Tilapia farmer Mark McNaughton and his livestock have something in common: Versatility.
There are all sorts of dishes you make with tilapia fish, while McNaughton’s versatility is in staying ahead of the market curve.
Most recently that meant switching from hogs to aquaculture when hogs began to falter in the late 1990s.
“Scale was a problem, our operation was just too small,” says McNaughton. “We were looking for options for our hog barn, and it happened to be when Alberta Agriculture had courses on indoor water-use systems. We jumped in with both feet.”
The family began dryland farming near Rumsey in 1939. The second generation added cattle and hogs in 1969, and by 1999 the third generation was running a 60-sow farrow-to-finish operation in addition to farming canola, wheat and barley.
“Nowadays 60 sows is like a Tonka toy system,” says McNaughton.
They sold their breeding hogs in 1998 and the rest in the spring of 1999, and then filled the hog barn with fish tanks and launched MDM Aqua Farms Ltd.
“More research wouldn’t have hurt,” McNaughton now says. “In six months, we went from pigs to fish swimming around. It was a learning curve, that’s for sure.”
For the first two years MDM raised trout and sold them to stock both public and private ponds.
“Our biggest problem was our deliveries all happened in the spring which overlapped with seeding crops,” said McNaughton.
So they warmed up the tanks from the temperature of a cold trout stream to that of a warm Asian rice paddy and switched to tilapia, the original farmed fish. While tilapia is popular now, a decade ago it was unfamiliar in Canada except in the Asian-Canadian population, which is still by far the largest customer base. MDM sells 60,000 fish a year (40,000 kilograms) to Greenview Aqua-Farm Ltd., a wholesaler-producer that transports them in oxygenated tanks to live markets in Edmonton and Calgary.
Live fish sell at a premium because tilapia flesh is so mild it can absorb off-flavours if the fish are raised outdoors in poor water and shipped frozen to market. Demand is steady, aside from a spike at Chinese New Year’s in February, so McNaughton has a full range of ages from fingerlings to market-ready.
Aquaculture requires a hefty investment in equipment – water filters and pumps, heaters to support optimal growth, oxygenators, backup generators, water-chemistry monitors, and an alarm system tied into every aspect of operations. Because his well water is too salty for plants and surface water is scarce, McNaughton has not been able to shift to the more environmentally sustainable practice of aquaponics, in which the fish waste would nourish plants and the plants clean the water for the fish.
Fish farming is not an easy business to get into, says McNaughton.
“You spend a whole bunch of money; it’s intensive livestock,” he said. “Compare it to a pig barn, where you have to build pens. Now you have to build fish tanks. In a pig barn, you have to turn fans on. In a fish barn, you have to pump the water through all these filters and return it to the system and it all has to work or the fish are going to die.”
The latter task is very demanding.
“You have to create the actual environment for the fish. You don’t generally have to work as hard to do that for terrestrial animals, with fish everything happens in the water,” said McNaughton. “Oxygen must be added, and ammonia, CO2, decaying food and fish waste removed from the continuously recycled water.”
Although tilapia can withstand a wide range of conditions “if you stress them all the time they’ll die,” says McNaughton.
“Fish are cold-blooded, so their metabolism changes with their artificial environment,” he notes. “That costs money and if the system breaks down, if we had no power for an hour, most of my fish would be dead.”
Aquaculture accounts for 20 per cent to 25 per cent of MDM’s gross revenue.
“It spreads the workload and makes use of facilities we had. It’s been interesting, to say the least,” says McNaughton. “We’ve learned lots.”
MDM hopes to squeeze 10 more years out of its equipment before it’s overtaken by technological advances or changing market demographics.
“I don’t know if I want to be doing it 20 years down the road,” says McNaughton. “It’s a labour-intensive business. Plus there are scale changes. In farming, nothing stays the same – (there’s) new strains, genetics, chemicals, fertilizers. You can choose to ignore them and it works for a while, but like a treadmill, you either keep up or get run off the back end.”