Improve your water efficiency to cut farm costs!
Whilst the UK seems to have been continually hit by large bouts of flooding in recent years, there are still times when water resources are falling low. During some dry periods there can be little or no abstraction which means being efficient with your water usage on your farm can be very important.
Not only is it vital for times when water is in short supply, but an efficient use of water can also help cut costs on farms substantially. This will be music to the ears of farmers with the rising costs of water in the UK. If you are more efficient with your water usage, then not only will you be saving more of your hard earned money, but you will also be less vulnerable when extreme bouts of hot dry weather lead to water shortages.
There are plenty of ways in which the inefficient use of water can cause issues for farmers. We will aim to highlight some of these problems and offer some advice on how you can make your farm more water efficient.
But first, how much water are we using and where does it come from?
DEFRA released figures in 2011 showing that in agriculture the total amount of water used, from mains water use and direct abstraction, was around 180 million cubic metres per year. They also offered a breakdown as to how this water was being used with irrigation of field crops accounting for 42% of this total, and drinking water for livestock following at 40%.
The most common source of water for farming is mains water, which is used on 83% of all farms, according to DEFRA. It was also shown that 60% of grazing livestock farms and 46% of mixed farms use water that has been extracted from rivers, lakes and streams, whilst this water was rarely used on pig or poultry farms. DEFRA also revealed that when it comes to crop irrigation, the main water sources are groundwater - water held underground in rock formations - and surface waters.
Which problems do farmers face?
When it comes to water supplies, farmers can come up against a number of issues. Changing weather patterns and reduced water supply can hit farmers hard, so it is good to be aware of the problems that can arise.
Increased water demand coupled with reduced supply
More often than not, times when water demand is increased will coincide with times when the supply of water is reduced. Climate change and increased bouts of drought can lead to water availability dropping at a time when it is needed most. Less rainfall leads to the need for more irrigation for crops, however, times of drought can often see bans or restrictions on irrigation, which can cause serious issues.
As well as the issues surrounding irrigation, there can also be limits on the amount of water that you could gain through extraction as licences become limited when there is less water available in the summer.
Rising water costs
Water costs are rising. In fact, in the last 20 years or so, we have seen the cost of mains water in the UK rise by around 38%. This means that farmers who are inefficient with their water usage, could end up spending far more money on water than they would need. This money could be far better spent elsewhere, so it is vital to make sure you’re not wasting water on your farm!
When extraction (or abstraction) of water is increased during times of need, the quality of the water itself can fall. This is because water flow tends to be reduced leading to less water being available to dilute any pollutants that may be present.
According to DEFRA around 11% of water bodies in England and Wales are at risk of not being able to support ‘good ecological status’ through reduced river flows. Groundwater is also at risk with around 35% of its bodies not being able to achieve good groundwater quantitative status which is defined in the Water Framework Directive.
What can be done to improve water efficiency?
After reading all of the above, it has been made very clear how important it is to ensure that you aren’t wasting water. Here are some snippets of advice that can help you to make your farm more efficient, reducing costs and vulnerability during bouts of hot dry weather.
Harvest the rain
Rainwater harvesting can be very easy to incorporate into your farm no matter what your set up. In fact, we would highly recommend you get on board with this easy to implement and environmentally friendly way of obtaining water. So long as the water is treated correctly, any rainwater collected from the roof can be used in irrigation of crops, to top up farm reservoirs, or simply to clean the yard and your equipment.
Whilst rainwater itself is completely free, in order to harvest it correctly you will want to invest some money. For example, a system based around an above ground tank that holds 30 cubic metres of water could cost you around £5,000. However, these systems can vary greatly depending on a number of variables, so make sure you shop around.
If you want to reduce your concerns over water shortages in times of drought, and the rising costs of mains water, then an investment in rainwater harvesting could be very cost-effective.
According to DEFRA, if you have a leak on your farm that amounts to the loss of 1 litre of water per minute, it will have the equivalent impact on water consumption as increasing a dairy herd by a quarter! For this reason, it is terribly important that you locate and tackle leaks instantly.
It is worth spending time searching for leakages in order to tackle them correctly. Don’t just assume they aren’t there. Insulating any piping that you have around your farm is another great way of reducing leakages, and should not be sniffed at. Finally, another piece of advice from DEFRA which we think is useful, is to record your meter readings regularly so you can spot any drastic changes in your water consumption. This may help you spot issues early and tackle them right away.
Making sure your irrigation is efficient
In order to ensure that your irrigation is efficient you need to be using the correct amount of water in the correct manner for the crops required. If you get this spot on you will be reducing the amount of water wasted which will, in turn, reduce costs.
There are a number of ways to reduce the amount of wasted water in irrigation. One of these is to ensure that you are irrigating during times of the day when less water will be evaporated and an irrigation scheduling tool can also be used to increase efficiency.
To make sure water is retained in the soil and used effectively by your crops, you will want to manage a good soil structure and use organic matter. You should also use targeted irrigation in order to maintain the correct and precise levels of soil moisture.
Whilst farm reservoirs can involve a relatively large capital investment and pretty big engineering project they do have a number of huge benefits. It is generally considered that in the correct areas the right system could be cost-effective for seven out of ten years for responsive crops. Crop farmers’ incomes can be increased by improved yields brought on by the secure water supply. These reservoirs are even more important for farmers who are growing high value irrigated crops such as potatoes.
Let’s mention the costs then. These costs vary and can range from around £1 per cubic metre, to around £6 per cubic metre. However, if you are looking for a rough estimate, then we would suggest you aim to spend around £4 per cubic metre for a balanced excavation, which according to DEFRA will provide you with around 2 cubic metres of storage for each 1 cubic metre excavated.
Further costs to take into consideration include the cost of surveys and planning applications as well as surveys for archaeological remains. However, these costs will depend on the size of the planned reservoir and the location itself. Once all of these costs have been taken into account, you could end up paying around £10 per cubic metre in total.
It is also important to be aware of the fact that there are limits on the quantity of water that can be stored above ground. The EA can specify how much water can be stored as well as what it can be used for. These limits can be subject to change depending on the availability of water during different seasons.
As a final note, if you have a farm reservoir you may be able to generate extra income through trading water with neighbours. The asset value of the land will also be increased and you will also have your abstraction charges reduced.