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Huge herds harbored in north

BAYFIELD, Wis. – Sometimes we become stuck in a rut. We do or think the same thing again and again. In Wisconsin when we see a barn we think within we will find cattle, hogs, chickens or maybe sheep.

Those of us who fish think catching the bag limit of any species is a huge haul. But every now and then we come across a situation that breaks the pattern and pulls us out of our rut.

In far-northern Wisconsin, along the shoreline of Lake Superior, Wisconsin Highway 13 gently rolls and curves through Miskwaabikaang – the sovereign nation of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. Off the highway just north of Red Cliff there’s a farm. The barn on that farm often houses millions of head of livestock.

Yes, millions.

Some folks come from across the nation to visit. A few even leave with some of the livestock. A haul of several-thousand head is not uncommon.

Tyler Firkus is the operations manager at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point’s Northern Aquaculture Demonstration Facility. During a recent spring day he paused in the facility’s aquatic barn.

“I did my some (doctoral) work here in 2016 to 2018,” he said. “When I finished my studies the position I am in opened. I loved my time here so I applied.

“The mandate for the facility is to be the research wing for the aquaculture industry. When private partners have questions, or basic scientific questions arise, we can do research here without using a full production system to answer the questions.”

But with any new endeavor folks wonder how to begin, asking what one needs to be able to farm fish.

“If they have the water and the start-up funding to do it, it’s possible to get a start in the industry,” Firkus said. “Aquaculture is expanding rapidly, especially in Wisconsin. We talk with startup farmers and established farmers all the time. We provide information, answer questions and help with project ideas.

“A private aquaculture firm that raises a variety of fish is picking up walleye fingerlings today. The fingerlings are from a (research) project. When we have fingerlings available we offer them to industry, private producers and schools. Folks come pick them up and transport them to their farms or classrooms.”

Emma Hauser is the facility’s aquaculture-outreach specialist.

“We’ve been working on spawning walleye out of season,” she said. “We change how much light the walleye get and water temperature to trick them into thinking it is spring at any time of the year. We have been spawning our walleye early, at the end of February. That’s why we have fingerlings that are 60 days old available for farmers in April.

“We are partnering with farmers all over the Midwest to get walleye raising off the ground. Walleye for food fish is the next big thing; people love walleye. It is very difficult to find fresh walleye fillets; most are imported from Canada. There is a huge market for walleye in the Midwest. But one bottleneck in the process of raising walleye is the availability of eggs and fingerlings. They need to be available year-round. That’s why we are manipulating brood stock to get them to spawn out of season. The farmer who is picking up walleye fingerlings today is collaborating with us on the project.

“Come up to this facility, and it looks like a regular barn. People walk in and see a barn full of fish tanks instead of a barn full of cattle. Fish are an agricultural animal that compare to other agricultural animals. Looking at feed ratios. Cattle are fed about 6 pounds of feed to get a pound of growth; for chickens it is about 3 pounds of feed to get a pound of growth. For fish the ration is 1 pound of feed for about 1 pound of growth. Fish are very efficient. There are so many positives to raising fish it is incredible. Fish are an important, healthy protein source for many people.

“As we do research we are finding ways to raise fish more and more sustainably. U.S.-raised seafood is regulated more than any other protein. It is very safe and environmentally friendly. Aquaculture can be a sustainable way to meet the demand for protein.”

Scott Schillig was visiting the Northern Aquaculture Demonstration Facility on an April morning to pick up walleye fingerlings for his business, Hoosier Pond Pros.

“I’ve been in aquaculture for about 12 years,” he said. “I graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. I went into manufacturing (but) when that slowed down in 2008, I decided to work for myself. I market bluegills, hybrid bluegills, large-mouth bass, small-mouth bass, hybrid crappie, pumpkinseeds – everything for stocking in private ponds. I’m located about 30 miles southwest of South Bend, Indiana.”

His business is brisk and soon Hoosier Pond Pros may also provide walleye for private ponds.

The UW facility is working to cooperatively study walleye with the nearby Red Cliff Tribal Fish Hatchery.

Firkus said, “We are studying stocking success of indoor-raised and pond-raised walleye in Lake Namakagon (in Bayfield County, Wisconsin).”

Hauser said, “Since 2014 we’ve been raising walleye fingerlings. We work closely with Red Cliff (Tribal) fisheries to stock specific strains of walleyes in inland lakes in Wisconsin. We also worked with the Namakagon Lake Association to stock walleye fingerlings last year.

“We want to answer questions like, ‘What does a fish raised on a pellet look like compared to fish raised on minnows?’ Outdoors the fingerlings eat forage minnows. Indoors they eat only commercial feed – pellets. We are checking return rates, fitness and growth comparisons. We can grow fish faster indoors by controlling temperatures when Mother Nature is keeping it cold outdoors. Walleye usually don’t grow well under 50 degrees Fahrenheit. But how does a fish raised indoors on pellets do in a lake? How well does it transfer to eating minnows?”

Walleye aren’t the only fish being studied that may provide opportunity for farmers.

“We are partnering with SeaGrant and others to use a (U.S. Department of Agriculture) grant to build capacity for sustainable aquaculture for Atlantic salmon in recirculating aquaculture systems,” she said. “We are working on research questions, workforce development and education. With the USDA grant we can apply what we have learned as we research brood stock and genetics.

“Workforce-development programs can train students to raise Atlantic salmon. We are also educating the public on what raising Atlantic salmon in Wisconsin means to our economy. About 80 percent of the Atlantic salmon available is from other nations. Farmers here can support local markets and provide fresh Atlantic salmon in the Midwest and nationwide.”

For experienced farmers and beginners, industry and government, the cooperative facility is applying science to provide answers that make aquaculture viable and profitable. For a world where efficient and sustainable protein production is elusive, the projects in far-northern Wisconsin are especially important.

It won’t be long before we all become accustomed to seeing barns with millions of head of livestock within.

Visit youtube.com and search for “Northern Aquaculture” to see videos from the facility.

Visit www3.uwsp.edu/cols-ap/nadf and www.seagrant.wisc.edu and hoosierpondpros.com for more information.

This is an original article written for Agri-View, a Lee Enterprises agricultural publication based in Madison, Wisconsin. Visit AgriView.com for more information.

Jason Maloney is an “elderly” farm boy from Marinette County, Wisconsin. He’s a retired educator, a retired soldier and a lifelong Wisconsin resident. He lives on the shore of Lake Superior with his wife, Cindy Dillenschneider, and Red, a sturdy loyal Australian Shepherd. 

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