Millie Williams spends a good portion of her weekday mornings reaching her hands into tanks filled with young alligators, setting down their food and then pulling her hand out quickly in case one of the young reptiles tries to snap at her, as they sometimes do.
Methodically she goes row by row feeding the LSU Agricultural Center’s 80 alligators varying mixtures of the pellet-based diet they live on while in captivity.
Williams, a senior research associate with the AgCenter’s Aquaculture Research Station, is working on a study that could do for Louisiana’s $60 million alligator farming industry what science has already done for the cattle, pork and poultry industries.
Robert Reigh, director of the research station, says LSU is set to open its new Alligator Research Station just outside Baton Rouge city limits in early March.
Since the early 1990s, alligator farmers have been asking for help in identifying the right food mixture and the right conditions in which they can grow their alligators quickly to marketable size and sell them, Reigh said.
About five years ago, the farmers pooled their money — about $160,000 — to pay for the Alligator Research Station.
Once the building is completed, researchers will have adequate space to take in young alligator hatchlings and nurture them until they reach marketable size of about 4 or 5 feet.
Researchers will feed some of the alligators the control diet sold commercially, while others will eat a variety of different mixtures.
Reigh says that farmers have gone from feeding their alligators fish meal to fish-feed pellets with ground-up nutria and other combinations without finding exactly what they seek.
The commercially sold alligator pellets are about 55 percent protein, Reigh said.
“They seem to do well with that, but we are interested in whether it’s necessary to feed them that much protein,” he said.
In the wild, alligators eat fish and nutria that are composed roughly of 70 percent water, Reigh continued. “So they’re probably only taking in 25 percent protein in that case.”
Farmers are also interested because protein is the most expensive part of an alligator’s diet.
Researchers also are looking at how different food types affect alligator habitats, he said. Undigested nutrients in an alligator diet can turn into ammonia, negatively affecting water quality.
“This is the kind of work that has been done for a century with cattle and hogs,” Reigh said. “We’re studying the best management practices for farming alligators.”
While researchers are concerned with nutrition levels and growth rates, the people who run Louisiana’s 55 licensed alligator farms are mostly concerned about the quality of the animals’ skin, said Ruth Elsey, a research biologist manager with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
Several different alligator farmers from around the state did not return repeated calls during a two-week period seeking comment about the new initiative.
Elsey said farmers want to find the right diet that converts easily into body mass so as to grow their alligators as fast as possible and get them to market while wasting as little feed as possible.
Farmed alligator skins typically sell for about $6.50 per centimeter, she said. The meat also is sold, but is not nearly as valuable as the skins.
Alligator farming was once a niche market done on a small scale, usually by mom-and-pop operations, but has since ballooned into a multimillion-dollar industry in Louisiana, she said.
More than 560,000 alligators were grown on farms last year compared with the estimated 2 million Louisiana alligators in the wild.
Noel Kinler, a research program manager with Wildlife and Fisheries, said the majority of Louisiana alligators grown on farms are slaughtered to accommodate the overseas retail watch market.
“The manufacturing of the watch bands occurs in Europe, where some of the highest-quality watches in the world are produced,” Kinler said. “We’re not talking about Timex watches; we’re talking more about the luxury brands.”
Philip Elzer, assistant vice chancellor with the LSU AgCenter, said the university’s function is purely research-based. Any sort of breakthroughs in alligator nutrition will be freely shared with industry and won’t be subject to intellectual property regulations, he said.
“There is nothing proprietary,” Elzer said. “We’re not talking about trade secrets.”