How to Raise Tilapia in a Drum 2023 [Tips, Prep & Facts]

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How to Raise Tilapia in a Drum Successfully 2023 [Updated]

Nile tilapia
Nile tilapia (pictured) are a popular farmed species due to their good economic value and low maintenance requirements. Juan Rafael Rodríguez Razgado / CC BY 4.0

Along with carp and salmon, tilapia is one of the most commonly farmed fish in the world. This common name refers to dozens of freshwater species in an identically named genus, but it is the Nile tilapia (Oreochromis niloticus) and blue tilapia (O. aureus) that are of interest due to their economic value and ease of care. These species are remarkably resistant to imperfect water conditions and high input densities, making them ideal for stocking in practically any type of aquaculture setup.

In fact, the Nile tilapia is so hardy that its hatchery-grown specimens can thrive in the wild if they manage to escape! As a result, it is widely regarded as a potentially invasive species that is capable of restructuring the food web in natural freshwater systems. Regardless, it continues to be grown as an exotic fish due to its highly prized, delicious, and nutritious meat.

The great news is pretty much anyone with the willingness and determination to maintain a fish tank or pond can raise tilapia in their own backyard. Yes, if you’ve successfully raised fish before and know the basics about water maintenance, you can create a small-scale tilapia farm with makeshift and cost-efficient materials. All you really need to start is a couple of plastic drums and access to an outdoor water source!

The Basics of Tilapia Farming

Nile tilapia in water
Tilapia can survive in low-oxygen conditions, as long as the water temperature and pH are stable. Vijay Barve / CC BY 4.0

Raising tilapia to harvest size is as simple as fish farming can get. These moderately-sized cichlids naturally inhabit clear to turbid rivers, lakes, streams, and ponds, including fairly small systems that are separated from larger bodies of water. They are able to persist in low-oxygen conditions as long as the water’s pH and temperature are stable, so fairly crude oxygenating materials can be used to successfully grow them. Even minor algae blooms are tolerated by this fish!

As omnivores, they aren’t fussy about food and will easily take up artificial feed formulations without requiring feed training in hatcheries. Thus, they are often dubbed “aquatic chickens” in the fish farming trade. While they can be grown in small-scale setups to meet the needs of a family or small community, they continue to be the focus of some of the most intensive farms. Global demand necessitates the constant supply of their quality proteins.

It doesn’t take a full-fledged aquaculture farm to produce high-quality tilapia, however. Any setup can be adjusted to meet the needs of these low-maintenance fish. Once you’re able to pinpoint an ideal source for tilapia fingerlings (which should be located close to you), all you’ll need to worry about is raising the fish to harvest size and determining the right means to harvest them.

Setting Up Your Small-Scale Tilapia Farm

Tilapia farm drums
For a small-scale tilapia farm, drums should have a volume of at least 200 liters and a depth of at least ¾ of a meter. Michael Coghlan / CC BY-SA 2.0

To start, you’ll need to locate an ideal site for your small-scale farm. The site should be large enough to accommodate however many drums you intend to stock with fish. Given the rate of fish consumption in your household or those of your friends and neighbors, you’ll need to decide on a realistically manageable number of drums. For growing tilapia, the drums should have a volume of at least 200 liters and be at least ¾ of a meter deep.

The site that you choose should be flat, easy to walk around, and preferably protected from the elements. It should be exposed to ample sunlight as light is required for the growth of healthy plankton and fish communities. The exposure to UV should, to an extent, also help keep the water free of harmful microbes. If heavy downpours usually occur in your area, make sure to locate the drums in a partly covered space or be prepared to install a portable roof/tent. Don’t worry if a minimal amount of rainwater is able to enter the drums.

Furthermore, the site for your small-scale farm should be located close to a year-round source of clean water. While frequent water changes are not a must for growing tilapia to harvest size, clean water may be necessary to replace evaporated water and maintain optimal nutrient parameters.

Prepping the Drums

Air pump and air stone
You can use a simple aerator, like an air stone, to increase dissolved oxygen levels. Ofkun, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Your drums should be thoroughly cleansed of the substance(s) they once contained. Keep in mind that some of these may be toxic to aquatic life; just a few leftover smears can thoroughly contaminate the water. A few pressure washes and an environment-friendly soap should help clear the containers completely. Note that they should not emit any peculiar or chemical-like scents.

