Curtis Gram, owner of Freedom Fish Farms in Muskingum County, relies on soy meal in his fish food to keep his production costs down.

Soy meal is the right fit for hungry tilapia

By Matt Reese

Tilapia has become one of the most popular fish nationwide and there is a consistent and strong demand as a food source in Ohio, both from people and from other fish in farm ponds.

“They’re high demand in the food side, especially in Asian markets. They don’t want to be buying their tilapia from overseas. They want it as local and as fresh as possible, so that’s been very good, high demand,” said Curtis Gram, owner of Freedom Fish Farms in Muskingum County. “The other side is for pond stocking and tilapia have played a big role in Ohio where we can stock tilapia in residential waterways in Ohio. They eat a lot of algae and vegetation in people’s ponds and we stock males and females in the ponds. They breed about every 30 days so they produce a lot of foraging fish and a lot of new mouths to start eating all that algae and vegetation to keep up with that growth over the summer. They are also bait fish for the other fish in the pond.”

Tilapia do not survive Ohio winters so there is consistent annual demand for re-stocking ponds. The dual demand sources have kept markets strong for Freedom Fish Farms. 

“We purchased this property in about 2016 and then in about 2018 we started building this facility. This was a learning curve. I had many different pilot systems in my garage learning what worked best to keep the fish alive,” Gram said. “Now I have six tanks and each has about 4,000 tilapia. Usually about every 6 to 8 weeks I’ll bring a new batch of about 4,000 to 5,000 fish after I clean out one of the big tanks to take the fish to market. It creates kind of a hiccup with the food fish side in the spring because of pond stocking. You want to get them in ponds as soon as you can in the spring when the water temperatures are warm enough, usually mid-May, and that  time of year most, if not all, of the tilapia are going into ponds.”

In the time the fish are being fed on the farm, their dietary needs change significantly.

“They’re omnivores, so tilapia eat both plants and meat. In the in the beginning, we start them off on a fish byproduct meal, which gives them a lot of good protein. But as they get bigger, we switch them over to a diet that has soybean meal in it and and they just do wonderful on it. The number one ingredient is soy meal,” he said. “Tilapia do great with the soybean meal. As these fish grow, they eat quite a bit. It depends on the size of the fish and what fish I have in here at the time, but we’re usually feeding about 40 to 50 pounds of feed a day.”

The soy-based feed offers significant value for the farm.

“The bags of feed that I have to buy when they’re young that have the fishmeal byproduct are about $45 a bag versus the bags that have all the soybean meal are about $21 to $22 a bag,” Gram said. “Soybean meal is crucial for us, because if we had to buy that higher priced feed the whole time, it almost wouldn’t make sense for us to have the tilapia because the price of the feed. The input that I’d be putting into the product would be too high to be able to turn around and try and sell them for the price of the demand right now. Having the soybean meal just really helps our bottom line out and helps us get the product at a good value to the customer base for the food side.”

Livestock is the most important market for soybean producers. The Ohio Soybean Council is highlighting Ohio’s livestock industry in 2024 to showcase this vital partnership facilitating global food production.

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