Iowa studies toothy option for farmers
Alligators could help dispose of hog carcasses, provide second income
By Amy Lorentzen
CASTANA, Iowa -- Not all piglets in a litter survive, leaving Iowa hog farmers to bury the carcasses, pay someone to haul them to a rendering plant or -- feed them to the alligators.
Ground into a pulpy mass, bones and all, piglet flesh becomes lunch for two 4-foot alligators at a research farm near the western Iowa town of Castana.
Kris Kohl, and Iowa State University Extension agricultural engineer, envisions the cold-blooded reptiles as a less costly method of disposal and a source for high quality meat and hides -- a second income for hog farmers.
"It's a viable industry here," Kohl said Tuesday has he peeked into the heated tank of "Alligator 1" and "Alligator 2." (Since the pair will be slaughtered at the end of the project, Kohl avoided giving them pet names.)
Kohl read an article on alligator production in January 2000. His wife, Kelly, gave him a pair of baby alligators the next Valentine's Day.
"They came in a Valentine Styrofoam box," Kohl said.
Only a few inches long, the alligators were nurtured in a bathtub for about a year.
Today, each of the reptiles weighs about 25 pounds. They live in an 8-by-3-feet tank heated to about 82 degrees, with an attached wooden platform on which they stretch out or eat.
Kohl believes one is a male and the other a female, based on their varying sizes -- 54 inches and 47 inches as of Dec. 16.
Their tank is in a farm building that houses office space for the research farm, where about 120 cattle and about 1,000 hogs are finished each year.
Wayne Roush, farm superintendent, cares for the pair of reptiles.
"There's handling, waste, feeding. It takes daily care," he said. "This is a livestock project. It's just a reptile instead of a warm-blooded animal."
The alligators are no more aggressive than other livestock, Roush said.
"From my perspective, I have a much better chance of getting hurt weighing cattle," he said.
The U.S. alligator industry produces about 500,000 hides a year at $80 to $200 each for belts, shoes and purses, Kohl said. Alligator meat sells for about $5 a pound.
A typical alligator farm in the South -- they are most prevalent in Louisiana and Florida -- raises about 3,000 of the reptiles.
"If we were to develop farms in Iowa, I would expect them to be at least that big," Kohl said, adding that enough livestock die of natural causes in Iowa each year to feed 1 million alligators.
Kent Vliet, a University of Florida alligator biologist, said having a ready source of food isn't all it takes to get started in the "chancy proposition" of alligator farming.
"I would be cautious ... A bunch of people have gotten into alligator farming because they have got a bunch of protein waste product they think they will save that money in rendering," Vliet said. "Generally, the ones that have come in in that perspective have failed to flourish."
He said the most successful farms have 10,000 to 12,000 animals.
"Generally, all farms that have been successful have gone into it with a very stringent business attitude. The only ones really successful are ones that have grown to the very large size," he said.
Kohl said about a dozen Iowa farmers have said they are ready to raise alligators, but he said he wants more research before they go "whole hog" into the industry.
The 14-month research project has cost about $2,300 so far, excluding electricity. All of the money came from private donations, Kohl said.