Water use on the farm

All farms and horticultural businesses use water, but knowing how much you use and the associated costs will help you manage it more effectively

How can I save water on my farm?

  • Know how much water you are using
  • Work out whether the amount you are using is the right amount or not
  • Don't forget the hidden costs to wasting water that also have to be paid for including:
  • The energy to pump it
  • Treatment of any dirty water produced
  • Reduced crop quality from poor water management
  • Problems with livestock and movement around the farm due to poaching

Source: The Environment Agency - "How much water can I save?"

Why is clean water important on your farm?

  • Water flowing through and over your farm can be almost as significant as the food you produce
  • Clean water is valuable for irrigation of your crops and drinking water for you and your livestock. Private sources of water can be particularly at risk from your farming practices
  • Agricultural pollution can cause harm to aquatic life including fish, water plants, and invertebrates
  • Clean water and good quality wildlife habitats attract many people for outdoor activities such as fishing, boating, and walking which are important for people and the rural economy
  • Other rural industries rely on clean water to ensure quality products and adherence to high quality standards
  • Localised flooding can cause damage to roads, houses and farmland

Adapted from Natural England "Farming for cleaner water and healthier soil"

Water use for Irrigation

  • Water for irrigation accounts for 38% of agricultural water usage
  • The most predominant water sources for irrigation are surface water (52%) and ground water (41%) of total volume of irrigation water
  • In 2010 the irrigated area of outdoor crops and grass decreased by 28% compared to 2005
  • In 2010 a total of just over 2,200 holdings irrigated outdoor crops and grass
  • The total area irrigated was just over 83,000 ha
  • The largest irrigated area in 2010 was main crop potatoes (31.8,000ha) and vegetables for human consumption (20.5,000 ha)
  • 80% of farmers use judgment not measurement in deciding when to irrigate

Source - Water Usage in Agriculture and Horticulture, Results from the Farm Business Survey 2009/10 and the Irrigation Survey 2010. Defra and National Statistics

Water use in agriculture and horticulture in the UK

  • Agricultural water use accounts for only 1% of England's water usage; however there are regional differences (East of England, 16%)
  • The total volume of water used in agriculture is 184million m3
  • 2 million m3 of water is lost each year through leakages
  • Of the total amount of water being used on farm, only 3% of it is recycled
  • Mains water is by far the most common water supply (83% of farms) across all activities
  • The average cost of mains water is £1.17 per m3
  • The total cost of water accounts for 1% of the total fixed costs
  • The South West has the smallest proportion of farms using mains water at 72%

Source- Water Usage in Agriculture and Horticulture, Results from the Farm Business Survey 2009/10 and the Irrigation Survey 2010, Defra and National Statistics

Monitoring water use - what are farmers doing?

To help make decisions on how to become more efficient or what measures to put in place, water use needs to be monitored.  For farmers who took part in a recent report looking at resource management on farms it was revealed that monitoring farm water use was carried out by a third of farmers on a regular basis, with 12% always monitoring water use for each enterprise and 19% always collecting rainwater.

Cattle and sheep farmers were more likely to never monitor water use, while one third of horticultural holdings monitored water at enterprise level, nearly three times the average.

Do you know what you are using and where you could save?  Are you aware of how R4F could help?

The real cost of water

  • Mains water supply costs an average dairy farm £31/cow/year but can rise to £100/cow/year or more on some units. A herd of 200 dairy cows will typically cost a farm £10,000 in mains water use (2011)
  • Fixing a dripping tap can save as much as 5000 litres per year
  • Untreated leaks and dripping taps can cost a farm between £27 and £1200 a year depending on the flow rate (2011)
  • 42,000 hectares of farmland were flooded in England in the summer of 2007, which is estimated to have resulted in a 40% loss in produce and between £7m and £19, worth of damaged crops

Future risks to agriculture

  • An increased likelihood of inland flooding from rivers and surface water
  • Loss of agricultural land and production 
  • An estimated 50% increase in water demand for irrigated crops in some parts of the UK by 2050
  • Loss of private water supplies affecting farm businesses and domestic needs

To find out more about the potential impacts of climate change on water management read the remainder of the Farming Futures Factsheet

Interested in using water more effectively? Register for a free on-farm visit through Resource Efficiency for Farmers (R4F) to access practical management tips relevant for your farm situation.

