Managing Healthy Farm Ponds
How to Build a Pond for Healthy Livestock, Fish, and Wildlife
By Joe Cadieux of midwestponds.com – Farm ponds are a fantastic resource for livestock, wildlife, fish, and irrigation for farming and homesteading today. They come in many shapes and sizes and can provide good water for crops and livestock year-round. These jewels of your property need to be cared for responsibly.
Think of it this way: what would happen to your lawn if you left it alone for a summer? Ponds require maintenance and care to remain healthy and productive. These systems can be a resource for you and your family as a recreational swimming and fishing pond too.
Here are some tips to keep the farm pond clean and balanced:
Limit the Access of your Livestock to One Small Area of the Shoreline
Limiting access allows the rest of the pond’s shoreline to remain vegetated and keeps potential damage from large animals to a minimum. The area you choose for access should also be prepared for the types of critters you have. Harden the access area with a material that will stand up to animals coming into the area. My favorite is a mix of sand and pea gravel (maybe some coarser gravel for horses and cow farming).
A nice, solid base will limit turbidity (cloudiness), keeping animals from stirring up sediments in the pond too much. Steer clear of round cobble; spherical stones 2 inches in diameter and larger will slide and shift when stood upon. Make sure to mix in some sand or crushed stone to bind the mix together.
After a small wading area (5-8ft), make sure that the access area is directly adjacent to deep water. This will limit the area that critters use and will minimize the amount of manure directly deposited into the resource. Either fence off an area that will be theirs to use or trust that the creatures will not venture into water deeper than they ought to.
Having deep water next to the access area will help make sure there is good clean water to drink. The deeper water also allows for adequate mixing of water in the shallows to recycle any nutrient inputs.
All ponds eventually have nutrient problems. Farm ponds are no exception. Everything that blows into or falls upon the pond has to be dealt with by the organisms that live there. If the pond is not in great shape, the system will not be able to move excess nutrients. This leads to accumulating goop on the bottom and increasing problems as the pond ages.
Encourage native vegetation to grow around and in the pond to help mitigate nutrient issues. If you have power down by the pond, I highly recommend a diffused aeration system as it’s the number one tool for managing surface waters.
Good systems are available all over the internet, and they are easy to set up. These systems are the single best investment for your farm pond. A properly sized aeration system will effectively increase the health and longevity of any aquatic system.
If power is not an option for you, there are solar options now available that do a pretty good job (though not great, and are very expensive). There is also the ol’ standby, windmill aeration. Windmill aerators do a great job keeping fish alive. They do not, however, provide consistent air to the aquatic ecosystem and are therefore unsuitable as a management device.
Water flow is key to the management of ponds. The more water movement (cycling) you get, the better off you are in terms of nutrient management.
• When building a pond, construct it lengthwise to the prevailing wind. This will increase turnover and cycling.
• Allow as much open water as possible. Water free of plant life (in deep areas) and obstruction is good for water flow.
• Clear messy trees and cattails from around the edge. Removing willows, alder, and other tall plant life will allow the wind to turn more water for you. Removing trees from the area around the pond will decrease the number of leaves that fall into the water every fall. Plant (or allow volunteer) species that have robust root structure, as these native perennials require less maintenance and sequester nutrients that would otherwise turn into nuisance weeds and algae.
Irrigating with Pond Water
Farm ponds are an excellent source of organic fertilizer for crops or gardens. The dissolved nutrients from breaking down biomatter, and the associated bacteria and other organisms, are beautiful fuel for terrestrial plant growth. I recommend taking water from the deepest area of the pond.
The deepest area is where nutrients and organic sediments accumulate first. You will be doing a service to your farm pond by removing nutrient-laden water, all while helping out your plants with a shot of nitrate and phosphate every time you irrigate.
Purchasing (or constructing) a floating island benefits a pond in several ways.
A floating island:
• Actively removes nutrients from the water column as plants are forced to take 100 percent of their sustenance from the water and not soil.
• Creates a platform for hydroponically grown produce.
• Creates habitat for aquatic life (fish and amphibians, among others).
That’s right, you can grow epic tomatoes and beans out on the farm pond. But beware as the plants will grow to a tremendous size and produce quickly and abundantly (picture softball sized tomatoes). The trick is to create an apparatus that’ll stand up to the environment. You’ll have to build your island to hold the types of plants being installed, based on their size and height.
Terrestrial plants can easily live over water if supported properly, so plan ahead. Whatever you plan to grow will become top-heavy. So, construct support and extra buoyancy into your island or you’ll find that your vegetables have capsized in the pond or have become too heavy and sunk.
You’ll need a small amount of planting media to get started. Once the roots are long enough to reach the water, they will stick down and become excellent habitat for fish, who will feed vigorously off the dissolved nutrients in your farm pond’s water. An added bonus is that island gardens have way less bug, herbivore, and disease issues as there is hardly any soil and no access to the shore.
Isolated plants cannot be bothered by common pests and diseases that gain access to the plants by way of crawling or are soil-borne (cucumber beetles, late blight, blossom end rot, slugs, rabbits). These gardens do need to be tended as any other vegetable/flower garden, as weeds will grow just as well as your veggies and flowers.
This is an enormous topic that cannot be fully explained in one article, so please look up my other articles on the Water Edge blog.
Thanks for taking the time to read about farm ponds, and please ask questions in the comment section. I will monitor the thread and answer whatever question I find.
Joe Cadieux is the Senior Biologist Midwestponds.com, which was started to provide the products and advice needed to build and maintain water gardens and large ponds as naturally as possible. Joe consults and manages many lakes and ponds throughout southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois. He also takes special pleasure as a judge at the University School of Milwaukee’s Spring Science Fair.
Joe is a freshwater biologist with two degrees in fisheries/limnology and biology from the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. He has 13+ years of experience in managing freshwater resources in the Midwest. He believes in integrated resource management as a tool to keep lakes and ponds happy and healthy. If the ecosystem is stable and balanced from the microbes on up to the fish and end users, a pond is a perfect resource for you and your family.
Joe grew up fishing, hunting, and camping with his family in the Midwest. At home, he helped out on the hobby farm with the chickens, rabbits, and goats….. and one goose (Gracie). Joe credits his father and his 6th-grade science teacher for instilling the love of the outdoors and of course…… SCIENCE!