Project Pond

From aquaculture and watering livestock to fishing and recreation, farm ponds can be practical, enjoyable and profitable.

by Rick Gush
PHOTO: sunrise soup/Flickr

What is a farm pond? Most of us imagine a tranquil body of blue water glistening in the sunlight with lunker bass swimming lazily beneath the surface while children cavort happily on a homemade raft.

But is this fantasy really why people build farm ponds?

The old-fashioned reasons for building a farm pond include irrigation, drinking water, erosion control and fire preparedness.

But times have changed for farmers, and so have the reasons for building ponds. Fire, irrigation, livestock watering and boats notwithstanding, the number-one reason farmers build ponds these days is that they want to raise fish.

Aquaculture is a legitimate business—and as thousands of farmers are discovering, there are plenty of crops that can be raised in or around ponds.

Farmers are known for being a practical lot, and most all small farmers who do own a pond would be interested in adding to the financial well being of the farm business.

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In that light, we’ve taken a brief tour of some of the many possibilities that exist for making use of a farm pond. While managing ponds for multiple use is difficult, in some cases the lunker bass and children on rafts might still fit into the equation.

Ponds Provide Water for Livestock

As every farmer knows, clean drinking water and quality forage are required to produce healthy livestock. For some farmers, ponds serve as reservoirs for animal drinking water.

When constructing a livestock pond, consider that most are entirely fenced. Fencing prevents animals from grazing stabilizing vegetation on the pond banks, dam and spillway, and thereby reduces erosion and sediment in the water. In order to water livestock, water from the fenced pond goes through a drainpipe and is gravity-fed to a stockwater tank on the property.

If a pond is constructed on flat land, a gravity-fed system may not be practical. Instead, these ponds can be partially fenced to allow only limited livestock access along one or two bank areas. In many instances the fence extends out into the pond basin, but doesn’t permit extensive wading by large numbers of animals.

In some situations, fencing a pond is not practical due to herd size, cost and maintenance. However, whenever possible, fence the pond’s most vulnerable areas (such as the dam and spillway).

The amount of water needed depends on the type of livestock you raise. For example, a dairy cow or horse each need approximately 15 gallons of water per day; sheep need 2 gallons; hogs need 4.

Water that is polluted from untreated sewage, pesticides and other chemicals, manure and urine leads to poor animal health and livestock losses. Contact your county extension agent or state water agency to arrange testing if poor water quality is suspected.

Fish-Out Operations Offer Fishing for a Fee

A good-looking pond tends to attract the attention of anglers: Some fishermen ask permission to fish on the pond, while others will sneak onto the property when they think nobody is looking.

A crafty farmer can take advantage of the situation by operating a commercial fishing operation on the pond, thereby turning the aquatic charisma into a source of income.

Fish-out operations are those in which customers pay an entry fee to fish well-stocked ponds. The customers also pay additional fees based on how many fish they catch.

Fish-out ponds:

  • are especially appealing to families with children because bites are plentiful.
  • have the potential to generate revenue, but they also require a high amount of management and initial costs.
  • offer operators a way to generate more income by selling drinks, food, bait and tackle than they earn from the entry fees and fish that are sold.

Day leasing is a less hectic way of making people pay to fish on your pond. The fish that anglers are going after in this situation are usually just the bass and bluegills that have grown naturally in the pond.

Day-fishing ponds tend to be at least an acre in size, and fees can range from $5 to $50 per day for ponds with really big bass.

Some pond owners with prize lunkers and catch-and-release programs report earning as much as $1,000 per day. Sometimes operators have fee campgrounds around the ponds, and the camping fees include fishing rights.

Plant Pond Crops for Food

There really are not any edible pond plant crops currently being grown in the United States, but there are some opportunities in shallow water agriculture. Rice and cranberries are both farmed in managed wetlands, and watercress and water chestnuts are popular food plants that are frequently cultivated for sale in the United States, usually in cold flowing water or as an alternate planting in flooded rice fields.

Wild rice may hold the most promise as a new crop, as it commands high prices as a gourmet and organically raised food. A wild rice and organic crawdad cropping system may not be the worst idea a pond farmer ever had.

Grow Landscaping Plants for Other Pond Owners

Small garden ponds continue to be a favorite among suburban homeowners, and pond farmers can easily find opportunities to raise horticultural crops to sell to this market. Water lilies, rushes, reeds, bog plants and water irises all seem to find a ready market among homeowners.

Retail customers are in need of both material and advice, and a farm pond owner could develop an active sideline by opening a pond plant nursery. Visiting a full-sized beautiful farm pond can inspire homeowners who are creating their own backyard ponds, and this inspiration can effectively open their wallets.

