I’ve been fortunate enough to earn a living from the ornamental fish hobby since I was first attracted to the world of ornamental fish in my early teens. I’ve experienced aquatic retail, lecturing and training, manufacturing and wholesale – but perhaps the most memorable period so far has been farming koi for a living. In this 5-part series I will be sharing with you the highs, lows, successes and failures I have experienced while turning my hobby into a career through farming koi. My aim is that once you have read this extended ‘How to’ series, you will be in a position to make the decision as to whether you want to farm koi, and if so, how to do so. I will take a very logical progression with tips along the way so that hopefully you can avoid some of the mistakes I made, but also experience the same successes.
Why Farm Koi?
I got into farming koi through my love of ornamental pond fish. I suspect the same is true for most koi farmers today in that most will probably be passionate about fish. Taking your hobby further and trying to make a living out of it is a big step (and has actually led in some cases to enthusiasts losing heart and their passion for fish altogether). Perhaps you are at a career crossroads and fancy your chances at turning from koi keeper to farmer. Perhaps you are more than an ambitious koi keeper, but have bred koi successfully in your own pond and want to channel your koi-producing skills into a profitable business. If so, then ask yourself if you know why your koi spawned in your pond last year and that if your mortgage depended on it, could you do the same next year, and the next and the next…?
We could also fall into the money-trap and look at koi farming as an easy route to becoming very wealthy. A little mental arithmetic using retail process can soon make our first million look easily achievable. But if koi farming was really that lucrative and straight forward, wouldn’t lots of other koi keepers be beating down the door to become a koi farmer?
Having farmed koi at two different times in my career (that’s right – I didn’t learn the first time!) I can testify that this is not a route to a fast-buck, but is more likely to be a ‘get-broke-quick’ scheme. You must be aware that from the start, the odds are firmly stacked against you.
My two koi farming experiences have been at both ends of the koi spectrum; Working on a purpose-built, hi-tech intensive koi farm in the UK producing high-grade koi and working on a smaller scale production unit producing large quantities of ghost koi. Both operations had their challenges and frustrations but ultimately used the same techniques for spawning and rearing.
Your koi farming strategy is something you will have to establish early on if you are going to make the figures in your business plan work for you. Are you going to farm low volume high grade koi or high volumes of low quality (or even something in between?). Which ever route you choose to take – you will have to overcome 3 fundamental obstacles (besides many more once you get farming).
1. Koi Genetics.
Probably the largest obstacle between you and your first million (and ponds full of show-winning koi) is your koi’s DNA. As these man-made in-bred ornamental carp don’t breed true, you will have to accept that the majority of the koi that you produce will be worthless, showing little if any resemblance to the parent-stock. You will also soon discover that of those koi that do show some pattern, many will still not be good specimens or will show fin, skull or body shape deformities (so fickle are koi genes). This of course will reduce their value to you.
2. Competition and market price.
You will have researched the competition before embarking on a koi farming enterprise – and you will have used your findings to determine which end of the market you are going to supply. You will know what the market needs in terms of the quality of koi and what price that quality of koi can demand in the market place (wholesale prices remember). However, the factor that you cannot control is what will happen to the competition and the market price in the future. You should be prepared to adapt your production strategy in the light of new market forces. But remember, a koi farm can like a super tanker in that any change in direction takes a long time. Perhaps the quickest you can react to changes in the market and produce different koi is 12 months, providing you have the broodstock in place that are ready to spawn.
3. Cash Flow.
This is the equivalent to a body’s blood supply. If it stops pumping, your koi farming enterprise dies. I’ve listed cash flow as a fundamental obstacle to success because of the nature and timings involved in a koi farming cycle – especially if starting from scratch. Before you see any income, you must invest in your farm’s infrastructure (hatchery, ponds, buildings etc), then purchase your broodstock and other equipment. It will be 12 months minimum before you spawn and then another 12 months until you have something to sell. Then, you have to determine the proportion of your 1-year koi that you are going to retain for next year. This is always a difficult decision as the financial pressures will mean you will need to maximise your income now (as there may not be a next year). But by retaining some koi for sale next year, you will be able to add value to your stock, cushion yourself against problems with next year’s production, assuming that is, that the koi that you hold back for another year grow on healthily to see a second year.
