Mike Sipe breeds his tilapia to grow bigger, with a 10 to 20 percent higher fillet-to-body weight ratio than other tilapia on the market. He also eliminates the hassle of breeding for males only, as most commercial producers do today. Sipe, both a tilapia breeder and a consultant, has been refining his breeding lines and his system for decades.
"When I started breeding tilapia 35 years ago, the fillet-to-body weight ratio was only 24 percent," recalls Sipe. "Today my hybrids reach 46 to 48 percent ratios."
The secret to his high fillet ratio is an improved body form he calls Black Butterball for its nearly "round" shape. This form was selected over countless generations from Tilapia honorum, one of three common tilapia species used in commercial production. Breeding Black Butterball males to females from any of the Mozambique tilapia breeding lines produces a robust and fast growing fingerling.
"It produces a large fish that filets easily with no bone," says Sipe.
He recommends raising his hybrids in high population density cages. Although the production system depends on highly oxygenated water, Sipe says it allows tilapia producers to avoid the use of hormones or breeding schemes to produce single sex production stock. In commercial breeding operations, all male or hormone-induced male fish are seen as the way to maximize fillet size and prevent overpopulation that can stunt fish and deplete oxygen in the water. While Sipe has breeding colonies that will produce nearly all male hybrids without the use of hormones, he suggests high populations and caging as alternatives.
"With populations of more than four pounds of fish per cubic foot, the fish can't breed," says Sipe. "Even if they do, by using cages made with grids, the eggs fall through, and the female can't pick them up to incubate them in her mouth."
Sipe says that while other breeders suggest that females are significantly slower to mature than males, his hybrids are the exception. He has found that using his intensive production system, females will reach maturity at 4 1/2 months versus four months for the males. He feels the two-week difference is not worth the use of hormones or the hassle of attempting to breed male only populations.
Sipe says the key to successful cage use is to keep them suspended. He suggests fabricating cages in an 8 by 10 by 4-ft. size. In systems he has designed for producers, the cages are hung in a tank where water quality can be managed.
Another key to quality production is quality feed, adds Sipe. He prefers a high quality fish feed, such as Purina Trout Chow, for its floating nature and for its vegetable protein component.
"It is best not to use any animal fat when feeding fish," Sipe says.
While he has cut back his marketing efforts in recent years, Sipe continues to sell breeding colonies of one male and five females. He estimates a breeding colony should produce 1,000 fingerlings per week for up to five years. Sipe maintains multiple breeding lines for research and sale, including Red Butterball and others.
"I only sold about 100 colonies this past year," he says. "I prefer to concentrate on continued research."