HOLSTEIN - When Chad Dutler confided to his wife, Keely, that he wanted to farm full-time, she felt the idea had great merit.
After all, the fifth generation farm couple not only raised livestock in their cow-calf operation, they also farm 1,200 acres with Chad's father and brother. But like so many family farmers, Chad also worked full-time as an engineer technician for Cherokee County to round out their income.
"I was getting tired of working a town job during the day," Chad Dutler said, "and coming home to farm on the weekends and evenings. I wanted to farm full-time."
From a farm family in Kingsley, Keely was supportive of her husband, but both Dutlers knew that the void from Chad's county job would need to be filled before resigning.
"Chad researched fisheries and vegetable farms and then found some information on raising shrimp," Keely Dutler said. "He talked about it for eight months before he took a trip to Fowler, Ind., to see an established shrimp farm. Afterwards, he told me he wanted to do it for sure.
Knowing now what the couple was heading into in terms of long hours and hard work, she said, "I wished I had listened more closely during those eight months."
The Dutlers solidified their commitment to aquaculture by investing in a new building and equipment of the trade. An 8,100-square-foot building was erected with just over half used exclusively for their shrimp operation.
A wall divides a portion of the building that houses the farm family's semi-trailer, tractor - and a pallet of shrimp feed.
"We decided to go with this tall-ceiling building," Chad Dutler said, "just in case the shrimp business didn't work out and we needed the space for more farm equipment."
And a short time after, it became apparent that there was a special knack to raising saltwater shrimp. The couple received its first batch of shrimp in February, behind schedule, but wanted the saltwater just right. Even so, the first batch only had a 5 percent survival rate.
"The first two batches were tough," said Chad. "Like a newborn calf, you got to get them going strong. Once they get going, the rest works, but starting out well is very important."
According to the Dutlers, the Pacific White Shrimp are one-eigth-inch or smaller when they arrive from the Florida hatchery.
The hatchlings require four different types of feed ranging from a liquid-based nutrient to three different micron sizes of feed. When released to the larger pools, the shrimp feed from pellets dispensed by auto-feeders that are filled daily.
"At first, we have to feed them four times a day," Dutler said. "It's a time-consuming process to manage four nursery tanks."
Dutler said that one of his best lessons came out of frustration.
"On our third batch, we were losing quite a few nursery shrimp. After running out of ideas, I took the nursery group and transferred them to a large pool just to see if they could survive there.
"I waited 24 hours without doing anything before netting the bottom, expecting dead shrimp. To my surprise, they were not only alive but thriving. Our water had finally broke, creating enough good bacteria to partly feed the shrimp; the amount of feed I gave them in the nursery just robbed the water of the necessary oxygen. It was the amount of feed that was killing them."
Overstocking causes problems. The Dutlers went from two nursery tanks to four to accommodate their 56,000 shrimp batches to create healthier nurseries.
No matter how poor initial survival rates are, stay with it until the water "breaks." Water that breaks has the right combination of oxygen, salinity and temperature, creating the right bacteria for higher survival rates. The Dutlers have high hopes that their current batch, the fifth, will have an 80 percent survival rate. "We don't waste water," Chad Dutler said. "We may transfer water from tank to tank, but now that we've got the system working, we don't waste it."
It is more manageable to have several small tanks that accommodate around 4,000 shrimp than two that house 15,000. The large tanks require much more energy to maintain. It also creates the need for intermediate tanks, so shrimp can build up the strength necessary to forage for foods in the large tanks.
Shrimp jump and jump high. When light levels change, the shrimp jump out of the water in massive groups, leaving some to die on the concrete floor. The Dutlers have found it helps to turn off the lights in banks to reduce the jumping. They have also created plastic wrap barriers and installed netting over the tanks. According to Dutler, one "ornery group continues to find every crevice possible to get out."
The Dutlers said they find it hard to swallow when someone says the aquaculture investment is comprised of "just a bunch of swimming pools."
"Keely and my mom and dad have been involved in setting up the pools and the plumbing," Dutler said, "not to mention the six to seven hours a day that we put into this operation when the nursery is full.
"Fixing leaks, managing the water quality, keeping up with feedings and responding to issues as they arise are no different than the daily chores with a cow-calf operation."
When there was a break between hatches, the Dutlers took a whirlwind round trip to Indiana to meet with their Indiana shrimp farmer contact. Dutler's father and neighbor fed the mature shrimp in the couple's absence.
"Our three kids aren't very happy that we haven't been able to have a vacation this summer," Keely Dutler said, "but we've had to be here to make sure we get off the ground right."
Shrimp 59 LLC named after the highway where the farm resides just north of Holstein is beginning to see fruits of the family's labor. The Dutlers marketed their second batch of shrimp and are eyeing their third sale in late August.
"Our goal at that point is to have only a 15-day layover between selling out and having another batch," Chad Dutler said. "We've had excellent feedback on the shrimp that have gone out the door so far."
When the shrimp wiegh 25 grams, Shrimp 59 LLC sells them for $15 per pound. If a customer orders more than 10 pounds, the price is $13 per pound.
The Dutlers have had little trouble gaining attention for their new endeavor. Media attention gained them notice by Des Moines and Cedar Rapids grocery stores.
"My biggest concern," Dutler said, "is keeping up with the demand that can come our way. We have to stay in a mode of growth."