There are a number of misconceptions in the wider community that sadly are sometimes deliberately promoted by some with an agenda to discredit the livestock industry.
One of those is the red meat industry’s water footprint with outrageous figures often quoted of how much water is required to produce a kilogram of beef
These figures are very flawed because they take in the rain that falls on the pasture
The simple answer to this question is the pasture grows because the rain falls and if the cattle didn’t eat it, the pasture would break down and generate methane anyway. So cattle are a very efficient way of generating food from pasture that would just get wasted.
So let’s look at some background and what is happening on farm (source)
Is water a renewable or non-renewable re source?
The water cycle shows how rain recycles by running off into the sea, then being evaporated to form clouds that will eventually lead to precipitation that can fall on land. Within the cycle, water can be stored as ice, or underground in a water table.
If groundwater is pumped up from a water table, or surface water is taken from a lake, faster than it can be replaced by the natural water cycle, then its use is considered non-renewable.
However, if rainwater can be collected and used before it evaporates, then its use is considered renewable. The more rainwater can be used before it evaporates, the smaller the impact on the water cycle.
There are three main areas to be considered when examining water usage in the cattle and sheep industry:
In the paddock:
Australian cattle and sheep farmers are committed to continually improving their on-farm water efficiency. They do this by taking actions such as creating efficient watering points for livestock (for example, designated troughs for animals to drink from) and maintaining healthy soils and pastures to minimise run-off (and therefore loss of water) during rain.
Water used to raise Australian livestock is generally not diverted water meaning it primarily comes from dams and river systems rather than town water supplies, and cannot be used for other purposes, such as human consumption.
In the feedlot:
Like farms, water use on cattle feedlots primarily relates to water consumption by animals. However, water is also used for feed processing, washing cattle and managing effluent. To reduce water use, the grain-fed beef industry is investing in several initiatives – including reusing water, and minimising water used when processing cattle feed.
In beef and lamb processing plants, water is mostly used to ensure food safety and hygiene during operations. The industry is making major investments to improve water efficiency, including reusing and recycling water
Sustainable and efficient use of water is a top priority for our nation, especially in farming – and Australia’s cattle and sheep farmers are leading the way.
Stock and Waterways (source)
Our waterways and riparian land are valuable asset for farmers and the wider community Riparian areas are often the most productive parts of some farms due to their deeper soils and retained moisture, and may provide good, green feed when other paddocks have dried off.
A riparian zone includes a waterway such as a stream or river and the land immediately either side of the stream. The above picture shows a well manage riparian zone
Unfortunately, they are also at risk of damage, particularly as a result of uncontrolled stock access. This damage can result in the loss of soil, land, stock, and water quality
Studies have shown that removing stock from waterways and riparian areas totally, or for controlled periods, can have a significant improvement on riparian health.
Increased vegetation cover will lead, over time, to a reduction in erosion, better water quality, valuable shelter belts and biodiversity.
This means healthier stock, more efficient use of nutrients and rainfall, and thicker, improved pasture cover and a great result for everyone along the river system.
Farmers install watering points like troughs to water their cattle when cattle no longer have access to the waterways
So lets look at what is happening on farm balance the needs of grazing cattle to produce healthy nutritious affordable red meat and people and the planet
Water efficiency in the paddock
Australia’s unpredictable rain patterns and extended periods of drought mean efficient water management is essential for the community and cattle and sheep farmers. Farmers rely heavily on water-efficient grazing practices to make the most of the water available.
Through grazing management strategies, farmers manage the frequency and intensity of grazing to make the best use of their pastures – balancing the needs of the grazing animal, the pasture and the environment.
As with humans, in on-farm livestock production, the single biggest use of water is for drinking by the animals. Water makes up 60%–70% of the body weight of cattle and sheep, and is essential for maintaining their physiological function.
Water is also an essential resource for establishing and maintaining healthy pastures for Australia’s cattle and sheep to graze.
Water saving initiatives on farm
Cattle and sheep farmers do many things to influence the water balance in their grazing systems. Healthy soils and adequate nutrients are two of the basic elements of any successful grazing system. Healthy soils drive higher pasture productivity and benefit the environment, through more efficient use of water and nutrients in the paddock, and lower risk of run-off, erosion and deep drainage.
A comprehensive survey of the environmental practices of Australian cattle and sheep farmers in 2010 found that farmers are increasingly monitoring and managing their water use:
- 55% of farmers had installed additional watering points to replace water for stock from natural watercourses, with 61% of Queensland producers installing water points.
- 86% of farmers monitored the level of water tables on their properties.
Water saving initiatives in Feedlots
The grain-fed cattle sector employs several strategies to reduce water usage.
- Reusing water in cattle wash-down facilities
- Covering dams to reduce evaporation
- Restricting water use for feed processing
- Using neighbouring coal seam gas development water
- Reusing effluent water for dust suppression
- The industry is also researching other initiatives, such as treating effluent water
Reducing water consumption in the meat processing industry
Examples of positive strategies being adopted to reduce water consumption at processing facilities include:
- Using flow meters to monitor water usage
- Reusing water for cleaning yards and other applications
- Recovering rich organic compounds and nutrients from treated wastewater and solid wastes, to be transformed into fertilisers and soil conditioners
- Installing efficient and effective wastewater treatment processes
Water use: the full facts
As I mentioned earlier there are lots of misconceptions about the amount of water used on farms and getting the full picture requires detailed assessment of a wide range of factors.
So measuring the total environmental impact of water consumption – known as ‘water foot printing’ – is far more complicated than simply adding up the volume of water consumed from start to finish.
“You can’t make generalisations, because beef is produced in so many different ways.
“Life-cycle assessment, the scientific discipline, is about trying to look at environmental impacts in a holistic way, to avoid just pushing the problem upstream or downstream in the supply chain,
For example, treating and recycling water might increase energy use, or a water- and energy-intensive farm might be producing more food on a smaller parcel of land, which is important on our increasingly crowded planet. “Arable land is itself a scarce resource.
The answer lies in accurate measurements and successful compromise.
“If we’re going to give anybody any sort of useful information to take pressure off water resources, we need to be a bit more sophisticated than just making simplistic statements about broad product categories, like livestock.” Says Brad Ridoutt from CSIRO Sustainable Ecosystems, Melbourne
Farmers do care about clean waterways and healthy landscapes just like the community. Just like the community some are doing it better than others. Lets work together to stop the blame and encourage everyone to strive for a healthy planet.
Great resources used here:
Target 100 SUSTAINABILITY STUDY GUIDES Water
NATURAL RESOURCE MANAGEMENT Stock and Waterways