally fed to fish with products that are raised closer to home.

“There is not much day-to-day labor involved with feeding, but you do have to monitor water quality and fish health,” says Timpner. “You probably won't succeed in this business unless you have some type of permanent water source on your farm and professional expertise. Paul can help me diagnose diseases and any water problems. If I have an oxygen depletion situation, for example, that can kill fish faster than anything else. If a producer is serious about this industry, the best place to start is talking to Paul.”

For more information about getting into the aquaculture business, contact Paul Hitchens at SIU at 618-453-5590 or hitchens@siu.edu. Details about the Fisheries and Illinois Aquaculture Center at SIU and its programs are found at http://fisheries.siu.edu/.