Turn a farm pond into a wildlife asset

Landowners spend considerable time and resources annually managing food plots and enhancing wooded areas on their properties to improve wildlife habitat and hunting opportunities. One often overlooked aspect of a well-rounded habitat is a constant source of clean water.

Without a stream or waterway to provide a year-long source of water, the next best option is a pond or lake. Some landowners are fortunate and already have a pond on their property. How healthy, though, is that pond?

Ponds on older farms may have seen minimal care. Many were used for livestock and often exhibit erosion and silting. Ponds can become shallow, no longer providing good habitat for fish or other aquatic animals. Shallow ponds can also go dry during drought conditions, forcing wildlife to seek water elsewhere.

With an old pond, the first step in creating a healthy ecosystem is determining its depth. If the whole pond is shallow, the best course of action is to bring in a professional track hoe or dozer operator to drain the remaining water by cutting the levee and cleaning out the pond. Look for contractors who specialize in pond building and restoration. Fellow landowners, local and state farm services and conservation agencies, or offices of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service can help you find qualified equipment operators or identify programs to help with improvements. Private companies that specialize in property management can also help you develop plans to manage resources and wildlife on your farm. The investment can be money well-spent in the long run.

Once the pond is drained and the bottom is dry, this is a good time to add structure or other improvements, such as a dock, before repairing the levee. It is also a good time to plant something like millet or other vegetation beneficial to waterfowl, if that is an interest.

Fence the pond to keep livestock out. A pipe system through the levee or other water-control structure can be installed during this rehabilitation to provide water for livestock. If that isn’t feasible, then pumping water from the pond to a tank is another good option.

If you want or need livestock to have direct access to the pond, leave just a small corner unfenced. Livestock given full access to a pond will trample vegetation, causing erosion, which raises water turbidity, or muddiness. Direct access by livestock also increases nitrogen levels due to the animals’ waste. This can lead to algae blooms and fish kills. Plant durable riparian grasses and other vegetation around the perimeter of your pond to prevent erosion and to filter runoff from rainwater.

A wire fence will exclude stock such as cattle and horses, while still allowing deer, turkeys and other smaller wildlife to easily go over or under the fence to access the pond. If using wire, consider a four-strand fence with the top and bottom wires being smooth and the middle two of barbed wire. The barbed wire helps keep livestock out, and the smooth wires are safer for wildlife going under or over the fence. Board or split rail fences are also effective and more esthetically pleasing, but generally are much higher in cost. A good rule of thumb is to have your fence about 42 inches high, with the bottom wire 16 inches from the ground to make it easier for wildlife to cross.

A properly constructed and maintained pond can add value to your property, while providing years of recreation and enjoyment, creating a clean, year-round water source for both livestock and wildlife.

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