Backyard Intensive Fish Farming - The Project

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rtower

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Stage One - Developing a Plan

For years I've wanted to build a pond on our 40 acres of rolling sand hills so we could enjoy fresh-caught fish a couple times a week. But I've been deterred by several challenges...

Our soil is all fine sands. Sealing a pond with bentonite clay would be very expensive and time-consuming. Installing a pond liner would be expensive and comes with a risk of deer or stray cattle puncturing the liner. Adding a layer of rock and sand on top of the liner to protect it would just create a massive weed bed.

One of the best options for sealing the pond appears to be using several ducks. You lay out the pond profile, fence it in, release the ducks and turn on the water. In a few months you have a reasonably well-sealed pond.

But the biggest challenge with any traditional pond in southwest Kansas is the amount of water loss to evaporation during the summer months. Hot, dry, windy days lower the water level faster than I can add water, even if I devote one of my two residential water wells exclusively to re-filling the pond 24/7.

Recently my wife suggested, "If you didn't have the rabbits you could build a pond inside the shadehouse."

What a brilliant idea! I've raised Discus in a 175 gallon bow-front aquarium so I have experience maintaining good water quality parameters in a closed system. I can apply the same principles to a Backyard Intensive Fish Farming operation!!

The shadehouse is a 12' wide by 24' long structure framed with treated lumber. It has a corrugated metal roof. I've installed aluminum C-channels (called Poly-Lock) all around the perimeter of the framing. The C-channels allow me to cover the shadehouse with a durable knitted shadecloth to provide protection from wind. In the winter I add a layer of greenhouse plastic over the shadecloth to help hold in heat.

I've searched for any books or other reliable information on raising catfish at home for the table. I've only found a couple of older books from the 1970s that somewhat cover the subject but are obviously lacking in current information. Most of the resources seem to be directed toward either the commercial end of fish farming or aquaculture (combining fish farming in containers with growing vegetables &/or flowers to control ammonia and nitrates).

I have found a few .pdf documents from state college extension services, as well as some limited information provided by hatcheries. So I'm going to do my best to glean useful knowledge from those few sources and combine that with my own past experience with raising aquarium fish.

Here's my plan so far...

I will excavate a "pit" in the sand floor in the middle of the shadehouse. The pit will be about 6' wide by 12' long and 4' deep. The sides will be as near vertical as possible, just sloping slightly to prevent collapse while excavating. The ends will be rounded like a long stock tank so there will be no angled corners for the fish to jam themselves into. The very bottom will then be steeply sloped to the center to a depth of about 5'. I'm hoping this will allow me to easily vacuum out the waste.

I plan to line this indoor "pond" with an EPDM rubber liner. Then I'm going to build a kind of "ladder" framework over the top of the pond to support the filtration equipment.

The total volume of this pond will be somewhere around 2,000 gallons. I'm going to install an "outside-the-pond" electric pump that will draw pre-filtered water from near the bottom of the pond. As the water leaves the pump output it will first go through a UV-sterilizer that will kill any bacteria, parasites or algae in the water.

Next the water flow will be split and directed to two bio-filters. The reason for the split is this... The volume of the pond requires that I recirculate around 2,000 gallons per hour to maintain good water quality once the fish are installed. The pump and UV-sterilizer will both handle that volume. But the bio-filter has a maximum flow rate of around 1,060 gallons per hour, so I need two. If I exceed the flow-rate limit of the bio-filter the bacteria in the filter media won't have time to digest the ammonia they're intended to eliminate.

The bio-filters I plan to use will each have a "waterfall" discharge installed on the outlet end. By placing the two bio-filters on the treated lumber framework above the water and directing the waterfalls onto the pond's surface, I hope to provide the aeration needed to maintain dissolved oxygen (DO) levels required to support the catfish. I'll probably have to invest in a DO meter to be certain. (Otherwise I may not know until I see dead fish floating on the surface!)

Below I'll provide links to the exact equipment I am ordering. FYI, I have no affiliation with any of the suppliers and I receive no compensation or other benefit from any of them. Just providing this for anyone who's interested. Also, if possible, I will provide links to DIY options for each piece of equipment. Some of those links offer to sell plans or parts and, again, I have no affiliation with any of them.

The Pump: http://www.pondexpo.com/products/pumps/C1-8-22.php

This is a low-speed pump which I'm hoping will result in a bit of savings in operating costs. One rather cool thing about this website is their "Make an Offer" feature. They are the absolute lowest-price retailer I've found but I was able to buy this pump, with the factory-installed cord and plug, for a total of $375 delivered. Saved about $26.

