Ponds on the Prairie: Preserving Water Quality

By: Woody Woodruff.

When you think of a farm pond you think of catching fish or jumping in for a refreshing swim. Who doesn’t like reeling in a large mouth bass or cooling off in the water on a hot summer day. If you think that these activities can happen without monitoring and management then you need to ask the land owner with a pond if a healthy aquatic ecosystem “just happens.” A pond that has no protection around it or is not managed well can be easily spotted. It is usually so mossy or so grown up with aquatic vegetation that you can’t even reach the water with your bait.  The farm that I am blessed to live on has ponds, streams, and wells that support life in many ways, and these small bodies of water have heightened my concern for water quality issues. Growing up on this land, farming it, and working in agricultural conservation has given me what seems to be a different perspective on what has been important in protecting our natural resources. For most of my friends and co-workers food and food production has been the number one priority in managing a sustainable life. For me, and possibly because of the amount of water that I wanted to protect on my farm, I see things a little differently. You can make it a little longer without food than you can without water. This is something that I learned to deal with working in the Sahara Region of Africa during my Peace Corps days. Some days, the temperature was so hot you literally had mere hours before you would dehydrate without drinking more water. And water quality was something that you had to deal with daily when you filtered and treated your drinking water each day.  But the importance of water should not be reserved for the Sahara. The need for fresh water affects us all, and farmers are at the front line of those people who have the greatest impact on water quality.

Woody's Swimming Hole

Woody’s Swimming Hole

A pond is a good indicator of its environment. What flows into a pond helps in determining what grows in that pond. If soil is washing into a pond the life of that pond will not last long. Fish need at least 8 feet of water depth to survive the winter ice. Heavy soil erosion will cut the life of a ponds fish population as it continues to fill in. If soil erosion is entering the pond then nutrients are coming with it. Phosphorus is closely linked to soil erosion. Nitrogen is tied closer to water run-off and leaching. Both of these nutrients stimulate algae growth and often times algae can create health problems for the people and animals using the pond. We are seeing more and more cases of contaminated drinking water sources and we are taking for granted the clean drinking water that still does exist. It is a cause for serious concern.

water quality infographic

So what can be done to protect our water sources? On my own farm over the years I have adopted several different practices that collectively have added to the protection of water held on and flowing through the farm. Continuous CRP sign-up activities like filter strips, riparian buffers, waterways, and field boarders have helped to filter and catch most of the soil and nutrients leaving the fields. Changing to a conservation cropping system of no-till has helped to hold the soil in place. With a good cropping rotation and the addition of cover crops I am now working to add to the soils health to better absorb the rains that fall, which in turn, will be held for growing crops. Also, when you apply your nutrients, how you apply, what type of products you use, the time of application, and the amount of rain that follows that application are all further factors that affect the soils ability to successfully hold those nutrients for the targeted crops.My farm ponds have been key in monitoring the successes and failures of each practice that I have adapted. My first pond has the best of situations in its watershed. All the ground that flows into the pond is in a permanent tall grass prairie. There is virtually no soil run-off into this pond. I do see some algae growth after rains but never to a degree that would cause alarm. It seems that more and more nitrogen has been pulled into the nitrogen cycle, captured by the soils and plant roots instead of running-off into the pond. The only other source of nutrient flow into the pond is from the ash following the prairie burn in the spring. That pond, with the right kind of fish, stays nearly crystal clear.

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Crystal clear waters in Woody’s East Pond

The other pond has a different watershed that is being farmed by me alone and no other farms drain into the pond. This has been a good pond to test the effectiveness of the different practices that I have added to my farming system.  The one thing that I have learned is the longer I leave my nutrient application on the ground without being utilized by a crop, the greater the percentage of loss that I can plan on happening. It shows up in the pond for me to see. The loss might have happened over time but when the water in the pond starts to warm up in the spring the amount of algae in the pond tells me what kind of losses I have received.  I am now testing the effectiveness of one application of manure across three years. I first applied it into a stand of cover crops after wheat. I use a six species mix of cover crops from annual rye grass to clovers and radishes. I rotate into corn the following year using cereal rye, crimson clover and radishes after harvest to carry over the nutrients for the next year’s soybean crop. I finish the use of my one application of manure for three crops over three years with the planting of wheat after my soybeans. I do add starter nitrogen to my wheat in the spring, but the wheat should be able to use it right away.

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Woody’s West Pond

Mother Nature has a way of testing everything that we do to protect ourselves from losses. I have to question if we all should be doing more with less if the current system that we live in is having issues with the amount  and quality of fresh water. As our population continues to grow and weather extremes continue to increase, efficiency becomes paramount. Let’s not pass the problem onto the next generation. Let’s start today to make steps to be part of the solution.