Simply put, water is needed to create the nutritious food that fuels all humans. Because of improved water management and increased milk production efficiencies, the U.S. dairy industry has decreased its water footprint by more than 65 percent over the past several decades.
It takes an average of 144 gallons of water to produce one gallon of milk (1). More than 90 percent of water used to produce dairy goes to growing crops to feed the cows. Some regions of the U.S. may use more water, while New England benefits from a steady rainfall to irrigate crops.
Dairy farmers use water responsibly in their milking parlors and in manure management and storage. For example, wastewater is recycled to clean the barn and irrigate fields. One benefit of fertilizing the soil with cow manure is to help conserve water. When manure is used as a soil treatment, the water-holding capacity of soil is increased by 20 percent, resulting in reduced groundwater needed to grow crops.
Research has shown that when it rains, agricultural land is much better at holding nutrients. One acre of developed land typically sends three times as much phosphorus to waterways as one acre of well managed agricultural land.
Farmers hold themselves to high standards and meet the requirements of numerous groups including the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), NRCS (Natural Resource Conservation Service, as well as state departments of agriculture and local government entities.
Farmers don’t want nutrients to leave their fields, and they use a variety of techniques to determine the right amount of fertilizer to reduce nutrient runoff. For example, no-till farming, planting cover crops and buffer strips, and using modern precision agriculture techniques, help preserve soil nutrients and water quality.
Source: Henderson, A. et. al., U.S. fluid milk comprehensive life cycle assessment. University of Michigan & University of Arkansas. 2012