If there is a DIY option for this I'm not aware of it.

The Pre-filter: http://www.amazon.com/gp/offer-listing/B005TI44KU/ref=dp_olp_all_mbc?ie=UTF8&condition=all

This keeps trash from entering the intake of your pump. I bought two for $34.77 each, delivered, and plan to stack them. Thought that might require cleaning them a bit less often.

For DIYers, see the last link in this post for Matala Filter Media. I'm sure you could make your own using PVC connectors and that media.

The UV-Sterilizer: http://www.pondexpo.com/products/uv/classic/A00039.php

Haven't ordered this just yet. Thinking I'll go with the 2" model with wiper. The wiper is important because the internal UV bulb can quickly lose performance as debris accumulates on the surface. That model allows you to clean the surface of the bulb in about two seconds, restoring it to 100% performance.

A couple important things to note... These can be listed as UV-clarifiers and/or UV-sterilizers. The difference is critical. Clarifiers will help keep the water free of algae but Sterilizers will kill bacteria, parasites and algae. The sterilizers use higher wattage bulbs or require moving the water through more slowly in order to expose the "bugs" to the UV longer. Also be sure to check the reported "useful life expectancy" of the UV bulb. The bulbs are a bit expensive and some only last five or six months. This brand is reported to last up to fourteen months!

There is a very real safety issue with UV light of this magnitude, especially to your eyesight. I would not recommend this as a DIY option.

The Bio-filter: http://www.drsfostersmith.com/product/prod_display.cfm?c=5163+5186+16843&pcatid=16843

This filter is available at the same price from Amazon or from Drs. Foster & Smith. I like it for several reasons. Good reviews from owners. Very easy to clean. Media should last a good long time and is easily replaceable. Very simple design and operation. Not much to go wrong here. I'm going to try the waterfall discharge chute on both of my filters. If that doesn't provide sufficient dissolved oxygen from the water surface disturbance in the pond, I'll look at designing some kind of PVC-pipe distribution system suspended above the pond.

For DIY options just Google "bio-filter". You'll find hundreds!! But, here's a link to one of the best DIY options I found: http://diypondfilters.com/

The Pond Liner: http://www.pondliner.com/c-11-pond-liners.aspx

I plan to use the EPDM liner with underlayment. I'll probably need a 20' x 25' piece to be safe. There are cheaper options, especially since there will be little UV exposure inside the shadehouse, but I really don't want to have to pull and replace a cheap liner once I have the entire system set up and balanced.

DIY? Well, I know from past experience that cheap liners don't last. And, as I mentioned, it takes such an investment of time, energy and expense to get a small pond balanced it would be truly disheartening to have to start all over due to a liner failure. I think this is one expense I wouldn't try to skimp on.

The Filter Media: http://www.drsfostersmith.com/product/prod_display.cfm?pcatid=15799

This media is included in the box with the bio-filters. But here's a source for replacement media. I've ordered two of the Low Density Black pads and plan to use them to fabricate a kind of Matala Filter "cage" for my pre-filters. Sort of pre-filtering the water before it goes through the pre-filter. Again, just trying to minimize the time required for routine maintenance.

Once I've found a good, safe home for the rabbits I'll begin excavating for the pond. I'll post photos of the entire process.

Randy
 

rtower

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Almost Ready For Fish!

I've done a LOT of research to determine the best fish species to try for my first attempt. I was fortunate to locate one owner of a fish farm with extensive experience working with the USDA, Monsanto, Cargill and a number of researchers who have tried for years to develop a reliable system for fish farming that they could them market to U.S. farmers as an alternate/additional income source. He's even worked with several operations in other countries. On one project alone he had a five million dollar budget to work with! They've developed systems that work very well but nothing that is consistently profitable in a private business model.

Without question, the easiest and most reliable choice would be Tilapia. They tolerate transport well. They tolerate wide variations in water conditions and quality. They grow very rapidly. About the only negative is that most strains of Tilapia will die if water temperatures drop to around 45 degrees F or lower. This is the one species that offers the best choice for consistently profitable intensive fish farming. But I've never tasted Tilapia and I do want a bit of a challenge...

However, as much as I'd like to raise Hybrid Striped Bass (Wipers), they present a greater risk than I'm willing to accept this first time. Wipers are extremely sensitive to stress during transport. Typically within about five to seven days after introducing them to a new location they will begin to develop a bacterial infection that may kill a few, or many or all of them. There are other challenges but, suffice it so say, Wipers are difficult in a Recirculating Aquaculture System.

