Success story: unconventional farming practices

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Success story: unconventional farming practices

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As the early mortality syndrome (EMS) crisis continues to affect farms in Thailand, an increasing number of farmers are trying out specific solutions and have managed to prevent EMS from occurring in their ponds or farms. As we can gather in the media, some farmers adopt hyper concentrations of dissolved oxygen in the ponds whereas others opt for a nursery protocol and adopt best farming practices.

About 10 years ago, l met a farmer who has a different on shrimp farming practices, in fact very practices. lnsisting his way is the most appropriate one, this farmer continues to farm shrimp in his own way and has been successful time after time. However, in the beginning, he had some teething problems in five ponds but gradually managed to slowly develop the most suitable management technique for his ponds.

Here are some of the benchmarks to his success; although simple, he has consistently achieved these results:

  • During WSSV season (winter season from November to February) most farmers around his farm would be losing crops to viral outbreaks. Although he faces similar threats, his losses would be less than 5% and he could still show high profit margins.
  • Higher efficiency of labour (i.e., less staff is used to take care of more ponds than in other farms). Only one staff is used to take care of 6-8 ponds with autofeeders.
  • Production of large size shrimp at all seasons (20 – 40g/shrimp) within 130-140 days.
  • Losses to early mortality (EMS) at only 10% and with farms still profitable.
  • No major crop losses in the 10 years.
  • In the past 8 years, he has not used any antibiotics.

Sustainable production continues for more than 10 years even despite current crisis with EMS

How has he achieved these results?

Farmer Mr Chatchai Chuanchom (familiarly known as Add) is 45 years old and has been farming in Leamsing District. Chantaburi province for 11 years. He started with five ponds and then expanded to 15 ponds in the following year. Gradually the number of ponds increased to a high of 182 ponds. Today, he uses 160 ponds for grow-out as he found that some ponds are not suitable for farming and converted these into reservoir ponds. The ponds are 80 cm to 150 cm in the deepest area, i.e. in the middle where sludge accumulates after each crop. Over a few crops, sometimes this sludge area grows to a mound and even out of the water surface.

With regards to biosecurity, Khun Add installed some bird scaring lines over the ponds which are now in need of repair. He is of the opinion that these lines do not actually serve a purpose and are merely required for the purpose of farm registration. There is no crab fencing or disinfectant baths at the farm. Here are some of the protocols employed which have contributed to his success.

Pond size and aeration system

The ponds in his farm are generally smaller than most other Ponds in Thailand. These are just 1,500 – 2,000 m3 per pond. On learning of his success, several farmers visiting his farm laughed at the pond sizes and commented that “these are not ponds but pits”. However, with time, his methodology has proven to be successful. The aeration system for a pond size of 2,000 m2 is around 3 – 4 HP with four arms and 12-14 paddle wheels on each arm. It is run continuously at a low speed at 60-70 rpm.

However, the recent acquisitions include large ponds from 4,000m2. Khun Add will use these as is for 4-5 crops before starting to resize these to smaller and deeper ponds.

Stocking density and post larvae

During the boom time in shrimp farming in Thailand, the world heard of the success by some Thai farmers who were stocking 100 to 200 and even as many as 300 postlarvae (PL/m2). This became an attractive story which farmers worldwide wanted to emulate. But in the case of Khun Add, he insisted on a stocking density of only 20-30 PL/m2 in addition to adjusting his stocking density according to the season.

“I will decide on whether to increase or decrease stocking density for the next crop by looking at the performance of the previous crop. If my previous crop went well, I will increase by 10,000 PL/pond. If the result was just normal, I will decrease stocking by 10,000 PL/pond.”

During a good season such as the rainy season from June to November, when the temperature is moderate and salinity is optimal, Khun Add will be stocking 30 PL/m2. During the winter and colder months from November – February, the stocking density will be reduced to 20 PL/m2. With regard to when to stock ponds, Khun Add said, ’’When I see birds flying over the ponds looking for food, the insects. I know that the pond is ready for stocking.”

Origin of these protocols

During the first year of operations, the farm which he inherited from his mother showed losses when production was only half of the target because the taura syndrome virus (TSV) affected three out of five ponds. At that time, I had just met him. I asked him to just continue feeding the surviving shrimp. When we harvested, we calculated that the TSV infected ponds gave a higher profit as compared to the other ponds, although clean of diseases.

We then continued to conduct trials to compare between low and high stocking densities for a further two to three crops. We focused on percentage of profit instead of tonnage. Finally we conclude that low stocking density is the most appropriate method for him. The reasons are as follows:

  • The shrimp were stronger and could easily go through a stressful season such as winter or extremely hot summers.
  • Larger shrimp are produced which fetch higher prices.
  • This method is easy to operate.
  • In case of failures, the losses are smaller.
  • A higher profit margin from the investment.
  • It is less stressful for the owner (Khun Add).
  • Shrimp ponds can be used for several crops without the need to clean the pond after each harvest.

From then on, Khun Add chose this practice. With regard to the post larvae, he co-operates with one reliable hatchery and demands the best batch. He pays higher prices which allow him to have the power to negotiate when something goes wrong. Since he is not forced to stock according to season and shrimp pond conditions like other farmers (See next topic), he can wait for the best batch and always get better quality post larvae.

