As a boy growing up on a remote 160-acre farm in southeast Kansas, my interaction with wildlife and livestock provided countless opportunities to learn life lessons. I learned to value others’ property while getting scolded for running cattle on horseback; the harm of wastefulness while cleaning quail; and, with my two older brothers, I learned the value of feeding myself by fishing our farm pond and bringing a mess of fish home to Mom and Dad.
Really, most of my interactions with nature and animals occurred in two locations: the “motherland,” a secluded area where we rode horses; and the family farm pond located about a quarter mile east of our house. It was our playground, our escape and our canvas for testing our aptitude in the outdoors.
That pond remains a special place to me, and I still hold on to mental images of fishing with my big brothers, roughhousing on the banks, and the sun falling in a big Kansas sky.
The Department of Agriculture estimates that around 50,000 ponds are constructed annually in the United States, an average of 1,000 ponds in each state. That’s a strikingly large number of ponds, many of which were created to replace ponds that failed due to mismanagement.
Farm ponds can be many things to different people. In this part of the country, the majority are used to water livestock. Other uses include agricultural irrigation, nutrient cycling for the ecosystem, wildlife and fish production, recreational and educational opportunities, and simple aesthetic beauty, which adds value to property.
And, in a time when the economy is weak and farm finances can be tough, optimizing what we already have is as important as it’s ever been in my lifetime. How to use what we already have seems way more important than seeking new investments. When it comes to the farm pond, you can optimize its uses in different ways depending on your needs, and a few overarching tactics will serve all uses.
The first step in understanding how to manage any pond is to understand the pond’s physical structure.
Most farm ponds were built using one of two techniques: excavation and embankment. Excavation is the process of digging a depression in an otherwise relatively flat landscape. Embankment, on the other hand, involves creating a dam on an already existing slope.
Knowing how your pond was constructed is important for management because it affects all kinds of management strategies such as fencing livestock away from the pond and the size and type of buffer strip you need to create.
General water quality and depth aside, the fundamental food-chain basis of the pond’s ecosystem is phytoplankton. Phytoplankton is a group of photosynthetic organisms that include true algae, blue-green algae and some protozoa that convert sunlight and nutrients into energy for other organisms. Relying on the phytoplankton for nutrition are invertebrate members of the animal kingdom, known as zooplankton, suspended in the water column. Some common examples are rotifers, water fleas (cladocerans) and copepods. These organisms in turn feed others, and so on.
Zooplankton aren’t the only creatures that eat phytoplankton, though. Insects, tadpoles and crustaceans also consume it. Larger invertebrates – snails, fingernail clams, worms, leeches and insects – consume the smaller plant and animal life and produce waste that in turn offers nutrients to support an array of plants, insects, amphibians, reptiles, fish and birds, and everything together effectively serves the multitude of other pond purposes.
If it’s managed correctly that is.
When one of the pond’s components, such as the nutrient level, gets out of whack, then everything else becomes unbalanced – zooplankton blooms, for example, can deplete dissolved oxygen to a level that’s lethal to fish.
The most important management tactic is to routinely and carefully observe your waterway. If the pond is overgrown with algae, incredibly muddy or the water has a yellow-green hue, something is wrong, and it will affect the entire system’s balance – from the phytoplankton on up to the nutrients in the water that your cattle are drinking. In terms of nutrient levels (to say nothing about the fish population), if your pond looks healthy – if it isn’t covered with moss or completely muddy – it probably is.
When using the pond for livestock hydration, it is vital to fence the animals out because they have the nasty habit of depositing significant amounts of nitrogen and other dissolved nutrients and organic matter into the water. I recommend fencing off the pond regardless, since it will reduce unwanted visits from people and animals.
One early trouble sign that points to nutrient overloading, especially with older ponds, is the appearance of filamentous algae – the pond moss you typically see in the spring. The main source of nutrients that contribute to rank moss growth, which forms on the bottom, is organic fertilizer. That often comes from excrement, whether it’s from ducks, poultry litter, cow pies or septic system runoff.
One possibility for eliminating moss would be introducing grass carp to eat the algae; in many cases, just one will do the trick.
I can think of few things more discouraging than clearing moss from your lure after every cast when fishing. It’s even worse when you think you’re getting a bite every time, and it’s simply the hook hitting a snag on the bottom. That was another virtue learned at the pond – patience.
The best way to water livestock from any pond is to use gravity or a siphon to deliver water to a stock tank located at an elevation lower than the pond’s surface. You can rig these up fairly easily, either running a pipe through the dam (best installed when building or rebuilding the dam) or with a siphon system. Solar/wind/electric pumps, nose pumps and, in some cases, ram pumps can all be used to move water from the pond to stock tank.
Herschel George, a watershed specialist for Kansas State University in Manhattan, works extensively with livestock producers, and he emphasizes that not only will fencing off livestock improve the quality of water, it will also extend the life of the structure. He says if you allow cattle direct access, their presence on the pond’s edge will result in sloughing of the banks, and you’ll be left with a large, shallow pool in time.
This becomes important, he says, because without ponds in the middle of the summer, some ranchers would be without water for their livestock.
“We’ve known about the advantage of piping for years, about 20 to 30 years,” George says, “but farmers and ranchers haven’t put a lot of effort into it except within the last five to 10 years.” That means there are a lot of ponds out there that were constructed without a water delivery system; George recommends piping through the middle of the dam or bank.
The first step is to knock the freeboard off the top of the pond’s dam, so that you can get an excavator, such as a backhoe, right to the water’s edge. Freeboard is the distance from the water level to the top of the dam.
