Fishing for Protein Food Source Solutions

Written by Jacob Lauver, Agricultural Studies senior

My name is Jacob Lauver and I will be a senior this fall at Iowa State majoring in Ag Studies. I spent my 12-week summer internship working in Buckeye, Iowa for Iowa’s First and Vero Blue Farms raising Barramundi fish for food production. I am the Operations Intern so my experience was hands-on for all daily operations to run a fish farm sustainably.

Aquaculture is the farming of aquatic organisms such as fish, crustaceans, mollusk, and aquatic plants grown and raised under controlled conditions. We raised Barramundi (Asian Sea Bass). This species is native to the Indian Ocean area. The fish were flown in from Australia from a Barramundi hatchery which were then delivered directly to the nursery at the Blairsburg, Iowa facility. After reaching a certain size they were then moved to the Grow Out facility where I primarily worked.

“Raising Fish in Iowa?” That is the reaction I hear most often when explaining to people what I did this summer. I first became interested in Aquaculture when I saw an article in some farm news magazines about the Nelson brothers in Blairsburg, who had converted a sow production barn to a fish facility around 2010. This really interested me since I have always loved water, fish, and animal production.

The facility I worked in was brand new when I arrived in May. So, this was perfect situation to learn in a facility that was raising fish for the first time to see what it takes for initial operations.  The facility was 25,000 square feet and housed 24 ten-thousand gallon tanks. Only a few days into the summer I was excited to be able to see the first shipment of fish unloaded which is very different from unloading hogs or cattle.

The process is much more extensive to raise fish than just unloading them into the tank and feeding them. Initially, every morning we would test the water. This is the most important factor overall at the fish farm to keep the fish alive. We would check each tank with a YSI water probe that would read out temperature, D.O. (dissolved oxygen), and salinity (salt), to document on a clip board attached to the tanks. We used a chemistry set to test the water quality taking samples from each tank and adding them to the chemicals. The predominant factors measured in the tanks are ammonia, nitrates, and nitrites.

When the water quality testing was completed, we fed the fish by hand. When the Barramundi arrived, they were about 3 or four inches and were eating a smaller sized extruded pellet. They were still small and used to eating smaller pellets at the nursery. Every day I fed the fish and documented the amount they consumed on a clip board attached to the tank. It was necessary to feed them by hand to prevent overfeeding and affecting water quality. Later in the summer when the fish were larger, they converted to being fed on a cable driven feed line with hoppers that filled on a timer dropping feed eight times per day.

Other projects I completed in the facility were to scrub down tanks and work on tank maintenance. I used a pool brush to scrub down the tanks to release residue for the bio-filters to clean. I also added salt to tanks when we needed to raise the salinity. I think the most memorable experience offsite was working in the nursery where we sized fish in tubs by hand, and graded some fish the size of a quarter. Some of my other favorite moments were being involved in business meetings discussing facility operations, challenges and improvements.

Another major process in raising fish is fish grading necessary for measuring and moving them to different tanks as they grow larger to prevent overcrowding and cannibalism. We used Crowder nets, in the largest tanks to push the fish to the front of the tank. We then netted the fish out into grader boxes with different sized bars in the bottom. The bigger fish stay on top and the smaller fish fall through the grates. The next step is weighing the grader tub and moving the fish to the designated empty tanks to grow to a bigger size. This can be a very labor intensive process.

I would never take back this summer and think I have found the industry I want to work in for the future. I sincerely enjoyed working for Iowa’s First and Vero Blue Farms and truly believe that this industry has huge potential. To The Ag EI Program, thank you for this awesome opportunity.