Barley Straw Bales for Pond Management

How long do you leave barley straw in a pond for algae management?

How long do you leave barley straw in the pond for algae management?

There appears to be some confusion about the use of barley straw to retard the growth of algae in ponds.  Some users have been directed to leave it in 60 days and then take it out.  Others were told it is only good for about a month. What is the real story?

Since I have probably sold more straw to more customers than anyone out there and have probably received more feedback on what works, I feel comfortable to advice on this subject.  Here’s the deal.  Put the straw in the pond any time of year and LEAVE IT THERE UNTIL ITS GONE. It the decomposition bacteria feeding on the straw that makes it work.  As long as there is straw there, it is working or will work as long as the water is or again warms to above about 45 degrees.  If after a period of effectiveness and while the water is still warm, if the algae begin to re-surge, you can add new straw to the pond.  But do not take out the old.  Even when the volume of the old straw diminishes, leave it in as it is well inoculated with the beneficial bacteria.  And, yes, it is recommended to leave it in over the winter as it will reactivate again in the spring when the water warms up.

Should I overwinter pond barley straw?

Overwinter pond barley straw below the ice.

Another question I get a lot during the winter months is this: If I leave my barley straw in my pond over the winter, will it still be good in the spring?

Yes! The bacterial cultures that make Barley straw effective will again become active as soon as the water warms up to above 40 or 50 degrees. Like all other processes in the pond, biological activity that occurs with barley straw slows down in the winter and regains efficiency with the coming of spring.

However, there’s a catch. With the increase in temperature, sometimes algae can grow faster than Barley Straw is able to keep up with. So although it may seem like your over-wintered straw is losing its functionality, it is really just being overwhelmed by a temporary algal growth. But this is not entirely a bad thing. Many fish and other aquatic creatures rely upon this initial flush of vegetation as their first post-hibernation food source, like a spring tonic. Unfortunately, as the season progresses, they will abandon this source in favor of better, more nutritious food. Finally, once water temperatures regularly exceed 50 degrees, bacterial growth will begin to take over and the algae will once again remain in submission.

Algae is growing ON my barley straw. What’s wrong?

If there is algae growing ON your barley straw, something is amiss.

Barley straw is added to ponds to retard the growth of algae.  So, it definitely should not be growing ON the barley straw.  What gives?

I get a few of these inquiries each spring. Barley straw that is well colonized by beneficial bacteria will greatly retard the growth of algae in the water surrounding the straw and there should be no algae growing on the straw itself.  If there is, something is definitely out of whack.

What can cause this failure?

The number one reason for this in the spring time is that the water has just warmed to the 40 to 45 degrees range, warm enough for the algae to start growing but not warm enough for the bacteria to develop sufficiently to block growth.  This problem will take care of itself once the water temperatures stabilize over 50 degrees.  So, patience here is the best cure.

The second most common reason is that the water does not have enough carbonate to support a thriving population of the beneficial bacteria.  The water is too ‘soft’.   This is a common problem on the East Coast and up in mountainous regions.  This is easy to check for and easy to fix.  If you suspect this is the problem, test your pond water for ‘Total Alkalinity’ using our Microbe-lift 5 in 1 Test Kits. If the level is below 100 mg/l, supplemental total alkalinity is needed.  See my blog on correcting Total Alkalinity if this is the issue.

The third most common reason in small backyard ponds is that the water has been allowed to concentrate nitrate to such a degree that no amount barley straw will work.  To check this, use either our Microbe-lift 5 in 1 Test Kit or our Microbe-lift Nitrate Test Kit. Test in the morning and afternoon over a period of several days. If your levels are consistently over 5 mg/l, you really need to lower your nitrate level.  This can most easily be done by doing one or more water changes.

The last possibility is that the pond has been dosed with chemicals that have killed off the beneficial bacteria which need to colonize the straw (as well as your bio filter).  Review your pond management practices and stop using chemicals.

Barley Straw, Barley Straw Pellets, and Barley Straw Extract: Which is best for my pond?

So much barley, which to use on my pond?

These are three great natural products and each has its place.  All are completely safe to use in ponds populated by fish, frogs, dogs, kids, livestock, aquatic plants, etc.:

o   Pluses: In most of the country, bales need only be replaced once a year; in tropical Florida and the Southwest they may need replacement every 6 to 8 months.

o   Minuses: The down side is they are chunky and hard to hide in the pond and need hard water to work optimally.   It’s not that they don’t sink with time, but that they are going to be visible at the surface for several weeks until they get wetted enough to sink.  And yes, a little straw residue is bound to flow off and clutter up the pond surface, again until they sink.  If your heart is set on natural straw bales but you need them invisible from day one, as the National Park Service does with our bales, you can wrap them in plastic mesh and weigh each one down with a 100 lb. of granite or other weights.  Yes they’re that buoyant at first.  If you can be patient, they will sink on their own in time.  As with all biological (bacteria dependent) treatments, they take several weeks to begin to work and do best when the water has at least 100 mg/l of total alkalinity.

o   Costs: In most areas, you can treat an acre pond for under $300 for the entire year. A six pack of bales, enough to treat an acre pond of any depth, including shipping anywhere in the Eastern and Central Time Zones is $225, or with bags included $260.  Add $10 per bale for shipping to the Mountain and Pacific Time Zone.

