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Wildlife & Fisheries Extension

Farm Pond Management

Introduction   |   Managing Fish   |    Liming   |   Fertilization   |   Feeding Fish   |   Calendar   |   Drawdown   |   Calculations   |   Balance Key



Click here for a printable version of this publication: Fertilizing Mississippi Farm Ponds

Just like many gardens in Mississippi, some ponds can benefit from the occasional addition of agricultural limestone. This is true for ponds that have an alkalinity less than 20 ppm. Ponds with low alkalinity are unproductive, even when sufficient nutrients are in the water either naturally or because the pond is fertilized. Fertilizing a pond with alkalinity less than 20 ppm is a waste of time and money.

What is alkalinity?


Alkalinity is the measure of the buffering capacity of the water. In waters with low alkalinity, pH might fluctuate from 6 or lower to as high as 10 or above every day, which can make fish sick or grow slowly. Alkalinity is related to hardness, so soft water (low hardness) usually has low alklalinity.

What is the recommended alkalinity?

For fish production and health, alkalinity of at least 20 ppm is recommended. Greater production in bass-bluegill ponds is attained in high alkalinity waters because this buffering capacity makes phosphorus and other essential nutrients more available to the algae. Also, fish are stressed by extremes in pH and by rapid changes in pH and tend to grow more slowly and be more susceptible to illness when alkalinity is low. After oxygen, poor water chemistry is the next most common cause of fish kills in ponds. When alkalinity is very low, stressed fish may die during weather changes and rain events, with a few fish of all species dying each day. A pH value between 6.5 and 9.0 is optimum for fish ponds.

Alkalinity testing kits are widely available at many pool and spa stores and at county agriculture county MSU Extension officesor NRCS Service Centers can test water alkalinity.

Note: When treating algae using a copper containing compound, a minimum alkalinity of 50 ppm is required to prevent copper toxicity that may kill fish.

What if the alkalinity is less than 20 ppm?

For ponds with alkalinity less than 20 ppm, pond health can be substantially improved by increasing alkalinity. The most common method of increasing alkalinity in waters is by adding agricultural limestone (calcium carbonate). Adding lime to these ponds elevates alkalinity and increases pH in the water. Neutralization of bottom soil with lime prevents phosphate from adhering to it, thereby increasing phosphorus concentrations in the water (the primary nutrient in ponds). As a result of these changes in water quality, phytoplankton blooms develop, and pH fluctuates less.

If a pond has a high rate of water flow in and out, liming may not be a solution. Such a pond has a low water retention time, and the lime washes out quickly.

Soil Testing


If you are building a new pond, have the MSU Extension Soil Testing Laboratory test the soil to determine how much lime is needed before filling the pond. Soil sample boxes, instructions, and information sheets are available at your county Extension office.

Here is how to sample pond soils:

  • If pond is larger than 3 acres, partition the pond into 3-acre blocks, and sample each block separately. (If the pond is less than 3 acres, collect three samples per acre.)
  • Collect about a pint of soil from each of ten locations per block.
  • Thoroughly mix the ten samples together in a bucket.
  • Take one sample from the mixture and air-dry. Place this sample in a soil sample box and submit to the MSU Extension Soil Testing Laboratory. Be sure to indicate in the “crop grown?” window on the submission form that this sample is for a farm pond (Code 50).
  • Repeat this procedure for each 3-acre block in the pond. The sample will be analyzed, and you will receive a report indicating if your pond needs lime and how much to apply. Important note: this liming recommendation will need to be adjusted based on the agricultural limestone available in your area.

    The soil analysis report from the State Soil Testing Laboratory will provide a liming recommendation in tons per acre. However, this recommendation is for pure calcium carbonate, which is 100% active. Commercial liming materials vary in their ability to neutralize soil due to chemistry and particle size.

    The neutralizing value (NV) depends on the chemical itself. Pure calcium carbonate has an NV of 100. Agricultural limestone may have NV values between 85 and 109 depending on its specific chemical composition.

    The neutralizing efficiency (NE) of agricultural limestone depends on the fineness of the mixture. Finely crushed agricultural limestone contains different sizes of particles. Small particles dissolve more quickly and completely and are more reactive than larger particles.

    The liming requirement (from the soil test), NV, and NE (ask limestone distributor for both values) can be used to calculate the precise amount of lime needed as shown below. If either of these values are not available, use NV = 0.85 and NE = 0.75 as a conservative estimate.

    Tons needed = Liming Requirement
    (NV x NE)
    Multiply this value by the surface acreage of water to get total lime requirement

To collect a soil sample from a pond containing water, use a tin can nailed perpendicular on a long stick (depends on pond depth) or a long PVC pipe to collect bottom mud. Use an S-shaped pattern to collect samples as described above.

Ponds in the Delta generally do not need additional lime, and ponds in the Black Belt and thick and thin loess soils need only small amounts. Ponds in the red clay hills of north and central Mississippi usually need 2 tons of lime per acre, and the sandy soils of South Mississippi usually need from 2 to 3 tons of lime per acre.

Liming Agents

Only agricultural limestone should be used for existing ponds with fish populations. This is the same form of lime farmers use on their crop and pasture land. You can buy it in bulk or bag form. Never use quicklime, hydrated lime, slaked lime, builder’s lime, or other more potent liming agents! These other forms are different chemical compounds that are very caustic and may kill fish.

When to Apply

It is best to lime the pond in fall or winter at least 2 months before the growing season. Liming a pond in the spring increases pH, removes soluble phosphorus, and reduces free carbon dioxide. This affects the productivity of the pond. By liming the pond in the fall or winter, it has time to equilibrate before the growing season.

Lime Application

It is easiest to apply lime when the pond is dry. For the lime to be effective, spread it evenly over the entire pond bottom. To accomplish this, a spreader truck or tractor spreader can be driven along the pond bottom, or the lime can be spread by hand. It is not necessary to disc the lime into the soil, but this accelerates its neutralizing activity.

It is more difficult to apply lime in ponds that are full of water, but this is more often when ponds are limed. The lime needs to be spread across the entire pond surface as evenly as possible. Remember, you are liming the soil, not the water! For small ponds (less than 1 acre), it may be possible to back the spreader truck up to the pond in several locations and broadcast the lime. For larger ponds, it will be necessary to load the lime onto a boat or barge and then shovel or wash the lime uniformly into the pond.

If you have one or two jonboats, you can make a simple liming barge. One boat works well but cannot handle very much lime at a time. Two boats tied together is best, because these boats can handle more lime per trip. Attach a large sheet of heavy plywood (½ inch or larger) across the bow of the boat(s), and load a safe amount of lime. You can shovel the lime across the pond or use a spray washer. Using a standard water or trash pump, pull water from the pond and spray across the lime pile, washing it into the pond.

A lime treatment usually lasts from 2 to 5 years, depending on how much water flows through the pond and how acidic the bottom soils are. A method that usually works well is to apply the lime the soil testing report calls for, then apply a fourth that amount each year to be sure the lime requirement continues to be satisfied.