Symbi Biological

Measure to Manage: Nutrient Analysis #5

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Every so often, I post our nutrient analysis of the aquaponics system water using a Hanna photometer. In the last 6 months, things have been fairly consistent except for the winter months. As the system temperature dropped below 57F, the nitrification slowed somewhat and the nitrite level jumped significantly. I think this was a result of both the cold system temperature slowing down the bacteria and a catfish tank that had fewer fish than I thought. Fish food was collecting in the tank and probably contributing to the nitrite issue as a result. I had been concerned that the catfish were not growing and decided to empty the tank to see what was going on in there. As it turns out, the catfish were almost the same size as when we started last year! Read More

Wormery Frogs Evicted

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Last year, I started to notice an increase in Pacific Tree Frogs in the Wormery. At first, they were cute, but I did notice that my integrated pest management team of spiders and other critters of the worm bin were slowly disappearing. Back when I started the worm bin, we had a diverse group of insects and invertebrates. So many that it compelled me to make a video called Critters of the Worm Bin where you see all of the major players in a worm bin from a worm’s eye view at 10x and 15x magnification. Filming a pill bug eating a worm is still one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.

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Then about a year ago, it became obvious that making that film again would be next to impossible since most of the critters starring in their roles had disappeared. I don’t think they were on strike. They were gobbled up actually. Slowly, the frogs were beginning to take over the worm bin. Reluctantly, I’ve been gently relocating them outside where they belong. When I first noticed them, I figured they were eating some of the worms as I mentioned in a previous post. Upon further observation, I think they were eating a LOT of the worms! Not exactly surprising, but if you see frogs in your worm bin, I’d suggest showing them the wonderful natural habitat they already have or you’ll be raising frogs like me. And making fish food from frogs, well, I’ll leave that for someone else to try!

Surviving Not Thriving

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Consistency is so important when raising any kind of organism for production. I’ve said it before on this blog, but it’s so important to have consistent inputs to expect predictable outputs. This is certainly the case with the crickets this morning. When I entered the cricket castle (okay, it’s a tent), it felt kind of cool inside. The thermometer showed it was 65F in the day time and the nights were getting down to 55F inside the tent… ahem, “castle”. It’s supposed to be about 84-88F, but one of the heaters had shut off on it’s own. As a result, the crickets have been surviving and not thriving. I use this phrase a lot when discussing the health of plants, but it works very well in this instance. Just because something is alive and looks “okay”, it may just be that the organism is close to it’s breaking point and has not presented the symptoms just yet. The little troopers were hanging in there, though. I was especially concerned with the new crop of babies as they are a delicate bunch. Everything seems okay with them, but they’re pretty small so it’s hard to truly know until they get a little bigger to see what the numbers look like. At these temperatures, breeding stops as I learned all too well back in September. The solution to this is to have a monitoring and alarm system that calls you when a set point is not being met. Or, for simplicity, just another reliable heater in the room. Although, if this is your livelihood, I’d highly suggest an alarm.

Symbi Moving Forward

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“So what do you feed the fish?”, she asked. I had just finished explaining how aquaponics was the perfect answer to recirculating aquaculture and hydroponics as it is an elegant system that solves the main issues of both production systems. She had a very good point, though. And that night, as I lay awake in bed thinking about that very question, Symbi Biological was born as I began to imagine a biological loop that we could create on the ranch where we work. That loop has been what I’ve been working on the last couple years while also working on projects for the TomKat Ranch Educational Foundation helping with regenerative agriculture strategies.

Over the past few years, Symbi Biological has worked on a number of different subjects to solve problems in a public way so that others could learn from and share these experiences. Some of those projects worked out really well, like the crickets, and others… not so well. However, in either case I believed it was important to document my experiences and share them openly. My ultimate goal with Symbi is to de-risk some of this stuff so others can replicate it with confidence when it counts.

All that said, we are in a pretty critical moment right now when it comes to our climate and it is more important than ever to build our understanding on how we can do a better job of stewarding the planet. Symbi’s parent organization, TomKat Ranch Educational Foundation, has asked that I focus my time over the next couple years on helping them discover and share the agricultural practices that offer the most promise for growing a regenerative food system that feeds us all and sustains our planet. Please visit the tomkatranch.org website to follow the exciting applied science projects and data that are helping point agriculture in a new and inspiring direction.

This blog will continue to publish mostly about aquaponics and insects as I can fit them back into the schedule. I feel it’s important to share this information with you so that you know why some projects are on hold. It always frustrated me when I would find blogs that I liked and then they would just stop posting with no explanation or even if the project worked or not. Or they would sporadically post. I hope to someday soon continue working on other food issues like the Fish Food Project, but for right now, I have a goal of educating the public about the importance of regenerative agriculture. So if you’re new to what I’m talking about and want to learn more, please join our great team at tomkatranch.org. You can always reach me at doug@tomkatranch.org. Thanks for reading and I look forward to producing more content very soon!

