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New Mexico State University

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NMSU specialists say dairies efficiently use water resources

CLOVIS - While dairies may create the impression of being high water users, they actually are quite efficient, even recycling water several times to get the most out of this scarce resource, according to two dairy specialists for New Mexico State University

Victor E. Cabrera, left, of NMSU's Ag Science Center at Clovis, meets with dairy producer Art Schaap at Highland Dairy Farm in Clovis. (Courtesy Photo from Steve Cornett, Dairy Today Magazine)

ve to understand it to appreciate it," said Victor Cabrera. "There seems to be a misconception about how much water dairy farms actually utilize and their efficiency with this precious resource."

Cabrera and Robert Hagevoort are dairy specialists for New Mexico State University's Cooperative Extension Service. They are based at the Clovis Agricultural Science Center, but offer their expertise to dairies across New Mexico.

They point out that according to the Office of the State Engineer, dairies account for only 1.3 percent of the state's water usage, yet, according to the National Agricultural Statistical Service, dairying in New Mexico produces more cash receipts than any other commodity.

Dairying generates $1.15 billion in annual receipts, more than 40 percent of the state's total. Even in key dairy counties - Chaves, Roosevelt, Curry, Dona Ana, Lea, and Eddy - water utilization by dairies never exceeds three percent of the county's total usage, according to the dairy specialists.

An average dairy farm in New Mexico, with 2,000 cows, uses around 100 acre-feet of water per year, they said. One acre-foot of water would fill a swimming pool 100 feet long, 50 feet wide and nine feet deep. One acre-foot of water would irrigate one-fifth acre of turf grass on a golf course, or it could produce about 10 tons of corn silage or 13 bushels of wheat.

"When used in dairy farming, that one acre-foot of water helps produce 42 million pounds of milk and other related products, with a value of around $18,000," said Hagevoort.

An average dairy in New Mexico sitting on a quarter-section of land (160 acres) uses about 7.30 inches of water per acre per year. As a point of reference for New Mexico, sorghum uses around 18 inches and corn around 30 inches per acre of water, Cabrera said.

In addition to water for drinking, dairy cows also consume water indirectly, through their feed. The dairy specialists said a lactating cow may receive the equivalent of 15 gallons of water per day from her feed. Even when included with direct usage, the overall water usage by dairy only increases by 2.5 inches per acre per year, according to the specialists' research.

"It can be argued that the demand for feed by dairy farms leads, in part, to increased forage production in surrounding areas and consequently to increased water utilization on those fields," Cabrera said. "During the last 20 years, as the dairy industry has bloomed in New Mexico, there has not been a significant increase in irrigated cropland acreage. Yet, there has been a shift of 20 percent toward irrigated forage and silage production, which may or may not use more water than other crops that would be cropped anyway in those fields. Dairy farming is just offering an additional niche market to local farmers."

In addition, current research in forage production is opening doors to new forage cultivars with substantially less water consumption.

Water utilized on a dairy is usually recycled multiple times: once to cool the milk; then to clean the milking equipment; then to clean the milking barn, after which, as much as 40 percent of it is used to irrigate forage crops for feed production.

"The perception that dairies use large amounts of water is not true," Hagevoort said. "Dairy farming is a great alternative for efficient use of scarce water. New Mexico receives a tremendous economic benefit from the dairy industry, which practices efficient and wise use of water, our precious resource."