So I'm back to Catfish. I'd really like to find Hybrid Catfish but, maybe next year. I've decided to go with Channel Cats for this first season. Planning to pick up about sixty-five 8" to 12" fish in the next week or two.

Now, here's the "pond" update...

[album]3579[/album]
Nearly finished and almost ready for fish. My original goal was for a water depth of 5'. Dug down to 4' to 4' 6" and installed the EPDM rubber liner. Then I used 2" x 6" treated lumber to build 4" x 6" beams to place at the edge of the hole, under the liner. I then leveled the tops of those beams from end to end and side to side. Then I cut short pieces of 4" x 6" to create the curved ends. Now I actually do have a total water depth of 5'. That makes the pond capacity right around 2,000 gallons.

[album]3574[/album]
Here you can see the end of the treated 4" x 6" beam where it extends beyond the curved end of the pond to support the equipment platforms.

[album]3581[/album]
This photo shows a small pump (around 1,065 gallons per hour) that pulls water through a skimmer to clean the surface of the pond. That filtered water then runs through the tee in the photo and is directed out the two 1" PVC pipes suspended along both sides of the pond. This system accomplishes three goals. First, it removes floating debris from the water's surface. Second, I've installed multiple layers of filter material plus a good volume of "Bio-balls" in the bottom of the skimmer. This will provide surface area for ammonia-converting and nitrite-converting bacteria and will help improve the water quality. Third, the filtered water is sprayed onto the surface which helps to off-gas carbon dioxide and add oxygen.

[album]3578[/album]
At the other end of the pond is a larger pump (about 2,200 gallons per hour). This pulls water from the bottom of the pond, runs it first through a UV-sterilizer, then through a tee and into the two large bio-filters. Those bio-filters each hold eight layers of Matala filter material. There are three different densities of Matala in each filter. The Matala serves as a home for more bacteria that will convert toxic ammonia and nitrites into nitrates.

Both bio-filters are equipped with 'waterfall' outlets. The waterfalls provide additional CO2 off-gassing and oxygenation.

[album]3577[/album]
I installed drain valves on the back of each bio-filter. This will allow me to drain off accumulated waste from the bottom of the filters without shutting down the pump or disassembling the filter pads. That's important so as to not harm the bacteria population on those pads. I can slip tubing over the barbed ends on the drains and direct that water outside of the shadehouse.

[album]3582[/album]
This is the 40 watt UV-sterilizer. It is designed to handle up to about 2,800 gallons per hour of water flow. It should kill any bacteria, fungus, protozoa and parasites present in the water. It will also kill any suspended algae. My hope is this will help maintain water quality and help reduce or avoid infections or disease. I will have to turn the UV-sterilizer off for a few days after installing the fish in order to establish the bacteria population in the bio-filters and skimmer.

[album]3580[/album]
Because my pumps are mounted above the water level and because they are not self-priming it can be challenging to get the water circulation started. And, running a pump dry for any length of time can cause damage. We do lose our electricity on rare occasions so there will be times I'll have to re-establish the prime. So, I installed a tee downstream from the main pump. I installed a garden hose shut-off valve in the tee so I could connect a hose, fill the entire system with water, turn on the main pump and then close the shut-off valve to allow removing the hose without getting sprayed with the 2,200 gallons/hour water flow in the process.

[album]3575[/album]
Because of my work schedule, and because consistent weight gain is heavily dependent on regular feedings, I've installed an automatic feeder. It can be programmed to feed one, two or three times daily. The total quantity of feed can be set individually for each feeding.

[album]3576[/album]
I had a couple challenges regarding the automatic feeder. First, it has a very short feed chute that would have required suspending it above the pond. Also, I didn't want the floating fish feed to end up in the skimmer!

I fabricated a "chute extension" out of 1 1/2" PVC pipe, then made a floating ring out of 3/4" drip tubing. The chute extension should place the feed inside the floating ring and the floating ring should keep the feed out of the skimmer.

I'll be using a 32% protein Purina Catfish Chow. That should be suitable from the time I receive the fish until they reach harvestable size. I'll feed twice daily, at 8 AM and at 3 PM. The total amount for each feeding will change based on water temperature and size of the fish.

I've ordered two 55 gallon food-safe poly drums with removable lids for transporting the fish from the hatchery in the back of my cargo van. I'll pick up an oxygen cylinder from a local welding supply and use that to keep the water oxygenated during transport. I've also ordered a liquid ammonia remover that I'll add to the water after the first couple of hours on the road with the fish.

