Water Use in Beef Cattle can cause Steamy Debate

Water use today is a hot topic. There hasn’t been this much discussion about our favorite resource since the Wild West when the ranchers fought over water rights. Unlike those times, a Colt Peacemaker in .44-40 isn’t the weapon of choice to settle these disputes, but rather lawyers, lobbyists and social media.

Smoke of a .45 by Charles Russell

Can you imagine two K Street lobbyists, in merino wool suits with dapper ties, having a standoff in Dodge City? “One more step there mister, and I’ll contribute to your client’s P.A.C. so he votes my way!”

Of course raising beef cattle becomes part of this debate. For large portions of the American West where fights over water have ended in bloodshed, water has always been a touchy issue. However, the explosion of human population has added a new wrinkle to the water use puzzle. Consequently, all activities, including agriculture, are under increased scrutiny.

To further complicate this matter, certain groups are creating statistics to further their anti-meat agenda. Crazy numbers are thrown around for how much water it takes to raise a pound of beef. These inflated values take into account rainwater, which is silly because the rain was going to be used by the grass that cattle eat anyway. They also include irrigation water in farming, which is also silly because the farmer was going to raise those crops with irrigation anyway. Whether the crops are used as cattle feed, chicken feed, human food or the substrate for ethanol, the farmer will use his water rights to irrigate his crops to make the food and fiber the world wants him to make.


Rather than looking for scapegoats for the water problem, each water user needs to look for ways that their water use can be improved. For folks in agriculture, we are transitioning towards more efficient irrigation systems. For example, we are moving away from flood irrigation and open canals, towards piping the water and using low-pressure pivot irrigators that minimize evaporation loss. These technologies obviously cost money, so the updating is not happening all at once, but as farm revenue allows them to occur. Cattlemen in particular are focusing on water delivery systems that minimize waste, such as electric water troughs with automatic shut-offs.


On a personal level, we can look at how we use water in our homes. Do we use a water efficient grass variety in our lawn, or does our lawn require 30 inches of rain to stay green? According to the Alliance for Water Efficiency, lawns are America’s biggest irrigated crop with three times the acreage of irrigated corn. Things as simple as fixing the leaky faucet can save hundreds gallons of water over the course of a year.

If we are truly serious about water sustainability, we will all have to take part in its preservation. Singling out one group or another as the “water hog” is counter-productive and ignores the reality that we could run out of fresh water for all our needs. It doesn’t have to be this way. From the golf course to the corn field to the backyard, if each of us work to make our water use more efficient we can go a long way towards keeping a good supply of water.


Photo credit: Smoke of a .45 by Charles Russell, who by the way in my opinion was the greatest Western artist that ever lived.