With water now representing a considerable cost on most dairy farms, some producers are considering alternative sources.
Despite farming in an area which is home to the longest stretch of coastline, and rainwater seemingly falling in abundance, farm manager John Allen says the south west of England still has some of the most expensive water costs in the UK.
Mr Allen, farm manager at Maristow Farms, Roborough, just north of Plymouth, says he has seen water costs double in the last 10 years, with water for the estate’s three dairy units now representing a ‘considerable cost’.
As a result, Mr Allen is now pumping natural water from a number of springs on the Maristow estate to supply two of the farms, which were previously on a mains supply. The third unit, only recently acquired, is currently still on mains water.
He says: “We need about 30cu.m of water a day, and if the two units which are now supplied by the pump system were still on mains water, we worked out our water costs would be in excess of a penny to produce a litre of milk.”
Years ago, the estate had dug a bore hole, and while the possibility of reinstating this was explored, Mr Allen explains high iron and heavy metal contamination meant this was not feasible.
Rainwater harvesting was out of the question due to treatment costs and the high volume of water which would have been required.
With several springs naturally occurring in the valley between the two dairy units, the use of pumps was deemed to be the best solution to the problem of rising water costs.
Since mid-January, water for the milking unit and water troughs has been sourced from a series of natural springs creating five catchment tanks, which gravity-feed a single supply tank.
This supply tank is situated 11 metres (36ft) high above two chambers, each containing three pumps.
This height distance provides the velocity and flow to drive the pumps and create the pressure to pump the water to where it is needed.
These six pumps then pump the necessary water a distance of 700m (2,300ft) and 70m (230ft) in height to a 70cu.m central storage tank.
From there, the water is filtered for sediment and UV treated before going to the two units for either use in the milking parlour or for water troughs. Parlour washings are still taken from an existing borehole.
The pumps are pumping two litres of water every five seconds, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Mr Allen says he checks everything is working as it should be by placing a two-litre jug under the inlet in the storage tank for five seconds.
The project cost £100,000 and a 40 per cent rural economy grant was received. And, while it is early days, Mr Allen says they are hoping for a pay back within five years.
“What is unknown as of yet is the maintenance cost, and while the seals on the pumps were an issue to begin with, this is now under control. We are hoping costs will be minimal as there are no real moving parts to the pumps.”
An extraction licence was needed to get the project under way, a cost which will require an annual payment. But as Mr Allen explains, the pumps are using 90 per cent of the water taken from the springs to pump the remaining 10 per to where the farm needs it. Only a small amount of water is taken from the springs, and he says this means the spring is not likely to ‘dry up’.
Mr Allen says: “In our budget, we aim to be 70 per cent self-sufficient in terms of our water needs. We might be able to do more than that, but equally in a dry year we could shut one set of three pumps off and just keep three going.
“However, history says there is always water in these springs and the supply is reliable.
“Now everything which goes into a cow or the milking unit is entirely clean. We have seen no rejection of the water by cows and it is now coming from a different source. This natural water has got to be better for cows.
“The cow’s stomach is like a fermentation vat, so I would hope the natural spring water would be more beneficial to the cow than chlorinated mains water.”
The farming system at Maristow Farm comprises 700 cows milked over three units, all within one mile of each other.
Of the 600 hectares (1,500 acres) farmed, 80ha (200 acres) is down to cereals, 60ha (150 acres) to maize, 20ha (50 acres) to fodder beet, and the balance is grass.
Mr Allen says: “We used to put more land down to arable crops, but since we started our third dairy unit, we made the decision to concentrate on dairy production and growing grass, with all the remaining arable crops being fed back to the livestock rather than being sold off the field.”
A total of 450 cows are milked across the two units being supplied with the pumped spring water. These are all-year-round-calving semi-TMR fed herds, averaging 8,500 litres at 4.2 per cent butterfat and 3.28 per cent protein. Milk from the two herds is sold to Davidstow on a manufacturing contract.
A third unit, a brown field site with a milking parlour, was taken on earlier this year and is home to 250 spring cows on a grass-based system.
A new 24:48 parlour was installed at this site, and Mr Allen says the aim on this third unit is for cows to average 5,000 litres with high milk solids, with most milk coming from grass. Milk from this herd is being sold to Arla.
He says: “We want to put more emphasis on milk solids, and with these new cows, we will have a smaller footprint on the ground, as grazing Holsteins on this type of land can be difficult.”
Mr Allen says the move to this system was centred on the aim of increased profit.
As well as looking at ways of reducing water costs, Mr Allen is looking at improving energy efficiency. And while he is trying to reduce energy consumption across all three units, he has also installed solar panels to supply electricity for one of the units. The new farm is also set up to take a solar panel system in the future.
He says: “It is becoming increasingly important to focus on the costs of production. This includes things such as energy and water. We have proved here we can have some control of these costs.”
Dr Dylan Bright, sustainability manager for South West Water, offers his expert advice: