Smart and Secure: Dairy Farm’s Backup Water Plan is a Win-Win

By Dairy Farming Hut

Cows, Goats, Sheep

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Dairy farming is highly dependent on water, including potable, non-potable, and mains water. It hydrates the cattle, cools them down, and cleans the parlor and equipment. And there are the farm workers' needs too. But what happens when the taps run dry, and operations can't continue normally? The answer lies in creating a generous backup water plan to keep the dairy farm going.

Backup water plans for dairy farms include creating storage facilities for water plus installing a network of pumps and water lines. Storage options for water include dams, reservoirs, and tanks. Water sources consist of harvested water, groundwater, and water from waterways.

Issues like a power outage are easier to manage. For example, one could rely on generators or alternative energy sources to run pumps. But when there's a problem with water, it becomes a more severe issue. Factors affecting the water supply to a dairy farm include droughts, heat waves, and freeze-thaw. Other threats include a well drying up or a contaminated, unusable water source.

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Why Does A Dairy Farm Need A Backup Water Plan?

For a dairy farm to run effectively, it needs to have a constant and adequate water supply. After all, a dairy cow can only produce sufficient milk by consuming a lot of water. Additionally, it is an animal welfare requirement to supply fresh drinking water to livestock throughout the day.

A backup water plan isn't only for drinking water for lactating cows. The other cows in the herd need drinking water too. Water is also required for the wash pen, milking equipment and parlors, and sprinkler systems used to cool the cows. Additionally, water is needed for the farm workers, the farmhouse, and the onsite hospital if there is one.

Drinking Water For Cows

Not only lactating cows but all cattle require drinking water. Below is a table with the estimates of how much drinking water cattle need daily.

Cattle Type

Water Consumption
(gallons per head per day)

Calves (1 to 1.5 gallons/100lbs.)

6 to 10


10 to 15

Dry Cows

20 to 30

Lactating Cows

25 to 50

Table 1: Estimates of how much drinking water dairy cows need in a day

Water For The Wash Pen

The next great need for water on a dairy farm is in the wash pen. Washing the cows' udders after milking is essential to hygiene practices and reducing infections. In the wash pen, between 15 to 20 gallons of water per cow per milking. The daily average per cow in the wash pen is 50 gallons.

The wash pen water requirements for lactating cows are similar to their drinking water requirements. However, the demand for water in the wash pen will be higher during peak times, as many cows will need to be washed in a short time. This is in contrast to the demand for drinking water spread over a whole day.

Water For Milk Equipment And The Milking Parlor

The milking equipment and the Milking parlor must be cleaned properly and per schedule. Aside from the cows pooping and then trudging through their poop, spilled milk and urine must be flushed away. It is imperative to keep the parlor sanitary to reduce the risk of milk contamination and the spread of disease through bacterial growth.

The table below gives an idea of the water usage in a milking parlor.

Milk Parlor Water Requirements

Plate Cooler

1.5 lbs. water / 1 lb. milk

Wash Water

5 gallons/cow

Flush Water

25 gallons/cow

Employees Needs

50 gallons/employee

Sprinkler System

1 gallon/cycle/cow

Additional Water Needs in Milking Parlor

Special Needs In Parlor

15 gallons/cow

Holding Pen

3 gallons/cow/milking

Water For The Misting Systems

There are different types of sprinkler systems one can use for cooling cows. The amount of water needed will depend on the type of cooling system in place. For example, some farmers use low-pressure feed lines while others use high-pressure misters. In addition, some dairy farmers cool their cows in sequence, while others use a simultaneous cooling system.

The amount of water used in these systems isn't generally averaged per cow. Instead, it is measured based on the area the sprayer covers or the maximum number of cows sprayed by the sprinkler.

The other areas in a dairy farm that will need a backup water supply is for the onsite hospital or animal clinic. Sterilized water will be needed to clean implements and rooms. Additionally, water will be required by the employees to drink, prepare their food, and flush the toilet.

What To Do If Your Water Supply Is Interrupted?

If the water supply to a farm is interrupted, one should first identify the source of the problem. For example,

  • Determine if the water supply is from a private or public system.
  • Determine if the problem is localized (farm-specific) or generalized (area-specific).
  • If using water supplied by a wholesaler, let them know about the disruption in supply.
  • Prioritize water use for essential activities and reduce non-essential water usage.
  • The farmer should contact his neighbors to see if they can share or trade water.
  • Fill up clean reservoirs or tanks with alternative water supplies, e.g., tanker water.
  • Have separate storage facilities for potable, non-potable, or mains water if necessary.

Assessing The Water Needs Of Your Dairy Farm

Before planning a backup water supply for a dairy farm, its vital water needs should be assessed first. It is better to consider the "worst case scenario" to avoid the necessity of planning an additional water backup at a later stage. Some of the factors the dairy farmer should consider are the following:

  • The number of lactating dairy cows. Depending on the dairy farm, lactating dairy cows need between 80 to 240 gallons of water per day, including drinking water.
  • Herd growth. If there are plans to grow the herd in the future, provisions should be made in the backup water supply. It would save the effort and cost of upgrading the backup store at a later stage.
  • Assess demand. Daily peak demand times for water are measured in gallons per minute (gpm). It refers to the maximum demand for water during various times of the day and differs between seasons. For example, peak demand in the summer months is usually higher than in the winter months.
  • Assess total daily usage. This figure will depend on the total water used in a day. It must include drinking water for lactating cows, dry cows, and heifers. Total usage includes cleaning the milking parlor, dairy equipment, restrooms, hospital facility requirements, and cooling the herd.

