New Research: Water use management and the water footprint in current and future climates

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Source: Dairy Research Cluster

  • Characterize in-barn water use and identify best management practices to reduce water use and increase efficiency;
  • Assess heat stress in dairy cows and evaluate abatement options in current and future climates; and,
  • Evaluate practical treatment methods for managing silage effluent.

The project builds on the results from a large water use and conservation project completed under the Dairy Research Cluster 2 (2013-2018) that measured the water footprint of milk production and identified ways for reducing it. The researchers are taking measurements of water use (in-barn and wastewater) and heat stress indicators on farms in Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia. Dairy barns are being fitted with flow meters and the data collected will be compiled to develop region-specific water use benchmarks. They will incorporate the data into models to evaluate the effectiveness of different management practices to improve water use efficiency by region while factoring in energy use and the costs of different environmental best practices.

Minimizing heat stress to dairy cows is one of the biggest opportunities identified by the researchers to manage water use more efficiently on dairy farms and lower the water footprint. When cows experience heat stress, their feed intake drops, their water intake increases, and milk yield is decreased. These factors contribute to a higher water footprint value, in addition to negatively impact reproduction and cow health, leading to a loss of revenues for farmers.

The frequency and extent of heat stress episodes in Canada are expected to increase with climate change. To address this challenge on farms, the researchers are examining heat stress indicators like the Temperature Humidity Index (THI is a number that shows the combined effect of air temperature and humidity) in different barn types, designs and ventilation systems on test sites across the country. They will be evaluating different strategies to reduce the impact on the animals and water use.

Another important component of this research includes measuring and capturing dairy farm run-off containing a high pollutant load that can be harmful to the environment. The researchers are investigating low-cost treatment systems to collect the nutrient-rich runoff and will be testing new technologies to capture important nutrients like phosphorous from the wastewater.

The results from this national research will help provide science-based evidence to develop best management practices for climate change adaptation, lower the water footprint and improve environmental farm performance.

Quick Project Facts

Research team:

Principal Investigators:  Andrew VanderZaag (Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) – Ottawa) and Robert Gordon (University of Windsor)

Co-Investigators: Roland Kroebel (AAFC-Lethbridge), Merrin Macrae (University of Waterloo), Édith Charbonneau (Université Laval), Terra Jamieson (AAFC-Halifax), Ward Smith, Budong Qian (AAFC-Ottawa)

Collaborators: Tom Wright (Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs), Sean McGinn, Tim McAllister (AAFC-Lethbridge), Keith Reid (AAFC-Guelph), Ray Desjardins (AAFC-Ottawa), Tim Nelson (Livestock Research Innovation Corporation), John McCabe (Nova Scotia Department of Agriculture)

Total budget: $706,438

Funding partners: Cash contributions provided by Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and Dairy Farmers of Canada.

Eight Canadian dairy farms are targeted for participation in this research project.

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