Reducing Water Use in the Meat Supply Chain for Cattle & Sheep
Project number: 74322
Lead contractor: ADAS UK Ltd
Start & end date: 09 July 2012 – 21/ December 2013
EBLEX has identified through Testing the Water‘ (part two of the Road Map for the Beef and Sheep sector. EBLEX 2011) that beef and lamb requires significant volumes of water per kilogram of meat produced. EBLEX is keen to support the industry in reducing its water footprint.
- To increase the efficiency and reduce the use of blue water use on farms.
- Develop novel means of coping with drought or water stress for beef and sheep farmers.
- Provide practical measures of retaining water on farm and reducing run-off.
- To consider the use of green, blue and grey water and develop management practices and strategies to improve efficiency and/or reduce usage (including seeking novel methods of adapting systems to drought stress).
- Highlight how beef and sheep farmers water use efficiency through feed crop choice and management and implementing simple water saving measures.
- Investigate methods for reducing run-off, thereby reducing the volume of grey water required to achieve water of good ecological quality.
- Establish a series of case study farm to review the use and management of water for beef and sheep production and where possible, assess the effect of water reduction measures.
- Organise a series of farm workshops using results from case study farms as the basis of discussion and to demonstrate best practice.
- Deliver on-farm workshops, highlighting key interventions available to beef and sheep farmers and demonstrating how they can be implemented in practice with consideration to costs and benefits.
- Produce a detailed report, reviewing current scientific findings, practical case study information (including examples of actual benefits of practice at farm level) and measurements of water use to implement and assess the impact of water reduction measures.
A number of alternative ways to supply water to livestock both in the field or when housed were identified. These show the potential to increase resilience to water shortage and reduce the farms reliance on mains water. These methods included rainwater harvesting systems and pasture and ram pumps. The monitoring of water use was also identified as a key factor in improving water use efficiency. It is estimated that a leaking ball valve in a trough can cause up to 150 m³ of waste annually, while a fractured valve can result in annual losses of up to 2,000 m³ (EA, 2007).
The role of genetics in both feed and livestock have the potential to reduce the impact of water stress on performance. Forage crops such as chicory and lucerne develop deep taproots resulting in increased drought resistance. It is also forecast that forage and cereal plant varieties with greater tolerance to abiotic stress will become increasingly available in future. Livestock breeds from more arid regions of the world have adapted to use water more efficiently (e.g. Bos indicus cattle and fat tail sheep). These breeds have been incorporated into breeding programmes in countries including South Africa and areas of the United States to improve drought tolerance.
If UK livestock producers are to ensure more efficient and sustainable water use and management, there must be a whole farm approach. All factors are important, from the genetics of the animals, to the level of intensification within the farming system, to the choice of feed and all elements should be considered in a holistic overview. The water requirements for livestock are not just the amount that they drink from the water trough, but crucially the water that is required to grow their feed or even wash the buildings that they are housed in, all of which contribute to the amount of water required to produce every kilogram of meat. A further factor may be the role of an individual farm in flood management, where the choice of forage crops, grazing systems and land use may be important in ameliorating flood risk.
Case study farms
Four case study farms representing the variation in English beef and sheep production systems were identified. Water meters were installed to measure water usage over the housing period for a selection of farm buildings and information on livestock numbers and stock type, dates gathered throughout the housing period.
The conditions in 2012/13 caused significant difficulties in data collection. Stock type and number varied significantly within buildings which meant the water consumption could not always be separated to stock type. Some occurrences of frozen pipes and troughs also affected consumption and water meter readings. One farm was also forced to drop out of the project due to personal circumstances.
In some cases, water consumption figures were very close to those that could be predicted from figures provided by published literature. However, differences in building design, water infrastructure and weather resulted in differences between actual and predicted intakes. Information gathered also identified the influence of the moisture content of feed on water consumption. Situations where water consumption was greater than predicted also helped identify leaks.
With the continued increase in demand for domestic supplies and climate change creating more frequent dry periods, the reliability of all sources of water may come under question. It is important to be aware of both the water requirements of stock and the reliability of supply and to have plans in place to reduce demand where possible and to cope with shortages. In this way, the demand for water by the industry can reflect that which is actually required, thereby reducing its water footprint and the demand for all three forms of water, particularly green and blue water.
Due the prolonged periods of wet weather in 2013, the series of workshops on reducing water use in the supply chain were not delivered.
The project has provided content to EBLEX communications including briefings. A BRP+ document has also been produced on water use, reduction and rainwater harvesting on beef and sheep farms.