Add buys post larvae (PL 10 – 12) and relies on the hatchery to carry out all the necessary assessment tests for post larvae, if a problem arises with the post larvae, he will investigate and discuss with the hatchery owner, if the problem is caused by the hatchery, he usually gets a replacement batch of post larvae.

Pond preparation

In his case, it is a “let nature help” philosophy. Khun Add has adopted unique pond preparation techniques which may seem strange to other farmers used to the standard protocols of pond drying and preparation. After each harvest, he will not let the pond bottom dry out but instead will immediately top up with water from his reservoir ponds which actually contain water coming from other harvested ponds. He will then run half of the installed aeration system in the pond for one month.

The basis for this is to allow all organic matter to be fully digested in aerobic conditions within a week. Contrary to the standard practice of stocking within a week, Add found that if he waited for another two weeks, the water colour would still be unstable and shrimp stocked in these conditions will suffer. Usually, Khun Add will wait until the fourth week before he stocks the ponds.

This is when he is sure conditions in the ponds are optimal, with benthic organisms sufficient to act as feed for the post larvae. Those benthic organisms comprise copepods, red worm or blood worm. The process is coined as “natural resurrection” in the farm.

Pond showing the sludge left over after harvest without cleanup from 12 crops.

Finally, Khun Add will clean up the pond after about 7-10 crops when it is evident that the ponds have become too shallow to feed the shrimp. Sludge from previous crops after completing aerobic digestion will provide a good mineral and nutrition base to the pond system and shrimp. At this farm, you can see grass everywhere. This is in contrast with other farms where sludge removal is carried out after almost every crop and when the tractor comes most farmers will also repair or rebuild pond dykes.

Management

As you can see in some of my previous articles (e.g., managing shrimp culture with climate change, July/August 2011, Aqua Culture Asia Pacific), the standard practice is that one HP aeration could roughly provide oxygen to shrimp biomass of about 400kg. For his ponds, Khun Add provides aeration at a much higher level as a safeguard. He operates aeration at 4 HP for a pond which holds a harvest biomass of around 1,200 kg. He even starts running the aerators immediately at pond preparation.

Khun Add also hangs something like a big coin around his neck but it is a dissolved oxygen (DO) meter dashboard. He walks around, day and night to measure and monitor the DO level in his ponds. With amusement, he told me, “this is my amulet to help me to always be successful in shrimp farming.”

Feeding on demand

Another diversion from standard protocols is feeding on demand; and he could be the first person, globally, to adopt this practice. The details are in previous article on “Effective feeding in shrimp culture” Aqua Culture Asia Pacific, March/April 2011). I discussed this with him ten years ago after I investigated, researched and developed this technique. He was the first shrimp farmer to test this out. We did a few trials and modified this technique. I am grateful that with his help I could refine as well as prove the concept.

During the autofeeder boom in Thailand, Khun Add also started to use autofeeders which he found helped to improve the feed conversion ratio (FCR) from 1.3 to 1.1. Today 100 ponds are equipped with auto feeder. This also reduced the labour required from 4-5 ponds/person to the current 6-8 ponds/person. He has also made some innovations to suit his farming style by adjusting the autofeeder to distribute feed via a disc instead of a tube to narrow the broadcasting area since his ponds are very small.

Staff welfare and loyalty

Most of his farm staff are Cambodians. The whole family will stay in the farm. Khun Add pays them well besides providing good housing and welfare. Many of his staff earn an average salary of more than USD700/month. Most have been with him for more than five years. This is how he has earned staff loyalty and instilled honesty, devotion and diligence amongst staff. With this assurance, Add is able to relax more than some other farmers.

A special client

As the farm has been showing profits, Khun Add has become well known as a good and trusted farmer. With such as reputation, he is able to select quality inputs for his farm. For example, in shrimp feed, he decides his own feed formulation with a feed formulator. He does not mind paying the extra costs for getting custom made feeds. Feed has been a key success factor for Khun Add. He also has negotiating power with a processing plant since each year, even during poor farming seasons, only his farm has been able to supply large size shrimp.

Khun Add has achieved average survival rates of 80 – 90% as shown from some recent results from his ponds in Table

Pond size (m2)

Stocking density/pond (PL10-12)

Days of culture (DOC)

Harvest size (pcs/kg)

Harvest (tonnes/pond)

Feed conversion ratio (FCR)

4,000

100,000

57

69

1.15

1.0

8,000

200,000

80

58

2.7

1.2

8,000

200,000

62

67

2.8

1.1

6,000

150,000

64

56

2.5

1.1

 

In summary, I have demonstrated the unconventional farming practices at this farm. The management involves low stocking density, super aeration, small pond sizes, using nature to help prepare the pond, using science in pond operations, employing well trained staff and using the best inputs. A success rate of about 95% during a WSSV season and 90% under threats of EMS have been achieved. Despite these challenges, the farm continues to have consistent, successful crops of large size shrimp at low FCR. One reason why I support this technique is that farmers could reduce the use of shrimp brood stock, further contributing towards a sustainable industry.

Finally, this is Khun Add’s message to his shrimp farmer friend; “We feed the animal by depending on nature for more than 95% of our operations. We must understand nature and implement the management techniques that are consistent with nature. If you control your greed, and do not overexploit the natural resources, success will always be yours.”

Source: Soraphat Panakorn – Aqua Culture Asia Pacific Magazine January-February 2015.

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