Aquaculture tour shows power of the soybean checkoff

United States soy meal is finding an ever expanding market south of the border thanks to aquaculture.

This week about 50 growers, state soybean staff and United States Soybean Export Council (USSEC) employees spent the week in Villahermosa, Mexico learning about existing opportunities and future expansion of the industry.

Tim Bardole, ISA director from Rippey, feeds a pen of tilapia at the Regal Springs Tilapia farm in Mexico.  

Tim Bardole, ISA director from Rippey, feeds a pen of tilapia at the Regal Springs Tilapia farm in Mexico. 

“We’re here to help show the soybean farmers in the U.S. where their checkoff dollars are being invested, how they are being invested and ultimately where much of their soybean meal ends up,” Colby Sutter, marketing director for the global aquaculture program with USSEC, said while leading a tour at Regal Springs Tilapia. “It’s crucial to be able to see first-hand how relationships have been forged in international marketing programs where ultimately we are creating a preference and demand for U.S. soy.”

Regal Springs Tilapia is a company that specializes in 100 percent lake grown fish with farms in southern Mexico, Honduras, Brazil and Indonesia. The fish are raised in deep water lakes in large floating nets that take advantage of water currents to maintain fresh water and give the fish a more natural habitat.

According to Geraldo Martinez, production manager for Regal Springs Tilapia, the company will produce 30,000 pounds of fish out of two lakes in Mexico per year. That equates to 30 million fish weighing about one kilogram each. The secret ingredient to the success of their business is the soybean meal used in the formulated diets of the fish.

“For one kilo of fish we will need 1.95 kilos of feed,” Martinez said. “So if you are talking 30,000 tons of fish you will need just short of 60,000 tons of feed in a year.”

Martinez said that about 25 to 30 percent of the feed ration was made using soy meal. He sights free trade agreements with the U.S. as an incentive in buying soy grown and crushed in America.

The company exports 75 percent of their fish to customers outside of Mexico. Of that, 95 percent of the fish are exported to the U.S. and the other five percent go to European markets. Costco is one of the major retailers in the U.S. that sells the tilapia.

April Hemmes and Tim Bardole, both directors for the Iowa Soybean Association, attended the aquaculture educational opportunity and were impressed with how U.S. soy meal is being used.

“It’s an excellent opportunity for me as a soy producer in the United States,” Bardole said. “It’s a win, win. There’s a growing market out there for fish and we grow soybeans. We can help supply the soybeans and the some of the expertise to get feeds just right. And to see that back on the shelves in the U.S. shows that the soybean checkoff has done great things for the U.S. farmer and the public.”

Hemmes agreed with Bardole and found the tour of the aquaculture facility important with her new roles in the soybean community. She said that as a new USB director and a new ISA director it was important to see companies like Regal Springs to learn how the checkoff is helping to open new markets.

“To hear that there are ten percent increases each year in some of these countries producing aquaculture is huge and a great potential for soybeans,” Hemmes said. “I see it (aquaculture) as a very important market and a way that we can increase exports and uses for soybeans in a neighboring country.”

She went on to say that seeing the fish pens, hatchery and packaging facility gave her an appreciation of the detail Regal Springs uses to produce high-quality tilapia for their customers.

“What was amazing was to see the tiny fish eggs hatching before our eyes and talking with a feed expert about how precise the feed has to be,” Hemmes said.  You see these little fish the size of a pinhead, and you realize that they have to get everything they need in one little bite and how precise that needs to be for them to grow and survive.”

Farmers in Mexico value U.S. soymeal

The United States Soybean Export Council (USSEC) is constantly looking for new uses for soy internationally and this week members of Qualified State Soybean Boards (QSSB) were able to see firsthand how markets are growing in Mexico.

Aquaculture has been a buzz worked in the United States lately but it is a practice that has been consuming U.S. soy for many years. Countries like Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador and Mexico import large amounts of soymeal to grow tilapia and shrimp.

A worker pulls a net to capture fish in an aquaculture tank in Mexico.

A worker pulls a net to capture fish in an aquaculture tank in Mexico.

Molina Farms, in the town of Jamay near Lake Chapalais, is a family farm doing just that. By importing high quality soybean grain from the U.S., they are creating large profit margins for their fresh tilapia sales and fingerling sales.

Fingerling sales is the process of selling the tilapia when they are four grams to other area producers to feed out. Molina farms are concentrating on the breeding and genetics of the tilapia to gain a premium from other farmers who don't have the facilities or genetics to start tilapia from the beginning.

The Molina Family Farm also sells fresh fish from their farm. The fresh fish sales are offered directly to consumers in the region. To keep profit margins as large as possible, Alfredo Molina invests in high quality U.S. soymeal for his rations and is also using cutting edge technology for the area.

"We spend about $1.30 per kilo of tilapia in production costs and can sell the live fish for about $4.00 a fish," Molina said, speaking through an interpreter.

Molina showed the group the finishing ponds for the tilapia where about 20,000 fish are grown per 10 foot pond. When the tilapia is ready for market it weighs between 500-600 grams or just over a pound. They use a ration of soybean made up of 40 to 50 percent soymeal. Molina said that U.S. soymeal is preferred, but due to higher prices last year, they had to import from other South American Countries.

The Biofloc system aerates the water, keeping the algae and nutrients from settling on the bottom. The system allows the fish to feed off the remaining nutrients in the water and helps build their immunity. Because of the ecological system farmers need to make sure increased algae doesn't starve the fish of oxygen. Computer systems linked to a recently installed Wi-Fi network monitor oxygen levels and can automatically adjust levels as necessary. In the past, aquaculture farmers would employee a poly fish culture, having tilapia paired in rotation with catfish or shrimp, but that cut down on production of the valuable tilapia. According to Molina, Bioflock system helps him to raise a higher quality fish in less space while increasing the growing cycle.

"The Biofloc system is rough, but we need to master it," he said.

To fill market demand Molina is looking at raising shrimp at his farm, too. He told the group gathered that his working relationship with USSEC will help him to manage the new enterprise.

“It will be trial and error at first but USSEC offers excellent information about feed rations and what other farmers are doing to be successful,”Molina said.

Heather Lilienthal, director of producer services at the Iowa Soybean Association (ISA), attended the USSEC tour in Mexico. She said seeing the uses of soy imported from the U.S. was fascinating.

"This was my first opportunity to visit an aquaculture operation and learn how this family is using soy in its feed," she said. "As they expand their operation and adapt to new technology, it reminded me of Iowa farms doing the same thing. Everyone is striving to be more efficient in order to meet growing demand for their products."