How To Integrate Chickens Into an Aquaponics System


Integrating chickens into an aquaponics system is not as complicated as you may think. Also known as an integrated chicken, plant, and fish farm (ICPF), an aquaponics system that includes chickens can be a very sustainable way to raise different food sources in your backyard. 

To integrate chickens into an aquaponics system, you will need to: 

  1. Set up your aquaponics tank for the introduction of chickens.
  2. Choose an appropriate type of fish for ICPF. 
  3. Identify how many chickens you will need. 
  4. Build the chicken environment above your aquaponics tanks. 
  5. Monitor your water levels constantly. 

After you’ve successfully integrated chickens into your aquaponics tank, you will create a symbiotic system where your fish benefit from the chicken waste and the plants benefit from the fish waste. Keep reading to learn how to set up your chicken aquaponics system. 

1. Set Up Your Aquaponics Tank for the Introduction of Chickens

If you already have an aquaponics system that you want to introduce chickens to, you may have to make some modifications to your tank. 

Here are a few modifications that you may or may not have to undertake before introducing chickens into your system. 

Find a Suitable Location for Your Tank

Aquaponics tanks are commonly installed in garden sheds or greenhouses. While these environments can be beneficial to plants, you will need to find a suitable space for your fish and chickens. All three of these living beings have very different requirements, and what works for one may not work for the others. You need to find a comfortable location for all three parties involved. 

Here are a few things to keep in mind when choosing the location of your integrated chicken aquaponics system. 

Allow for at Least 5 Feet (1.5 Meters) of Overhead

One of the first things you will want to check when deciding whether you need to move your aquaponics tank or not is the overhead space. Since the chicken coop will be built directly on top of the tank, you will want to ensure enough space above it.

A good rule of thumb is to allow at least 5 feet (1.5 meters) of space above your water tank. This will give you enough room to build the chicken coop above your aquaponics tank. Otherwise, you may not have enough space to build a safe environment for your chickens. 

Since most aquaponics systems are built inside a greenhouse, you may find that there is not enough room above your tank in the current location of your system. 

One option is to build a bigger greenhouse with enough space to accommodate your chicken cages. This will also give you the chance to build a bigger system if you so desire. 

Another alternative would be to dig the aquaponics tank below ground level. This will help insulate the water and give you more above-ground space for the chicken enclosure. 

Save at Least 3 Square Feet (0.28 Square Meters) per Chicken

Chickens don’t require a lot of space, but they do need some room to move around and scavenge. The University of Georgia recommends at least three square feet of space per bird, although five square feet (0.46 square meters) would be ideal. 

Plan to build a coop large enough for all of your birds to live comfortably. Remember that you need happy and healthy chickens to maximize the efficiency of your ICPF, so err on the side of giving your chicks plenty of space if you can. 

Ensure Proper Ventilation While Also Creating a Windbreak

Chickens are not the fussiest animals to raise, but they do have some specific requirements. One of them is a good balance of ventilation and protection from the wind. 

Depending on where you decide to set up your chicken aquaponics system, you will need to find a way to build a windbreak around parts of your ICPF. Since chickens require fresh air to breathe, putting your chicken aquaponics system completely indoors is not an option. You will have to find a way to strike a good balance between fresh air and protection from the wind. 

Planting large trees around your ICPF can be a great way to protect against strong winds without cutting off air circulation. Some of the best windbreak trees are: 

  • Cedar trees
  • Elderberries
  • The Colorado Spruce

Depending on your location, one of these trees may be a great way to protect your chickens from strong winds. 

Allow for Both Sun and Shade for Your Chickens

Another thing you should be aware of when raising chickens is that they require some sunlight. Like humans, chickens need sunlight for vitamin D to grow happy and healthy.

Not only does the sun keep the chicks healthy, but it also helps keep them dry, which can drastically reduce the number of pathogens in your coop. 

