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Quantification of on-farm groundwater use under different dairy production systems in Pakistan


The objective of this study was to assess the role of production systems and management strategies on groundwater use at dairy farms in Punjab, Pakistan. In a prospective cohort observational study, 14 dairy farms were enrolled from the districts Okara and Kasur, Punjab. The farms were divided into two production systems: 1) peri urban dairy farms, PU (n = 7; herd size 35 ± 10); and 2) rural market oriented dairy farms, RM (n = 6; herd size 32 ± 6; Mean ± SD). One commercial dairy farm with Holstein cows (herd size = 60) was enrolled as a case study. Water flow meters were installed at the groundwater sources and the readings were taken fortnightly for 12 months. Results showed that the amount of daily on-farm groundwater use was higher in the PU dairy farm (117 ± 7 L/buffalo; Means ± SE) compared to the RM farm (80 ± 8). The farms having dirt floor used less water (78 ± 7) than the farms with brick floor (119 ± 9 L/buffalo). Furthermore, the farm having access to surface water used significantly less water (77 ± 10) than the farms having no such facility (120 ± 5 L/buffalo). Groundwater use was highest in July (145 ± 9) and lowest in February (58 ± 15 L/buffalo). The descriptive data from a commercial dairy farm revealed that the average water use during summer months was 844 ± 81 L/cow (Mean ± SD). The current findings conclude that production system, management practices and season greatly influenced on-farm groundwater use at dairy farms.


Sustainable water management is an emerging challenge of the current century to achieve food security in the world. Climate change has aggravated the severity of water scarcity issues especially in the agricultural economies. Pakistan, being a climate vulnerable country, is predicted to face severe water crisis in coming years [1, 2]. Furthermore, dwindling surface water supplies due to climate change caused an increased dependency on groundwater reserves for agriculture [3]. Livestock plays an important role in the livelihoods of millions of smallholder farmers in the country. Dairy farming is one of the major activities in the country and heavily dependent on groundwater utilization for on-farm activities and animal feed production.

Dairy farming is a water intensive activity and accounts for about 20% of agricultural water use [4]. The on-farm water utilization includes drinking, cleaning, and water application to cool dairy animals during summer. Most of the water is used for cow consumption to support milk production followed by milking parlor cleaning, and barn cleaning [4, 5]. However, in areas with sever heat stress, the water use for cooling dairy animal was much greater than drinking [6]. The temporal analysis indicated that more water is used during summer compared to the winter months [4, 7, 8]. The quantity of water use may vary with production systems and technology used at farm [9]. A Canadian study found that on average daily 246 L/cow water was used for on-farm activities at dairy farms [8]. In Pakistan, the debate has begun to rationalize the groundwater usage in agriculture and other industries. Currently, there are limited studies on groundwater use under various livestock production systems in Pakistan making it difficult to identify the efficient water use strategies at farms. This creates a dire need to not only quantify the on-farm groundwater use but also to understand water usage pattern under different production setups. It would help to identify the management areas to be addressed for efficient water use at livestock farms and provide a baseline information to assess groundwater stress due to livestock farming for policy implications.

The objective of the current study was to assess the role of production systems and management strategies on groundwater use at dairy farms. The study hypothesized that access to surface water sources, types of floors, farm location, and the type of animals at farm would determine the on-farm groundwater use.

Materials and methods

Study site and herd enrollment

A total of 14 dairy farms from Punjab province were selected for the study in districts Okara and Kasur of Punjab, Pakistan. Farm selection was based on production systems. Seven dairy farms were enrolled from peri urban areas and 06 farms from the rural areas. One commercial dairy farm was enrolled as a case study. More than 50 farms were visited to get the consent of the farmers to participate in the study. However, only 14 farmers agreed to cooperate in the study. The study plan was approved by the Advanced Studies and Research Board of the University of Veterinary and Animal Sciences, Lahore, Pakistan (das/1433).

Study design and monitoring duration

For quantification of water use, the prospective cohort observational study design was used. The enrolled farms were visited from November 2020 to October 2021 fortnightly. Data on herd structure and volumetric water use for on-farm activities were collected at each visit. The research plan was adapted from the previous studies [4, 8, 9].

Water use measurement

Continuous flow analog water meters were installed at different farm locations. The farms where only a single groundwater source was present, only one flow meter was installed to measure volumetric water use for all activities. At the commercial dairy farm, 4 water meters were installed for measuring the water used for drinking, cleaning/washing, and showering.

