RENVILLE COUNTY, Minn. — After an extensive career raising chickens for Golden Oval Eggs, Becky Bruns is now a shrimp farmer.
“I’ve raised chickens all my life,” the 40-year-old Bruns said. “My parents built this barn (which is now my shrimp farm) the year I was born. After high school I did two years of college, became a vet tech, then returned to the farm to assist my Mom in raising chickens and have been here ever since.
“My husband also came back with me. He’s not a farm boy, so I decided to make a farmer out of him. He fought back. Now he runs racing products rebuilding engines for the expanding world of NASCAR racing.
“But a big catalyst in this shrimp venture was the Avian Influenza siege of 2018. It damn near broke me. At that point we were growing about two million birds a year for Rembrandt Food’s Golden Oval operation … we were doing 12 flocks a year. When Avian Influenza hit, it was one of the worst experiences of my life. The only more tragic episode was when my son died.”
Some federal assistance to Bruns and literally hundreds of Minnesota turkey farmers helped ease the sudden financial storm. “I took a hell of a mental hit,” Bruns admitted. “I didn’t recover very well. Egg markets have never recovered and are still in the tank … like 49-cents a dozen in some places and crop markets are volatile. I wanted to do something that didn’t revolve around egg prices or crop prices. I wanted to try something different.
“My Mom and I had talked somewhat about this guy up at Willmar who sold off his dairy herd and turned one of his buildings into a shrimp farm. So we both at separate times drove up to his farm for a visit. I sort of laughed it off; my Mom pretty much the same reaction. But after both of us laughing off the idea a couple of times we realized we were both heading in the same direction and just maybe we should look into this. I now had a 360-foot chicken barn sitting empty in the middle of a corn field And then this thought … why not grow shrimp?
“The idea firmed up and here we are today. In August of 2018, we shipped birds out of this barn for the last time. Immediately we started the renovation which lasted through the winter and then in July of 2019 we got our first shrimp in here.”
Bruns’ shrimp barn how houses 17 shrimp tanks which includes four 17,000-gallon nursery tanks and 13 ‘grow out’ tanks — each with 3,000 gallons of water.
Becky starts each nursery tank with 10,000 to 15,000 shrimp larvae — barely recognizable by the human eye. “When they are about 1 gram in size (now you can see them) I’ll put 3 to 4,000 shrimp into that 3,000-gallon tank.”
By now you are wondering, ‘how does she count these miniature shrimp?’ Well she doesn’t — at least not individually. “I’ll put 200-300 grams (200 grams is 0.4 pounds) in a pail and weigh it, then I’ll dump them into a grower tank and count those once or twice. Then I can determine the average weight of each shrimp and set up my feeding schedule accordingly.”
Somewhat like other livestock, shrimp rations are adjusted for various growth cycles. Bruns said she’s shooting for 120 days for these tiny creatures to reach market weight, but that depends upon water quality and the different components of her shrimp feed. “If my water gets a little wonky (her term) I’ll have to pull back just a bit on the feeding and that can mean a few extra days in the grow-out tank.”
Bruns monitors water quality daily in every tank. She checks several components: pH, alkalinity, ammonia content and nitrate levels — much the same chores as when she was growing out several thousand chicks. “Water quality is the most pertinent task of shrimp farming. The water is as much a living organism as are the shrimp. Each tank is its own eco-system, so the growing of the positive bacteria (called bioflock) is critical. This bioflock consumes all the waste product of the growing shrimp. And that is why I am not concerned about refreshing my shrimp tanks. I can reuse my water over and over.”
Bruns grows her own bioflock. You don’t purchase the stuff and add it into your shrimp tanks. When her first shrimp arrived, they were put into tanks; and like all fish, they were routinely expelling their own wastes — producing their own bacteria which she enhances with some sugar and pro-biotics. “As the shrimp grow, the bioflock just comes into being through the environment created within each tank,” she explained. “So when we look into our tanks you’ll see the water has a brownish color. Everybody thinks it’s dirty, but that is the most beautiful color you wish to see for a shrimp farmer. It’s not dirty water; it’s beautiful water because of bioflock.”
Feeding the shrimp is automated and takes some doing. Each tank has its own system. Bruns carefully spreads measured shrimp nutrition on a belt feeder each morning; then activates the ‘start’ button which then ever so slowly moves the belt through the water. Each day she weighs out the feed for each tank and that feed belt slowly ticks forward — dropping off feed for 24 hours. “A shrimp’s digestive tract empties in 45 minutes, so these minuscule creatures spend most of the day just lunching and pooping,” smiled Bruns.
A sick cow or pig is relatively easy to identify for an experienced producer. But what about a sick shrimp? Bruns explained, “A shrimp is a fairly simple animal. Its digestive tract, called the mud vein, lies across its top side. A healthy shrimp is so translucent that I can see that digestive tract. If I’m not feeding enough, I won’t be able to see that mud vein. That means I need to increase the daily feeding for that particular tank. If I’m putting in too much feed, I’ll get the remnants of too much feed.”
“I’m weighing my shrimp every week,” Bruns continued. “I’m shooting for a 20 to 25-gram weight. Each 25-gram shrimp would be about two good bites. Nope, shrimp don’t all grow even. I might have 25-gram and 15-gram shrimp in the same tank. So I need to net those big shrimp and give the smaller ones a better chance to grow. Yes, this is very much a hands-on operation and that perhaps is why I welcome each new hatch of shrimp fingerlings.”
Bruns is buying her hatchery shrimp from a Florida firm (American Miracultures). Flown in overnight to the Twin Cities airport, these baby shrimp are packaged 10,000 to 15,000 into a plastic bag. “When I unload here at my shrimp barn, I float the bag in my nursery tank a few minutes to equalize water temperatures. At that point, these shrimp are about the size of an eye lash; so I just feed and hope and pray everything is okay with my new family. At this point I don’t trust anyone else to my day-by-day chores since I’m not absolutely certain myself,” chuckled Bruns. “If you’re not learning, you likely aren’t doing much … whether you are parenting, or raising chickens, or farming shrimp, I make multiple mistakes every day.”
Her feed source is Ziegler Feeds, a Pennsylvania based aqua culture feed firm which provides six different rations for the six life cycles in her shrimp rearing program. Yes, shrimp mortalities do happen. Lots of competition in each tank, she said, so some is expected. “But if I’m doing it right I only see one or two mortalities per grow out tank.”
The Shrimp Shop has regular shopping hours, but Bruns said it’s best to call ahead to plan your visit. Her phone is (507) 237-6442; or email Shrimpshopmn@gmail.com.
So far, the majority of her customers from within a 50-mile radius of Danube. She has yet to do any advertising, but she is pleased and grateful how rapidly the word is spreading about this new shrimp farm in Minnesota. “Most of the time we are selling out as soon as a tank is ready to market,” Bruns said. “There is a great demand for clean, healthy protein. But I’ve had people come from South Dakota; from Anandale; from Apple Valley. And already now quite a handful of repeat customers — some even on a weekly basis.”
Current price is $22 a pound (about 20 to 22 shrimp make up a pound) with a cash discount also being offered. Bruns also provides information on what to do with your just-purchased Minnesota farm fresh shrimp.