Plus, not receiving enough vitamin D will prevent your hens from laying eggs. The sun stimulates the chicken’s ovaries, which is essential for egg-laying. Without at least 14 hours of natural or artificial sunlight per day, your hens may not ever begin laying eggs. 

So, if you’re looking to get some eggs from your family of chickens, you should install your chicken aquaponics in a place where the chickens can receive plenty of sunlight. You should consider this when deciding what type of plants you will grow as well, as some tolerate sun exposure better than others. 

Install Proper Filtration Systems on Your Tank

The main point of integrating chickens into your aquaponics system is to maximize the nutrients in the chicken waste by allowing the fish to eat it. However, chickens can be very messy animals. 

In addition to all the chicken dung, you should also expect the following to fall on your aquaponics tank: 

  • Chicken feathers, 
  • Dirt, 
  • Chicken feed, and 
  • Miscellaneous debris from the coop. 

Because your tank will be tasked with filtering out the waste from the chickens in addition to the waste from the fish, you should invest in a high-quality water tank filter that will be able to keep up. 

One of the best filters for a chicken aquaponics system is the AST MDC 1000 Aquaponic Fish System (available on Amazon.com). This high-power filter was specifically designed to handle the high waste loads of an aquaponics tank, so you can count on it to keep your water fresh and clean for your fish. 

2. Choose an Appropriate Type of Fish for ICPF

Different fish have different dietary requirements, and not all of them will eat chicken dung. In fact, most fish species won’t eat chicken waste as part of their diet, so the types of fish you can safely raise in a chicken aquaponics system are quite limited. 

Here are some of the best fish and crustaceans for chicken aquaponics. 

Tilapia

If you often buy fish filets at the grocery store, you may already be familiar with tilapia. This fish is very popular among consumers as it is readily available and usually very inexpensive. Tilapia is so abundant in consumer markets because it is extremely durable, grows very quickly, and can be harvested in under a year. That’s why the New York Times has called tilapia “the perfect factory fish.” 

Although your aquaponics system is not a factory, the same reasons that make it a great choice for factory farming also make it a perfect fit for your ICPF. Most notably, tilapia will eat almost anything—including chicken poop. 

The fact that tilapia will eat the chicken droppings will be extremely helpful at minimizing how much external feed you have to provide to your family of tilapia, but also at reducing the amount of nitrogen in the water. Although this is one of the top nutrients that the fish waste will provide to your aquaponics environment, too much of it will negatively impact your fish. 

Thus, you need a type of fish that will not only coexist with the chicken poop but will also eat it for nutrition. 

Profit Potential From Tilapia in a Chicken Aquaponics System

If you’re looking to maximize your profit-earning potential from your chicken aquaponics system, tilapia is probably the best fish species to do. These are some of the reasons: 

  • Tilapia is one of the most popular types of fish among consumers, so you won’t have a demand shortage for your product. Although tilapia prices are low, you can count on there being a wide range of buyers who will be interested in your fish. 
  • Tilapia have an extremely fast harvest time. That means that you can breed and harvest your fish in under a year, allowing you to make more profit per year compared to other fish types
  • Tilapia is extremely resistant to disease. It’s quite hard to kill a tilapia, as these resilient animals can survive in almost any environment. Perhaps deservedly, this has earned tilapia the nickname “garbage fish.” 

Regardless, people still chose to consume tilapia in large quantities. Tilapia’s sturdiness and “garbage” nickname can only help you as a producer. You can raise large quantities of these fish in less-than-ideal conditions and keep them healthy. 

Catfish

Catfish is another species of fish that is known to be extremely cheap. Just like tilapia, catfish will eat almost anything and survive in below-pristine conditions. These reasons make catfish another excellent choice for those looking to integrate chickens into an aquaponics system.

Most notably, a catfish’s diet is extremely diverse. From small fish and crustaceans to even small birds, catfish will eat almost anything that can fit in their relatively large mouths. This, of course, includes chicken droppings, which is one of the most important things you should look for when selecting the ideal fish species for your aquaponics system. 

