Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Farm Ponds
Nature Bulletin No. 410-A   March 13, 1971
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Since colonial times, farmers have been scooping out reservoirs or damming small watercourses to impound water for their livestock or satisfy a hankering for a private fishing hole. Such a pond was usually too shallow and was rarely fenced. In hot weather, cattle stood belly- deep in the water and hogs wallowed in the shallows. The shores were trampled bare of vegetation. It served as a swimming place for a flock of tame ducks and the youngsters of the family but, other than bullheads, a few fish could live in it.

In most cases the dam was made of earth dug with a team and "slip scraper" to deepen the hole, without a proper spillway for the overflow during heavy rains. As a result, or because of holes tunneled through them by muskrats and crawfish, these dams eventually washed out. A number of them in our Palos preserves, built by early settlers, have been enlarged, provided with adequate spillways, and serve as harbors for fish and wildlife.

The modern multiple-use farm pond has become one of the most useful as well as enjoyable features of rural life. Livestock is fenced out and water for them is piped through the dam to a tank below. Especially when surrounded by a few trees, shrubbery and grasses, these ponds are attractive and provide recreation such as fishing, swimming, skating and picnicking. They also attract songbirds, game birds, waterfowl and wild animals. A farm boy may add to his "spending money" by trapping a few muskrats or a mink. Over a large part of the country these miniature lakes furnish much-needed water for spraying orchards, sprinkling lawns and gardens, and fire protection.

Most multiple-use ponds have been built during the past 15 or 20 years. Their construction was stimulated, mainly, through a cooperative program of farm planning for soil and water conservation conducted by the U. S. Soil Conservation Service. In 1914, "a pond for every farm" was being urged in Kansas. Now the departments of agriculture and conservation in many states are likewise advising farmers how to build and manage ponds, and supplying them with fish. Some of the 102 counties in Illinois have as many as 800 ponds in each. Indiana farmers are said to be building them at the rate of a thousand a year and in some states, such as Missouri, the number is even greater.

Most farmers can do the work themselves with their own equipment or some help from the neighbors, on land which otherwise has little or no value. Fortunately, most of Illinois and many other states have tight subsoils, such as clay, suited for holding water and making watertight dams. Typical ponds range in size from less than an acre up to 2 or 3 acres. In regions like ours, with adequate rainfall, about 10 acres of watershed are needed to supply each acre of pond. With less than 5 acres the pond is apt to dry up in times of drought. With more than 25 acres, an expensive spillway is needed to handle the overflow in periods of heavy rainfall.

In Illinois, depending on conditions including the soil fertility of the watershed, the kinds of fish and the depth of water, such ponds can support from 100 to 1000 pounds of fish per acre of water. The higher poundages occur when most of the fish are carp, buffalo, or suckers, which are not easily caught by hook and line. These should be removed. Bluegills and largemouth bass make the best combination for hook-and- line fishing, yielding perhaps 100 pounds per acre -- more than can be taken out by anglers. The surplus crop should be harvested each year with nets or by draining the pond.

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