Then I'll keep a full cylinder of oxygen in the fish house in case of power outages. If we do lose power I can control the O2 levels with that. The commercial growers try to produce 1/2 to 1 pound of fish per gallon of water in RAS systems. I'll only stock to a level of about 1 pound of fish per 20 gallons of water (at maturity) so I'll have a lot more time to respond to any developing crisis.

Everything is in place now. I plan to run the full system for a week or two before stocking the pond just to be sure it all holds together.

I'll update again when the fish go in!

Randy
 
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mirror carp are another good species for intensive fish farming, they have a great flavor, bone structure like a catfish [no little bones like wild carp] ,have beneficial oils [fatty acids] like cod, tolerate low dissolved oxygen content better than catfish, [but not as well as tilapia]- they also are tolerant of extremely low water temperatures. all species will need "purged" at least 3 days before butchering, to reduce off flavors from commercial fish feeds.
 

alforddm

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Are the larger fish for the break in period of the tank? Will you eat them and then add smaller fish? It is a very interesting set up. I can't wait to hear how it does with fish.
 

rtower

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michaels4gardens":3n1h7x7c said:
mirror carp are another good species for intensive fish farming, they have a great flavor, bone structure like a catfish [no little bones like wild carp] ,have beneficial oils [fatty acids] like cod, tolerate low dissolved oxygen content better than catfish, [but not as well as tilapia]- they also are tolerant of extremely low water temperatures.
Never heard of Mirror Carp. Sounds interesting. If I could find some fingerlings I would consider adding about four to my Channel Cat population just to see how they do and how they taste.

alforddm":3n1h7x7c said:
Are the larger fish for the break in period of the tank? Will you eat them and then add smaller fish?
The hatchery offers two "graded sizes" of catfish, 6" - 8" and 8" - 12". I'm going with the 8" - 12" because I'm hoping to grow them to 1 1/2 to 2 pounds by early November. Not sure the smaller grade would reach that size until next summer. There will be some variation in sizes and maturity times but that should work out in my favor.

I do wish I could begin with just ten or fifteen fish to start the nitrogen cycle, then add another twenty to advance the cycle a bit further, then add the final thirty. But it's a four-hour drive one way to the hatchery so I'm going to take a chance and put all sixty-five fish in at once. I'll have a good 30 gallons of water per fish so that should give me a "cushion" against a sudden ammonia spike. I'll be watching that closely and ready to do water changes as needed. I've also ordered a couple of 1/2 gallon jugs of liquid ammonia neutralizer that works immediately, just in case of an emergency.

As for eating, the cool thing is I can hold them in the pond all winter so we can have "fresh-caught" catfish year round. Won't have to store them in the freezer!

And I am going to experiment with adding more fish as late as possible in the fall. By adding fish twice a year and consistently harvesting the largest fish for one or two weekly meals I think I can keep the pond balanced.
 
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mirror carp were available from "Chico Game fish Farm" and a few places in Arkansas, -- the problem with them was finding a reliable supplier of hatchlings or minnows, --[ I ended up raising my own fingerlings in a separate pond] . -- but, they out grew channel cat, and tilapia, -- and -- I personally preferred them to either one. Channel cat, and tilapia are readily available and easy to source....
 

Miss M

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Just popping in to say this is a fascinating thread! :p

I had never heard of mirror carp. Thanks, M4G!

I do not like tilapia. Galadriel does, but I do not. I have tried very hard to like it, because it is much cheaper than catfish these days. I just don't. It tastes muddy or something to me.

Good luck starting the cycle with your catfish! I remember cycling aquariums with a few guppies, since they were cheap and hardy and could handle wild fluctuations in water makeup as the bacteria established. I think 2,000 gallons is a bit much for a few guppies to help you with.
 
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Miss M":2aadcdl0 said:
Just popping in to say this is a fascinating thread! :p

I had never heard of mirror carp. Thanks, M4G!

I do not like tilapia. Galadriel does, but I do not. I have tried very hard to like it, because it is much cheaper than catfish these days. I just don't. It tastes muddy or something to me.

Good luck starting the cycle with your catfish! I remember cycling aquariums with a few guppies, since they were cheap and hardy and could handle wild fluctuations in water makeup as the bacteria established. I think 2,000 gallons is a bit much for a few guppies to help you with.