To keep the drums free of debris and to protect the fish from overhead predators, it may be necessary to cover each one with a fine mesh net. Though optional, the mesh should allow for gas exchange, yet be fine enough to prevent wild animals from entering the drum. It should also help keep startled fish within the confines of the setup. Nets cut to a diameter that is several inches larger than the drum should suffice. These can be secured with an elastic material.

Drum setups can be anything from crude to advanced, depending on how much you are willing to invest into growing tilapia. Some small-scale farmers may opt to place a natural earthen layer, mixed with chicken manure, to encourage the production of beneficial microbes, algae, and aquatic insects. Stones and submerged plants can be introduced into the setup, though note that these may reduce swimming space for your fish.

A simple aerator, such as an air stone and tubing attacked to a blower, may suffice to bring dissolved oxygen (DO) to an optimal concentration. Note that 24/7 aeration may be necessary for the best growth rates, so make sure that a stable power source is available. Brief periods of low DO may be tolerated if your stocking density is kept at a minimum. A basic filtration unit, such as those used for indoor tanks, can also be used for unfertilized drums.

Stocking Your Drums With Fish

Tilapia fry
Before introducing tilapia fingerlings, you should let your filled drums stand for a few days to a week. WorldFish / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

After filling the drums with either freshwater, rain, or groundwater, you should let them stand for a few days to a week. This should allow particulate matter to settle, release any traces of chlorine, and help you check for leaks. This should also give natural microbiota time to colonize the pond water and condition it in preparation for fish stocking. At this point, you may opt to test the water parameters.

If all parameters are optimized and you have begun to see traces of algae or plankton development in the drum, tilapia fingerlings may finally be stocked. Limit the stocking density to about 1 fingerling per 10 liters (i.e. a 200-liter drum can accommodate around 20 fish) to prevent overpopulating the drum. Note that a higher density can lead to stunted growth and may prevent your fish from reaching a favorable size. It can also slow growth rates significantly.

Careful acclimation is key to ensuring high survival rates while stocking tilapia fingerlings. Aim to introduce the fish into the drum early in the morning, when the water temperature is moderately cool. Allow them to float in their oxygenated bags for about 20 minutes. Once the temperature inside the bag matches that of the water in the drum, the fish can be gently released. If the hatchery provides the fingerlings in a bucket, slowly add drum water to the bucket (for gradual mixing) prior to transferring the fish.

Basic Survival Needs of Tilapia

Once your tilapia fingerlings are stocked into their respective drums, it’s a must to provide them with their basic needs for good growth. While some individuals may survive under neglect or in poor conditions, the profitability of their small-scale production may be lost due to mortalities, diseases, and stunted growth performance. Proper maintenance and feeding ensure that you are able to get a return on both your financial and physical investments in the project.

1) Temperature

Nile tilapia in pond
Nile tilapia have a preference for moderately warm water temperatures. Suanne Pyle / CC BY 4.0

The Nile tilapia is partial to moderately warm temperature levels. This means that, for small-scale farms in temperate zones, they will need to be stocked at the right time. Farmers in subtropical to tropical areas can take more liberties as year-round temperatures will rarely drop to dangerous levels. In case you must stock your fish and maintain your set-up through cooler conditions, you may equip each drum with a pond heater.

Though tilapia are more likely to tolerate warm as opposed to cool temperatures, keep in mind that dissolved oxygen levels naturally decrease as the temperature increases. Also, their metabolic rate significantly decreases as the water cools. To avoid oxygen-related and metabolic issues, try to keep the water temperature at around 27 – 31˚C (80 – 88˚F). Slight drops in temperature may be tolerated at night, but don’t forget that your fish can become severely stressed at 16˚C (61˚F) and below.

2) Food

Fish feed pellets
Tilapia in fully-stocked drums need to be fed at regular intervals with a pre-mixed feed formulation for freshwater fish. Narek75, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

At markedly low densities, tilapia can survive in fertilized drums or in tanks with a minimal input of feeds. They will primarily consume algae, plants, and aquatic macroinvertebrates. Tilapia in fully-stocked drums will need to be fed (daily and at regular intervals) with a pre-mixed feed formulation for freshwater fish. Their dietary needs are met by products like Purina AquaMax, fish food flakes, or other types of pellets that are specifically made for their consumption.

