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Water, feed consumption by livestock trending downward

Nebraska study finds livestock industry’s water consumption has decreased significantly in recent decades, thanks primarily to increased feed efficiency.

Chicken Farm, Poultry
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Nebraska study: Livestock industry’s water consumption has decreased significantly in recent decades

The livestock industry has made significant strides in decreasing water consumption and increasing efficiency despite growing productivity, according to a new report from the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute at the University of Nebraska.

Between 1960 and 2016, all sectors of the livestock industry — including beef, pork, chicken, eggs and milk — improved the ratio of total water consumed, to overall productivity. Beef saw the smallest gains, increasing overall water efficiency by 1.8 times, while milk saw the largest improvement, increasing efficiency 5.1 times, according to the 2019 Nebraska Water Productivity Report.

Mesfin Mekonnen, an assistant research professor at the Dougherty Water for Food Global Institute and the lead author on the report, said the majority of the gains could be attributed to improved feed conversion among livestock. Feed production, he said, accounts for the industry’s largest use of water. So as feed consumption per animal has decreased, so too has the industry’s overall water footprint.

“The main factor is animals have become more productive,” Mekonnen said. “More milk per cow, more eggs per chicken. It has increased significantly for all animals.”

Improvements across sectors

During the study time period, all sectors of the livestock industry except dairy saw dramatic increases in production. Beef production, for example, increased 4.9 times between 1990 and 2016, while pork production grew 2.8 times in the same period. But while overall livestock production has nearly quadrupled since 1960, feed consumption increased just 2.5 times.

Both an increase in animal productivity, and a decrease in typical feed conversion ratios, have played a role in this trend, with feed conversion ratios seeing a 68% decrease in dairy cattle, 30% for swine and 12% in chickens.

These are positive developments for producers trying to win over a consumer base that is increasingly interested in the environmental impact of the food they eat, Mekonnen said. But this could also be the sticking point: Consumers will want to see continued improvement with respect to agriculture’s environmental footprint, and many species may be nearing their genetic capacity for productivity.

Feed production, Mekonnen said, is where there remains room for further improvement. Although improved crop yields have also played a role in decreasing the industry’s overall water use, key crops such as corn and soybeans don’t always live up to their potential in terms of efficiency, according to the Nebraska Water Productivity Report.

These crops have also seen gains in overall water efficiency. Irrigated corn saw a 65% increase in water efficiency, while irrigated soybeans improved 72%. But unlike livestock, scientific benchmarks that estimate the potential of these crops suggest there is room for improvement, because in many cases the crops fall short of their potential yields. Improved soil and pest management, as well as ongoing genetic selection, could improve the efficiency of corn by 21%, and soybeans by 19%, according to the report.

This is where conscientious producers could further reduce their water use and environmental footprint, Mekonnen said — by paying attention to the efficiency of the feedstuffs they purchase.

“Looking at how feed is produced makes a big difference,” he said. “The main message is producers have to look at the full supply — where they get their feed, what they feed, and how it was produced.”

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