How to optimize a salmon feeding process?

Published: 07. ago., 2020

The six best practices that benefit every farmer.- By Mattis N. Segerberg, feeding specialist in CageEye.

In fish farming, we are all working hard to produce high-quality meals to feed our current and our future generations. Our goal is invariably to provide sustainably produced food that is healthy and affordable for consumers, profitable for farmers, and beneficial for the fish.

Balancing the economy and the ecology of a fish farm can be tricky, but getting it right is a boon for all concerned. The farmers will make more money. Pollution will be curbed and the drain on scarce natural resources will be minimized. The health and welfare of the fish will improve.

To achieve all this, farmers must optimize their feeding systems, in order to maximize the growth potential of the fish.

There is no blueprint for best feeding practices. Several approaches to feeding can lead to good results. However, having worked with some of the best-performing aquaculture companies in Norway and Chile for several years, we have found that there are some key strategies and steps that every farmer can implement to create higher yield, lower feed waste, improve utilization of resources and shorten production cycles.

This is how the best salmon farmers do it:

1. They put feeding at the core of their strategy, operations and organization
Feeding is a salmon farmer’s most important job. It can be difficult to make sure every single meal delivers its full potential in terms of growth, health, and welfare. The best performing farmers make feeding the beating heart of everything they do. They incorporate a feeding culture from top-management to the operators at the sites. Good, professional, and consistent feeding practices are implemented at every level of their business, from the company strategy and vision to human resources procedure to on-site checklists, meeting agendas, and incentives.

2. They act on facts
One thing that has surprised us a lot, is the answer we consistently get from the top-performing feed center managers and feeders when we ask them about their feeding strategy and regimes. “We don’t know if we are doing things right,” they often say.

This is why most farmers are using more and more data and statistics to support their decision-making and to help them check whether their approaches have been successful. The best salmon farmers tend to be extremely open to new ideas and approaches and are generally eager to implement best practices across their organizations.

At the core, this is all about utilizing data in decision-making and strategic discussions. These farmers see data and statistics as integral parts of their efforts toward continuous step-by-step improvements. In other words, they “act on facts”.

3. They take a holistic approach to the feeding process
The feeding process from A to Z involves more than starting, adjusting, and stopping the feeding. Different parts of the process make up an interlinked system where every part matters.

These include production planning and feeding strategy, as well as technology and equipment at the site and in cages,. There is feed ordering and silo logistics, as well as feeding operations to consider. Of course, data analysis, environmental parameters, and reporting are vital instruments that will help farmers succeed.

A holistic approach to feeding stretches over several axes in time and space, from before the fish is put into the sea - production planning, health control at smolt facility, smolt transport, etc. - until after harvest - analyze performance, environmental testing, learning, etc.

The best farmers have control of all the different parts of the process. They map them out and put resources and effort into the weakest parts of the process to make the whole system more efficient and robust. They know that the only roadmap that will lead to excellence requires a mindset and processes of continuous improvement to be implemented.

4. They focus on people
People are often surprised to learn that salmon farming has become a high-tech sector. However, that does not mean the best farmers get lost in an all-technocratic approach. Innovation is booming in the industry, and a broad range of new tech-centered companies and vendors are popping up all the time, delivering a spectrum of different stuff to put in the cages.

New technology gives opportunities to better understand, evaluate, and track what’s going on in the cages, but technology alone is not the answer.

Humans are and will still be a crucial part of every fish farmer’s operations. The best farmers know that unless they also invest in their people, all technology-based projects and transformations will be in vain. They know that they must involve the whole organization, from top-management to site operators, both in technology-driven transformations and to deliver continuous improvement.

5. They are cost-focused and perform a cost-benefit analysis when investing in technology to improve feeding
How much are we spending on feeding the fish? Most items in a farming company’s budget can be linked to feeding. Feed is at the core of every fish farmer’s operation. They produce salmon by feeding the fish.

Everything from a barge and cameras, to buying feed and paying salaries, can be tied to the cost of feeding the fish. The best farmers keep this in mind when deciding how and where to invest. They are guided by a simple “biggest-bang-for-the-buck” principle, which means they invest where they can gain the largest marginal benefit for the money they invest.

Whether they are considering a new feed barge, new spreaders, recruitment, or new technology, their investment decisions are always based on solid cost-benefit analysis.

Investment in new feeding equipment must be guided by such insight. Comfort and convenience is great, but unless it lifts your performance or is really needed, it’s a no-go. Fancy stuff in the cages looks good on movies, but if it doesn’t improve feeding performance, it’s a no-go. If it increases the overall costs related to feeding operations, it’s a no-go.

6. They strive for excellence in uptime and they make site infrastructure great again
To achieve excellence, one optimal meal is not enough. All production days for every cage for every generation of fish have to be perfect.

Of course, everyone in salmon farming knows that such expectations are unrealistic. There are simply too many uncertainties, complexities, and unforeseen occurrences that affect production, such as disease, algae, storms, and lice. The focus should, therefore, be on what can be improved in terms of feeding performance, not least the uptime of every part of the feeding system.

The best farmers build and maintain a robust system, instead of focusing on making individual parts function. This involves everything from feed logistics, silos, pipes, and cameras to sensors, power, internet, and feeding software. They start by assessing and tracking where the most frequent problems occur, and they focus on easy pickings. They pick the low-hanging fruits first.

For example, creating an event log helps them keep track of equipment downtime, whether feed spreaders or camera winches. The best farmers know exactly which events and equipment downtimes affect feeding the most over a two-week period, so they focus on improving those. They also benchmark sites and cages and keep track of “green days”, when everything works and nothing disrupts the planned feeding.

In addition to such attention to detail, a robust system will require holistic IT-solutions. Tech-driven opportunities can be wasted unless they are supported by resilient and well-maintained infrastructure to support the deployment of “stuff in cages” and to “get the data up into the Cloud”. After all, there is little point in investing a million euros in new technology without also having the on-site infrastructure to utilize it.

When the overall uptime and robustness of the site infrastructure has reached a satisfactory level, the best farmers turn their focus towards what we call “equipment alignment”. This goes beyond tracking and improving the uptime on equipment, by tuning everything to perfection. This is where the top-performers are leaving the competition behind.

Where to start
The road to an optimized feeding process might be long and winding, and there is really no end-point. Things can always be improved, but there are some key concepts every farmer can implement fast and effectively in order to start the transformation.

Ambitious farmers will always start by asking themselves some fundamental questions. Do they have a defined feeding process? Do they have a structured way to benchmark themselves? Do they have a feeding-centric focus running through all of their organizations, from the boardroom to cages? Do they have continuous projects and effort in their organization, focussed on improving their feeding performance? As they search for answers, they invariably improve.