Herd structure, husbandry practices, and demographics

The information collected at farm included herd structure (number of animals; adult, young stock, and calves; type of animals, lactating and dry), husbandry practices (feeding type; green fodder and total mixed ration; farm cleaning practices; housing systems; watering practices at farm), and farmers’ demographics. Written consent of the farmer was obtained. The identity of the farmer was kept secret and was not shared with any third party for any reason. The farmers were given the mineral mixture supplements as an incentive to collaborate in the study.

Statistical analysis

All the statistical analyses were performed using SAS 9.4 (SAS Institute Inc., Cary, NC). The herd structure and farmers’ demographic data were descriptively analyzed and presented as percentage. The association of on-farm water use with production system, husbandry practices, and month were subjected to ANOVA. Initially, the univariate model was applied for independent variables and then multivariate models were tested. The final model included production system, month, access to surface water, and floor type as fixed effects and farm as a random effect. The Mixed procedure of SAS was used for analysis and the significance was declared at P ≤ 0.05.


Farmers’ demographics

Farmers’ demographics and herd structure is presented in Table 1. All the selected farmers were male with 26.7% of farmers belonging to the age group of up to 20–40 years, 46.7% were between 41–50 years of age and almost 26.7% of the farmers were above 50 years of age. Among all the farmers enrolled, 13.3% were those who were illiterate and had no formal education at all, 53.3% farmers were those who got formal education up to matriculation level, 33.3% of farmers were above matriculation with, and only 1 farmer who got an education at the university level. The 33.3% percent of the farms were those who had 5–15 years of experience in dairy farming, 53.3% had an experience of 16–30 years while only 13.3% farmers had above 30 years of experience in dairy farming.

Table 1. Farmer demographics and herd structure (n = 14).

Farm infrastructure and housing

The variable related to farm infrastructure is presented in Table 2. Water ponds were available at only 13.3% of the farms. Showers were installed only at commercial dairy farm. while most of the farms (93.3%) did not have this facility. At 66.7% of the farms, no water storage tank was available; the overhead tank was present at 33.3% of the farms. One water trough was present in the majority (53.3%) of the farms and almost 33.3% of farms were those where two water troughs were present and 13.3% of farms had more than 2 water troughs. Almost 33.3% of farms were those where the animals were tethered, 46.7% were keeping the animals loose, and 13.3% were those that were practicing both options. The commercial farm had freestall housing. At 40% of the farms, a dirt floor was present and brick floor was present at 53% of the enrolled farms. The commercial farm had concrete floor. In 40% of the cases, family members were taking care of animals; while paid labor was present at 40% of the farms and mixed labor was present at 20% of the farms. Up to three and eight persons were residing at the farms in 33.3% and 46.7% of the farms, respectively. Nine or above persons were residing at 20% of the farms. Electricity was present at all the farms.

Farm water sources

The descriptive findings about farm water sources are presented in Table 3. Groundwater usage was more common (73.3%) among the farmers compared to the surface water source (26.7%). All the enrolled farms had at least one water pump at their farms. The other water withdrawing machines were hand pumps (at 2 farms), tube wells (02 farms), and the municipal water supply (2 farms). The tube-well/turbine was mainly being used for irrigation of crops and secondly for cooling animals in summer. In 46.6% of the farms, the groundwater level was less than 100 ft, and more than 53.3% of the farms had this level greater than 100 ft. The quality of groundwater was sweet in 53.3% of the farms while 46.6% of farms had brackish groundwater. About 26.7% of the farms had access to the surface water source in summer, mostly canals. Majority of the farmers (73.3%) were not taking their animals to the surface water source.

Feeding practices

Most of the farms were using fresh fodder to feed their animals. Concentrate and cotton seed cake were being offered at some of the farms and only to the milking herd. The commercial farm having Holstein cows was using total mixed ration.

Water use practices

Water use practices are presented in Table 4. Most of the farms (73.33%) were collecting the manure manually without using any water. Only 26.67% of the farms were flushing the water to remove the manure from the sheds. Cleaning was done once daily, twice, and more than twice at 23.33%, 73.33% and 3.33% of the farms, respectively. During summer months, 40% and 50% of the farms cooled their animals once and twice, respectively. Showering was practiced only at commercial farm. The hosepipe was used at most of the farms (46.7%) for cooling the animals. While water pond and canal/water channel were preferred ways of cooling animals at 20% and 26.7% of the farms, respectively. Water for drinking was offered for 1–2 times at 40% of the farms, more than two times at 20%, and adlib access was provided at 26.67% of the farms (Table 5).