Planning A Water Backup For Your Dairy Farm

Once the assessment has been completed, planning the backup water supply can start. The backup water plan must meet the requirements of essential water demands and usage. Ideally, it should supply the farm for at least a few days.

Once these figures have been confirmed, planning can start. As mentioned, it makes sense to overcompensate when planning should the herd grow over time.

The backup water plan could include potable, non-potable, and mains water storage. Then serious consideration must be given to the types and layout of the pipes to be used and pumps.

Water Backup Options

Several options exist for harvesting and storing backup water. Each option has its considerations and will depend on the dairy farmers' needs, budget, and local laws. They are discussed in more detail next.

Dams And Reservoirs

A helpful water backup option is a dam or a reservoir. Dams are open to the air, while reservoirs can be open or enclosed. It's recommended that such surface water supply options contain at least two years of storage capacity.

When planning to build a dam or reservoir, the following needs to be kept in mind:

  • The reservoir capacity should anticipate water losses due to seepage, evaporation, and leaks.
  • Surface water usually requires a form of treatment before consumption or usage.
  • Treatment should control bacterial growth and reduce sediment.
  • Licensing: depending on the size of the dam and its location, a license might need to be obtained before construction.
  • Environmental impact: depending on the placement of the dam or reservoir, it might act as a barrier for fish passage or modify stream flow, especially if placed on a waterway.
  • The dam should be located within a generous catchment area.
  • The soil on which the dam is built should hold water.
  • The dam should be engineered with a spillway should it exceed capacity.


If the backup water supply relies on rivers or canals, a license is likely required to draw water from these sources.

Many farming communities, especially near mountainous areas or natural springs, use water channels that direct water to farms. Depending on the water flow from the sources, the farms will either have a constant water supply or be on a timetable. When the water is scheduled for a farm, it can be pumped into the reservoirs or tanks on the farm.

Groundwater: Wells Or Bore Holes

Wells and boreholes are generally considered the best water source for farms, depending on the quality and quantity of the groundwater.

Wells can be used in places with a high water table. A farmer could consider having more than one well for backup. For example, some farms have separate wells for the house and livestock. Water can be pumped from the wells into tanks with a capacity for a two- or three-day backup water supply.

Boreholes can be substantially deeper than wells, especially if the area's water table isn't too high. Since drilling for water can be very expensive, research should be conducted on groundwater aquifers. Additionally, the placement of the borehole will determine the quality and quantity of available water.

In some areas, groundwater is managed and allocated. The dairy farmer should check the requirements and get a license, if needed, before drilling. Water pumped from a borehole should be pumped into tanks to provide enough water for three to five days.

Harvesting Water From Rainfall, Dew, Or Fog

One of the ways to obtain water without a license for consumption in a dairy farm is to capture the rain, dew, and condensation from the roof of a building. Rainwater collected from roofs is usually of good quality and is ideal for washing the vats or plants. Additionally, rainwater is generally stored in a tank, limiting evaporative losses.

A relatively new innovation called "fog collection" is another means of harvesting clean water from the air. These are effective in places with heavy mist or fog. Fog collectors comprise structures holding mesh called "cloud fishers" vertically. Water droplets collect on the mesh as the fog rolls over and drip down into a receptacle. The water is then redirected and stored.

Check out this video for a quick rundown on this modern technology. It's pretty interesting

Purchased Water

Another option for a backup water supply is ordering water from a supplier. The supplier will bring the water in using a tanker, which can be pumped into storage facilities. It is advisable to confirm the type of water available, as it might need treatment before use.

Pumps and Water Lines

A significant component of a backup water plan includes the pumps and pipes needed to get the water between two points. A common mistake some farmers make is using narrower pipes, hoping it will increase water pressure. However, the opposite is true, and the water pressure is impeded by friction within the tube.

The pumps should be strong enough to pump the water to its destination through a series of pipes and bends. In addition, laying the lines so that gravity assists the water flow should extend the pump's lifespan.

When it comes to water lines, there are three types: the main line, distribution lines, and branch water lines. When choosing suitable piping for the pumps and water lines, one should consider their lengths, diameter, location, and piping losses.

Final Thoughts

Water backup plan is critical for a dairy farm to maintain the health and productivity of its livestock. The plan should outline steps to ensure a continuous supply of clean and safe water for the animals, even in the case of a water emergency, such as a broken pump or power outage.

This could include installing backup generators, storing water in tanks or cisterns, and having contingency agreements in place with neighboring farms or water suppliers. Regular maintenance of water systems and testing of backup systems is also crucial to ensure the plan's effectiveness. By having a comprehensive water backup plan in place, dairy farmers can protect their valuable assets and minimize the risk of water-related emergencies on their farm.

It's always a good idea to consult with a professional or local health department to determine the specific water requirements for your dairy farm.

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