Catfish will do well in a chicken aquaponics system by eating the chicken poop that falls into the water. These fish will also tolerate the changes in water quality that heavy chicken waste may bring, as they are not too sensitive to water quality issues. 

Profit Potential From Catfish in a Chicken Aquaponics System

Catfish have several profit-earning disadvantages compared to tilapia. Although they are both popular and inexpensive meats, catfish are inferior to tilapia for a few important reasons: 

  • Catfish take much longer to mature to harvest age. Whereas you can harvest a tilapia in as few as nine months, you will need to wait at least 18 months before you can harvest your catfish. This will right away cut in half the amount of fish you will be able to sell in a period of time. 
  • Catfish don’t have scales. This makes them very delicate and hard to manage, as they can easily be injured if not handled carefully. Tilapia are much more sturdy and don’t get hurt as easily.
  • Tilapia is a more popular fish worldwide, with almost twice as many tonnes of tilapia being consumed per year than catfish. This means that you will have a much easier time finding buyers for your fish when it’s time to harvest if you’re raising tilapia. 

In short, you should almost always choose tilapia over catfish for your chicken aquaponics system if you’re looking to make a profit. If you are not looking for a commercial ICPF and only want to raise fish for personal consumption, then catfish can be a great choice if you and your family prefer its taste. 

Shrimp

Shrimp is very similar to tilapia. They’re both extremely durable, very popular, and very tasty. Most importantly, the same reasons that earned tilapia the nickname “garbage fish” resulted in shrimp being known as “the cockroaches of the sea.” 

Even if you weren’t planning on having crustaceans in your chicken aquaponics system, these could be a great idea for several reasons: 

  • Shrimp are extremely low-maintenance creatures, making them great choices for beginners in aquaponics. Even if you already have some aquaponics experience under your belt, you might want to start conservatively when introducing chickens to your aquaponics system for the first time. 
  • Shrimp is the most popular seafood in the United States by a very wide margin. If you like seafood, you’ve probably had countless servings of these delicious creatures already. So, whether you’re looking to sell your shrimp or harvest them for yourself and your family, you should have no trouble finding something to do with them once they’re harvest-ready. 
  • Shrimp will happily eat all of the chicken waste. The fact that they are not fussy eaters has earned them their yucky nickname of “cockroach of the sea.” Although this nickname is unfortunate, it just goes to show how shrimp will eat anything in their way—including chicken poop. 

Profit Potential From Shrimp in a Chicken Aquaponics System

Shrimp can be an extremely profitable venture if you’re looking to make some money from your ICPF. 

  • You will be able to harvest shrimp quicker than any fish. Your shrimp can be ready for harvest in as little as three months. That means you can harvest shrimp up to four times per year, making the harvest turnover rate better than even that of tilapia. 
  • Shrimp is the most popular seafood in the United States, with almost three times as many tonnes of shrimp consumed every year than tilapia. This almost guarantees that you will have a healthy market for your shrimp every time they reach harvest age. 
  • Shrimp will happily eat all of the chicken droppings, meaning that you will minimize the amount of external feed you will have to provide them. They can grow happy and healthy on a diet based almost exclusively on chicken waste, so you won’t have to spend money buying external feed for your shrimp.

If you’re an experienced shrimp farmer or have worked with aquaponics systems in the past, shrimp may be the best way to make money off of an ICPF. However, you must be prepared for the time commitment required to harvest and sell shrimp once every three to six months. You have to treat it like a real business to make the most money out of your chicken aquaponics system. 

3. Identify How Many Chickens You Will Need

Before you get started, you have to anticipate exactly how much fish and how many chickens you will need. Being a closed-loop system, you have to be careful to strike the right balance between chickens, fish, and plants to maximize the benefit you get from your ICPF. Too many chickens or too few chickens could result in sub-par results.  

Once you’ve identified what type of fish (or crustacean) you will use for your chicken aquaponics system, you must calculate how many chickens you will need. On average, you can expect about 51 pounds (23.13 kg) of manure per hen per year

Then, you have to figure out how much food your fish will need. The general rule of thumb is that a fish will need between 3 and 4% of its body weight in feed per day. 

