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Costs remain high in catfish production
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Market prices for catfish are up slightly from the record lows of recent years, but increased production costs are preventing growers from any major celebrations.
Jimmy Avery, Extension professor at the Thad Cochran National Warmwater Aquaculture Center in Stoneville, said this year's prices should average 8 to 10 cents more than in 2003 when prices averaged 58 cents per pound. Fuel, feed and other production expenses are adding 8 to 9 cents per pound to growers' production costs.
"The cumulative effect means this year won't be much better than last year. If the market stays true to the typical 10-year pattern, the best prices for 2004 are behind our growers," Avery said. "Feed costs are about 25 percent higher than this time last year, and fuel prices have also been higher."
Avery said an informal survey indicated that feed prices in June were $295 per ton compared to $231 in 2003. However, there is room for optimism as feed prices are beginning to show signs of declining due to drops in the soybean and corn markets.
Delta catfish farmers will soon get a break in production costs as electric cooperatives with the South Mississippi Electric Power Association establish reduced rates for nonpeak-hour usage. The savings is set to begin in August, just in time for the year's peak of aeration needs. Avery said the result is expected to be a $1 million annual savings to growers during the next few years.
Charlie Hogue, Extension catfish production specialist based in Noxubee County, said East Mississippi farmers have benefitted from a similar arrangement with Tennessee Valley Authority cooperatives.
"Our catfish farmers have been able to run almost three aerators during off-peak hours for what it had cost Delta producers to run one," he said.
Hogue said most Delta catfish farms are 10 times larger than those in the eastern part of the state. The average size of an east Mississippi farm is 40 to 50 acres, which enables farmers to have a more hands-on management.
"It helps in managing production costs when the people feeding the fish are the ones buying the feed. There is less waste, and they do a better job in general," Hogue said. "Farmers need to feed all the fish will eat -- no more, no less, and they have to take advantage of the opportunities to feed while the water temperatures are right."
Hugh Warren, executive vice president of the Catfish Farmers of America, said growers have been "trying to hold on" and are "being very careful how they spend money" as they wait for the market to improve.
"Soybean prices have been coming down, and that indicates less expensive feeds could be coming soon," Warren said. "We wish farm-bank prices were higher. Feed costs, rainy weather and fuel costs have all been (negative) factors this year."
Warren said the industry will continue to push for country-of-origin labeling on fish products.
"Obviously, we feel like the consumers have a right to know where their product is coming from," Warren said. "Importers are trying hard to defeat the issue, which tells us they know American consumers would be more inclined to purchase U.S. grown fish, especially when you consider the multitude of food safety and regulatory factors in place for U.S. products."