IT may look like a gigantic corrugated iron shed in the middle of a paddock, but inside is a state-of-the-art aquaculture business growing 18,000 baby barramundi.
Central Queensland cattleman Tony Besch and his wife Jodi set up their farm, Blue Beef, on their Bajool property only two years ago and have just nailed their first regular fortnightly consignment.
“No farmer can argue about that, particularly when you’ve had to depend on an annual income, and considering I only got $180 for my weaners last year,” Mr Besch said.
The Besches went into aquaculture as a way to diversify, and a fish farm seemed the best option to reuse their water and drought-proof their property.
Rather than mucking around with small-scale ventures, the couple did their research and found an industry expert to custom-build their state-of-the-art recirculating aquaculture system.
This is a highly intensive system that uses less land, recirculates water, has high stock density and is not at the mercy of the weather.
The shed holds six tanks that each hold 19 cubic metres of water pumped from a nearby bore and then goes through the filtration system. The water is perfect when it hits the tank.
Each tank can take up to 1400 kilograms of barramundi.
In the corner are three smaller tanks, each holding 6000 babies that arrived from Gladstone the day before.
“They stay in there until they are about 10 centimetres long, but I am still experimenting with that,” Mr Besch said.
Once they are a certain size, they are moved to one of the big tanks and grow to about 30cm in length. Then it’s off to the market.
“You sort them out like you do with cattle – put them in different paddocks,” Mr Besch said. In this case, different tanks.
With their new marketing deal, about 300kg of live barra are off to a client in Brisbane next week, and this will increase as the Besches boost their number of fish. The client wants all the fish they can provide.
Already Blue Beef has sent three tonnes of barra to Sydney, but it has not been plain sailing up to this point. It has been a steep learning curve.
“When we first started we had up to a 42 per cent fatality rate. I am bringing it down to 20pc, but we are still learning through trial and error and I’m trying to get it down to 10 per cent.”
A monitor on the wall indicates oxygen levels, pH and temperature, which makes life much easier and less labour intensive, but it hadn’t been in operation at first.
“I had to live here all through winter and every few hours I would get up to feed the fish and check the water.”
This was made more difficult because the family lived several kilometres away on another block while half the shed was being converted into a modern home.
Although the fish still have to be fed manually until the automatic feeder is installed, it is much easier when it is only a few metres to walk.
Asked which does he prefer – cattle or fish, Tony said:“It’s a hard one, but there is no thrill with fish. You get that adrenaline going when you come across toey cattle, and you don’t get that with fish,” Mr Besch said.
“But working with fish keeps you out of the sun, and that’s a plus.”
Blue Beef is just one barramundi farm in the growing aquaculture industry. In Queensland, the industry has expanded over the past two decades and is worth at least $103 million.
One person impressed with Blue Beef is central Queensland regional director of the Department of Agriculture Forestry and Fisheries, Paul Walmsley.
“Not many are doing the job that Tony’s doing, so a lot of people will be watching it with interest and looking at an opportunity to diversify.”