September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.

Cows and crustaceans

Fortunas open shrimp enterprise on dairy
Larry Fortuna holds a shrimp in the palm of his hand to check the size of the shrimp in that pool.<br /><!-- 1upcrlf -->PHOTO BY BRITTANY OLSON
Larry Fortuna holds a shrimp in the palm of his hand to check the size of the shrimp in that pool.<br /><!-- 1upcrlf -->PHOTO BY BRITTANY OLSON

By By Brittany [email protected] | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

WEYERHAEUSER, Wis. - One of the most challenging aspects of dairying is a lack of control over day-to-day circumstances.
That, and the idea of raising something different, drove dairy farmers Larry and Laurie Fortuna of Weyerhaeuser, Wis., to try adding another kind of creature on their 225-cow dairy - shrimp.
"We got our first batch of shrimp in March," Larry said.
Laurie spoke of how appealing it was to have something different, especially with being able to control their new animals' environment, and the versatility of shrimp in many styles of cooking.
Then, she said, "Everybody loves shrimp."
Larry said, even though shrimp are a niche product, people aren't rushing to get into the industry.
"It's too new right now," he said. "The shrimp industry is so new that there isn't any official organic certification either, and we raise our shrimp without antibiotics or hormones."
Adding to the appeal of the aquatic organisms was the fact that 85 percent of shrimp eaten in the United States are imported from other countries, mostly in southeast Asia.
"Most imported shrimp are raised in cesspools, and they aren't regulated as well," Laurie said.
After reading an article about raising shrimp, and deciding whether or not to go ahead with their venture, Larry and Laurie began networking with other shrimp growers across the Upper Midwest.
"We agreed to pay a grower a one-year consultancy fee so they could answer any questions we have during our first year," Larry said. "Then, maybe next year when someone new gets into shrimp, we can get that fee back as they turn to us."
Laurie said learning from others was invaluable.
"It's like dairy farming. You learn more from others in the industry than from a book even though we all do it a little differently," she said.
The location of their new business loomed large, as well.
"We went back and forth on where to house the shrimp because a lot of people build pools in old barns. However, we wanted to maintain a consistent environment for the shrimp because the water has to be 82 degrees or higher at all times, so we built a new shed on our farm," Laurie said.
It took some convincing at the bank because their lender hadn't received such a request before, and then in order to cash flow, the Fortunas had to go bigger than originally planned. After the papers were signed for the loan, North Country Shrimp was spawned, 20 pools were installed and a Facebook page was built.
Since the first group of post-larvae shrimp arrived in March, the Fortunas have since raised three batches, each containing 30,000 shrimp.
"We order from a hatchery in Florida, and they are shipped overnight in a Styrofoam container," Laurie said. "When we get them, they're about the size of eyelashes."
Post-larvae, or PLs as they're referred to at North Country Shrimp, must be acclimated to their new environment much like goldfish.
"We set them in the pool while they're still in the bag they came in, then slowly add a little water from the pool every 10 to 15 minutes," Larry said.
The baby shrimp live in nursery tanks for the first 5 or 6 weeks of life before moving to grower tanks, where they'll stay until being harvested at about 4 to 5 months old.
The Fortunas didn't have any shrimp ready to sell until Labor Day weekend - and after that, they almost sold out.
The differences between their shrimp and their cows have made for an intriguing learning experience for Larry and Laurie.
"Shrimp are very efficient compared to other food animals," Larry said. "It takes 1.3 pounds of feed to make one pound of shrimp."
While the shrimp do receive feed three times a day, they are bottom feeders in the wild. Through a process called heterotrophic biofloc, good bacteria are built up in each individual pool. The biofloc feeds on waste excreted by the shrimp, as well as any shells that have been shed, and the shrimp feed on the biofloc in return.
"While we do feed our shrimp, we're feeding the water even more," Larry said.
At the beginning, the survival rate is low as growers try to cultivate the right balance of bacteria, pH and nutrients within the water. As time goes on and the water contents reach their proper levels, less shrimp die.
"We test water once a day. If our pH is low, we add bicarbonate to the water to raise the alkalinity, and if our nitrites are high it means we fed too much, so we have to cut back on our feed," Larry said. "Shrimp are different than cattle. If you have 10 heifers and sell two, but still feed like you have 10 heifers, then that feed will go uneaten. With water, that excess feed will float around, raise nitrite levels and depress oxygen levels."
Other than feeding three times a day, and milking three times a day, the shrimp schedule and the cows' time demands haven't clashed much - except for one day.
"It was my nephew's graduation day, and we missed one feeding," Laurie said.
A unique characteristic of shrimp is when they are startled, or very hungry, they jump. They can reach heights of six to eight feet.
"The next morning ... there were dead shrimp all over the floor. Our shed uses geothermal heating, so the floors dried them out faster when they hit the ground," Laurie said.
Because shrimp jump when startled, a backup generator is needed to keep the lights on at all times. A generator is also necessary to maintain oxygen levels within the water and keep the geothermal pumps circulating for heat.
"If the lights so much as flicker, there will be shrimp on the floor," Larry said.
If all goes well, the Fortunas hope their shrimp business grows to the point that they can slowly phase out of dairy farming.
"At least that's the five-year plan," Larry said.
Until that decision is made, these two lifelong dairy farmers are having fun with their new creatures.
"It's been a learning experience," Laurie said. "That's for sure."
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