‘Mudbug season’

Spurred by the growing popularity of Cajun cuisine and depressed rice prices, crawfish production continues to expand in the southern rice belt.

By Vicky Boyd, Editor

Laura Hebert

Laura Hebert spends each morning harvesting half of the family’s crawfish ponds.

Laura Hebert is following in the footsteps of her father, Dane Hebert, a rice, soybean and crawfish producer near Maurice, La.

At 24 years old, Laura has taken over much of the daily harvest of the family’s 150 acres or so of last season’s rice fields that were flooded after harvest to create crawfish ponds.

When Dane started rotating crawfish with rice about 30 years ago, it was to help with cash flow and produce income in the off season. Nowadays with low rice prices, he says crawfish production is a necessity.

“Right here we have our own winter job — crawfish — which supplements our income and diversifies our bottom line,” Dane says.

The Herberts aren’t alone. In 2014, the last year for which figures are available, Louisiana had about 225,000 acres in crawfish production, says W. Ray McClain, a Louisiana State University AgCenter aquaculture professor at the H. Rouse Caffey Rice Research Station in Crowley. That compares with about 185,000 acres in 2013.

Production figures for 2015 are due out shortly, and McClain says they are expected to be up from 2014. How much acreage is devoted to crawfish this season won’t be released until early 2017, but he says, “The consensus is there’s substantially more acreage this year — how much more would be just speculation.”

The bulk of the state’s production still comes from rice fields rotated with crawfish. A smaller portion is produced in permanent ponds devoted strictly to crawfish.

McClain attributed much of the acreage increase to depressed rice prices and a lack of rotational alternatives.
“Here in south Louisiana, soybeans are not really a good option weatherwise,” he says. “Yields are pretty iffy, depending on whether it’s a dry year or a rainy year. So crawfish seems to be what a lot of these farmers are turning to to supplement their rice operations.”

And how the increased acreage will affect prices remains to be seen.

“The ones who are in the know say with the increases in acreage, you might see decreases in prices, but that’s like in any other commodity,” Dane says.

The increasing popularity of crawfish, spurred partly by more interest in Cajun cuisine, also seems to be driving production. In addition, distributors have expanded infrastructure to meet the growing demand from as far away as Arkansas, Texas, Memphis and even Atlanta. How the downturn in the oil industry will affect demand and prices remains to be seen, McClain says.

crawfish

Because of a warm winter, crawfish sized up early.

Season off to early start
The 2015-16 season started early, spurred by warm, wet weather throughout the fall. Some producers offered crawfish beginning at Thanksgiving. But the Heberts say they focus on quality and like to wait to give the crustaceans more time to grow. Larger crawfish can net the producer an additional 50 cents to $1 per pound in most markets.

“We manage for quality and not so much quantity,” Dane says. “We usually have nice size later in the year, which usually gives us a better price.”

But even he and Laura started fishing earlier this season shortly after New Year’s Day. During most seasons, they won’t start until February or March.

“People who buy live from me keep asking, ‘what’s the sizing? Are you going to get good size this year?’” Laura said in mid-January. “For this time of year, they’re really pretty good size.”

Like other commodities, the success of the overall crawfish season depends on weather. If it becomes unseasonably warm in May and June, the crawfish will burrow into the mud, ending the season. But if temperatures remain mild, Dane says the season could run through June.

As the season picked up steam in January and more volume hit the market, prices dropped from about $3 per pound to the $2-$2.50 range. More than most other commodities, prices for crawfish are dominated by local and regional markets and related supply and demand, McClain says.

The Heberts sell through a local broker, but they also will sell directly to select restaurants as their volume increases in early spring.

crawfish traps

Crawfish traps dot a former rice field in south Louisiana.

Adding crawfish to the rotation
The Heberts use crawfish as part of their crop rotation. Every year, Dane selects about 150 to 200 acres of rice fields that will be moved into crustaceans in the fall. Just before he drains the rice fields for harvest in mid-summer, he’ll plant crawfish either harvested from his own ponds or obtained from wild stock.

Crawfish, also nicknamed mudbugs, burrow into the mud to escape the heat and reproduce. During the 2015 season, Dane didn’t harvest a ratoon, or second crop, on those selected fields, instead rolling the rice stubble after the first cutting.

He reinforced the levees to handle the higher 12- to 14-inch flood required for crawfish, and then flooded the fields shortly afterward. Once the water is applied, crawfish will emerge and begin feeding on decomposing plant material, small insects and other organic matter. If water temperatures get too cold, the cold-blooded crustaceans temporarily become sluggish, quit feeding and won’t take the bait in traps.

Fields that were in crawfish over the winter and spring will remain fallow until the following season, when they’ll be planted to a field crop.

Neither rain nor storm nor dark of night
Early every morning, rain or shine, Laura runs half the traps in their ponds. Dane says they alternate to allow the smaller crawfish to escape through the mesh in the funnel-shaped traps and continue to grow.

With nearly robotic precision, Laura pulls one trap and puts down an already baited trap in its place without stopping. As she steers the small flat-bottomed boat — known as a pirogue — toward the next trap, she dumps the crawfish and old bait onto a sorting table. With another motion, she grabs a piece of cut porgy bait fish, placing it in the trap as she approaches the next one.

By lunch, Laura has finished fishing and has delivered a handful of mesh bags, each containing 40-45 pounds of crawfish, to the broker. The goal is to get them to customers as soon as possible to minimize mortality. After only a couple of days in the winter, and about five days later in the season, crawfish begin to die.

Louisiana producers average about 600 pounds of crawfish per acre annually, McClain says, although a few exceptional ponds will top more than 1,000 pounds per acre.