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North Central Regional

Aquaculture Center
In cooperation with USDA

Feeding Tilapia in Intensive


Recirculating Systems
by Marty Riche1 (United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service,
Fort Pierce, FL) and Donald Garling2 (Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI)

Benefits of Culturing There are two types of systems used profitable it is important to increase
Tilapia in Recirculating for tank culture; flow-through efficiency through feeding manage-
Systems systems, and recirculating systems. ment.
Flow-through systems are only
There are many species of tilapia, practical if geothermal water or Feed Requirements of
but only a few are widely cultured waste heat are available. Indoor Tilapia in Recirculating
around the world. In the United recirculating systems offer the Systems
States the most commonly cultured advantages of reduced land require-
species of tilapia are the Nile ments, less water use, and environ- Most wild tilapia are omnivorous,
(nilotica), Blue (aurea), Mozambique mental control for year-round meaning they will eat a variety of
(mossambicus), Hornorum growth. Recirculating systems can things, including both plants and
(hornorum), and hybrids such as the recycle as much as 99 percent of the animals. This is in contrast to many
Taiwanese and Florida red. Choos- culture water daily, although 90 other fish that are more specialized.
ing a species to culture depends percent recirculation is the preferred However, like other animals, tilapia
largely on customer preference, target. To make these systems cost have specific requirements for
legal status, growth rate and cold effective the fish are generally reared nutrients such as amino acids from
tolerance. intensively. Intensive recirculating protein, fats, minerals and vitamins.
tank culture can produce high yields
Tilapia are well suited for culturing on small plots of land with little Fish reared in intensive recirculating
in ponds, cages, tanks, or raceways. water use. However, recirculating systems have different nutritional
Using ponds is the most popular systems tend to be energy intensive requirements than those in the wild.
method in the southern United and require high capital invest- Wild tilapia graze on blue-green
States due to longer growing ments. Therefore, to make them algae and bacteria. This type of
seasons. In the southern most parts feeding requires a lot of energy due
of Texas and in Florida water to finding and digesting this type of
temperatures can remain warm food. To meet the energy required
enough for year-round growth. In for feeding and growth, they must
the cooler, temperate regions of the consume more food relative to farm
North and Midwest, tank culture is raised fish. In intensive tank culture
favored. Tank culture has the added natural food is limited. Therefore, all
benefit of reducing time and labor nutrients must be supplied in a
required for harvesting and feeding. North Central Regional complete pelleted diet. An advan-
Indoor tank culture is the preferred Aquaculture Center tage to feeding a pelleted diet is the
method when sufficient warm water Fact Sheet Series #114 higher quality and consistency of the
is not available due to climatic USDA grant # 00-38500-8984 diet.
conditions. August 2003
Table 1. Suggested standard pellet sizes used for culturists to observe feeding re-
feeding tilapia from hatching to market size. sponses. Additionally, the process-
Size of fish (grams) Standard Feed Size ing method used in making floating
0–3 # 00, or # 0 pellets increases the amount of
3–10 #1 energy available to tilapia.
10–25 #2
25–40 #3
Recommended protein levels for
40–100 3
⁄32” tilapia diets range from 32 to 36
larger than 100 1
⁄8” percent in fingerling feed, and 28 to
32 percent in feed for fish larger than
Requirements for each nutrient are result in more expensive production. 40 grams. The amount of energy
dependent on a number of factors. Uneaten feed also reduces water provided from fat is generally
Some of these factors are biological quality, fish health, and perfor- restricted to 4 to 8 percent of the diet.
such as the size, age, condition, and mance. This is especially true in The higher fat content is fed to small
reproductive state of the fish. recirculating systems that use low fish and is gradually decreased with
Environmental factors such as water exchange. increasing size.
temperature, dissolved oxygen,
water quality, and photoperiod also Types and size of feeds Feed selection and storage is impor-
affect requirements. Feeding man- Newly hatched fry are given a tant when feeding fish in an inten-
agement including the amount, and complete diet of powdered feed. The sive recirculating system. A high
frequency of feeding, are also feed should be high in protein quality feed with few fine dust-like
factors. Finally, the diet itself, (about 50 percent) and energy to particles should be used to reduce
including the amount and quality of meet the demands of the fast grow- waste production and minimize the
protein, energy, and the method of ing fry. Feed size is gradually load on the biofiltration and oxygen
processing will affect the require- increased in relation to growth. A systems. Feed should be kept in a
ments. good rule to follow is, “small fish, dry, cool place to ensure maximum
small feed; large fish, large feed”. quality and avoid mold formation.
How to Feed Tilapia in However, tilapia prefer smaller size
Recirculating Systems feed than other commonly cultured Feed rates
species, such as salmon, trout or Feeding rates will vary with fish size
The optimum feeding method catfish. and water temperature. The appro-
depends on the physiology of the priate amount is measured as a
species, and economics of the The size should be increased percent of the average body weight.
production unit. Historically through various sizes of crumbles As the fish weight increases, the
culturists have emphasized maxi- for fingerlings 5 to 40 grams (Table percent body weight fed decreases
mizing intake in the hopes of 1). Fish larger than 40 grams should (Table 2). The daily feed ration must
maximizing growth. Evidence be fed pellets. The most common be adjusted to compensate for
suggests this may not be the most pellet sizes for tilapia are 3⁄32 inch–1⁄8 growth.
effective for fish production. Maxi- inch. Floating pellets are the pre-
mizing intake can lead to uneaten ferred type because they allow Fry grow rapidly and will gain close
feed, lower feed efficiency, and to 50 percent in body weight every 3
days. The feed rations should be
adjusted accordingly. Daily feed
Table 2. Example of daily feeding allowances for different
sizes of tilapias at 28°C (82°F). Source: National rations should be adjusted weekly
Research Council. 1993. Nutrient Requirements of between the range of 5–30 grams,
Fish. National Academy Press, Washington, D.C. and once every two weeks beyond
Size of fish (grams) Amount of daily feed (% of fish weight) 30 grams.
0–1 30–10
1–5 10–6 Because of their rapid growth, high
5–20 6–4 energy requirements, and small
20–100 4–3 stomachs, fry require frequent
larger than 100 3–1.5
feeding. Fry should be fed as many

