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Breeding Discus From a Beginner's Perspective

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Breeding Discus From a Beginner's Perspective
by Ryan Willimas

Discus are the pride and joy of my small fish room. I've had several other types of cichlids, but the only one I seem to keep for very long are Discus. I currently have one "orgy tank" with nine adults, one divided tank with a couple of pairs in it, another with a bunch of baby Discus and a quarantine tank for my new arrivals.

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This article is to go over what's worked for me in the hope that it might help someone else that is considering keeping or breeding Discus. I've been keeping Discus for about three years and I can finally say that I've successfully bred them. I currently have three pairs and hopefully I will have more in the coming months.

I have had too many failed spawns to count. Some of the failed spawns are from mistakes I've made and some from young, inexperienced Discus. Discus breeders often lose spawns due to the parent fish- young inexperienced pairs are the most common reason. In this article, I am going to cover the biggest mistakes that I've made. Further on, I'll look into my successes.

Mistake 1

Don't mess with the water so much! When I first purchased a reverse osmosis (RO) unit I played around with all different parameters for pH, GH, KH, temperature, etc. If you want to breed Discus, get yourself a pH and Conductivity meter because you will be taking readings all the time in the beginning. Make sure the pH is under 7.0 with preference to 6 to 6.5 pH for domestically bred Discus and 100 to 200 µs microsiemens for conductivity.

One thing to remember here is that the more additives that you add to the water, the higher the conductivity will go. While acid will bring the pH down, it will boost the conductivity reading. If you have a fairly new RO membrane, the water may come out at the correct pH and all you'll have to do is add back a few minerals to the water. One way to do this is just to add back tap water until you've reached the desired conductivity reading. At this point the pH may be too high and you'll have to use some acid anyway. You can see very quickly how easy it is to mess
with the water too much.

Mistake 2

Learn to identify gill problems such as flukes. I've lost a few hundred Discus babies to gill flukes. I haven't had a problem with flukes until the babies get to be about two or three months old. Then, for some reason, gill flukes become a problem. The babies will scratch a little bit-but not always- turn very dark, have problems breathing and create extra mucus (but not always) on their gills. If the babies aren't treated within a couple days, you can start losing them one or two at a time.

Life Bearer and Fluke Tabs are two medications I've had good success with. I've also tried twenty minute salt baths with some success. The salt baths seem to give some relief, but not for long. I've also found that after the recommended treatment period, I've had to continue preventative treatments on a weekly basis for up to a month. My recommendation if you run into this problem is to work a little harder on keeping the tank clean by wiping down the inside glass frequently. If you've read the August 2001 issue of Tropical Fish Hobbyist you'll find a great article on dealing with gill flukes from Terry Fairfield.

Mistake 3

Artificially raising Discus is not for everyone. I've tried a couple of times with eggs from parents that haven't turned out to be good parents yet. I read all that I could find on the subject from Jack Wattley, Dick Au, and a few internet sites. The owner of Universal Discus has written an article on his method that is at I've tried artificially raising discus fry a couple times and it is not fun watching all the babies die because you can't get them to eat. I can't say that the methods I read about and tried aren't good- I just need more practice using them. I will probably try artificially raising some fry again at some point, but for now I'm sticking with pairs that will raise their own fry.

Success 1

Automatic water changes are a must for any serious Discus keeper. Earlier this year I started working on the plumbing for water changes. I go out of town a lot and it looked like I was going to be out of town most of the summer for work. I had some 5 month old baby Discus and I didn't want to put the burden on my wife to do water changes day in and day out. If I had, I think my hobby would come to an end real fast. So, I spent a lot of time at Home Depot buying a few PVC fittings here and there until I had three tanks setup for water changes. In this setup
I have a pump sitting in a water reservoir that's hooked up to a digital timer which turns on three times a day for 5 minutes. Water runs up to PVC pipe and is carried to all three tanks. The rate of flow to each tank is controlled using ball valves. All of the tanks are drilled which enables the water to overflow down drain pipes that I ran to each tank. I have an 80 gallon water reservoir which is kept full by a water supply line that runs through a carbon filter and then to one of the barrels with a float valve kit installed. As the water is used, it gets replenished without any intervention on my part. In the barrels the water is aerated, circulated and heated to 82°F. I estimate that I'm pushing 60 gallons of water a day out to 200 gallons worth of tanks. This works great except for tanks with breeding pairs. In this case I have to fill another barrel manually with RO water and tap water mixed to the right conductivity (100 - 120 microsiemens). Then add phosphoric acid to bring the PH down to 6.0 to 6.5. Those tanks only get new water twice a week in most cases since it's very time consuming to get the water parameters just right.

I'm currently working on getting more of my tanks setup for automatic water changes. For me, this is probably the single most successful project I've done to make me happier with my hobby and my fish happier with the water quality in their tanks. My next project is going to be a way for me to cheaply build a solution for the water in my breeding tanks to be mixed automatically. Wish me luck with this one!

