Dairy Channel: Farming crickets or cows takes skill

Think you have labor challenges? Jeff Armstrong, third generation cricket farmer in Glennville, Ga., probably has you beat.

Armstrong’s Cricket Farm was the second stop on a tour at the National Association of County Agricultural Agents professional improvement meeting and annual conference held in Savannah, Georgia earlier this year.

When you advertise for employees, you have the opportunity to play up working with warm-blooded animals, working outside, fresh air (OK, that might not work on all your job descriptions,) cute calves and so forth. Exactly what do you highlight on an insect farm? Heated hatching and growing rooms during a Georgia summer? The crickets mostly stay in their boxes? They don’t bite? You get used to working with worms?

Gotta like bugs. Jeff and his wife like bugs. They are the third generation to take over the farm started by his grandfather in 1947. At the time, they were the only cricket farmers. While still a small industry, other farms have joined since then.

Cricket farming has primarily been a seasonal business, tied to their use as bait for fishing. The industry is changing. Thirty percent of Armstrong’s business is now tied to the pet industry where crickets and worms are used to feed frogs, snakes, birds, lizards, bearded dragons and geckos.

Scooping crickets. After trying to gross out the kids on the tour with big boxes of writhing mealworms, our tour began in the packing room. There, two employees were boxing crickets for the day’s orders.

How do you motivate people who scoop and measure cupfuls of crickets into boxes for hours at a time? I think Jeff was still searching as evidenced by a big, hand-lettered sign hanging over the time clock. It read: “If mail is not fully completed by 4 p.m.; Mon-Fri; everyone responsible will be given a $1 per hr deduction for a while. TRY ME!”

Same as cows. Raising crickets may seem a bit removed from dairy farming, but most of the things that are important for cows are also important for crickets. As Jeff put it, “feed is important and temperature is everything.”

The crickets eat a 17 percent protein feed at a rate of 8 to 9 tons per day during the peak season. During the peak season, they will ship more than a million crickets a day out of their facility.

A balanced ration is just as important to crickets as it is to cows. Last summer, a batch was not properly balanced, which caused the males’ wings to curl rather than grow properly. Inadvertently, they now had millions of “chirpless” crickets, because the “chirp” is a result of the males rubbing their wings together.

Their agricultural agent helped them rebalance their ration so the following males’ wings again grew properly.

Just like cows, crickets don’t always want to eat when we think they should. They have been known to spike the ration with molasses to get the crickets eating.

While we try to keep cows cool, crickets need to be kept warm enough to promote egg laying. When temps were not maintained properly, egg laying percentages dropped and it was difficult to fill orders when that batch of eggs went through the hatch cycle.

Love to hatch. Higher temperatures must be maintained in the hatching rooms. Just like a fortunate dairy farm with a good calf raiser, the Armstrongs are fortunate to have a lady who loves to hatch crickets.

Cleanliness is critical in addition to temperature and moisture in the hatching pans. The pans look suspiciously like 9-by-13 cake pans with plastic lids. If anyone tries to serve you cake from a pan with 8 symmetrical holes punched in the lid, consider asking them what they did with the cake pan before baking that cake.

Staying up-to-date. Practices change and facilities have to be updated. The growing rooms all had automatic watering systems with itty-bitty floats in the waterers. Before the automatic system was installed, it took a full-time person to water the crickets.

Wages are relatively low in the area. The 20 employees start in the $6-$7 per hour range. Migrant workers are used in many of the agricultural operations in the area. The Armstrongs average 25 percent employee turnover in a year.

You may not be ready to send you kids or your brother down to Armstrong’s Cricket Farm to get some non-dairy experience, even though many of the fundamentals for successful dairy farming mirror those of successful cricket farming, but if you need a good steady supply of seven different sizes of crickets, I know just the place…

Check out the Armstrong Farm, complete with pictures, at www.armstrongcricket.com.

(The author is the northeast Ohio district dairy specialist with OSU Extension. Send comments or questions in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460.)

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