Illinois soybean farmers are bringing new customers for their crop to the surface. Immersed in research with the nation’s aquaculture industry, more fresh domestic soybean market opportunities could be spawned.
Aquaculture is an uptapped, growing market for soybean farmers, says Duane Dahlman, a soybean farmer from Marengo, IL, and a director for the Illinois Soybean Association (ISA). “The potential for the soybean industry is great. We can open up a smaller market and help turn it into a larger market for aquaculture producers and our product. Research shows a large percentage of the protein needed can come from soy,” he says.
Such is the case for Logan Hollow Fish Farm near Murphysboro, IL. All of its fish receive protein in their rations, including soybean meal.
“Soybean meal is the primary ingredient in our catfish feed and the second ingredient behind fish meal in our high-protein fish rations,” says Michael Schmidt, who works with Peter Reiff in the operation. “Having access to high-quality soybean meal for feed is critical, especially as fish meal becomes more scarce and expensive. Soy is a key protein source in our rations.”
Logan Hollow’s operationis nestled below the river bluffs and between soybean fields in southern Illinois not far from the Mississippi River. The area is well suited for rearing high-quality fingerling fish for pond stocking. River-bottom grounds offer fertile soil, high-quality groundwater and a long growing season. The farm has more than 60 ponds ranging from one-half to seven acres for a total of 170 acres of water.
“Normally, climate, water availability and soil composition for pond building determine aquaculture suitability,” says Melanie Fitzpatrick, United Soybean Board (USB) U.S. utilization director. “New technologies are being developed to expand opportunities for indoor land-based systems, as well. A big factor for them is energy costs to control temperature, especially in cold climates. It is important to farm aquatic species suited for the particular situation.”
In the case of Logan Hollow, spawning season begins in May with bass, crappie and sunfish. Catfish begin spawning in June when water temperatures rise. Fish, like hybrid striped bass and triploid grass carp, are spawned manually and hatched in special jars. They’re harvested in early March through late May and again from early September through late October.
“Southern Illinois and Missouri offer good conditions for the type of feeding we do, but Arkansas is the largest state for operations like ours,” says Schmidt. “If you move too far north of here, the season is too short. South of here in states like Mississippi and Alabama, producers can raise catfish for consumption just about all year round.”
Fitzpatrick adds that the number of growing days is extremely important and varies for different species. “For instance, Illinois may actually have more growing days for cool-water species like hybrid striped bass than Arkansas does, because the fish stop growing at water temperatures over 82° Fahrenheit,” she says. “Every area has its own set of unique challenges.”
Researchers are working to minimize production challenges in a number of areas, including feed. James Garvey, director of the Southern Illinois University (SIU) Carbondale Fisheries & Illinois Aquaculture Center, says it has partnered with ISA to find soy characteristics that work best in fish feed rations. “Feed is a big cost for aquaculture,” he says. “Soy as an alternative to fish meal in rations can be an ideal fit and is more cost-effective.”
Research has alreadyshown soybean meal is consistent in quality and can be produced in a range of protein levels for aquafeeds. Soy has the best amino-acid complex of all plant proteins, is highly digestible and proven to yield rapid fish growth and low feed-conversion ratios. SIU researchers are focusing now on palatability and nutritional supplements.
USB is funding two projects at Auburn University to assist southern fish farmers. One focuses on improving catfish management practices from “pond to plate” to improve efficiencies, enhance quality and decrease production costs. The other project focuses on developing new land-based production technologies with a variety of different methods to accommodate species.
“The interesting component is that the systems’ effluent is used as fertilizer for vegetables, fruits and ornamental plants,” says Fitzpatrick. It converts a waste-disposal problem into a value stream fertilizer, she says. And it provides an additional income stream from the plants. “Since fertilizer represents a major cost of production, this is a win-win for farmers.”
Marty Ross, Delmar, DE, and USB director, believes that domestic aquaculture production is the next frontier for U.S. soybean farmers.
“This new industry is the single greatest value-added opportunity since the inception of the modern poultry industry,” he says. “Investing soybean checkoff dollars toward domestic aquaculture production will open the door for maximum return while ensuring U.S. soybean products are used to fill this demand. Promoting domestic aquaculture production will also compliment U.S. food production independence and food safety oversight. The combination of economic opportunity and national interest will provide checkoff farmer-leaders with significant leveraging opportunities, making this investment even more attractive.”
Although domestic fish consumption of soybean meal is less than 1% of total domestic use, USB’s Melanie Fitzpatrick is optimistic about its potential.
“Wild catch is stagnant or declining, while consumption will only continue to increase,” she predicts, based on recent National Association of Aquaculture projections. “The growth potential is very exciting if U.S. aquaculture producers can operate profitably.”
From north to south, Illinois has many diverse locations for fisheries in lakes, strip-mine ponds, streams and rivers, says James Garvey, director of Southern Illinois University Carbondale Fisheries, estimating the live fish market generates nearly $2 million in annual sales for Illinois fish producers. Hybrid striped bass are sold to live markets in Toronto and Chicago; largemouth bass and specialty fish represent untapped markets.
To capture a share of growing fish demand, Duane Dahlman, farmer and Illinois Soybean Association director, says soybean farmers must continue to work within agriculture to maintain a reputation for high-quality, plentiful production.
“We operate with sound, scientific and safe handling procedures,” says Dahlman. “The economy may still be battling a number of challenges, but aquaculture and soybean production contribute to financial well-being, and we provide consumers with many options for nutritious and abundant food from all segments of agriculture.”