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feedings is 4–5 hours,
depending on the energy
and composition of the diet.

Increased feeding frequen-


cies decrease aggressive
Figure 1. Stomach and intestine of behavior in some fish
tilapia. White arrows show species. This results in faster
path of feed when fish are growth and less size varia-
fed before the stomach tion. However, there is a
as 8-10 empties. Grey arrows show limit to the frequency that
times a day. path of feed when fish are will result in benefits. There
Because fed at proper intervals. are many fish species that
frequent are less efficient when fed at
feedings can short intervals. Evidence suggests
be labor In some fish species, the first food tilapia fed too frequently utilize
intensive, an entering the stomach is the first food feed less efficiently.
alternative is to feed fry continu- to leave. However, food eaten by
ously throughout the day with tilapia can move past the stomach Water quality concerns
automatic feeders. Automatic and enter directly into the intestine Fish are sensitive to water quality.
feeders should be checked fre- (Figure 1). Fish fed at 2–3 hour Feeding should be reduced or
quently and adjusted if necessary to intervals eat more feed than their stopped if water quality falls below
avoid over feeding which can foul stomachs can hold (Figure 2). The certain levels. Shortly after feeding,
water quality. extra feed eaten passes over the dissolved oxygen levels decline
stomach and is considered wasted. rapidly. Dissolved oxygen levels
Fingerlings also grow fast and The result is an increased cost of should be maintained above 5.0
should be fed at least four times a production and lower profits. Fish ppm for best growth. At dissolved
day. Fish should be fed less when fed at 4–5 hour intervals eat nearly oxygen levels between 3.0–5.0 ppm
water temperature decreases. the same amount of feed needed to feeding should be reduced, and
refill their stomachs. This suggests feeding should be stopped at
Feeding Frequency the optimal interval between dissolved oxygen levels below 3.0
The interval between feedings may ppm.
be more important than the total
number of feedings. Feeding strate-
gies for tilapia have traditionally
been to feed a little bit of feed at
frequent intervals. This strategy
comes from early work on wild
tilapia that eat algae. However, the
higher quality and consistency of
pelleted diets eliminate the need for
many frequent feedings.

