Pond Management for Livestock


Using ponds as a water source for livestock requires management.

There are thousands of ponds throughout the Midwest with over 90,000 in Illinois alone. Many have been holding water for numerous years, some have had the dams cut out and are mostly empty, while others are relatively new having been built near new homes. Ponds are valued by landowners because they can serve several functions from collection points for runoff and sediment, recreation such as fishing, habitat for fish and wildlife, and livestock water. There are a few considerations when using ponds as water sources for livestock, especially cattle.



Pond Requirements

Ponds need to be free from chemical impurities that may affect cattle health and free of pathogens as much as possible. Maintained and well-built ponds will have a functioning spillway and vegetative watershed – the area of drainage flowing into the pond. Longevity of ponds and their usefulness will be determined by how the watershed is maintained. Maintaining vegetative cover to minimize bare soil and soil erosion also will minimize sediment that ends up in the pond. The watershed should be properly grazed to order to prevent soil erosion and maintain desirable plants for livestock and wildlife.


In addition to maintaining the watershed, dams should be free of woody plants and burrowing animals such as beaver, muskrat, and armadillos must be managed. Yes, armadillos have been observed in Illinois. While mainly observed on the west side of the state wreaking havoc on dams and levees (they have been observed as far north as the Quincy area), a few have even been observed at the Dixon Springs Ag Station. Burrowing animals will dig into the dam which may cause a breach during high water with subsequent wash out.

Depending on how you intend to use your pond (livestock, fishing, etc.) several decisions should be made and if you intend to use the pond for livestock, then there are additional considerations. You can either allow livestock free access, limited-access watering point, or gravity-flow waterer.

If livestock are allowed to drink from the ponds when and wherever they like, they will contaminate the water and could transmit disease or parasites to other animals and even people. When livestock defecate in ponds, algae and weed growth ensues that ruins water quality. Loafing in and/or around ponds can lead to diseases like leptospirosis (which causes abortions) and coccidiosis (may cause acute diarrhea, weight loss and the death of animals), or foot rot due to hoof softening. In addition, cattle walking in the pond will increase water turbidity thus reducing the oxygen content of the water for fish. Livestock will also damage vegetation on banks, which helps filter sediments, and ultimately the banks, which is costly to repair. Ultimately the life span of the pond will be reduced with unlimited access.

Livestock can be restricted to a limited area for water access. Basically, fencing is installed around the pond to keep livestock out of the pond except at one access point. Livestock take turns entering and drinking according to herd dominance. Since traffic will be heavy at the access point you will need to install geotextile with 6- to 12-inch layer of rock with gravel on top. To ensure good footing install the geotextile and rock at moderate slope (approximately 30%) with angular gravel. The access point should also reach far enough into the pond so that a minimum water depth of 5 feet at the end of the slope is always maintained. The gravel is uncomfortable to stand on for prolonged periods of time and will discourage cattle from lingering too long. By installing the gravel and rock, the integrity of the pond bottom will also be maintained and reduce water turbidity. A width of 20 feet for a small herd and 40 feet for up to 200 head is recommended. A floating fence can be constructed using light-weight livestock panels or PVC pipe (two-inch is commonly used), or polywire attached to floating posts to ensure livestock exit after they have consumed their fill.

Several options are available to draw water for livestock from ponds while keeping the livestock out, especially if you want to use the pond for recreation. Pond ­watering devices are cost­ effective, relatively easy to install and low maintenance. Virtually any watering device can be connected to a pond outlet or modified to reliably provide water to livestock. Gravity will fill stock tanks, tire tanks, freeze­proof tanks and concrete tanks from ponds. Ponds are ideal to gravity fill tanks as they sit on a slight slope. Keep in mind that since gravity is being used to fill the tanks with low pressure, larger pipes will be required to refill the tanks at the required rate. An adequate slope must be maintained to keep water flowing otherwise air pockets may form and prevent water flow. If gravity flow is not an option, a pump can be used to move the water. There are numerous types of power sources (wind, solar, wind powered air pressure system, windmill, water powered pump) and pumps available. Each have advantages as well as disadvantages.

Ponds are great sources of water in remote pastures. Each design will have advantages and disadvantages. It is important to consider the number of cattle that will be in the field as estimate water consumption to ensure sufficient water flow, tank space, etc. Keeping livestock out of ponds can improve overall water quality while reducing the risk for transmission of diseases and parasites.

This article also appeared in Mid-America Farmer Grower, May 11, 2020.

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