WEWAHITCHKA, Fla. (AP) _ Ranch foreman Bryant Copeland, eyes shaded from the Florida Panhandle sun by a cowboy hat, grinned and gazed at the new stock grazing on the 12,000-acre spread. He wasn't looking at cows.

''Crawfish are easier to round up than cattle are,'' he said in his Arkansas drawl. ''Harder to brand, but easier to round up.''

He was kidding about the branding but not the roundups at M-K ranches, where millions of squirmy crawfish, resembling tiny lobsters, feed in outdoor ponds. They're herded with 40 flat-bottom boats built in Louisiana bayou country where crawfish are a staple of the Cajun diet.

Until five years ago Copeland never had eaten crawfish. Now he supervises one of the nation's largest crawfish-raising operations.

Each year, M-K Ranches produce from 850,000 to a million pounds of crawfish, also are known as crayfish or ''mud bugs.'' The operation has 12 full-time employees but it grows to more than 100 during harvesting from mid- Janary through June.

It isn't just a ''crawfish plantation,'' said J.T. Murff Jr., who owns M-K Ranches in partnership with his father.

Softshell crab, freshwater shrimp, fingerling catfish and tilapia, an African perch, also are raised in a temperature-controlled production building although crawfish in the 19 ponds outside are the main product.

The Murffs, who had been in the cotton business in Memphis, Tenn., bought the property almost 18 years ago. The land was cleared of pine trees and up to 7,000 head of cattle roamed until 1979.

''The cattle market at the time made it where that didn't look economical,'' Murff said in a telephone interview from his Memphis office.

Some cattle remained, but most of the land was switched to crops: corn, soybeans, rice, wheat, milo and sunflowers. Copeland, an expert in rice growing and watering, was brought in. By 1984 rice was the main crop. Water to flood the rice ponds was diverted from the nearby Brothers River.

The federal government then removed price supports that had kept rice at about $7 a bushel. Rice prices dropped in half in 1985, and it no longer was profitable, Murff said. Meanwhile, Cajun cuisine had become a national rage.

''A lot of people were eating crawfish and Cajun cooking and creole cooking,'' Copeland said. ''We had the water and we had the ground so we put in 2,500 acres of crawfish ponds.''

Crawfish were especially attractive because they could be raised with relatively little modification to the shallow rice ponds, Murff said. They feed on decaying hay and rice, both grown on the ranch.

Until this year, processing had been farmed out to seafood plants in Panama City and Port St. Joe, but M-K is building its own on-site plant. It is scheduled for completion later this month.

The crawfish, caught in traps, are sold live or preboiled and seasoned in frozen blocks of 5 to 25 pounds under the brand name Crawfish 1 in 29 states. Up to 15 percent of the catch goes to Europe where it is prepared in a dill sauce rather than hot Cajun spices, Murff said. A few months ago, M-K donated 1,000 pounds of crawfish to Californians made homeless and hungry by the earthquake that shook the San Francisco area.

Tail meat also is sold at a higher price, but the most profitable product is softshell crawfish. It is a gourmet item that goes for $7.50 to $9 a pound wholesale compared to a range of 60 cents to $1.25 for hardshell crawfish.

''Softshell tastes real good and besides that you get to eat the whole crawfish,'' Copeland said.

For the softshell process, immature crawfish are sorted into hundreds of shallow holding trays in the production building. They remain there until they shed their shells which happens about once every two weeks.

As soon as a crawfish molts, it is plucked from the holding tray, put in cold water and then frozen before its new shell can harden. The same process is used with crabs.

''The trouble is everyone knows what a softshell crab is, but very few know what a softshell crawfish is,'' Murff said.

He is trying to spread the word through advertising directed toward distributors and with displays at trade shows.

The Cajun craze has done more for blackened fish, chicken and meat than for traditional Louisiana-style boiled crawfish, Murff said. While crawfish have covered the overhead, M-K hasn't yet turned a profit.

''We couldn't create the high-value niche we thought we could,'' Murff said.

He remains committed to aquaculture but believes diversification into species with larger and established markets will be the answer. He has ordered some ponds converted to raise fresh water shimp and new ponds dug for catfish.

The switch to aquaculture meant some retraining for ranchhands, but Copeland said his lifestyle remains little changed.

''Farming is farming,'' he said. ''It's 24 hours a day, seven days a week.''

End adv for Monday Jan. 15