Success 2

I have a really nice looking pair of clean pigeon bloods. For those not familiar with the term 'clean' pigeon bloods it means that they have very little black specs that you fi nd on the common pigeon blood. This pair has laid more eggs than all my other pairs combined. The
problem is that if the parents don't eat the eggs that the babies never find the parents and eventually starve after hatching (more of this later). Another Discus friend of mine that's been breeding Discus a lot longer than me told me how he's been successful. To get them to stop eating their own eggs he recommends putting a divider in the tank and adding a big mean male to the tank. This presents competition for the pair and puts their protective instincts into overdrive. He was also the one that convinced me that the PH and conductivity for some strains of Discus needs to be lower. As I stated above I am now using water for my breeding tanks with a PH of 6.0 or a little above and about 100 microsiemens. This seemed to be the trick for this pair except for the fact that most of the babies still starve to death because they can't find the parents.

Now, some of you are probably asking why the babies can't find the parents. Well, it's a simple fact that baby Discus by instinct are attracted to dark colors and dark parents. In the case of my pair all the darkness has been breed out of them. They have a white base color with orange
striations and fins. I've been successful with one batch of babies from them and out of the 150 eggs that hatched 9 found the parents and learned to feed off of them. My hope is that this number increases over time as the parents learn to better attract the babies to themselves.

Since then I've talked to other breeders about this problem and they've all seen it with their own fish. I was told in Asia that many professional hatcheries use surrogate parents to rear the fry from different pigeon strains or artificially raise them. Well, I haven't had any luck with the artificial method so I guess what I need now is a surrogate mother. Anybody know where I can put this want ad? Next time the opportunity presents itself that I have two pairs, the pigeons and a turquoise pair, with 3 to 5 day old fry at the same time I think I might try this idea.

Success 3

Filtration is a hot topic for any cichlid enthusiast. I have a 110 gallon tank with a built in overflow box and a bulkhead on the bottom. Many people believe wet/dry filters are the best type of filters for your fish. I'm one of those people and I so very much wanted one for this tank. But, when I went to my local pet store and looked at the price of $200 to $400, I didn't want it anymore. The next best thing was building my own wet/dry filter. I used a pre-drilled 10 gallon tank that I had in storage as the sump. I also had some extra Plexiglas laying around in my work room that I used to build a drip plate. The Plexiglas was cut and siliconed to make a square open top box that would sit on top of some biomedia sitting in the sump. It had short sides to contain the water it caught as it came down the PVC piping connected to
the overflow on the tank. To keep the water from splashing all over the place when it hit the plate I added a filter pad; the kind that you cut yourself to fit. The overflow on the 10 gallon sump is for automatic water changes. I fill water into the tank and the water rises in the sump, it then flows out of the sump's predrilled hole and down the drain pipe. This works well except that the hole in the sump is too small the water doesn't drain fast enough. So, the fresh water coming from the reservoir three times a day has to be slowed to a trickle on this tank using a ball valve to prevent the sump from overflowing.

Another project for in the future that I have is to build a bigger sump with a bigger overflow for water changes. For the meantime, my fish still need more fresh water than what I can do with the automatic water changes. My solution was to anchor a piece of air tubing in the reservoir and run it to the sump. Using the suction created by gravity, water flows into the sump. To slow its pace to a drip I added a plastic air valve.

Success 4

Food is an important part of Discus keeping and breeding. I'm still working on the perfect beefheart mixture for older babies and adults so I'm not going to go into too much detail on this. What I'm going to talk a little more about is some success I've been having with a new kind of food for the baby Discus.

First, lets talk about food for the adults. My latest "greatest" concoction is made of equal amounts of peeled raw or cooked shrimp as prepared beefheart, fish roe, Japanese seaweed (like the ones sold at the grocery store for Sushi), flake food and a multivitamin (but only every
other batch). I throw this all into a food processor and mix it to the desired consistency. I then put a couple of large spoon fulls into sandwich size ziplock baggies, flatten them out and place them into the freezer. I've found that it takes a couple of days to setup properly before I can start feeding it to my fish.

I don't believe that Discus need vitamins in their food on a daily basis so I keep prepare food with vitamins and some with out. I then use the food with the vitamins a couple days a week, the one with out a few days a week, and other foods for a couple days a week instead of the beefheart mixture (like bloodworms, brine shrimp or extra helpings of dry food). I also use high quality flake foods on a daily basis for one of the feedings. I get my flake foods from Mike Reed on his website,

Second, I'd like to talk about what I use for my babies from the time they've been swimming for three days on. I start them out on live baby brine shrimp (bbs) just like everybody else who keeps cichlids. When they've been on that for a week I start supplementing Mike Reed's No Bbs Fry Food. This is a dry food that comes in two sizes. The small size is a powder that is smaller than sugar grains. The larger size is probably about the same or a little larger than sugar. I feed the small size for about three weeks, slowly weaning them off live bbs. Then, I just switch to the larger size and I start feeding little bits of other stuff like flake foods, frozen brine shrimp and maybe a little of my beefheart mixture when they're about 6 weeks old.

I'm still trying this new No Bbs Fry Food out and I haven't made up my mind yet as to whether it is better than just using bbs or not. So far I do love the fact that I only have to keep bbs around for two weeks for each batch of babies and that I can put it in an automatic feeder. By using an automatic feeder 3 times a day and with me feeding frozen food to the babies 2 times a day I hope to grow plate size Discus.
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