Farmers dig deep for water - Dairy expansion and drought drives increase in well drilling on farms

Dairy expansion and last year's extreme weather events have led to an increase in the number of farmers drilling wells

Drilling rigs are tall vehicles so due care must be given to overhead power lines or low hanging trees
Drilling rigs are tall vehicles so due care must be given to overhead power lines or low hanging trees
Derek Casey

Derek Casey

Last summer’s severe drought made such a lasting impression on farmers that many are taking steps to ensure they don’t get caught out a second time with water shortages.

Throughout last June and July many farmers were forced to go to extremes to ensure animals had adequate water. Now it seems that chastening experience has led to a surge in well drilling enquiries from farmers, with some looking at installing a second well on farm as a backup.

In other cases farmers  who were caught with limited supply last summer are looking to improve flow-rates from existing wells.

The total cost of sinking a well very much depends on the volume of water you need to get out of it.

An average well would cost €2,500 for the borehole and €1,600 for the pump
An average well would cost €2,500 for the borehole and €1,600 for the pump

On average, it usually costs between €5,500 to €6,000 to sink and kit out a well capable of supplying enough water for a dairy farmer milking 100 cows.

To find out more I spoke to Frank Seery of Seery Well Drilling based in Cappoquin, Co Waterford (website:

A family-run company founded by Frank’s father, Matt, in 1965, today about 30pc of the firm’s workload comprises drilling wells for farmers and agricultural purposes.

Frank says the amount of work coming from farmers has been increasing steadily in recent years.

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They typically cover farms within an 80-mile radius of their base, with customers in Waterford, East Cork, South Tipperary and Kilkenny.

In the aftermath of last summer’s drought Frank noticed a sharp rise in the number of enquiries from worried farmers looking for a trusty water source.

“The knock-on effect is that people are reassessing their existing water supply, but also looking to future proof supplies to ensure they don’t get caught out again should a similar weather event occur.

Last summer was a testing experience for many.

Gerry Nolan and his son James have been drawing two tankers of water a day from the River Nore to keep their cows hydrated during the heatwave. Photo: Roger Jones
Gerry Nolan and his son James have been drawing two tankers of water a day from the River Nore to keep their cows hydrated during the heatwave. Photo: Roger Jones

Those with bigger herds such as the dairy farmer with 200 or 300 cows really need to have a plan B in place for when things go wrong.

These business-minded farmers are now looking to have a second borehole in the event that if one goes down there is always a backup available at the flick of a switch.”

Apart from the drought of summer 2018, Frank Seery says the recent era of rapid dairy herd expansion has led to a sharp rise in farmers looking to sink new wells and improve existing sources.

However, it seems many farmers viewed the requirement for extra water as a bit of an afterthought when it came to expansion planning.

“Most of the emphasis seemed to be placed on things like sheds, grass, fields and cow numbers, but in a lot of cases very little thought was given to the matter of needing to increase water supply in line with expanding the herd size,” says Frank.

“Now I think it has come to the fore that water is crucial and that correct supply is of huge importance. If you think about it, milk is nearly 80pc water and cows need on average 70-100 litres of water per head on a dry day.


The average dairy cow drinks 25 gallons of water daily
The average dairy cow drinks 25 gallons of water daily

“As a rule of thumb I always say that for a 100-cow herd you need a minimum flow rate from your well of around 20 litres per minute. For a 200-cow herd you need a flow rate of 40 litres per minute, for a 300-cow herd you need 60 litres per minute, and so on.”

The usual protocol is that the well drilling team will do a first visit to a farm prior to commencing works and check out what the water requirements are. A site visit will entail assessing how many animals are on the farm and checking any existing boreholes on the farm for flow rates.

On most farms it is possible to find a water source, but according to Frank there are certain areas where it can be more difficult to sink a well than others.

“In my own county of Waterford certain areas along the coastline, for example between Stradbally and Tramore, there is a type of bedrock which just does not hold groundwater well. This means regardless of how deep down you go, the flowrates are not going to be great. Other areas would be easier; in general where you have a sandstone or limestone area of bedrock you are going to be more successful in terms of achieving good flowrates because those types of rock tend to hold large volumes of groundwater.”

