Tulare County’s Dairy Technology Cluster

As the largest dairy producing county in California and the U.S., Tulare is well positioned to be a center of dairy technology innovation. In fact, the makeup of Tulare County’s industries reflects a natural evolution in that direction, with most of the County’s non-residential water and electric use clustered around its dairies: from dairy farms and milk production, to industries that manufacture milk products (e.g., powdered milk, evaporated milk, cheese, ice cream), suppliers that provide food processing machinery, packaging materials and technologies, shipping services, and washing of the vehicles that transport crops and food products.
Figure 10. Tulare County’s Dairy Technology Cluster

Dairy Farms and Milk Production

In 2017, Tulare County had 258 dairy farms with a total of 471,081 milk cows –27.15% of the total number of milk cows in California.1 About 1 out of every 5 cows in the U.S. lives in California.

Figure 14 shows the distribution of milk production by California County. Tulare County is the largest milk producer in California, and has been among the top 3 milk producing counties in the U.S. for many years.


Figure 11. California Milk Production by County (2017)


Source: California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), California Dairy Statistics Annual 2017.

Water and Energy Use by Dairies

Most of the water used by dairies is pumped from private groundwater wells. Since withdrawals from private groundwater wells have historically not been monitored or metered, the exact amount of water used by dairies is not known.

Since the dairy industry is known to be a very large user of water, extensive research is being conducted throughout the U.S. and other countries to understand which water (potable, rainwater, recycled or gray water) is being used for which functions, and where fresh water withdrawals can be reduced.


Figure 12. Primary Water Uses in Dairies

Source: Jim Bruer, Applied Quantum Technologies


One study conducted by Dr. Craig Thomas of Michigan State University2 evaluated dairy water use by “direct” and “indirect” functions.

  • Direct Water Use was deemed to be drinking water for dairy animals.
  • Indirect Water Use consisted primarily of cleaning cows, facilities and equipment in relation to milking operations. The study included a small allowance of water use for milk cooling that was recycled, and a small contingency for “miscellaneous” water uses.  


Water use was then estimated for a hypothetical 1,000 cow dairy farm, with and without heifers. This study produced an estimate of 25.5 to 67.5 gallons per day per dairy cow. This estimate does not include any water for cooling cows or for irrigation of fodder crops. It also does not include recycling water within the milking parlor.

Similar studies have been conducted by university research organizations throughout the U.S. and overseas with significant variations in the quantity of indirect water use.

A general benchmark that is often cited by industry experts is 100-200 gallons per day per dairy cow. Actual usage varies significantly with climate (temperate and humidity), facility design and operations, and also whether heifers are raised on the same dairy farm.

Using the 100 gallons per day estimate, Tulare County’s 471,081 dairy cows would require 17.2 billion gallons per year (52,785 AF). Virtually all of the water used by dairies is groundwater, and the water used for cow drinking and cleaning is mostly freshwater, although there now concerted efforts to recycle water wherever it is economically feasible.

Significantly, however, water used to clean cows, the milking parlor, flushing stalls, and other uses flow to manure lagoons where large solids are removed and dried for use as fertilizer, cattle bedding, and other purposes. The remaining wastewater is typically used to irrigate crops, especially fodder crops such as alfalfa. In this manner, dairies recycle as much effluent from the manure lagoon as possible.

The primary challenge is that biosolids and other particles that are not removed during the manure sludge dewatering process clog drip irrigation systems. Consequently, dairy farmers have needed to flood irrigate alfalfa and other fodder crops.

DWR estimated that during water year 2010, alfalfa crops consumed 5.2 million acre-feet of water (1,694 billion gallons), 37% more than the next highest water consumer: tree nuts (almonds and pistachios).


Figure 13. Applied Water per Crop (2010)

Source: Cooley, Heather. California Agricultural Water Use: Key Background Information. Pacific Institute. April 2015. Prepared from data provided by the Department of Water Resources.


Technology is currently poised to substantially change alfalfa’s standing as the highest agricultural water user in California.

