April 25 2014 08:02 AM

Facing mounting resource pressure, can California dairymen rise to the challenge, or will they continue to disappear?

The author is a dairy nutrition consultant for Central Connecticut Cooperative Farmers, who previously managed large dairies in California and Hawaii.

milking unit

Kansas already requires dairies that pump more than 15 acre-feet of water to put meters on their wells. A 1,000-cow dairy in California consumes 15 acre-feet of water in less than two months. California dairy farmers may soon be paying for more than just the electricity to pump groundwater.

Early in 2014, we all became aware of just how serious California's drought is. While the eastern half of the U.S. was shivering in the coldest and snowiest winter we've seen in a while, California was well into the driest year in a series of many dry years.

Much of California's farmland is in semi-arid regions that have been transformed into an oasis by one of the world's most innovative and extensive water storage and irrigation systems. Mother Nature and a unique geography bless California with high mountains that capture a lot of snow that, after it melts, can be stored in massive reservoirs. But, when Mother Nature doesn't want to cooperate, the snowpack dwindles. A few dry years in a row can suddenly transform a paradise into a desert with a critical need for water.

Unsustainable depletion
In February, U.S. officials made the announcement that there would be no irrigation water available from the California State Water Project to farmers this year. This reduction is estimated to affect the water supplies of over 25 million people and 750,000 acres of farmland. At this point, the focus of the media has been on crops - fruits, vegetables, nuts and grains - and how it will impact the pocketbook of all Americans. For the most part, the issue of water usage on dairy farms hasn't become front page news - yet.

That's because most all the water used on dairy farms - for drinking, cooling and sanitation - is pumped from the ground. Even though many dairies in California rely on irrigation districts and water deliveries by way of canals, that water is used primarily for crops.

Consequently, as surface water allocations continue to decline, more and more groundwater is filling the void.

The whole issue of groundwater overdraft and groundwater contamination has been debated for many years. And while it doesn't get too much attention from the mainstream press, the fights over water allocation and concerns over water quality have reached the boiling point around the state.

A recent report from the University of California, Irvine, states that, "The history of Central Valley water use shows that the volume of groundwater pumped during drought far exceeds the volume of replenishment during wet periods, resulting in long-term falling groundwater levels and groundwater depletion." The report also states that, from 2003 to 2010, the groundwater depletion in the Central Valley amounted to over 5.2 trillion gallons - a volume equal to about two-thirds the size of Lake Mead. The steady depletion of aquifers is not sustainable in the long run.

Dairy isn't a headline, yet
Dairy cows in California now number over 1.5 million; the majority reside in the San Joaquin Valley and consume between 20 and 50 gallons of water per day. Water usage in milking parlors, wash pens and evaporative cooling systems in the warm western climates have been shown to average over 50 gallons per cow per day and, in some cases, exceed 100 gallons per cow per day. Much of the water used in milking centers, though, is reused to flush freestall lanes and ultimately for crop irrigation. Speaking from experience, water usage on a typical California dairy farm can be very liberal.

Along with the fact that California dairy farms use a tremendous amount of ground water is the discovery that, in many locations of the Central Valley, the remaining ground water has been contaminated with high levels of nitrates and other dissolved salts. This comes from the overapplication of manure and commercial fertilizer on many thousands of acres of farmland. This reality, unfortunately, cannot be ignored as over half of California's drinking water comes from underground sources. As communities expand, more aquifers will be tapped for human consumption.

Due to its immense size, the California dairy industry, while certainly not the sole blame for groundwater depletion and contamination, is on the radar screen of many consumer advocacy and environmental groups. The dairy industry, being closely scrutinized, has to be on its best behavior. As the competition for water in the state intensifies, dairy farms will have to be ever more defensive as the industry seeks to co-exist with urban growth.

The skyrocketing cost of water in many districts is forcing some dairy farmers to decide if they can even afford to plant corn this year. Water intensive alfalfa may have to be replaced by more drought-tolerant grasses. For others, water wells may have to be deepened, and that means larger motors and higher electricity costs. In every scenario, the cost of water for dairy farms is going up.

Budget your precious resource
A paper presented at the Western Dairy Herd Conference a few years back offered some suggestions for water budgeting, especially for the water used in the milking center. While cows must consume adequate amounts of water to stay healthy and produce milk, dairy farmers should view water as a precious resource that will, if not already, cost a lot more to possess and use.

The authors of the paper suggest that total water per cow used in the milking parlor and sanitation can average as little as 10 gallons per cow per day. This is significantly less than the 50-plus gallons per cow used on many California dairies. Of course, top-notch bedding and freestall management are crucial to keeping cows clean before they walk into the parlor.

The paper also notes that many dairies have reduced water usage in the milking parlor by changing udder prep procedures. Dairies are using hand-operated wash hoses or automatic prep systems that utilize between 1 and 4 gallons per cow per milking. Water usage can be reduced to less than 1/2 gallon per day when using low water techniques.

The favorable climate, economy and abundant natural resources in California have enabled the state's dairy industry to lead the way. But one must ask the rhetorical question of whether California can sustain that leadership. Can California dairies continue to rise to the new challenges as they compete for dwindling resources and face mounting societal pressures?

Even though California keeps producing more milk, the dairy farms there have been hit hard in recent years, and they continue to disappear. California dairy farmers receive one of the lowest milk prices in the nation. And at the risk of sounding totally pessimistic, it's not out of the realm of possibilities that the total number of California dairy farms and cows may one day be limited as the state struggles to find ways to equitably balance and share its water supply. Even though it's a powerhouse in our industry, California has its work cut out to remain the leader in U.S. milk production.

This article appears on page 283 of the April 25, 2014 issue of Hoard's Dairyman.