Koi Farming options
Besides deciding which end of the market you are going to produce koi for, another key decision is how you are going to farm and raise your koi. Irrespective of how you spawn your koi, essentially there are 3 koi farming (or rather growing-on) options: extensive, intensive and semi-intensive.
Extensive: If you opted for an extensive approach, you would need a very large farm. When koi are farmed extensively, stocking rates are very low and close to what you would find in a natural lake or water body. You are raising your koi in tandem with nature where there is no input of supplementary food, negligible management time each day raising the koi, leaving them to feed off what the lake provides naturally. This is a low-risk strategy because the natural stocking rates lend themselves to a low-stress lifestyle. There are very few running costs and there will be a limited use of electricity. The low incidence of disease means that this is a very hands-off approach to koi farming – only seeing your koi when you stock them out and when you harvest them months or years later. There is a high risk of predation (and theft) using an extensive approach and because you stock koi out at such a low density, there will be a low return of koi per unit area.
Intensive: This is the other end of the koi farming spectrum and is the complete opposite to extensive farming. Regard intensive farming as koi keeping but on a massive scale. You will stock koi very densely in man-made ponds (perhaps even open tanks or vats). There is a huge upfront investment in hardware, pumps and filtration with high running costs for electricity and food. Water will be clear, heavily filtered and perhaps even heated. The attraction to intensive farming is that it offers a high return – especially if vital resources such as land and water are limited. However, because of the nature of how the koi are stocked and farmed, this is a high risk strategy. Disease is a real possibility and can claim a lot of stock very quickly. Furthermore, intensive koi farming requires 24/7 management by experienced and well trained staff who know what to do to save the farm’s stock if say the power fails. Definitely not for the faint hearted, but potentially very rewarding.
Semi-Intensive: This is the middle ground between extensive and intensive koi farming and is my preferred method of koi farming. Koi are stocked more intensively than you would find in nature, require supplementary nutrition and moderate management time. Crucially, semi-intensive farming revolves around the mud pond which is an ideal environment for raising and growing above-average densities of koi, safely. There are minor additional energy costs (such as aeration), but no filtration or pumps are required. You can achieve a good return without incurring crippling, up-front equipment costs and the risks of disease and wipe-outs or the need for continual on-site management are greatly reduced.
Koi. The nature of the beast. What is it about koi that makes them suitable for farming?
Have you ever wondered the challenges we would face as koi keepers if our koi were carnivorous or aggressive towards each other. Would our hobby even exist? Koi have many positive attributes that makes them ideal candidates for farming. In fact, if you were asked to invent a fish that would lend itself to farming and keeping, you would suggest most of the characteristics that carp (and koi) have.
It is no wonder that carp are the most important and widely cultured fish in the world. The greatest challenge to the koi farmer is trying to get their genetics to work in their favour.
Poor parents. Thankfully, koi make very poor parents. This means that they produce a very large number of eggs (approx 100,000 in a 1.5Kg koi) to compensate. Their breeding strategy is to release lots of eggs speculatively, playing a game of chance and banking on the fact that at least 2 offspring will survive to breed later. As koi farmers we can tap into this rich resource. How would we fare if koi only released 100 eggs a year?
Prefers still/slow moving water. This lowland fish prefers lake and pond culture which makes it an ideal candidate for farming and keeping in ponds.
Tolerates a wide range of water chemistries and temperatures. Koi have been shown to be adaptable to many different chemical water parameter and temperatures. Meaning we can successfully farm and keep them in many different parts of the world.
Spawns readily and predictably. We can predict and indeed manipulate when our koi broodstock will spawn, giving us vital control over the farming process. This can be tightened up even further by the use of hormones (as we will see in future articles in this series).
Performs well on an artificial diet. Many fish species have such specific and demanding nutritional requirements that makes their culture near-impossible. Fortunately, koi will readily take an artificial diet and perform well on one.
Transferable techniques. One of the real benefits of farming koi is that you can use the same skills, experience and facilities to farm other ornamental carp such as goldfish, shubunkins and golden orfe.
If you are looking at turning your hobby into a business through a koi farming enterprise then you will have to make some big and important decisions (and investments) that will determine your route forward. If you haven’t been put off the idea of farming koi for a living by me sharing a few fundamental realities, then in the next article, we’ll look into what we need (and buy) when setting up a koi farm for the first time.