A Career in Koi Breeding
This article was first written for and published by Koi Magazine in 2012
The closest thing to breeding Koi would be breeding table or angling carp although the methods used for commercial carp breeding are not the same as those used for breeding Koi. Whilst damage to a carp bred for the table or the angling lake may not affect its value, damage to a Koi is likely to render it of no commercial value. As a result, care of each individual fish produced is of paramount importance when rearing Koi and for this reason the methods of breeding, rearing and handling differ from those used on commercial carp farms. However, in the absence of a specific course in koi production I would recommend a course in Fishery Management such as Sparsholt College’s BTEC Level 3 Extended Diploma in Fish Management (Ornamental Fish).
Mark at Sparsholt hand stripping eggs from a carp in 1985
When I went to Sparsholt I had to work for one year on a fish farm to even qualify for an interview so I spent a year working on a trout farm using cages on a loch in Scotland. Once at Sparsholt, I was taught fishery science, fish biology, diseases, breeding, egg production etc, finance and basic accounting – in fact how to set up, fund and run a fish farm. In addition to this we were also taught more general skills such as how two stroke, four stroke and diesel engines work, hydraulics, how to use and maintain chain saws and strimmers and also welding including practicals in gas and arc welding. We looked at single and three phase electrics, plastic welding and pipe works including flow dynamics, estate maintenance which included brick laying, block laying, concrete, fencing, pole barns and wood work, then there was foundations and path building. There was a course in boat handling and net making and mending. In addition to this we also covered site surveying, learning how to use a map and using a theodolite. All these skills were invaluable to me when I set up Cuttlebrook Koi Farm.
Mark using construction skills learned at college.
Work experience is part and parcel of a college course (I had one and a half days practical experience a week working on one of several fish farms around the Winchester area, then two one month blocks of work experience) – sometimes this is arranged by the college and sometimes you might be expected to find a placement for yourself. I found the work experience I gained at college so invaluable that I am keen to offer students the same opportunity whenever I can. This year we have students from several colleges and schools spending time at Cuttlebrook Koi Farm and for the first time we also two veterinary students planning to spend time with us also.
Dan (right) a student on work experience in 2009 getting a taste of fry selection.
After leaving College, a contact that I had made during one of my practical placements agreed to give me a letter of introduction to the owner of Yamazaki Koi farm in Japan, Mr Kamihata, of Kamihata Fish Industries. I worked there for six months and learned all I could about breeding and raising Koi. I wouldn’t be able to do what I do now had I not had that opportunity as there are aspects of Koi farming that have to be experienced and cannot be taught just in the classroom. For example, whilst in Japan I spent much of my time working in the mud ponds to create the right environment for the fry and whilst the theory is easy enough to learn, the application of that theory and the experience of observing the effects of that application can only be experienced. I got to know how it feels to walk on the bottom of a mud that has good mud on the bottom and how the mud feels when it isn’t good. The colour and shade of the water indicates the type of algae that is living in it and the stage in the cycle of the mud pond that it is at. It indicates whether the mud pond should be left alone or perhaps needs some work on it that will change the environment for the better. I spent time each day studying fry selection whilst I was in Japan. Each individual Koi and each spawning is different so it’s something that you have to develop a “feel” for – that only comes with practice and experience. A couple of students that have done their work experience with us over the years have gone on to work in Japan. One of them, David Lewis, spent a year working at Sakai Hiroshima which was an amazing experience for him. He secured this opportunity entirely under his own steam by simply writing to them. If you know a dealer or someone who has a relationship with a breeder already then they may be able to put in a good word for you if you want to gain work experience at a particular Koi farm.
Mark in Japan setting up spawning ropes in 1986
There are very few Koi farms in the UK and those that do operate are comparatively small businesses that won’t necessarily have the resources to employ staff, so opportunities to work on a Koi farm in the UK are rare. If Koi breeding is your goal in life, as it was in mine, then you need to constantly be on the lookout for opportunities to achieve that goal.
The Koi industry is, to a large degree, something of a cottage industry with many dealers building their sales facilities in their garden and running their business from home. It’s a good way to start a business as the overheads are low and it may be something that you can do evenings and weekends before taking the plunge and doing it full time. If you aim to start big then you need to draw up a business plan – find premises in a good location, work out how much it would cost to fit those premises out with the necessary tanks and filtration for holding fish and shelving etc for dry goods, the cost of stocking your tanks and shelves and the basic running costs of electricity, business rates, wages etc. Whichever you choose to do you will need a pet shop licence so it’s worth investigating beforehand how much this will cost and what you need to do to get one. Of the approximately 2000 outlets in the UK selling aquatic plants and fish, most are managed by the owner but many of those will need qualified assistants, so someone who has a relevant college qualification or perhaps an OATA (Ornamental Aquatic Trades Association) home study qualification in fish biology, water quality, fish health or filtration will definitely have an advantage.