  • Barley Straw Pellets are less obtrusive looking but are more expensive, need replacing more often, and are pickier about where they will work.

o   Pluses: Barley Straw Pellets come in 25 lb. buckets and 40 lb. bags.  To apply, just walk around the pond and broadcast them over the shallows, or spread from a small boat.  They do sink immediately.  They are less expensive to use than Barley Straw Extract but more expensive than natural barley straw.

o   Minuses: Barley Straw Pellets, as with all biological (bacteria dependent) treatments, they take several weeks to begin to work and do best when the water has at least 100 mg/l of total alkalinity.  They are also best used in pond with hard bottoms as they tend to sink into the sediments in mucky bottomed ponds.  Once covered by muck, they are no longer functional. They tend to make the water a little more acidic.  This is a plus is you have very alkaline water but a minus if you water is already acidic.  They need to be replaced every 6 weeks.

o   Costs: $1416 per year assuming 6 month warm season. 120 lb./acre/6 weeks = (3)40 lb. per bag/acre/6 weeks @ $118/bag, delivered = $354 x 4 times per year = $1416 per acre per year (assumes 6 month warm season).  If you have a 1/6 pond, an annual cost of $236 may be acceptable, but if you have an acre pond, the cost of $1416 may be too much.  For that price you can install a complete Vertex Air 1 Aeration System (assuming you have electric available to the pond).

  • Barley Straw Extract is the easiest to use and the stealthiest.  The extract is a clear liquid that is simple poured into the pond. It is also the most costly.

o   Pluses: Works Great! So easy.  Just pour it in.  So unobtrusive, as a colorless, odorless liquid, no one will know it’s there.   And, because it is not bacterial, it begins to work immediately.  Barley Straw Extract is not picky about alkalinity levels or bottom sediments, as are the pellets.

o   Minuses: Barley Straw Extract needs to be applied every week for the first three weeks then every 3 weeks thereafter.  So, if you are not good a remembering maintenance chores, this may not be the one for you.  And, it is pricey for big ponds.

o   Costs: $2800 per average acre pond (6 foot deep) per year (assuming 6 warm month warm season).  You could install two complete aeration systems for that price.  But, if you do not have electric at the pond this might work for you.  Most of the barley straw extract I sell is for backyard ponds or earthen ponds less than a quarter acre.  But folks with big ponds do ask about it, so here’s the cost.  Here is an easy to remember rule of thumb: figure about $250 per million gallons per month.  A one acre pond, 6 feet deep is about 2 million gallons.

How do I use barley straw to manage algae in my pond?

We offer Bags and Bales of Barley Straw

Some Questions and Answers about Barley Straw

Barley straw: The old herbal remedy that actually works! It does not work by immediately killing algae, but by impeding new growth until the natural life cycle comes to an end.

What kind is best?

All varieties of barley straw will work in a pond as long as the seed heads have been removed and they are relatively free of weeds.

How much do I need?

In a large earthen pond, you will need six bales to every acre, regardless of depth. In a small backyard pond, use one pound of straw for every 2,000 gallons.

Where do I put the straw in the pond?

Straw needs to be distributed around the edge of the pond at a depth of two to three feet. Bales and smaller units alike will need to be anchored so that they will not drift into deeper water. In an unlined pond, a stake going through the straw and into the bottom should do the trick. If your pond is lined, you might consider tying them to some form of anchor at the bottom, such as a rock or a brick, or by leashing it to a post on the shore.

Can I put whole bales in the pond or do I need to place it in bags?

This depends on how many bales you are using. If you are using one or two bales, divide up the straw and stuff it into  mesh sacks. One compressed bale will fill six sacks. If your pond needs three or more, you can use whole bales.  Barley straw bales can be purchased from us with or without bags.

What kind of pond does Barley Straw work best in?

Straw works best in hard water ponds. This means that your total alkalinity level is above 100 ml/g. Don’t  know what your alkalinity level is? Find out with one of our easy 5-in-1 Test Kits!  A sample 5 in 1 Test Kit Strip comes free whenever you buy your barley bales from us.

What if my pond water is too soft?

The simple and inexpensive addition of crushed limestone to your pond will solve the problem.  Arm and Hammer Baking Soda (Sodium Bicarbonate)  can also be used for a more rapid effect.  50 lb bags are available on our site if you need large quantities.

What if there is already algae in the pond?

Algae cells only live for a few weeks before they die naturally. So, that means once you add barley straw to your pond, all you need is patience. However, if patience is not your strongest virtue, a quick sprinkle of Green Clean on surface algae (one lb per 1,000 square feet) will provide a quick fix.

When should I place barley straw in my pond?

The best time to add barley straw is about a month before you expect algae to bloom. After that, you can add it whenever you feel like you need it. Straw that doesn’t get used over the warm season will last and be ready for use the next Spring.

What kinds of straw packages can I buy?

We keep straw stocked all year long, and you can buy accordingly. We sell Bale Kits and Bale-and-Bag Kits in a single, double, and six-pack size for large earthen ponds, and one-pound mesh bags for backyard ponds. We also offer large mesh bags for those with their own straw.