Cricket Harvesting Tip

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Temperature is a vital part of cricket production from consistent harvests all the way to your financial bottom line when it comes to heating costs. One place where temperature seems to be a big help is for harvesting our crickets. If it’s possible to cool your cricket bins prior to harvest, the crickets move much slower and are easier to collect. I use the word “collect” here on purpose. “Collecting” sounds a lot more appealing than “catching” doesn’t it? This is especially important if you’re using a low tech method of harvesting like the Hopper Hopper. My first attempts at hand harvesting were comical, but when I left the bins outside of the production tent overnight at about 55F, they became much easier to collect.

Cricket Production Costs

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Here are the costs for cricket production. Full spreadsheet after the page break. It costs $7.21 to produce one pound of cricket in the system that I use. The system includes a bin, two mudpies made from 5 parts coconut coir and one part worm castings. Each bin gets up to 6 egg crates as they grow to provide a place to hide out and do cricket-like things. At peak production, I had 55 bins, but moved down to 40 bins so I could keep some sanity. I was starting to hear crickets 24/7. And it wasn’t because of my bad jokes. <chirp chirp chirp>…Hey wait a minute!

I’ve played around with supplementing their feed, but in the end I came to the conclusion that to make this project work predictably, using organic non GMO peanut based chicken feed crumbles was the best option to figure out the production side of things. I hope to someday be able to back out the chicken feed crumbles for something we can grow on site like spirulina and aquaponics vegetables. They really like that stuff! I also think there is a lot of promise with fermented feed as I experimented with last winter.

For the feed, I pay $21 per 50lb bag of organic peanut based chicken crumbles. That’s $0.000925/ gram. The first week when they are tiny they get a cupful and that lasts about a week. Then I add another as they get bigger and that lasts a week. I check twice a week and, if need be, I add. By week three they are eating more and I am able to feed twice a week.

Each bin uses a total of up to 6 egg cartons at $0.16 each.

Each bin has two “mud pies” from coco coir and worm castings. We have worms to make our own castings. As mentioned above, the ratio is one part castings to 5 parts coco coir. The retail cost for both is about the same when considering proportions used. Each mud pie has 22 ounces of “mud” for laying eggs and for drinking water at a cost of $0.11 per bin. I believe the castings are a very important component as they add microbe meals for the babies to get a good start.

Electrical costs are $0.15 per KWh which means about $84/ month in heat. This is where your mileage may vary the most. This cost can be reduced if I insulate the cricket castle a little better as it really is just an indoor grow tent in an uninsulated garage.

For labor, I went with the California minimum wage of $10/hour to do the weekly chores of adding water, vacuuming out frass(cricket poop), and adding feed as it does not require much skill. There is some decision making involved, but it isn’t too incredibly hard.

There are certainly better systems out there. This one is pretty low labor, which is why it evolved this way. Given unlimited time and resources, I would design it a little differently doing away with the bins entirely and going with high walled perforated metal table tops and adding an automated drip water system. There would be collection trays under the tables that you can pull out like a drawer to clean the frass. I’ve had so many escapees in the tent that I’ve learned the bins are almost unnecessary. The crickets all inevitably end up hiding in the stack of new egg crates that I keep in the tent. I think you can have a more controlled environment by getting rid of the bins, since currently, with the bins you have 40 different microclimates to manage instead of one big one. I also think this could be done in a hoop house, too, with the right modifications. I’ll get back to you on that one. 😉

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Water Usage and Rainwater Collection

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We made it! Back in May, I posted about the aquaponics water usage and how efficient our aquaponics system operates. It’s exciting to prove that food can be grown in places where water and/or arable land is scarce even if we have a fair amount of both here on the ranch. I’ve mentioned before that our well water is extremely high in sodium with the most recent sample at 240ppm. It actually went up from the 200ppm reading a couple of years ago. This makes it hard to grow quality crops making rainwater collection very appealing. The recent drought is another reason why rainwater collection is an important consideration for everyone in our region. So last October, we installed some tanks and they worked beautifully. In fact, so well that we made it through the summer. Thankfully, we got a good 2.5″ rain last weekend that started recharging the tanks for this season. Something very important to point out is that I disconnected the tanks from the rooftops for the first half of the rain to wash off the all the dust that collected on the rooftop. Cleaning out 5000 gallon tanks just doesn’t sound like a lot of fun and from a food safety perspective, this is a good preventative practice.

Per the numbers below, the system used 3,888 gallons of water since the end of April. I can’t recall when our last rain was, but somewhere around that time. This is really interesting because that averages out to about 25 gallons per day for the entire system which is consistent with my reported usage last year! Consistency in science is always reassuring.

Aquaponics Water Usage in gal:

4/27/16 337 Filter flush rain water
5/2/16 80 rain water
5/11/16 116 rain water
5/17/16 360 Filter flush rain water
5/23/16 280 Filled system full rain water
6/1/16 150 rain water
6/15/16 585 Filter flush rain water
6/29/16 400 Filter flush rain water
7/13/16 180 rain water
7/22/16 80 rain water
7/27/16 130 rain water
8/2/16 310 Filter flush rain water
8/19/16 75 rain water
8/26/16 365 Filter flush rain water
9/16/16 140 rain water
9/26/16 200 Flush/Very hot days rain water
10/10/16 100 rain water