The optimal interval between


feedings will depend on the return of
appetite. Fish eat available food
depending on stomach fullness, and
at intervals determined by the time it
takes to empty the stomach. The Figure 2. Amount of food eaten at different time intervals between
speed the stomach empties depends meals. The stomach capacity is the amount of room in the
on temperature, fish weight, meal stomach before eating again. The shaded area is the amount
size, feed composition, and feeding of food eaten that by-passes the stomach because of lack of
frequency. room.
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Ammonia and nitrite are a concern sion, therefore culturists often refer Conclusion
in intensive recirculating systems to (NH3 + NH4+) as the total ammonia
and should be monitored regularly. nitrogen (given as mg/L-TAN). Tilapia are well suited for aquacul-
Ammonia production is directly When measuring or discussing ture. Tilapia grow rapidly and are
related to feeding and depends on ammonia concentrations it is impor- fairly resistant to stress and disease.
the quality of feed, feeding rate, fish tant to be clear which term is being However, due to climatic conditions,
size, and temperature. Following used. the culture of tilapia in most of the
feeding activity ammonia levels United States requires the use of
begin to rise. In most species of fish, The lethal ammonia concentration intensive recirculating systems and
ammonia production peaks 4–6 for most warmwater fish is between formulated diets. Recirculating
hours following feedings. 0.6–2.0 mg/L NH3-N (1 mg/L = 1 systems can be expensive to build
ppm). Tilapia begin to die when and operate therefore it is important
In water, ammonia exists in two unionized ammonia concentrations to maximize production efficiency.
forms, ammonia (NH3, or unionized are higher than 2.0 mg/L NH3-N.
ammonia) and ammonium (NH4+, or However, unionized ammonia To maximize production efficiency
ionized ammonia). The form that is concentrations as low as 1.0 mg/L and minimize costs, tilapia should
most toxic to fish is NH3. Both forms NH3-N will decrease growth and be fed:
are present at all times in the water, performance in tilapia.
but the percentage of each depends • Nutritionally complete diets
on temperature and pH of the Generally smaller fish are more formulated to meet their dietary
system. Warmer water and higher sensitive to the toxic effects of requirements;
pH in the system favors the more ammonia. Low dissolved oxygen • Optimum crumble or pellet size;
toxic NH3. also increases the toxicity of ammo- • Optimum feeding rate (% of fish
nia and lowers the concentration that body weight);
Unfortunately the term ammonia is affects fish. When ammonia concen- • Optimum time intervals (4 – 5
hours depending on the energy
often used to refer to both the toxic trations remain elevated, or fish
and composition of the diet);
NH3 (given as mg/L NH3-N) and the show signs of stress, feeding should
based on the size of the fish and
two forms (NH3 + NH4+) added be reduced or stopped. the culture conditions.
together. This often leads to confu-

Additional Reading
Many extension articles on tilapia and their culture can be downloaded from the AquaNIC web site: http://
aquanic.org—Check out Tilapia and Recycle under the Beginner drop down menus for Species and Systems,
respectively.

1
United States Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, Harbor Branch Oceanographic
Institution, Fort Pierce, FL
2
Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI

Series Editor: Joseph E. Morris, Associate Director, North Central Regional


Aquaculture Center.
Originally published by Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations ex-
pressed in this publication are those of the author(s), and do not
necessarily reflect the views of the United States Department of
Agriculture.
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