Water: More Than Just a Refreshing Drink for Dairy Cows

  • Article
  • 4 min read May 14, 2013

Water is a precious and versatile resource on dairy farms. Keeping cows hydrated keeps them healthy, and helps them produce nutrient-rich milk – which consists of about 90 percent water.

Because dairy farmers are vigilant stewards of the land, they are always looking for opportunities to reuse, recycle and conserve water. In fact, today’s water management practices allow dairy farmers to use 65 percent less water than they needed 60 years ago to produce the same amount of milk. 

On farms, water is not just provided to cows as a refreshing drink, it also is used in other ways, such as chilling milk at the farm. 

Because milk leaves a cow’s body at 101 degrees, water is used in a cooling system in the farm’s milking parlor to quickly chill it to about 38 degrees, assuring its continued freshness from the farm to your refrigerator.

Some farmers also reuse this water as a safe drinking option for their cows. 

Others use water to rinse cow manure from their barns. 

After water is used to wash concrete pathways in the barn, it flows into a manmade holding lagoon, which is lined to prevent it from seeping into the ground. This water – now enriched as a natural fertilizer – is recycled and used on crops that are grown as feed for the cows, bringing its use full-circle. It’s important to note that dairy farmers abide by clean water laws that regulate the application of manure for crops. 

Dairy farmers are innovative when it comes to how they recycle water. For example, the barn roof at Blan Dougherty’s farm in southeast Tennessee not only is used to shade and protect his cows from the elements, it is used to catch rainwater. 

Dougherty uses about half of one barn roof – an area that measures 25-by-120 feet – to collect rain. The water then is channeled from the roof into a 2,500-gallon holding tank. From there, it is used to clean machinery and flush manure from his barn, a daily task that requires about 300 gallons. 

Dougherty figures a good Tennessee rainfall puts about 1,000 gallons into the tank. 

“We have to be very conservative with our water use,” he said. “I don’t know how much money the storage water saves us, but it makes me feel good that the rainwater’s not running onto the ground and instead is serving a purpose. It’s nice to catch it and reuse it.” 

Once the water cleanses his barn and machinery, it heads to a man-made collection pond where Dougherty pumps it onto pastures of grass he grows as cow feed. He also grows corn and wheat for cow feed, but relies on the mercy of Mother Nature to nourish those crops. In fact, research from the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy shows that the majority of water used by dairy farms or companies is used to produce crops. 

“We do a lot of hoping for rainfall,” he says. 

Similarly, the water on Mike Malena’s Nebraska dairy farm is well traveled. 

“We use water as a tool, but that water is not going to waste,” said Malena, who milks about 1,400 cows each day. “It goes to irrigate the crops, but it also does a couple of other different things before that happens. We’re proud of that.” 

Malena’s dairy includes more than 600 acres of corn and alfalfa crops that are irrigated with water that once cleaned his barns and flowed to his man-made lagoon. The water travels from there through a system of underground pipes to seven “pivots” – overhead sprinklers that distribute water to crops. 

Malena says his crops respond very well to this water because it is now enhanced with nature’s first fertilizer – cow manure. 

Malena’s goal is to exhaust as much water as possible from his lagoon and not rely on natural resources. During most growing seasons, he minimizes his natural water use by relying on reclaimed water. 

“We’ve had some summers where we don’t use any ground water on four or five of our pivots,” he said. “We strictly irrigate out of our lagoon. Last year was different because of the severe drought so we had to supplement some with ground water. But normally a high percentage of our irrigation is water that at one time was being used in our barn for other purposes.” 

As any dairy farmer will tell you, these practices are not only good for the earth, they make good business sense.