So, if you have 1,000 quarter-pound (0.11 kg) tilapia fish in your system, and you want bird poop to consist of a quarter of their daily feed of 4% of their body weight, you would use the following formula: 

(Number of fish) X (Weight of fish) / 25 = Amount of chicken manure needed in pounds per day. 

For our example, we have: (1000) X (0.25) / 25 = 2.5. So, we would need 2.5 lbs (1.13 kg) of chicken manure per day to feed our fish. This means we would need 18 chickens in our aquaponics tank to provide enough feed for all the fish. 

4. Build the Chicken Environment Above Your Aquaponics Tanks

Once you’ve made the necessary adjustments to your aquaponics system, you can start building the chicken coop above the water tanks. 

You could always hire someone out to handle the construction of the coop, especially since it is going to be suspended over the water. Do not attempt to build the coop yourself if you are not confident that you can build a high-quality structure. If you have some experience with similar DIY projects, you can build the coop yourself. 

The number of materials you will need for your coop will vary greatly depending on the size of your chicken aquaponics system. Remember that you will need between three and five square feet (between 0.28 and 0.46 square meters) per chicken, so you should first figure out how many chicks you will need to house before deciding how big of a coop you will need to build. 

At the very least, you will need to get the following materials: 

  • 2 exterior sheets of ⅜-inch (1 cm) plywood 
  • 10 extra-large pressure-treated lumber posts to serve as your coop’s support 
  • 3 large pressure-treated pieces of lumber 
  • 1 medium pressure treated piece of lumber 
  • 2 small pressure-treated pieces of lumber 
  • 10 heavy-duty aluminum fence panels for the floor 
  • 30 wire fence cage panels to cover the floors and sides of the cage 
  • One large box of assorted exterior screws 
  • 2 window bolts 
  • 2 hook-and-eye latches 
  • 2 galvanized door pulls 
  • 2 galvanized heavy duty tee hinges 
  • 2 galvanized utility hinges 
  • 1 galvanized roofing pane 
  • 2 soffit vents 
  • At least 1 bucket of exterior paint (but you can use multiple colors if you wish) 

This is just a basic list of materials with the bare minimum that you will need for a reasonably-sized chicken enclosure. The actual number of materials and the size of each piece will depend entirely on the size of the chicken coop you are trying to build. 

You can use this list as an essential checklist that you can modify and build upon depending on your specific requirements. You can always add more posts, plywood sheets, wire fence panels, or anything else you need to make the enclosure bigger. 

5. Monitor Your Water Levels Constantly

One of the biggest downsides of a chicken aquaponics system is how much waste and debris chickens produce. To keep your fish alive and healthy, you will want to monitor your water quality as often as possible. 

If you can, you should test your water levels daily to correct any irregularities with the water before they become an issue. At the bare minimum, you should perform a water test at least once a week to prevent your fish from dying due to poor water quality. 

You should use a water testing kit that will check for the following: 

  • pH, 
  • High range pH, 
  • Ammonia, 
  • Nitrite, and 
  • Nitrate. 

I recommend the API Water Test Kit (available on Amazon.com), as it tests for all of the water parameters mentioned above. Not only is this a very complete and reliable testing kit, but it’s also inexpensive enough to allow for frequent water testing. 

Conclusion

Integrating chicken into your aquaponics system has its challenges, but once it’s all set up, it can be very gratifying and profitable.

The key here is to choose the right kind of fish since not all fish will eat chicken waste. You’ll also need to carefully choose the right number of fish, chickens, and plants to have in your system. You want all three organisms to have room to grow comfortably and healthy.

Alexander Picot

Alexander Picot is the principal creator of TheGrowingLeaf.com, a website dedicated to gardening tips. Inspired by his mother’s love of gardening, Alex has a passion for taking care of plants and turning backyards into feel-good places and loves to share his experience with the rest of the world.

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