Table 5. Multivariable general mixed model showing the association of quantity of groundwater use with production system, month, floor type, and access to surface water.

Production system and groundwater usage

The multivariable model showing the association of groundwater use with different parameters is presented in Table 5. The results indicated that production system tended to influence daily water usage at farm. The peri-urban dairy farms tended to use more groundwater than the rural farm. The average daily water usage per buffalo was 117 ± 9 and 87 ± 16 L for the peri-urban and the rural farms, respectively (Fig 1; Means ± SE). The commercial farm had an average daily groundwater use of 767 ± 141 L /cow (only descriptive data; Means ± SD).

Fig 1. Average daily groundwater use at buffalo dairy farms from different production systems.

The average daily groundwater use per buffalo at dairy farms (n = 14) from two production systems in Punjab, Pakistan: peri-urban and rural farms (no of observations = 102). Error bars represent SE, P = 0.112.

Seasonal groundwater usage

The different seasons were strongly associated with water use at farms (Table 5). The water use was higher in summer months (June, July) compared to the winter months (November- February). During June and July, the average daily groundwater usage per buffalo was highest 132 ± 1 and 145 ± 11, respectively (Fig 2; Means ± SE). However, groundwater usage ranged from 69 to 77 L per day during winter months. The data from commercial farm were available for the months of March to July (Fig 3). The descriptive analysis showed that the average daily groundwater was highest during June (924 L/cow) followed by July (847) and May (763).

Fig 2. Average daily groundwater use at buffalo dairy farms in different months.

The average daily groundwater use per buffalo at dairy farms in different months of the year in Punjab, Pakistan (no of observation = 102). Error bars represent SE, P <0.001.

Fig 3. Average daily groundwater use at a commercial Holstein farm in different months during the summer.

The daily groundwater usage per cow at a commercial dairy farm in different months during summer 2021 (no of observation = 12).

Groundwater use in relation to floor type and access to surface water

The farms having access to surface water tended to use less groundwater (87 ± 16) compared to the ones having no such nearby facility (116 ± 9; Means ± SE; P = 0.12; Fig 4). The dairy farms having dirt floor significantly used less groundwater (79 ± 11) compared to the farms with brick floor (124 ± 15; Means ± SE; P = 0.025; Fig 5). The interaction of floor type with access to surface water showed interesting relationship of groundwater use with these variables. The farms with dirt floor and having access to surface water had significantly reduced groundwater usage (46 ± 14; Means ± SE; P = 0.035; Fig 6).

Fig 4. Access to surface water source reduces daily groundwater use at buffalo dairy farms.

The daily groundwater use per buffalo at dairy farms (n = 14) with and without access to surface water sources (no of observations = 102). The surface water sources included, water ponds, water channels, or canals. Error bars represent SE, P = 0.124.

Fig 5. Average daily groundwater use at dairy farms with different floor types.

The average groundwater use per buffalo at dairy farms (n = 14) with two types of floor surfaces: dirt floor and brick floor as a resting area (no of observations = 102). Error bars represent SE, P = 0.025.

Fig 6. Floor types and access to surface water source has interaction effect on groundwater use at dairy farms.

The average daily groundwater use per buffalo at dairy farms (n = 14) with different floor types and access to surface water sources (no of observation = 102). Error bars represent SE. Floor type × access to surface water source, P = 0.035.


Farmers’ demographics

The study herds were mainly market oriented dairy farm and were selling the milk produced on daily basis. Most of the farms had buffaloes as the main dairy animals and very few had cattle indicating that buffalo was the preferred dairy animal both in rural and peri-urban set up. It could be attributed to the high demands for fresh buffalo milk. The only commercial farm had the Holstein Frisian cattle breed. Most males running the farms could be explained by the herd size. It could be difficult for females to run relatively larger dairy set up. At small farms with 1–2 lactating animals, the females share the major responsibility of husbandry practices.

Most of the farmers were above 40 years of age and it indicates that maturity and strength were prevalent among the persons running a dairy farm. Most of the farmers were educated and it indicated that the literacy rate is on an increasing trend and educated people are now diverting to dairy farming rather than illiterate people. Data of experience indicated that if a person gets involved in dairy farming, he does continue to do it for a longer period. Landholding data indicated that there is a constraint of land owned by a farmer and they needed to have land on lease to run their farms and agriculture. The land availability could be an important limitation of herd size restricting it to 20–40 adult animals at the dairy farms.

