Water security in the chicken meat industry

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This project reviewed water use (including peak demand and variability) and water security across the Australian chicken meat industry (breeder farms, hatcheries, grow-out farms, and processing plants). It has also projected the impact of various climate change scenarios on future water security for grow-out farms over the next 15 years. Based on these findings, key factors, including water licensing and public policy settings, were reviewed to identify solutions to improve water security.

In addition to reviewing solutions for water security, the project conducted a review of closed-loop and water efficiency technologies relating to the major sources of water usage and loss for the industry. This enabled the identification of pathways to reduce water use via better production practices, as well as alternative technologies for water harvesting, treatment, and storage.

Key findings
The research found, for the chicken meat industry, the cost of water for chicken meat farmers is highly variable, even within each state. Additionally, reliability of supply is not guaranteed for all licence or entitlement holders. Water allocations of high security are difficult to obtain, as the ACCC stated in the preliminary report to their enquiry into trading within the Murray Darling Basin (MDB).

Median projections of a range of climate models predict decreases in rainfall and evaporation, hence surface water runoff and availability. The effects of groundwater are not as well defined, although it is predicted that, on average, the recharge of groundwater levels will decrease with corresponding decreases in rainfall.

Literature values for typical water consumption rates throughout Australia’s chicken meat supply chain were used in the modelling. The modelled water consumption, however, was based on a limited number of supply chains; therefore, the results are not fully representative of all production in Australia. However, compared to other Australian agricultural commodities, chicken meat production is highly water efficient. Chicken meat outperforms all other horticultural and meat products in Australia for both economic and nutritional value per ML of water required. As competition for water increases, chicken meat is strongly positioned to deliver greater economic value than other industries in the sector.

The feedback received from the survey was detailed and representative of a broad crosssection of the industry. Common themes were that availability, reliability, cost, government regulation, and quality all produced barriers to water security and future expansion. The viability of runoff dams was modelled in a selection of regions using local climate data.

The results showed that varying proportions of drinking water for meat chickens could be supplied via runoff into covered dams. Results of the runoff modelling showed three to four months emergency storage could be provided from a modest-sized dam, where regulation limited the amount of runoff that could be captured.

Other industry options at a farm scale, such as the use of fogging systems as an alternative cooling method and recycled water, depend on the source and location. At the processing stage in the supply chain, excellent results have been achieved from on-site advanced water treatment plants. The facilities with operating plants are recycling more than two-thirds of their water. Water authorities have supported this approach as it decreases urban demand.

Despite water trading not always delivering positive outcomes for all users, it has allowed many greater flexibilities of water supply, and provides an option for the industry to consider when reliability is compromised. Other options in regulated water markets include maximising the benefits of carryover allowances, and remaining informed of when cost effective environmental entitlements become available for trading.

Another emerging policy option is a potential shift in the water industry towards managed aquifer recharge (MAR). The technology is operating effectively at a commercial scale in metropolitan Perth; however, the uptake of this option is limited by physical and regulatory constraints.

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