Fish farmers find new applications for old dairy equipment

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By CARIN TUNNEY

Capital News Service

LANSING —  It’s unlikely most people get excited when they see a vacant manure pit, but Bill West sees these storage lagoons as money-making ventures.

West, the president of the Wisconsin Aquaculture Association, started a push to convert old dairy farms to fish farms about five years ago by making use of old equipment and manure lagoons. There’s an opportunity as large dairy operations buy smaller farms as the industry consolidates, he said.

“The big operations, all they want is the land for the crop and spreading manure,” West said. “So, you have what used to be a pretty good size dairy operation, and now all the land is sold or leased out and all you have left is 5-10 acres of the farmstead with the outbuildings and a manure pit.

“So, there’s an opportunity for young couples to buy out the old farmstead. They have everything they need, right there,” West said.

Lauren Jescovitch, a fisheries and aquaculture specialist with Michigan Sea Grant, said cost is a big challenge facing the aquaculture industry, so farmers must understand both the biology and the economics of aquaculture.

“I’m really excited when somebody comes to me saying they want to do this, I think that’s awesome,” she said. “But you know this is a business. It’s not just a hobby. You want to guarantee that you’ll have some kind of output.

“I think the economics and business side is typically the hardest,” said Jescovitch, an Extension educator for the Western Upper Peninsula.

Fish farms require a water source, pond-side tanks, pumps and indoor areas like barns for year-round storage. 

West, who owns Blue Iris Fish Farm west of Green Bay, said that while manure ponds don’t store fish, they can store water that’s recirculated to pond-side tanks where fish are raised. The circulating system between the lagoon water source and the tanks filters fish waste from the tanks where the fish are kept.

“Instead of making acres and acres of water, I just use a quarter or half acre and can raise just as much as people with large expanses of water by putting all my perch in pond-side tanks,” he said.

Fish farmers must drain the water and sludge from the manure ponds and achieve the optimal nutrient level, or the fish will die. But West said the old pits are lined with concrete or clay, which makes them ideal to store water.

And the idea is catching on. He said about 20 fish farms use old lagoons as part of the system.

Livestock with legs like goats, chickens, pigs, donkeys and cows have wandered Tami Hallam’s 10-acre farm in Luxemburg, Wisconsin, over the past 25 years. But five years ago, she found her true love and became a fish farmer after a brief stint in aquaponics, a system that grows vegetables using live fish to provide nutrients.

“I soon realized that I really enjoyed the fish,” said Hallam, who co-owns Scenic Valley Perch Farm. “I found myself spending way more time with them and enjoying them much more. Pretty soon, I was taking out plant beds to make room for more fish.”

Hallam also raises yellow perch. This year her farm received a $27,000 federal grant to study the best ways to quickly raise perch fingerlings to optimal size for selling to restaurants.

“It might be a different kind of animal, but it’s still farming,” she said.

Like West, Hallam converted an abandoned manure pit to a water storage pond for a low-cost start up. She also uses the old dairy farm’s pumps to circulate water and the old manure gutters to bring water into the barn so she can grow perch year-round.

“It was a perfect use for it,” Hallam said.

Hallam said she hopes to make her farm profitable enough for her husband to retire from his regular job at a paper mill.

Progressive Dairy reported in May that wild caught perch in the Great Lakes region are on the decline and that industry experts predict a demand of 10 million pounds of perch a year. Only 3 million pounds are supplied now, according to the magazine.

Experts say that retrofitting old dairy operations is part of a growing interest in the region in finding a way to profit from livestock with fins.

Despite the challenges, Michigan Sea Grant’s Jescovitch said adopting aquaculture practices is a way to invest in a more sustainable future for the Great Lakes region. It’s a more environmentally friendly alternative to dairy farms, which produce high amounts of carbon dioxide and methane, gasses linked to global warming.

“Fish are a great viable option,” she said. “We can grow fish to replenish our natural environments and to keep our kids fishing. We can fish for generations because of aquaculture.”

Carin Tunney writes for Great Lakes Echo.