How much water does it take to make a gallon of milk?

The following blog was submitted by Adam Oliphant, a graduate student in Forestry, as part of the requirements for GRAD 5414 Water for Health Seminar Interdisciplinary Seminar. This course examines emerging interdisciplinary issues related to the chemistry, microbiology, engineering and health aspects of drinking water.

How much water does it take to make a gallon of milk?

The short answer is about 4 gallons according to the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy’s 2012 report; the larger answer focuses on why and what impact milk production has on the environment.

According to the U.S. Dairy report, 95% of the water required to produce milk is used to grow cow feed. On average across the United States, 35% of the feed is produced by dairy farmers, while 65% comes from other farmers.

All this water comes from somewhere and the massive production of feed and milk comes at a price. A group of Texas ranchers reported, in the white paper Agricultural Water, therole that water has in agriculture in western states and what they see in the future of water in agriculture. A series of recommendations including repairing the aging water distribution network and increasing university research on improving irrigation strategies and water efficient plant varieties was proposed. The paper highlighted that water demand was greater than supply, especially in Texas, and that the amount of water available for agriculture was shrinking due to increasing demand from cities, oil extraction, and environmental flows for endangered species.

The other 7 gallons are consumed by the cows themselves. You may wonder if the minerals found in water the cows drink are present in milk. A study performed at Virginia Tech by Mann et al. in 2013 and published in Journal of Dairy Science evaluated the impact that iron concentrations in the water the cows drank had on the milk they produced. For a week cows were given water with 0, 2, 5, and 12.5 ppmiron. For comparison the USEPAsecondary maximum contaminant level for iron is 0.3ppm. After a week there was a subtle increase in iron in the milk produced by the cows that consumed the 12.5 ppm Fe water.

"Collaborators from the Department of Food Science and Technology, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Dairy Science showing how much water a dairy cow requires each day. Dairy cattle consume approximately 30 gallons of water per day."
“Collaborators from the Department of Food Science and Technology, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Dairy Science showing how much water a dairy cow requires each day. Dairy cattle consume approximately 30 gallons of water per day.”

Another study presented in the The Virginia Dairyman surveyed cows at 13 farms across Virginia to see what impact long term iron and other metal concentrations in drinking water had on milk produced. Iron concentrations ranged from 0.004 to 0.9 ppm Fe with most farms reporting less than 0.3 ppm. Overall there was no significant difference in milk produced from cows that drank low(< 0.3 ppm) and high iron water. However, there was an increase in the quantity of milk produced with increasing water iron concentration. This finding was attributed to other factors such as the age and health of the cattle.

The white paper, Agricultural Water, identifies that forward thinking research on water in agricultural production and downstream influence is critical to preparing for the future. The four articles discussed herepresent the rolethat water has on dairy production in the United States. These articles provide a perspective that examines theresearch effect of iron on milk production of several cows in Virginia compared to the white paper, which examines the future of water security across the Western United States. The writings cover the impact of mineral concentrations in water consumed by cows on milk production through Virginia and the environmental impact of dairy cows across the United States, respectively. This range of articles demonstrate the value of varying scope and technical detail in order to reach the broadest audience, which is important to issues involving public policy.

“Agricultural Water: Protecting the Future of Our Nation, Agricultural White Paper” King Ranch Institute for Ranch Management, Texas A&M University- Kingsville, October 2012

“Can Iron in Water Affect Milk Production?” G. R.  Mann, K. Phetxumphou, E. Gibson, C. Martel, S. E.  Duncan, A. D. Dietrich, R. James, and K. Knowlton, The Virginia Dairyman,June 2013

“Effects of mineral content of bovine drinking water: Does iron content affect milk quality?”  G. R.  Mann,   S. E.  Duncan, K. F.  Knowlton, A. D. Dietrich, and S. F. O’Keefe, Journal of Dairy Science Vol. 96 No. 12, 2013

“U.S. Dairy’s Environmental Footprint, A Summary of Findings 2008-2012” Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy, 2013

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18 thoughts on “How much water does it take to make a gallon of milk?

  1. I agree that these articles are meaningful to dairy production. They give some comments about what is the main reason for water shortage and how to improve the water shortage. Also, iron increase to improve milk production amount is a good example to enlighten research people to consider about supplemental nutrients in the milk would improve the milk quality and quantity. What we should do to our best is to give concern for water source protection and improve water usage efficiency.

  2. After reading through the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy’s 2012 Report I couldn’t find anything to suggest where the figure “144 gallons” figure came from. Could you please highlight the sections and information from the report that was used to derive this estimate? Thank you.

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  4. 144 gallons of water per gallon of milk? What exactly is making up that number? Does this include the water (both blue & green water) that is required to grow their feed? Does this 144 number include the amount of water that is used on site for cleaning the cow’s loafing area, and to clean the milk parlour equipment?

    I’ve read in other sources, including Mother Jones, that it takes between 1000 and 2000 litres of water to produce a gallon of milk.

    • Hi Debrah, thank you for your questions! There should be typo here, one of the published paper showed that 4 gallons of water is required for 1 gallon of milk, generally speaking. This 4 gallons of water including feeding, heating, cooling, cleaning up, and so on.

  5. This design is wicked! You obviously know how to keep a
    reader entertained. Between your wit and your videos, I
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  9. I saw another article that said 2000 gallons, so who are we to believe?
    When numbers are that far apart, questions arise. The freedom to report different findings, is sacred in America! Our major medias are infected with propaganda. This is the last bastion of the “Free Press,” our 1st built protection. Yet, the words i give may land me in jail.

  10. This and other articles regarding gallons of water needed by a cow to produce a gallon of milk, quote values which are all over the map (from less that 10 to over 2,000) with out any supporting information or any info on what is being included in the amount. Between 1947 and 1955, I was a teenager on a dairy farm in Eastern Ontario. We had 50 milk cows and shipped milk to Montreal.

    All the water our cows drank was pumped from a well using a wind driven windmill. It was not 1,000 gallons of water for every gallon of milk our cows produced. I expect this 1,000 gallons is mostly the water (rain) required to grow the grass, grain, corn and hay which we grew to feed the cows. One article suggested the cow drank 4 or 5 gallons of water per gallon of milk. We never measured how much they drank. In the summer they were only in the stable twice a day just long enough to be milked. I don’t recall them drinking all that much even after a hot summer day in the pasture. During the winter they stayed in their stall, 24/7.

    One of the articles suggested (without supporting documentation) that 95% of the water required to produce milk was needed to grow the food the cow ate. This may be true, I do not know. Our grass, gran, corn and hay depended on rain to grow. But if this is anywhere near accurate, then for every 5 gallons of water the cow drank, we needed 95 gallons (19 times as much) of rain water to grow the grass, grain, corn and hay eaten by the cow to produce milk.

    Just to error on the high side let’s say the cow needs 10 gallons of water to produce 1 gallon of milk. Also let’s say we need 20 times as much rain water to grow the grass, grain, corn and hay. So using these amounts, one gallon of milk needs 10 gallons of water for the cow and 200
    gallons to grow the food. A total of 210 gallows per gallon of milk. I expect this is much closer than the 1,000 to 2,000 gallons of water per gallon of milk quoted in some articles. Yes some additional water was used to clean the cows utter before milking and more to keep the milk house clean.

    This is what I detest about the internet. It contains so much misleading or incorrect data.

    • What does the statement “Your comment is awaiting moderation.” want me to do. Other than several typos, I have no desire to modify my comment.

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