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Iowa Farmer Raises Fish In Converted Hog Building
In 2010 Iowa hog producer Mark Nelson attended the Iowa Pork Congress and was intrigued with a product that had nothing to do with hogs. What caught his eye was a display by CableVey Conveyors, a company that installs feed systems in a variety of agricultural systems. The company showed a picture of the CableVey system being used above commercial grade fish tanks.
When Nelson returned home he shared his idea about converting a hog building to aquaculture with Jeff Nelson, his cousin and business partner. The cousins had an empty 60 by 220-ft. hog confinement building sitting unused that could be used for fish. The Nelsons traveled to several fish farms around the country. Within 2 years they converted their empty hog barn into an aquaculture facility that now holds 72 recirculating nursery tanks and eighteen 10,000-gal. grow-out tanks. The Nelsons named their business Iowa’s First, since it was the first aquaculture farm in the state.
To build their facility the cousins teamed up with Rick Sheriff to design a patented system for their farm. Sheriff, an aquaculture veteran, engineered a tank system that uses what they call “opposing flows technology”. This recirculating system uses 40 hp motors to oxygenate the fish tanks. Air diffusors along the bottom of the tanks create 2 opposing flows of water, which causes the fish to constantly swim against the current to better metabolize their high protein feed.
When the Nelsons started production in 2012 they raised hybrid striped bass, which turned out to be a high maintenance species. In 2014 they began producing barramundi, which is popular in Asia and Australia and is gaining interest in the United States. Mark Nelson says barramundi is known for its firm, white, and succulent flesh. It has a moist, fine-grained texture and mild flavor. It’s an extremely nutritious fish that’s low in fat and high in protein.
One barramundi fillet provides the same Omega-3 content as approximately 17 steaks, making it very heart healthy. Nelson says barramundi are prolific at reproduction, with a single female producing 3 to 6 million eggs at spawning. This allows large-scale reproduction with minimal brood stock.  Barramundi also have a 1:1 feed conversion rate and produce fillet yields up to 50 percent of their body weight. Iowa’s First receives a shipment of baby fingerlings fish from an Australian company each month.
The Nelsons say they’re happy with their opposing flows tank model because it eliminates the risks found in most outdoor fish farms. Iowa’s First indoor fish production system doesn’t have to deal with groundwater contamination, accidental chemical overspray, or severe weather. Their fish are also less prone to disease and they grow faster in a controlled environment.
The Nelsons are able to raise barramundi to their 2 to 2.2-lb. market weight in 6 mo. Iowa’s First currently has 18 grow-out tanks and 72 nursery tanks.
According to Mark Nelson, fish farming is similar to raising hogs because they have chores every day such as monitoring water temperature, oxygen levels, feeding the fish and moving them from tank to tank as they grow. They purchase special pelletized feed that floats on the surface of the tanks. They never use antibiotics or growth stimulants to increase productivity. They also keep a mobile generator available if power is interrupted, because the fish wouldn’t survive more than 15 min. without oxygenated water.
Managing day-to-day operations in the family-run business are Mark’s son-in-law, Matt Clarken, Mark’s daughter, Grace Nelson, and Jeff’s son, Brent Nelson. The entire Nelson family is passionate about raising home-grown fish and seafood in America’s heartland. With more consumers wanting food that’s grown locally, the Nelsons say raising fish has good profit potential, too. The Nelson’s operation will grow in the next two years through a network of partner growers and a larger hub facility planned for Webster City, Iowa.
    Contact: FARM SHOW Followup, Iowa’s First Aquaculture, 2062 Cantor Ave., Webster City, Iowa 50595 (ph 515 297-2000 or 515 297-1315; www.iowasfirst.com).

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2015 - Volume #39, Issue #1