Cheap source Tilapia, or catfish, is often not purged well enough, -- this causes "off flavors" - your experience may have been due to the producer trying to cut costs. Farmed fish need to be "purged" in very clean water, with no food available for 3 to 5 days. dirty water, or poor circulation, and filtering [to keep poop, and other contaminates from being reingested] will result in a product with 'off flavors" .
 

MaggieJ

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:thankyou:

You've written a very comprehensive, step-by-step account of your project, rtower. It's sure to be of assistance to other homesteaders wanting to raise fish as a food source.

If you have the inclination to share your adventure with even more people, you might consider contacting homesteading magazines like Mother Earth News.
 

Miss M

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michaels4gardens":5tkt72rl said:
Cheap source Tilapia, or catfish, is often not purged well enough, -- this causes "off flavors" - your experience may have been due to the producer trying to cut costs. Farmed fish need to be "purged" in very clean water, with no food available for 3 to 5 days. dirty water, or poor circulation, and filtering [to keep poop, and other contaminates from being reingested] will result in a product with 'off flavors" .
I think I bought some once to cook at home, but I tried it in a few restaurants as well. :shrug:
 

rtower

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Miss M":1uibkb3x said:
Just popping in to say this is a fascinating thread! :p

Miss M":1uibkb3x said:
Good luck starting the cycle with your catfish! I remember cycling aquariums with a few guppies, since they were cheap and hardy and could handle wild fluctuations in water makeup as the bacteria established. I think 2,000 gallons is a bit much for a few guppies to help you with.

Thank you Miss M!

Yep, it would take a ton of guppies! :lol:

But a solution presented itself last night... I'll expand on that in a minute.

michaels4gardens":1uibkb3x said:
Farmed fish need to be "purged" in very clean water, with no food available for 3 to 5 days.

You're right and I've been wrestling with how to accomplish that... More on that in a minute, too.

MaggieJ":1uibkb3x said:
You've written a very comprehensive, step-by-step account of your project, rtower. It's sure to be of assistance to other homesteaders wanting to raise fish as a food source.

If you have the inclination to share your adventure with even more people, you might consider contacting homesteading magazines like Mother Earth News.

That's very kind of you to say MaggieJ. I'll give that some thought. Probably best to wait until I have some positive results to report. And, I should keep a journal for future reference just in case I do decide to put some kind of story or "guide" together.

Now, as for starting the nitrogen cycle... Since the closest fish farm is about four hours away from me, one way, I really didn't want to make two or three dedicated trips to pick up fish. However, I received a call last night from a client who needs my services on four towers in Hutchinson, Kansas in a few days. The jobs will require an overnight stay but I'll be finished by mid-morning of the second day. And I'll drive right by the fish farm on my way home.

So, I'm planning to pick up about ten or twelve 6" - 8" channel cat in the next week or ten days. It'll most likely take at least three or four weeks for the bio-filters to establish. By then maybe I'll have another job scheduled in that direction and can pick up another fifteen or twenty fish.

As for the "purging" that michaels4gardens recommended... I purchased two 55-gallon food-safe poly barrels for transporting the fish from the fish farm. I'm going to place one of those barrels on the treated lumber platform at one end of the pond. Then I'll redirect the output from the pump on my skimmer to fill that barrel. I'll install one 2" overflow line about 6" below the top lip of the barrel. The output from that overflow line will be directed through the two 1" PVC distribution pipes on either side of the pond.

I realize that the "gravity feed" from the overflow line to the perforated distribution lines probably won't keep up with pump output and could result in overflowing the top of the barrel. So, I'll install a second 2" overflow line a bit higher than the first. Any excess flow will run out that line and directly back into the pond.

That will be my separate "holding tank" where I can move a few fish at a time for purging. Those fish will be in the exact same water so no worries about temperature, pH or salinity shock.

Thanks Everyone for your comments, ideas and suggestions!

Randy
 

Miss M

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Niiiiiice! That's great that you've got an opportunity to cycle your system a little at a time!

And sounds like a nice plan for your purging, too.

:hooray:
 

GBov

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I know you have your set up, well, set up :D but used swimming pools are a GREAT way to do fish small scale. ( ;) )

Having just picked one up for free - the kids have commandeered it for swimming in :roll: - I am once again starting to think of fish farming. But as we are right on the Indian River where the fishing is really good, I want to do Sturgeon for caviar.

Its great reading about your set up and experiences, thanks for posting such great updates! :popcorn: <br /><br /> __________ Fri Apr 15, 2016 5:18 pm __________ <br /><br /> Forgot to add the swimming pool I picked up is 10,000 gallons so should fit (if the kids would let me :lol: ) a few fish at least.
 
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