Tilapia are also able to subsist on a combination of bread crumbs, vegetables, and wheat germ. If you intend to use formulated feeds, which would be the safer yet more expensive choice, try to follow the feed guide provided by the supplier. If you intend to use natural foods, avoid overfeeding by sticking to an amount that the fish can consume within 5 – 10 minutes.

3) Oxygen

Man testing dissolved oxygen levels
Dissolved oxygen levels should be tested in the morning, as they are most likely to be at their lowest at this time. NOAA’s National Ocean Service / CC BY 2.0

Although tilapia are able to tolerate low dissolved oxygen levels that dip down to around 2.3 ppm (if temperature and pH levels are optimized), they should still be reared in setups with optimal DO levels. Housing them in drums with poor aeration is tantamount to gambling their survival. It will rarely lead to harvest rates that you can be proud of and may, instead, spread disease.

For best results, dissolved oxygen concentrations should be maintained at a minimum of 4 – 7 ppm. Some strains of tilapia may require higher DO levels, so it would be best to consult your supplier for recommendations. Aim to test DO levels early in the morning, as this is when they are most likely to be lowest.

4) Water parameters

Nile tilapia
Although Nile tilapia thrive best in clean freshwater, they can tolerate brackish waters too. Célio Moura Neto / CC BY 4.0

The Nile tilapia thrives best in clean freshwater, but it can also be reared in brackish conditions with salinity levels of up to 8 ppt. As a result, it is frequently used as a forage fish in multi-species aquaculture ponds along coastal areas. Unless you are located close to an estuary, your small-scale setup would presumably be making use of pure fresh water.

The ideal pH level for rearing high-quality tilapia is within the range of 7 – 9. Outside of this range, other water parameters may be adversely affected. A reliable pH meter should be used regularly, and additives should be applied in a timely manner in case pH levels are outside of the safe range.

Lastly, as is customary in aquaculture setups, aim to keep ammonia and nitrate levels at a minimum. These should ideally be kept at 0 ppm; anything higher can begin to impede growth and feed uptake. For tilapia, critical levels usually start at 2.5 ppm. If you find that you struggle to decrease ammonia concentrations, you may need to introduce biofilters (for nitrifying bacteria) to your setup or conduct a major water change.

5) Light

Nile tilapia in sunlight
Tilapia thrive in sunlight and can often be found in the brightest parts of the pond or tank. Wich’yanan L / CC BY 4.0

Although tilapia can tolerate turbid and crowded conditions better than most types of freshwater fish in aquaculture setups, they need sunlight to thrive. Fingerlings will usually be seen in the brightest parts of a tank or pond, seemingly fighting to expose themselves to the most intense beams of light.

These fish are more likely to remain energetic and eager to eat when they are grown under the sun or full-spectrum artificial lights. Dark conditions, which are often associated with uncomfortably cool temperatures and the proliferation of harmful microbes, may lead to lethargy and poor growth.

When to Harvest Tilapia

Harvesting tilapia with net
You can harvest tilapia with a simple dip or lift net. The ideal time to harvest them is 5 – 6 months after stocking. Bytemarks / CC BY 2.0

Tilapia can live for up to 10 years and grow to a considerable weight of 5 kg (11 pounds), but the ideal time to harvest them is at around 5 – 6 months after the stocking date. You need not harvest them all at once but can do so intermittently or simply whenever the need arises. Nonetheless, it would be best to remove all older individuals prior to preparing the drum for a new batch of fingerlings.

The removal of a few individuals at a time should lead to the increased growth rate of the remaining stock. It should prevent stunted growth and gradually lead to the production of higher-quality fish, which are usually produced in low-density conditions. Of course, your harvesting methods are at your discretion. Just don’t leave the fish in the drum for an exceedingly long period of time; as time goes by and your fish grow larger, each of them will require more resources.

Harvesting can be done using a simple dip or lift net. Use a small net if you’d like to harvest just a few fish and leave the rest in the drum for a few more days to weeks. If you intend to gather all of the fish at once, you may opt to drain a fraction of the water in the drum. This should make the fish easier to find and catch. Once you have your freshly harvested tilapia, you can revel in the pride of having grown your own food!

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