Farm infrastructure and housing

Only 02 enrolled farms had water ponds at their farms. It may be due to the high cost of building and maintaining the water pond or due to a shortage of space. Only the commercial dairy farm had showers for cooling the animals and it was because exotic animals were more prone to heat stress than buffaloes. Also, at farms with dirt floor it would not be practical to have showering. Most of the farmers didn’t have water storage tanks and were directly pumping the groundwater using motor pumps. It indicates that either they did not want to spend money to install or built a water reservoir or the water temperature might be affecting the animals as stored water gets affected by the ambient temperature during hot and cold seasons. Most farms had 1–2 water troughs due to smaller animal number and they were providing drinking water to animals at specific times. The ratio of family versus hired labor was equal. All the farms had electricity connection. One farm got electricity connection during the study, earlier they were running water pump on diesel engine. It does indicate the regular need of energy supply at farms for routine work. The study did not find any farm using the solar energy.

Farm water sources

Most of the farmers were using groundwater as the main water source. It may be because surface water sources were either far or inaccessible. In district Okara, there is running a canal near the peri-urban area. However, the canal banks were cemented, and it was difficult for animals to go in and out of the canal. All the farms had water pumps for groundwater as it was easy to install and maintain.

Water use practices

Cleaning was being done without flushing water as most of the farms had a dirt floor and even those who had brick floors were not using water for cleaning due to facility design. The lack of proper drainage facility could also be a factor for manual collection of manure. The hosepipe was the most frequent method of washing animals due to easy handling and space issues.

Production system and groundwater usage

The groundwater use at peri-urban and rural farms was much lower than the commercial dairy cattle farms. Comparatively huge amount of water used at commercial farm could be attributed to the cleaning of sheds, milking parlor and milking utensils, and increased showering needs for exotic cows under subtropical conditions. The on-farm water use at peri-urban and rural farms was lower than the reported values of 350 L/buffalo [6]. This difference could be due to the cooling duration per day and the study period. The present study included the year-round groundwater use while Bah et al. [6] only described the cross-sectional values of water use during summer. However, the water use at commercial dairy farm in the current study was much higher than the reported quantities of 246.3 ± 6.8 L·cow−1·d−1 in a previous study [8]. This difference could be attributed to the variation in production systems and geographic location. The current study was conducted in subtropical region with longer summer compared to the Al-Bahouh et al. [8]’s study where the dairy farms were in temperate areas with relatively less water needs for cooling.

Seasonal groundwater usage

Increased water uses during summer in our study agreed to what has been reported earlier [4, 8]. This could be attributed to the cooling needs of dairy animals. It appears that the subtropical conditions are a major determinant of water usage at dairy farms and signifies the importance of water efficient cow cooling strategies for dairy farms.

Groundwater use in relation to floor type and access to surface water

The current findings suggest that on-farm water usage varied with farm management practices. The lowest water use on farms with dirt floor could be a strategy of farmers to avoid mud condition on dirt floor with excess use of water. The access to surface water further reduced the on-farm water use for farms with dirt floor. These findings strengthen the idea of rehabilitation and preservation of community ponds in villages. In the province Punjab, these ponds were on public lands with a water share from irrigation department via water channels. These ponds were also important to hold the excessive water during heavy rain events. The influence of farm level management strategies on groundwater use is in line with what has been found earlier. The published literature indicates that farm management practices play a major role in determining on-farm water usage [4, 8].


Groundwater use at dairy farms was mainly influenced by production systems, month of the year, access to surface water sources and floor types. The peri-urban buffalo dairy farms used more groundwater than the rural farms. The farms with dirt floors and having access to surface water used less water than the ones with brick floors. Water use was highest during summer months due to heat stress abatement. The commercial farm with Holstein cows used substantially huge amount of groundwater.

These findings suggest having production system specific policies in addressing the water scarcity issues of the country. Rehabilitation and conservation of community ponds in villages as a surface water source could lower the groundwater stress. Similarly, the implementation of water efficient cooling strategies at dairy farms during summer would decrease the groundwater use.


The authors are grateful for the support of all the farmers who participated in the study. The authors would like to thank the supervisory committee members Anjum Khalique and Muhammad Abdullah for their support.


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