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Efficient water use

More tips for Dairy farmers

More tips for Growers

Know what you are using

  • Carry out a water audit and create an action plan
  • Make a plan of the farm water system
  • Provide sufficient and logical stop valve arrangements so a failure can be isolated
  • Ensure pipe sizes are correctly designed
  • Look into all alternative sources of supply and if necessary check on quality and quantity
  • Regularly check water meter readings
FWAG management advice

Know what you are losing

  • Check pipes, taps, hoses, troughs etc visually for signs of leakage
  • Regularly check water usage by comparing bills. Increased usage may indicate a leak in the system
  • An electronic leak monitor can be used to check for hidden leaks
  • Regularly carry our routine maintenance on the system, clean and overhaul all valves and renew washers
  • Adjust ball valves to lower the float so that there is less risk of spillage and overflowing
  • Isolate and drain troughs and pipes that are not in use over the winter to prevent frost damage that would cause a leak
FWAG management advice

Separate clean and dirty water

Dirty water can be a common source of pollution and should be disposed of safely on land. Keeping dirty and clean water separate on farm reduces the volume of dirty water and provides an alternative source of clean water to possibly replace more expensive sources.

  • Roof livestock holding areas to reduce the volume of dirty water produced
  • Keep guttering and spouting maintained.
  • Try to reduce the uncovered area that stock use
FWAG management advice

Consider alternative water supplies where possible

  • Abstract water at times of high water levels and store for times of shortage
  • Recycling rainwater (check hygiene regulations for the end use)
  • Consider the use of springs, boreholes and watercourses (but also consider the legal requirements)
  • Take advice before changing water supply as there may be implications
FWAG management advice

Contamination of water supplies and pollution risk

  • Keep grazing stock away from areas adjacent to wells or springs and erect fences where necessary
  • Prevent seepage from slurry compounds, silage clamps, or cattle yards into underground drainage systems or groundwater
  • Repair and maintain spring collection chambers, brick or concrete reservoirs and wells to prevent dirty water entering through cracked brickwork or broken covers contaminating the system
  • Be aware of all water sources on the farm. Mark them on a map to show potential contamination points
  • oid spreading dirty water or manure close to water sources
  • Use a covered container area with a sealed base for mixing pesticides and filling sprayers
  • Dispose of any unwanted chemicals in the approved manner
FWAG management advice

More tips for Dairy farmers

  • Consider alternative sources for livestock drinking water. Livestock drinking accounts for 50-75% of a dairy farmís water use (Dairy Co). Stock need to be given adequate access to clean water so there is no opportunities to reduce water use; however it is possible to look at alternative sources
  • Reuse plate cooler water Ė this accounts for 25% of water use, and can effectively be reused to produce no impact on performance
  • Collect yard and parlour wash down water for reuse
  • If the typical dairy farm reused all the dairy and bulk washings, which is 334m≥.year, at the cost of £1.11/m≥m this saves £371/year. But the re-use also saves on disposal costs, and at a disposal cost of £1/m≥, double savings could be made, which would total £668/year (Dairy Co figures, 2009)
  • Scrape parlours and yards prior to washing them down, to minimise the volume of water used
  • If considering purchasing a new bulk tank, consider the wash volumes
  • Reuse water plant water for washing down the collecting yard
  • For more information on the Effective Use of Water on Dairy Farms please continue to read the Dairy Co booklet

More tips for Growers

Horticultural crops demand and require a significant amount of water due to their perishable nature. Stress not only affects the current seasonís crop but have the potential to affect future crops as well.

  • Consider the use of trickle irrigation systems
  • Increase the use of on site reservoirs
  • Consider the use of rainwater harvesting systems
  • Monitor the irrigation system and determine what and where the water is wetting the soil
  • Weeds compete for water and nutrients with the plants, so ensure that you have adequate weed control measures in place.
  • Consider the use of fertigation Ė combining irrigation and fertiliser applications offering opportunities to precisely manipulate nutrient supply during growth whilst increasing the efficiency of water and nutrient application
  • Manage water usage in terms of needs of the crop and local weather conditions
EA and Cranfield University