Grow Aquarium Plants

Pond farmers near a major metropolitan area may find a tremendous opportunity for raising aquarium plants. Planted aquariums are more beautiful and healthier, and the market for good aquarium plants is always high. Both rooted and floating plants are in demand, and even farmers in cold climates can raise considerable quantities of aquarium plants during the warm summer months.

Despite anacharis having pond-weed status, it is still highly valued in aquariums. Other pond pests such as duckweed and cabomba are also constant sellers in the aquarium industry, and many shoreline plants such as acorus are planted into tiny pots and sold as submersible aquarium plants. Any pond farmer should be able to come up with at least one or two aquarium plant species to package and sell as a profitable sideline.

Raise Fish for the Commercial Food Industry

The commercial food fish-raising business in the United States is fairly active and often very competitive.

While some experts have stated that 10 acres of ponds is probably the minimum required to raise catfish or bass profitably, others calculate that a farmer could raise 4,000 fish per acre of pond and earn between $6,000 and $10,000 per acre annually. A slightly smaller and potentially more profitable operation could possibly work for trout production if an abundant clean water supply was available.

Most of these modern pond systems are ecologically balanced, and fish waste becomes valuable fertilizer rather than a pollutant as unfortunately occurs in saltwater fish farming.

Channel catfish are the single most popular aquaculture fish in the United States due to their almost boneless meat and the fishes’ rapid growth and high tolerance of water temperature variations and crowding.

Trout, striped bass, and tilapia are other commonly raised freshwater edible fish, and all have experienced a dramatic increase in market demand and research studies concerning technology used to cultivate fish in the past decade.

Compared to chickens, fish are considerably more efficient meat producers, often yielding one pound of fish for one pound of fish feed.

Raise Fish For Aquariums

One other possibility for farm pond owners who like the idea of raising fish is to cultivate species that are popular in the aquarium-fish trade. Koi, for instance, will spawn quite well in a pond. One may be able to start with two older but less expensive parents, and start selecting young the first season. Koi are prolific when happy, and the sight of hundreds of youngsters swimming in golden swirls can make an enterprising farmer very happy.

Foreign cichlids and other tropicals are quite tempting, as a few good breeding seasons can produce tremendous revenue, but even Florida occasionally gets temperatures down in the freezing range, and this can be disastrous for a tropical fish pond operation.

Raise Fish for Other Pond Owners

Farm ponds are a big business these days, and everybody who has one seems to want to put more fish into it.

The market for fish to stock all these ponds is enormous, and growers who have good stock find many customers.

Bass, sunfish, grass carp, catfish and trout are the big five, and there is a perennially high demand for these fishes, regardless of the fact that many state agencies give them away for free to pond owners who qualify. (Usually it must be a new or otherwise uninhabited pond.)

Get Involved in Shrimp Farming

During the last 30 years the market for aquaculture shrimp has grown to become one quarter of the world’s supply of shrimp. Shrimp are now one of the darlings of the aquaculture industry.

Tropical area shrimp crops grow in three to four months, and produce yields of around one and a half tons per acre, even in the huge ponds and extremely casual conditions that exist now in Asia and the tropical Americas.

Although there are some great tasting coldwater shrimp, warm water does seem to be important, at least to the speed of growth and therefore profitability, and it is unlikely that massive shrimp farms will appear in Alaska soon. But still, the demand for this product is very strong, and smaller but more sophisticated subtropical ponds will surely be producing a significant amount of our shrimp in the future.

Consider Raising Frogs

There have always been a few persons in America who claimed to be frog farmers, but generally these individuals are merely harvesting frogs that grow naturally on their property.

Fencing to exclude predators, and stocking a few tadpoles may have helped things along, but the frogs have always been left to take care of themselves.

The biggest problem with a potential frog-raising operation is that food-quality bullfrogs are slow growers, and take about four years to reach market size. They are also quite cannibalistic, and eat their own young readily.

Frog farms also need to be huge because a bullfrog generally needs at least 20 feet of shoreline as exclusive territory in order to thrive. Finally, the diet of adult bullfrogs is limited to live prey, and pellets just won’t do as frog food.

The Crawdad Market Could be For You

Someday, some enterprising farmer is going to figure out that there could be a market for crawdads outside of Louisiana and Texas.

The farmer will probably have to come up with a new name, something like Happy Shrimp, and he’ll have to do a little adventurous marketing. But there is absolutely no good reason why the rest of the country should not enjoy these delicious crustaceans.

Most of the crawdads currently raised for food in the United States are grown in the southern states, where they are cultivated in rice fields as an additional crop.

