Water is an increasing scarce resource, an issue exacerbated by current drought conditions.
California’s family dairy farmers are doing their part to protect this precious resource.
They continue to shrink their water footprint through innovative,
water-smart management, including reuse, conservation, and ongoing efficiency gains.
The amount of water used to produce each gallon of California milk has decreased more than 88% over the past 50-plus years, primarily due to:
Improved feed crop production
Use of byproducts as feed
Water use efficiency
Recycling Nutrients = Conserving Water
Up to 40% of feed ingredients used on California dairies are agricultural byproducts, such as almond hulls, cotton seed, and citrus pulp, which could otherwise be wasted. By upcycling byproducts, dairy farms are reducing the use of water, energy, and fossil fuels needed to grow feed crops.
In 2020, researchers at UC Davis analyzed the economic and environmental sustainability implications of feeding byproducts to California dairy cows. They determined that
this practice reduces the amount of water needed to grow feed by as much as 1.3 trillion gallons.
Water reuse is standard practice on California dairy farms, where the same water is used an average of four times:
Clean water is used in the refrigeration process to cool milk.
Water recycled from refrigeration is then used to wash and cool cows.
After water is used to wash cows, it is captured, stored, and used multiple times to clean barn floors.
This nutrient-rich water is then used to irrigate feed crops in surrounding fields.
Smart Resource Management
The diet of today’s California dairy cow is a tremendous example of smart resource management. Improvements made in feed quality have resulted in improved overall efficiency of dairy production—more milk per cow—and 88% less water needed to produce each gallon of milk. To ensure top-quality feed and manage farm economics, many California dairy farmers grow a portion of their own feed crops. This makes irrigation a key focus in dairy farmers' strategy for efficient water use.
Using drip irrigation and other water-efficient practices, a growing number of California dairies are greatly reducing farm-water use and improving water quality protection, while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This includes the adoption of a subsurface drip irrigation system that also applies the farm’s manure effluent directly to the root zone. The approach has demonstrated a 38% increase in water efficiency (yield per acre/inch of water), using about 36% less water, while maintaining or increasing crop yields. Initially demonstrated on three farms, there are now at least 10 California dairy farms using the technology, with about 40 more in various stages of developing projects. Read more.
California's dairy farmers have a long history of supporting cutting-edge research and pioneering new practices. It will take a wide array of technologies and partnerships to help California dairy farmers meet the water scarcity challenge while still providing high-quality feed to cows, and ultimately continuing to produce nutrient rich foods that support the health and livelihoods of local communities. The California Dairy Research Foundation is currently supporting the following research projects that will help continue to advance water conservation on dairy farms:
Assessing the use of sugarbeets and safflower as alternative feed crops that improve water and nitrogen management on California dairy farms.
Evaluating the use of automated surface irrigation systems to increase water-use efficiency while growing dairy feed.
Investigating the recycling of dairy manure and almond stick-twig waste on almond orchards as nutrient rich, safe, organic amendments that provide economical and sustainable benefits to the soil, crops, and environment.
Exploring electricity- and water-saving potential of an optimized control system for running fans and water sprayers used to cool cows.
Protecting Water Quality
California dairy farms are working to protect groundwater through regular testing, monitoring, and reporting, as part of the nation’s most comprehensive water quality program. Using this information, dairy farms are developing and implementing improved management practices.
Dairy farmers are participating in local efforts to ensure all Californians have immediate access to clean drinking water.
Samples of soil, water, and plant tissue are gathered and analyzed regularly to ensure proper nutrient management on dairy forage fields.
Each California dairy follows a certified nutrient management plan that helps ensure the appropriate application of nutrients for crops and the protection of groundwater.
Manure is used to build healthy soils, providing organic material for growing feed crops on the farm.
California dairy farmers are working collaboratively to explore economically sustainable ways to create transportable and valuable manure-based soil amendments for use on other agricultural crops.