Once you have the excavator in place – at water’s edge – dig a trench in the submerged face of the dam about 3 feet deep and away from the dam as far as is needed to lead directly into open water. Back the excavator up, leaving a 1½-to-2-foot barrier to hold the water back, and start digging a trench toward where the stock tank is located. Three to 5 feet down should be sufficient. Lay the pipe in the trench with an open/close valve on the stock tank end and make an “L” joint where your barrier is, which you will later lay down into the pond. The top portion of the “L” should extend into the air about 10 to 15 feet to provide plenty of distance from the bank when laid down. (See illustration of retrofitting pond for pond water delivery.)
The next step is critical – sealing the bank over the pipe. George likes to use an antiseep collar around the pipe to prevent water from creeping along the pipe from the pond through the dam. He also likes to use bentonite clay around the pipe in the trench, since this clay, when it gets wet, swells 15 to 18 times its dry size. You don’t need to use bentonite entirely. A 10-foot section of the clay packed around the pipe will do. A little care and effort here will minimize the chance of a leak later on.
At this point, you should also attach a flat plate on the pond end of the pipe (now sticking up in the air) and drill some holes for water to pass through. This will prevent fish and other critters from ever getting stuck or ending up in the drinking water of your livestock.
“After (the bank) is secure,” George says. “Then and only then do you go to the front and remove that barrier. Lower the intake of your pipe out into the pond, and if the valve is open, water will pass through. I like to have the valve open, so there are no air bubbles in the pipe.”
Lastly, wire the pipe end extending into the pond to a post, to prevent sagging and prevent the pipe end from ever resting directly on the bottom of the pond.
Piping is the most desirable method for using a pond for watering livestock. However, if you must permit direct access, you can fence off most of the pond, and only allow animals to access a small portion of it for drinking. If you do this, make sure the area of access is small, so that the livestock can’t wade into the pond and harm the water quality or themselves. For best results, install a layer of crushed rock on the access to prevent muddying and to help control erosion. Either way, if you prevent animals from having direct access to the pond, both will be healthier.
According to a Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks publication, Producing Fish and Wildlife from Kansas Ponds, weight gains are greater for cattle that drink from a source away from the pond than weight gains for that same group of cattle drinking the same water with direct access. Cattle can die in the pond, contribute excrement and basically cause the breakdown of the whole operation, costing you money and destroying a resource in the process.
Buffer strips are easy to install and will improve the wildlife habitat and aesthetics around any pond while serving to keep out silt and excess nutrients. Basically, the buffer is a strip of land, at least 50 feet wide, that’s planted with perennial grasses and trees. Most buffers are planted completely around a pond, but, at the very least, they need to be planted between the primary source of runoff and the pond itself. When working properly, buffer strips absorb runoff and, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, prevent up to 70 percent of sediment from entering the waterway. Further, some growth, grass or shrubbery, can provide an excellent place for wildlife to nest or seek refuge.
If you currently own a pond and there is no buffer strip, now’s the time to construct one. Check with your county extension or NRCS office for best practices in your area. If your pond was constructed with the embankment method, you’ll need a wider strip on the slope above the pond.
When farm ponds are managed properly and the health of the structure is maintained, recreational activities like fishing are a joyful byproduct, as was the case in my youth.
The key to fish production in farm ponds is maintaining a healthy phytoplankton and zooplankton, along with maintaining a proper balance among larger fish (such as bass, catfish, and crappie) and the smaller species (such as perch, sunfish, and blue gill). Both fencing and a buffer strip help with the first of those two. With the second, you need only fish the pond to understand species balance. It becomes a question of what to harvest and how much.
Smaller species function primarily as food for bass. If the bass have been over harvested, the smaller species become abundant and you’re left with a pond full of tiny fish that are of interest to nobody. If this happens, harvest some. After all, bluegills aren’t bad eating.
Alternatively, if you have an overpopulation of bass and not enough smaller fish, you’ll end up with a lot of slow-growing, skinny bass. Harvest some of those bass.
“That’s what we strive for when we talk about managing ponds or any lake, for that matter,” says Ron Marteney, fisheries research biologist and pond coordinator for the state of Kansas, “balancing that predator/prey relationship.
“You don’t need a biologist to tell you what is going on. If you’re catching all bass that are 12 inches or less, and you’re catching them on virtually every cast, you’ve got too many bass and you need to harvest some of those guys. If you go out there fishing and you can’t catch a bass but you can’t keep the little bluegill off your line, that means you probably don’t have enough bass, you’ve got too many bluegill. Pond management is really pretty easy; it’s just a matter of observation.”
All this, of course, stems from maintaining a healthy system. You do that at the basic level by fencing livestock out of the pond and limiting nutrient runoff with a buffer strip. Excessive runoff means excess phosphorus and nitrogen, which create algae blooms and fishkills, never mind that you don’t want to water your livestock with unhealthy water.
A little effort pays big dividends
Take a look at your pond several times a week and in every season to know its rhythms. Practice basic elements of management to keep nutrient loads in check. Then, sit back and enjoy one of the most precious resources out there. A healthy, properly functioning farm pond is a lasting investment that will provide water, habitat and recreation for generations to come.
I’m pleased to report that the memory of fishing with my brothers at our old pond may soon be a reality again. George and his brothers now farm and ranch that land, and they’ve installed a pipe and livestock tank at the pond. At our hallowed location, reverence for the landscape, another lesson learned, has been observed.
Assistant Editor Caleb Regan likes to leave his home in Lawrence, Kansas, behind on the weekends and enjoy the outdoors with his family in southeast Kansas.
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