The time it takes to develop a healthy fish population in a farm pond is directly related to pond fertility.
Ponds are a staple of the farm landscape. Many have a primary purpose of watering livestock or providing irrigation for crops, but they can easily double as high-quality fisheries with proper construction and management. Nothing is more “country” than a lazy afternoon of fishing on the farm. It’s fun for young and old, and a farm pond full of fish provides the added benefit of farm-raised food for the table.
Managing an existing farm pond or creating the right pond is the key to years of enjoyment. On the other hand, poor pond construction or the wrong pond choice can not only be frustrating, but it can quickly become a money pit.
Preparing for a Farm Pond
Look for some basic features to turn an existing farm pond into a fish pond. The pond should be at least 1 acre in size. Smaller ponds can work, but pose some difficulties in managing the fish population.
Fish ponds should be at least 6 feet deep, but no more than 12 to 15 feet deep. The water level should have a mechanism of control, such as a sleeved standpipe fitted with a cut-off valve at the bottom. The pipe and cut-off valve control water levels by allowing you to remove lower, unoxygenated water.
Finally, look for obvious problems, including inconsistent pond water levels, leaks in dams, or extensive vegetation in the pond, such as algae, cattails or phragmites. Depending on the severity of the problem, it might be better to start anew, rather than try to fix an old pond problem, especially if it involves your dam or basin.
Whether evaluating an existing farm pond or building a new one, focus on the pond’s location. Farm sites should be evaluated from two perspectives: ability to support a pond and safety should a dam fail.
Kerry Prather, a fisheries biologist with more than 20 years’ experience and owner of Bluegrass Lake Management, LLC, recommends finding a site that has a strong clay base with 12 acres of watershed—the area of land where all of the water under it or draining off of it goes—per acre of pond. Starting with these parameters yields a pond resistant to leaks and establishes a source of water that keeps your pond in balance. Having too much water can increase sedimentation, introduce pollutants at higher rates and strain dams. Of course, having too little water creates problems with maintaining water depth, which can lead to vegetation encroachment, poor fish growth and oxygen depletion.
Paying close attention to the pond’s watershed is critically important. The best watersheds are dominated by trees or grasses. Pond vegetation provides an outstanding filter, so pollutants, like nutrients from fertilizers, manure, pesticides and sediment, are minimized. Row crops on the surrounding site will introduce pollutants and sediments; however, their effects can be mitigated if source waterways are planted in vegetation and row-crop fields are buffered by vegetation. Nutrients are important to a pond for promoting strong fish growth, but a well-managed fertilizing regimen is better than attempting to eliminate excessive nutrients from the source watershed.
Finally, don’t ignore other landscape features that may bring unwanted problems to your pond. Look for pollution sources like sewers, storage tanks and even other bodies of water. Ponds and rivers that flood can bring unwanted materials—most commonly, unwanted fish species—to your fishing hole.
Pond and the Farm Landscape
We’ve focused extensively on what comes into your farm pond, but ignoring the outlet could be catastrophic. A pond is a man-made body of water held by a dam. Dams can leak, deteriorate and fail. A wave of water can be a destructive force, so be cautious about what’s downstream. Roads, homes, railroad tracks and barns, to mention a few structures, should be avoided below any new pond construction.
Dams are the backbone of a farm pond. The Natural Resources Conservation Service recommends your farm pond be situated where the maximum volume of water can be maintained with the least amount of soil movement. Take advantage of nature bowls so dams are not as large. Clay should be the predominant soil on the farm pond site. It can be used to create your levee, dam core and seal for your farm pond’s basin. The basin should decline rapidly to a depth of 2 or 3 feet along the pond edge. This helps control pond vegetation problems and improves fishing. Include a drain that gives you control of the water level, including total pond drainage.
This dam is holding back a large volume of water, so include experts in your pond’s construction. They can help determine spillway needs, design your drain pipes and make sure your pond fits your watershed. Seek professionals from companies with extensive experience in pond construction or agencies such as NRCS or state fish and wildlife agencies.
If you’re building a farm pond from scratch, clearly define the role of the pond on your farm. This will give you the opportunity to manage the outflow of your pond during construction for other purposes.
Drain pipes can be installed to fill livestock tanks. You can also grant livestock access to your ponds through fencing, but it’s highly recommended to use a drain pipe from your pond to fill a tank instead of allowing them access to the banks. Keeping hooves out of the pond minimizes soil particles in the water column and keeps out animal waste.
A fence should be installed roughly 60 feet around the pond’s perimeter. Plant the area within the fence with shrubs and grasses that benefit wildlife, and you’ll attract more critters to your farm and provide a natural filter for your pond. This vegetative buffer will help filter water coming into the pond, controlling excessive nutrients and other pollutants.
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