Sustainable Conservation, a California-based 501c3 tax-exempt organization; Netafim USA, an irrigation technology solutions provider; and De Jager Farms, a dairy farm in Madera County, have been working for several years on a technology demonstration project that mixed fresh water with dairy manure wastewater to produce a liquid manure that could be delivered to a crop’s roots via drip tape for maximum absorption. The pilot system “… increased nitrogen use efficiency by more than 50%, reduced water use by 30%, and increased crop yields. In addition, the system significantly reduced nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas generated when fertilizer and water mix that is over 200 times more potent than carbon dioxide, compared to traditional flood irrigation.3  

In 2016, Sustainable Conservation announced that it had received a Conservation Innovation Grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the amount of $833,000 to expand its technology demonstration to additional dairies in San Joaquin Valley. The primary benefit of liquid manure over traditional drip irrigation is the ability to utilize the manure as fertilizer, avoiding need to purchase and apply synthetic fertilizers.

De Jager Farms has reported that applying liquid manure via drip irrigation has reduced applied water for corn silage by 25% and increased crop yield 20-25%, a net water efficiency gain of 40%.


Figure 14. Dairy Wastewater Effluent

Source: Air Resources Board Dairy and Livestock Working Group


Tulare County dairy farmers are currently investigating multiple technology solutions that could enable use of dairy manure effluent with drip irrigation. One farmer stated that converting his planted alfalfa acreage to drip vs. flood would reduce the quantity of applied water from 3.5 AF/acre to 2.8 AF (water use reduction of 20%) while concurrently increasing the alfalfa yield from 9 tons to 12 tons per acre (an increase in yield of 33%). The net benefit of this strategy would reduce water use from 3.5 AF of water per 9 tons of alfalfa production (0.39 AF/ton) to 2.8 AF of water per 12 tons of alfalfa (0.23 AF/ton), a savings of 41%.

Tulare dairy farmers hope to find a technology solution that will remove enough of the remaining particles in dairy manure effluent to enable using it directly for drip irrigation without the need to add more water. The ideal solution will also remove some, but not all of the nutrients, in order to comply with new regulations reducing nutrient concentration limits4 while also retaining sufficient nutrients to avoid the need to add synthetic fertilizers.

Key Findings:


Water use for flood irrigating alfalfa and other fodder crops can be reduced by about 40% by converting to drip irrigation.


A technology that removes both organic and inorganic particles to enable manure effluent to be delivered to fodder crops by drip and that also reduces the contents of nitrates, phosphorus and other nutrients to levels that meet the Salt and Nitrate Management Plan (SNMP) adopted by the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board (CV-RWQCB) on June 1, 2018 will reduce the amount of additional fresh water that farmers currently anticipate will otherwise need to be added to manure effluent for compliance.


Use of drip tape that delivers filtered manure effluent to the roots of crops avoids need for adding back synthetic fertilizers.


California should invest in helping dairy farmers find a water-efficient and cost-effective solution for using manure effluent via drip irrigation that also complies with the CV-RWQCB’s Salt and Nitrate Management Plan.

Water and Energy Use by Dairies Dairy-Related Food Processing

Food processing in Tulare County is related to local agricultural production. The County’s major agricultural product is milk. 


Table 15. Tulare County’s Top Agricultural Products in 20165


Water Use for Food Processing in Tulare County

Water use by the food processing sector in Tulare County is estimated at 2,217 million gallons per year.


Table 16. Estimated Annual Water and Energy Use in Tulare County for Food Processing


[1] Water data estimated from California League of Food Processors Report, The Economic Impact of Food and Beverage Processing in California and Its Cities and Counties, January 2015.

[2] Electric data provided by Southern California Edison (SCE) for CY2015.

[3] Natural gas usage estimated from California Energy Commission Report, California’s Food Processing Industry Energy Efficiency Initiative: Adoption of Industrial Best Practices. January 2008. Publication Number CEC 400-2008-006.