If you are considering setting up your own Koi farm, it is of paramount importance that you find a good location with a good water supply that won’t run dry or flood. It is also important that you are able to fully drain your mud ponds. These are just two of the many considerations that have to be taken into account when starting a Koi farm from scratch. However, if you paid attention at college, then you should know the basic requirements.
A mud pond dried and drained.
Koi farming is not just a job; it’s a way of life. During spring, summer and early autumn, it’s pretty much seven days a week. We do try to grab the odd day off here and there but a day out as a family is a very rare thing and we don’t take a holiday every year. In the winter we do get to take things a bit easier but it’s often the time of year when we carry out any construction projects or tree and hedge maintenance around the farm so there’s always something to do. Having said that, we have all our fish in indoor systems at this time of year so there is much more filter cleaning and maintenance taking place during the winter.
A winter project: clearing the settlement pond – before, July 2008
Work starts –November 2008
After – settlement pond finished, Jan 2009
If you plan to set up your own Koi farm from scratch as we did your first obstacle to overcome is the local planning department. The bottom line is that if you can prove that you can make a viable business from the land then there is no reason for them to refuse you. They rely, however, on the advice of agricultural consultants and as there aren’t any published facts and figures for those consultants to refer to about Koi farming, and as they will have no experience of it, they are inclined to err on the side of caution. If you are successful, and if you are also applying to live on-site, you will get temporary planning permission for a dwelling which means you can live in temporary accommodation whilst you get your business up and running and then after three years you will be expected to once again prove the viability of your business. If you are successful however and, if you really do manage to make a business that is viable, then you will get the opportunity to build your own house or, more accurately, your agricultural workers dwelling. This is also subject to many rules and regulations that limit the size of the dwelling that you can build. Once you have a design that you and the planners are happy with you can then build your house, as we did. After eight years living in our temporary accommodation (or shed as we used to call it!) we now live in a lovely house which is, I guess, our reward for all the years of hard work when we first set up our farm.
Our “shed” – home sweet home for 8 years.
We had no way of knowing how it would all work out but we took a risk, put ourselves under an enormous amount of pressure and worked hard. It paid off for us but there are many others who have tried and who have given up because it has proved too demanding and the rewards are not guaranteed. We are still working hard now because, like everyone else, we have to keep a roof over our heads and food on the table.
Our current home, built in 2008.
Our business has been established for a number of years now and it hasn’t been plain sailing by any means. Sudden power cuts, the complex planning system, rising costs, the recession, constant threat of disease are all issues which have to be dealt with. When you are dealing with Mother Nature, the course of events is not always as predictable as you would like, for example, the weather has a major influence over the exact time that we spawn our Koi and how well they grow in the mud ponds. Mud pond management is an art in itself and if you don’t get it right it can lead to major health issues for your fry. One such problem, gas bubble disease (super saturation of gasses), is quite a common phenomenon in mud ponds although it’s something that is very rare in the hobbyist’s pond. Gas bubble disease occurs when the oxygen levels in the pond go over 100% and the oxygen tries to move to where the gas level is lower – that could be into the air or into fluids inside the fish. In very small fry, this can result in the gas bubbles causing them to be stuck permanently on the surface of the water, where they will die, and for those fry that manage to escape that, the gas bubbles will force their way into the areas of the body that have the thinnest membranes – fins, eyes and gills. This super saturation of gasses is caused by algae in the water. It’s important to have algae in the water but if it does too well then it begins to overpopulate the pond and collectively it breathes out oxygen during the day, leading to super saturation of gasses in the day time, and breathes oxygen in at night, leading to lack of oxygen in the water. It’s a tough act trying to provide an environment in each mud pond that is healthy for all the natural food that the fry eat and also the fry themselves. Each mud pond has its own eco system constantly evolving and even ponds which were filled at the same time do not cycle or behave in the same way.
Green algae covering a mud pond.
Koi farming isn’t the most lucrative business by any means but it has allowed us to run a business doing something that we love. We get a real buzz when we harvest those really special Koi that we have bred and enjoy the anticipation and pleasure of watching them grow.
Harvesting beautiful Koi that we have bred is a real buzz.
We meet some lovely people through working in the Koi industry and get a great sense of achievement when the Koi that we have bred win awards at shows – it’s that and those odd moments when we get the chance to sit back and enjoy what we’ve achieved that make it all worthwhile.
The excitement of a mud pond harvest shared with friends
Top tips for getting started in the Koi industry as a breeder or importer.
- Study all aspects of the Koi industry as much as you can and, where possible, get some qualifications relevant to what you want to do.
- Plan step by step how you are going to achieve your goal.
- Get as much experience as you can before you start investing money.
- Talk to as many people as you can who are already doing what you want to do and find out what their experience has been.
- If you have a family, make sure they are on board as you can’t do it without their support.