Smart feeding: Automated feeder fundamentals
By Ron Hill
Working with automated feeders allows a farm to make a huge jump in efficiency that can revolutionize business by pushing costs down and increasing growth. Choosing the right system and fitting it into your farm seems like an easy task but often turns out to be filled with frustration and sometimes buyer’s remorse. Finding the right system to work with your farm and stock can be a tedious task, the number of different feed systems available can be overwhelming.
Automated feeders fall into two categories: centralized automated feed systems and non-centralized automated feed systems.
Centralized automated feed systems feature a central feed silo(s), with blowers and hoses to distribute feed to the different tanks. Large amounts of feed can be loaded into the silos, reducing the amount of labour needed to load feeders. A hopper or lift can be used to fill the silos further reducing the labour. These feeders have sophisticated control programs and feeding software to help manage feed and stock. Centralized system have a large price tag and must be customized to the farm but are the most efficient way to delivery large volumes of feed to fish.
Non-centralized automated feed systems dispense feed to the fish through individual, independent feeders located at the tank. There is a huge range of feeders in this category but generally, each feeder is located at the tank with its own silo. Feed is dispensed or spread or shot (lots of variety) to the fish based on a simple timer or control program. These feeders come in all shapes, sizes and price ranges and many different models can be found on a single farm.
The right feeder for your farm
Automated feeders are not cheap and choosing the wrong system can be a costly mistake especially when you get into centralized systems. Many established farms have a stack of old automated feeders on the scrapheap that seemed like a revolutionary idea but came up short and were abandoned. The right feeder is the one that works best for the needs of the farm, the fish, and substantially reduces work. The farm must carefully evaluate potential feeder and think about how the labour and workflow will be affected. Many farmers get victimized by feeders with one small fault that was overlooked but turns out to be an obstacle.
Here are some key considerations when choosing an automated feed system:
- How large is the silo and how often do I anticipate filling it? Each feeder should hold enough feed for the entire day at maximum ration, so it is filled once.
- Does the feeder give effective feed distribution to provide feed over a large surface? How much feed can it effectively deliver?
- What happens when it gets wet? Weather and feeding fish can ruin feed and foul feeders.
- How does it work with different feed sizes? Do you have to change pieces? Do you need to recalibrate often?
- What is the control program and what options does it offer? Can it change speed or schedule feedings? How easy is it to change the feed schedule or suspend the feeders?
- Where can these feeders be mounted? Will they be in the way of other work and can you remove them? Will they be easy to access/load?
- How does their operation affect the fish? Does the noise spook the fish when they feed out?
Eyes on the fish
Working with automated feeders can be a frustrating task and some days it can feel like they are more trouble than they are worth. The biggest mistake farmers make after choosing and setting up an automated feeding system is being lulled to sleep by the automated nature. Furthermore, a wise fish farmer once stated: “I don’t like automated feeders [in lieu of handfeeding] because I want my technicians observing the fish and observing their feeding behaviour.” Herein lies the difficulty in mindset that farmers can have combining old school fundamentals with new technologies. Automated feeders will reduce labour and make it easy to feed out large amounts but without keeping that “old school” mentality that technicians need to be observing the fish, automated feeding can quickly go awry.
Observing the fish is the essence of feeding. Watching them feed, judging their behaviour, knowing when they need more feed or less feed, is how farmers feed fish – the automated feed system can do none of these things. Because labour is reduced and the feeders are dispensing most of the feed, novice farmers get the impression that once the silos are full and the program set, feeding is somehow “taken care of” and they should just let the feed system work. Too often this results in waste feed on the bottom, underfed fish, and malfunctioning feeders. Net-pen sites install cameras to monitor their fish feeding and have dedicated technicians that watch the cameras and control the feeders. Most hatcheries do not have the luxury of cameras and must rely on in-person observation by a dedicated technician instead.
The fundamentals of feeding do not change with automated systems, the technician feeding is still at the core. The automated feed system is setup to assist the technician feed, not the other way around as some might assert. An automated feed system in a farm must be considered as a piece of equipment the technician is operating. Instead of several technicians handfeeding the system all day, one or two technicians operate the feeders. A feeder is told when, where and how much to feed and can usually be trusted to do these things and one does not have to hold it or watch it run all the time. Technicians still need to visit each tank at regular intervals to provide handfeeding to the extremities, observe their fish feeding and observe the feeders working. Handfeeding fish is still essential to gauge behaviour and feed response, and the automated feeders need adjustment based on observations.
Just because there is a preprogramed feed schedule does not mean the fish will stick to that schedule, their appetite and behaviour still needs to be monitored. Novices with automated systems are often tentative to make changes to their system, with good reason. It is easy to start chasing your feed system, running around, turning it off and on again, overfeeding one day, underfeeding the next – it takes time to find a balanced approach to maximize feed fed automatically without waste and with minimal adjustment. Some farms will determine a percentage of the daily ration they want to handfeed and set a baseline for their automated feeders and supplement with handfeeding as needed. The sophistication of the feeders lends a lot to the ability to make changes. Centralized feeders, with a central feed program, are easy to slow down/speed up and pause, unlike many non-centralized feeders, allowing the operator to easily make subtle changes based on fish behaviour.
With careful consideration and the right feeding system(s) the adaptable fish farmer can come up with a balanced plan to streamline operations and make the most of their technology investment. The correct solution to automated feeding will likely be as unique as the farm.