A stream near a Canadian farm

Managing Water Use on the Farm

Find out how Canadian dairy farmers are using cutting-edge technology and time-tested techniques to continually reduce fresh water use and preserve its quality on dairy farms.

In Canada, we are privileged to have an abundance of fresh water and, like all Canadians, dairy farmers have a concerted interest in preserving our natural resources. Year after year, we invest in cutting-edge research to identify new approaches, and we continuously adopt new farming practices to preserve those resources for future generations.

Respecting our natural resources

When it comes Canada's fresh water supply, dairy farming is a drop in the bucket, so to speak. It's estimated that dairy farming in Canada uses around 0.02% of the fresh water supply in Southern Canada¹, where most of the country’s population and dairy farms are located. And this number has been going down for years: between 2011 and 2016 alone, water use associated with milk production decreased by 6%, and land use by 11% – and it's a trend that's continuing as dairy farms in Canada become ever more efficient.

Infographic about Canada's fresh water supply

Reducing, reusing, and recycling

In addition to their commitments to the land and to preserving resources for future generations, farmers are motivated to reduce water use in order to save costs on water, heating and cooling, and for treating, storing, moving and diverting water. 

Other ways that farmers are reducing their water use: 

  • Keeping cows cool and comfortable: Cows typically have unlimited access to drinking water, but when they are cooler and more comfortable, they drink less! Improved cow comfort also increases milk production.
  • Preventing and repairing leaks in their water, wastewater and irrigation systems. 
  • Reusing water in their cooling and cleaning systems.

 

Milk from dairy cows is stored in a bulk tank
Just after milking, the milk from the cows is stored in a bulk tank and kept between 0 and 4°C.

How does water get used on dairy farms? 

It's not just the cows that need water! The biggest need for water in dairy production is for the crops that cows eat. Most of that need is met by rainfall – but rainfall can vary greatly by region, and some farms that get less rain rely more on irrigation. At the same time, farms in other areas have a surplus of water, and have to implement tile drainage and other drainage systems to keep their soil optimal.

How much water does it take to produce milk in Canada?

In Canada, producing one litre of milk requires, on average, about 25 litres of water – but as mentioned above, this number varies from region to region. In some provinces, like Quebec, it's closer to 10 litres. By comparison, in some European and Asian countries, it can take 60–100 litres of water or more. 

How much water do dairy cows drink?

The average 1500-lbs dairy cow drinks about 100–150 litres of water a day. In addition to drinking water, water is also used throughout the milking barn:

  • Cleaning: In order to maintain the high standards of quality Canadian milk, the milking equipment gets cleaned regularly and thoroughly, along with barn areas where cows stand. 
  • Water also circulates in heat exchange systems to cool the milk after milking. Typically, this water is cycling through the heat exchange systems, before being used drinking water for animals. 
A stream near a Canadian farm

Maintaining water quality

Canadian dairy farmers produce milk that is safe and nutritious, while caring for the land and water. Not only does this impact the water that they and their animals drink, but also the environment that is shared with the community and society as a whole. 

Canadian dairy farmers are also continuously working to maintain water quality and purity in their fields, and to prevent runoff, contamination and pollution. Some of the most effective modern techniques include: 

  • Protecting and constructing wetlands: Wetlands are Mother Nature’s filters, with their vegetation and bacteria naturally working to remove solids, nutrients and pollutants from incoming water, preventing contamination downstream. Many farms have naturally occurring wetlands that they work to protect, and some farmers have the ability to create them where they don't occur naturally. 
  • Optimizing crops: Dairy farmers are increasingly using legumes, like Alfalfa, in their crop rotations. Legumes are nitrogen-fixing plants, which reduce the need for nitrogen-based fertilizers and reduce nitrogen leaching – which improves water quality. Legumes are also a great nutritional source for ruminants like cows, so it's a win-win-win for cows, farmers and the environment!

We are working every day towards a greener, more sustainable future. Improvements in farming practices and research will continue to further reduce our environmental impact and management of our natural resources.
 

Sources

[1] Statistics Canada: "Delineating northern and southern Canada"
https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/190704/mc-a001-eng.htm

Ducks Unlimited Canada, about wetlands in Canada: https://www.ducks.ca/ 

Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association, about wetlands in Canada:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KS3dNgwDBPE  

Agriculture Canada, on crop practices that improve water and soil: https://www.agr.gc.ca/eng/agriculture-and-climate/agricultural-practices/soil-and-land/  

Animation showing how a heat exchange system is used to cool milk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=b1dzl5iokYQ

Ontario Soil and Crop Improvement Association, video explaining tile draining: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sGeiOBwRHi8

 

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