In terms of drilling depth, for a new farm well, Seery Well Drilling tends to drill down to at least 60m. However, in more difficult areas the drilling depth can be as far down as 100-120m in order to get sufficient flowrates.

The well drilling machinery used has changed massively and now allows for much higher work rates. For example, a 60m well can now be sunk in less than a day, whereas back in the 1960s it could take up to three weeks.

Getting the drilling equipment safely on and off of your farm must be planned in advance.

 These are impressive machines in operation; they can weigh up to 40 tonnes so access is an important consideration.

Large American drill rigs are used by the Seery team which operate on compressed air with high pressured hammers.

They are also tall vehicles when the drilling process

begins, so due care must be given to things such as overhead power lines or low hanging trees on the farm, low bridges en route to the drillings site and any soft ground where the rig could potentially get stuck.

'Common pitfall'

A common pitfall for farmers drilling wells is that existing pipes on farms are not big enough to handle increased pressures when larger wells are being sunk to cater for rising herd numbers.

“An awful lot of pipes in use on Irish farms at the minute are either half an inch or three-quarters of inch, which is quite small,” says Frank Seery. “It would be better if they were bigger, and close to 1¼in or even 1½in to handle the bigger pressures. If you don’t have the correct pipe size, regardless of how good your pump is or how good your well is, you will still not be able to get a sufficient flow rate to water troughs and cater for the herd’s demand.

“For farmers who do not want to be left short as happened last summer, the advice from well drilling experts and from Teagasc is to do a simple survey to assess how much water supply you need.”

A well should start to pay for itself within three years

So what can the farmer with a 100-cow dairy herd expect to pay for a new well, and how soon can you reasonably expect it to pay for itself?

Such a herd would require an average supply of 2,000 gallons of water per day  — your typical dairy cow can drink 20 gallons (90 litres) of water on a warm day when milking.

 For such a demand the total cost of the well drilling and installation of the pump would be somewhere between €5,500 and €6,000. Obviously there can be variation in prices depending on the drilling difficulty and depth required but those are ball park figures.

Remember to factor in things like pump maintenance costs, water treatment units for areas of hard water, annual testing of water quality and electrical power supply costs for the pump.

An annual service is recommended for most pumps which can cost around €150 to €250. Modern pumps have a life span of about 15 years.

So when you add it all up the important question is what do these figures mean in terms of the payback period? The cost of using 2,000 gallons of water per day if on the mains system works out at around €13 per day at current commercial rates.

The dairy farmer obviously won’t use this much water every day of the year, but even if he used the maximum demand for 200 days of the year that equates to a total water charge of €2,600 per annum on the public system.

Therefore at current costs for drilling and installing a private well this would give an impressive payback period of just under three years.

The EPA have published a very useful booklet: ‘Have You Checked Your Well Water Supply?’

A quick Google search can pull it up.

This booklet gives guidelines and recommendations as to what not to have near your well head, where to locate your well and how to have the supply checked yearly for dangerous contaminants such as E Coli.

It is important that water wells are only drilled in locations which minimise the likelihood that the well will be polluted by, for example, septic tanks, fuel tanks or farmyard run-off.

'Excessive' usage water charges on the horizon

Domestic water charges were introduced in Ireland back in 2015, but they didn’t last long. After countless protests and political bargaining the charges were eventually suspended.

The situation now is that there are no ongoing domestic charges for ‘normal’ use of water, but any household using amounts of water over a specified threshold will be charged.

That threshold figure is 213,000 litres per year; the equivalent of 583 litres (128 gallons) per day. Household water usage figures from the Commission for Energy Regulation (CER) show that the average water usage for a four person domestic household in Ireland is 125,000 litres a year, so the threshold is approximately 1.7 times that.

The monitoring of people’s usage under the new charging regime began on January 1 last year. It now looks like the first “excessive usage” water charges will not be issued until early 2020.

At that point users will be given a six-month period during which they can reduce their water usage; if they haven’t done so by the end of the six month period, they will then be charged for any usage above the threshold for that period.

What will the water charges be? The cost isn’t set yet, but a figure being used in some sample calculations by the CER is €3.70 per 1000 litres. At that rate, a household using 50,000 litres of water over the annual threshold would be billed €185 in water charges for the year.

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