Crawdads are omnivores, and quite happily eat the rice crop residues that are left behind. In general, fields are drained during the summer to encourage weed and leftover crop growth, and then re-flooded in the fall. Crawdads bury themselves in the mud during the summer dry season and emerge when the fields are flooded.

Use Your Pond to Grow Baitfish

In areas close to active fishing spots, pond farmers may want to consider raising baitfish.

The three most common are fathead minnows, goldfish and golden shiners. All three species reproduce prolifically, grow quickly, and do not require any complicated farming methods. These fish can also be sold to pond owners who wish to fatten their trophy bass.

There are over 16,000 baitfish-raising operations in the United States today. They average 44 acres in size and raise an average of 22,000 pounds of fish per year. That adds up to over 35 million pounds of baitfish per year, which means there are a lot of people fishing in America!

Provide Picnic and Swimming Areas for a Fee

Farm ponds look quite inviting on a hot summer day, and pond owners can often take advantage of this by opening the pond for swimming during the hot months. Rafts for teenagers to gather on, lessons for the younger set, and swimming lanes for the exercise conscious all help to draw customers. Sunbathing is always popular, and a few enterprising pond operators have installed rope pulley systems that drag water skiers around a part of the lake.

The beauty of the pond setting can be easily leveraged to create a commercial picnic spot. Often rented out for group events, such locations can also benefit by operating concessions stands and offering group activity areas such as horseshoe pits, ping-pong tables, volleyball courts, bandstands, dance floors and informal theaters.

Set Up a Boat Rental Business

There is really very little in this world more enjoyable than tooling around in a boat. Creative pond owners have a world of diverse opportunities with which to amuse and attract potential customers.

Fishing boats, paddleboats, sail boats, sailing schools, water-safety schools, glass-bottomed boats, houseboats, kayaks and canoes, windsurfing, and romantic rowboat rentals are just some of the many different types of boat operations that could conceivably be added to a farm pond’s business.

For owners interested in expanding their pond business to include public recreation, legal liabilities and insurance premiums are big considerations.

Tips for Pond Maintenance

Pond maintenance varies from one pond to the next, and may include vigorous weed removal or adding alum to flocculate and clear up muddy water.

Some pond owners have problems with turtles eating their fish and manage an active turtle-trapping program. Many pond owners cull their fish populations frequently, catching and releasing the prize specimens, but taking out the undersized fish so the big guys will have more food and space to grow even larger.

The single most important management task is maintaining an aeration system. Although fountains that spray water into the air might look nice, they are in fact much less efficient as oxygenating devices than bubblers placed on the pond bottom.

Pond water that is well aerated is much more active chemically, and has the capacity to cleanse itself of toxic materials that result from animal waste accumulation and dead plant material degradation. In general, aerator bubblers are best positioned in the deepest part of the pond, and just one bubbler may suffice for a half-acre pond.

Farm Pond Security

Here are some tips to help you keep your pond protected and secure.

Dam Height – The legal height of dams is always regulated. Homeowners cannot build 30-foot high dirt dams, because those dams would just be too dangerous. Before starting construction, it is absolutely imperative to find out what the dam construction regulations are in your area.

Drownings – Unfortunately, farm ponds contribute to accidental drownings. Children are the most frequent victims of the majority of farm-pond drownings, but inebriated young adults are common victims as well. All farm ponds used for swimming should have a prominent rescue post with a life preserver.

Water Quality – Not all farm ponds are suitable for swimming. If the water is cloudy, has a foul odor or excess algae, it may contain infectious agents or be somehow contaminated. Ponds used for swimming should be analyzed for bacteria and other contaminants during the swimming season.

Winter Safety – Winter drowning victims may fall through thin ice and be unable to pull themselves to safety. Hypothermia can be a problem for anyone who falls into a winter pond, and should be treated quickly.

Unwanted Visitors – Farm ponds are sometimes trouble magnets because they are so attractive to unwanted visitors. Well-fenced and posted ponds, with resident owners who patrol frequently, are less likely to have trouble, vandalism and trash problems.

Troubleshooting Pond Problems

As much as it might seem that ponds are made by simply building a dam, in reality they aren’t so easy to build. Ponds are complex ecosystems, so leaks, algae plagues and stunted fish are common among amateur pond builders. Hiring a professional pond builder is definitely the best way to ensure a satisfactory result.

One of the most frequent pond problems starts with the arrival of a few Canada geese. These majestic looking birds instantly make a new pond look more natural and lived in.

Unfortunately, the geese often return again and again, and as their population increases, so does the incredible mess they cause. A dozen geese will each produce a pound and a half of droppings every day. That’s almost a half-ton of smelly sticky material deposited along the shoreline of your new pond every year. As cute as these geese are, smart pond owners will let their dogs chase them away.

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