BATON ROUGE, La. - Small studies on alligator nutrition have been ongoing at the LSU AgCenter Aquaculture Research Station, but with the addition of new facilities, those projects can be expanded, according to LSU AgCenter assistant vice chancellor Phil Elzer.
A newly constructed building to house larger animals at the station will allow for increased research with alligators at the Baton Rouge location.
The building provides more room for the scientists to do longer-term studies and with a greater number of animals, said Robert Reigh, resident director of the Aquaculture Research Station.
"The numbers of alligators used in laboratory studies in the last four years or so has been about 100 per year," Reigh said. "In the new facility we expect to be able to raise maybe 250 per year to a marketable size."
Scientists have talked about doing more research with alligators since the 1980s, but space was always the issue, Reigh said.
An agreement between the LSU AgCenter and the alligator growers several years ago brought the research to the Baton Rouge campus, Elzer said.
"The agreement basically stated that the growers would raise the money, and we would construct the building and do the research," Elzer said. "We are also excited that the Alligator Advisory Council approved a three-year cooperative agreement with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, where we get $50,000 per year for three years to help facilitate the research efforts."
Until about three years ago, crawfish, catfish and several other fish were the focus of research at the station.
"This new research facility will provide a place where we can focus just on alligators," Reigh said. "The growers have been asking for nutrition studies on alligators. Now we have a facility to conduct those studies."
With Louisiana being the country's leader in alligator production, it's important that the quality of the product be as high as possible, Reigh said.
Louisiana gators are primarily grown for the skins, and proper nutrition is essential for skin quality, Reigh said.
Alligator farmers raise their animals from eggs they collect in the marsh. They incubate and hatch the eggs on their farms and raise the animals until they are 3 to 4 feet long.
Economically it's important to have them at that size by the time the next collection of eggs are brought in to hatch, experts said.
"So the nutrition research here will provide information to the growers that will help them get the animals to optimal size in the least amount of time and with the highest quality," Elzer said.
"The feed the growers use is expensive, so the different mixtures being tested will explain what adjustments can be made to decrease their operating costs," Reigh said. "Feed is a major part of the cost of raising the animals."
According to the 2012 Louisiana Summary of Agriculture and Natural Resources, the value of farmed alligators has increased 46 percent because of increased demand for skins and meat. This is reflected in the $56.5 million farm gate value of alligators to the state's economy in 2012, up from $38.5 million in 2011.