Stanley Micallef and his wife, Heather, of Benoni in Gauteng, use a temperature- controlled environment to speed up the snail-breeding process in their enterprise, Stanley’s Snails.
This system ensures that snails can be harvested at the age of seven months, instead of nine to 12 months, and can be harvested all year round.
With its minimal space requirements, snail breeding is a worthwhile profit-generating option for smallholders, according to the Micallefs.
The couple became interested in snail farming when a friend, who is a chef, complained that it was difficult to source snails for the restaurant market in South Africa, as suppliers were unreliable and tinned snails were unpalatable.
They now breed the Helix aspersa Müller (brown garden snail) species specifically for the consumer market and have imported breeding stock from Greece.
Edible snails are usually procured from three sources: vineyards, where they are regarded as pests; controlled systems, such as an outdoor growing system where snails are harvested from paddocks annually as part of a natural cycle; or in an indoor environment.
Snails hibernate in winter, burying themselves about 7cm underground, below frost level. When the rains arrive, the water seeps through the soil, melting the protective layer over the snails’ shells and they emerge from hibernation to feed and breed.
The pros & cons of paddock production
At one stage, Stanley and Heather produced snails in a paddock enclosed with corrugated iron sheeting to prevent rats from entering, and shade netting to keep snails from escaping.
Snails grown outdoors can, however, be preyed on by centipedes, millipedes, crickets, lizards, rats, mice and praying mantises. Fortunately, they reproduce at an exceptionally fast rate, says Stanley, and growing these molluscs is certainly viable in rural areas. In Australia, snails are grown in paddocks that have stepping stones for cover, while the vegetation provides the necessary feed.
Although vegetables can be grown for feed, the quantity in a land is not normally sufficient, so additional dry feed has to be provided as the snail population increases.
Heather advises against feeding kitchen waste such as vegetable scraps as these spoil quickly, and the snails will not eat it.
With the paddock method, a producer can grow up to 2t of snails a year on 1 000m2 (0,1ha). However, Stanley cautions that one needs a sizeable number of breeder snails to begin with to achieve this figure, and the size of the operation will ultimately determine yield.
In March last year, the Micallefs switched from a paddock to a climate-controlled environment, and business is booming.
“In 2015, around October there were no eggs or hatchlings. The snails were waiting for rain,” Stanley says.
In the new climate-controlled area, the snails have produced 3kg of eggs since March. At 11 eggs/g, this amounts to 33 000 eggs.
A single snail is sold to restaurants for over R3 each, and directly to consumers at more than R8 each, which translates to a potential profit of between R99 000 and R264 000 per cycle, depending on the market, Stanley explains.
Life cycle and feeding regimen
Snails are hermaphrodites, which means they have both male and female sex organs. They mate when mature and can store sperm for egg fertilisation. In an indoor environment, the snails are provided with containers that contain soil or compost soft enough for them to bury their eggs.
Once the eggs are laid in the containers, they are harvested and separated into smaller, closed containers filled with moist soil, where they grow. The snails do not hatch from the eggs; rather, the eggs morph into snails.
“A keen observer can literally see the spirals of the shells grow on the eggs,” Heather says.
Depending on the temperature level, this process is completed within seven to 14 days. If the conditions are favourable, snails will lay between 100 and 200 eggs at a time, two to three times per year.
Once morphing is completed, the hatchlings are placed in boxes in a humidified room. Here they are fed a high protein and mineral feed made locally, according to a recipe sourced in the UK, and remain here until their shells harden. As snails mature at different rates, they are separated according to size when they leave the hatchery.
After this, they are given finely milled, maize-based adult feed with added calcium and phosphate. Once breeding snails are past their prime, they start producing smaller or fewer eggs, and are then sold for consumption.
The temperature in the climate- controlled room is kept between 18˚C and 22˚C. A misting system, which is turned on every few minutes, keeps the room’s humidity at an optimal level.
Snails are housed on wooden platforms, and a screen underneath and battery-charged metal strips that send out electrical pulses prevent the snails from escaping. The entire area is hosed down every day to remove droppings and mucus.
The snails are fed in the late afternoon after the area has been cleaned, and they immediately emerge from darker areas on the platforms when feed is distributed by hand.
To keep production numbers manageable, the Micallefs place snails older than 26 weeks in refrigeration to induce hibernation. This cannot be done earlier, as the shells are not thick enough to protect the snails from the cold and they can die. Snails can be kept in this induced hibernation state for up to six months, according to Stanley.
There are several markets for snail-derived products, based on the various growth stages and sizes of the molluscs. Eggs that have not grown into snails are sold as white caviar, which is regarded as a luxury item in many countries around the world.
A secondary market exists for smaller snails, which are sold as food for pets such as bearded dragons and hedgehogs. However, snails produced for the pet trade must be grown in a sterile, closed indoor system to ensure that they do not contain pathogens that may harm the animals consuming them.
Medium-sized snails, used for Portuguese and Italian-style cooking are sold live, but are purged and cleaned, and sold in a refrigerated hibernating state. According to Stanley, consumers prefer snails that have been in hibernation, as they retreat into their shells, giving them a rounded shape when cooked, rather than a long, slug-like appearance.
According to Stanley, snails have a higher protein content per kilogram than beef.
He explains that snails for the pet industry are grown out in four months, while snails to be used in cooking take six months to grow out.
Those sold at markets take seven to eight months to reach a marketable age. Breeder snails are grown out until the age of 18 months.
The Micallefs currently supply fully cooked, spiced and vacuum-packed snails to weekend food markets.
All the couple’s snail products have undergone rigorous testing in a laboratory and Stanley’s Snails has also been endorsed by the South African Chefs Association.
Plans for expansion
Stanley’s and Heather’s plans for the future include establishing a fully HACCP- compliant breeding, growing, and snail storage facility.
Although such a facility would require a large capital investment, current high production levels make expansion critical, and plans are underway to form a consortium to facilitate the process.
The Micallefs’ business plan includes expansion up to 26t/ year, while a programme to establish satellite snail farms, in which growers will sell snails that they have raised back to Stanley’s Snails, is also envisaged.
Phone Stanley Micallef on 082 457 2951 or email him at [email protected].