Water and agriculture

Clean and high-quality water is of particular importance not only as a foodstuff for everyday use, but also as a means of production in agriculture. In addition to soil fertility, the availability of water - either through sufficient storage in the soil or through supplementary irrigation - is an essential prerequisite for food security. We are also setting important accents for the sustainable use of this valuable resource.

The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) assumes that water for irrigation purposes will no longer be available in sufficient quantities in many areas in the foreseeable future. Agriculture is already one of the largest consumers of water. In addition to availability, quality is also an important criterion.

Water contamination can come from a wide variety of sources - from nuclear accidents, from industries, from municipal wastewater to agricultural production itself. Here, especially the use of production inputs contrary to good agricultural practice can lead to problems. This applies to the improper application of mineral and organic fertilizers such as manure or slurry as well as to the improper use of plant protection products. In addition to surface waters such as rivers and lakes, groundwater bodies, which are often used for drinking water production, are also affected by the risk of contamination.

The responsible and sustainable use of water as a resource is one of the major challenges in agriculture and can thus make an important contribution to food security and food safety as well as to the protection of the environment. In order to meet the requirements for agricultural production on the one hand and water protection on the other, the different approaches within AGES are coordinated and integrated. In our business area of food security, the following focal points and expert services are provided on "water and agriculture":

  • Minimization of water demand through integrated production systems (integrated crop management)
    • Variety selection - Drought resistance
    • Optimized nutrient availability for crops through appropriate fertilization regimes

Water quality

The quality of the watering water is crucial for the vitality of the plants. Depending on the area of application, different quality criteria can be defined. While very high quality requirements apply to hydroponics, but also to pot cultures, the requirements for outdoor use are not as strict.

Usually, water contains a number of salts, the total content of which allows a conclusion to be drawn about possible impairment of the roots. It can be determined relatively easily by measuring electrical conductivity (EC). However, the salts can also be analyzed individually. In terms of quantity, the most significant are the salts of the elements calcium and magnesium, the sum of which is referred to as "water hardness". The carbonates are the most important ("carbonate hardness").

But other constituents also play an important role, for example when they serve as nutrients for plants. These include nitrate, the content of which should be taken into account in fertilization measures. A high content of iron can cause stains on plants or clogging of irrigation hoses. High levels of zinc can lead to accumulations in the soil.

We offer a comprehensive range of analysis methods for irrigation water that can be adapted to individual needs. Each analysis result is supplemented by a corresponding evaluation and application instructions on request.

Drinking water

As in many other areas of agriculture, water is also a central element of life for animal nutrition. Farm animals need up to 5 liters of water per kilogram of food (dry matter) consumed. Nevertheless, current national feed legislation and that of the EU make little reference to this important medium.

Indirectly, however, some general provisions can be applied to water. For example, nothing may be fed to animals that poses a risk to animal or human health (§3 Feed Law). This applies to water as a component of feed.

Water as the sole component is even excluded from the scope of the corresponding EU - Feed Regulation (EC)767/2009, also the Feed Hygiene Regulation (EC)183/2005 contains only a general reference to drinking water.

This is due to the fact that an adoption of drinking water criteria would have led to a ban of numerous practical pasture drinking systems such as vats, bathtubs or barrels. However, it is mandatory to use only "clean" and "suitable for the animals" water. In addition, only water lines made of chemically non-reactive material may be used.

However, the above requirements for clean water or water suitable for the animals are not further defined in feed law. To assess compliance with these criteria, the Federal Republic of Germany has submitted a proposal for orientation values to the European Commission, which is currently used in this form by the Austrian feed control authority to classify the suitability of drinking water.

This proposal sets out general requirements for palatability, compatibility and usability, and also defines criteria for microbiological, chemical and physical quality. Examples include conductivity, pH, soluble salts, heavy metals, trace elements and minerals. Information on the hygienic quality of drinking water can be found on the website of the German Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection.

Soil Hydrology

The protection of groundwater and its quality is a top priority in Austria. Based on legal framework conditions such as the Water Act, but also specifically promoted programs of measures such as ÖPUL, area-wide groundwater protection is possible.

Nevertheless, there are still risks - on the one hand due to changed management measures, but on the other hand also due to climate change, which in turn can lead to land use changes.

What these changes mean for the quantity and quality of the newly formed groundwater is currently being investigated in a research project (LYSTRAT) funded by the Climate Fund at the AGES lysimeter facility in Hirschstetten. Different climate scenarios are being tested on the three main soil types of the Marchfeld region in terms of their effect on soil and groundwater, soil biology, the development of climate-relevant gases and productivity.

Distribution of harmful organisms

A number of organisms that can damage crops have their habitats (also) in water bodies and can reach and affect plants by means of movement/use of such water bodies. These include, for example, Phytophthora species, which can occur in cisterns and preheating ponds and are spread to plant stands by irrigation activities. Bacteria that are also harmful to crops (e.g., Ralstonia solanacearum, causative agent of slime disease) can also survive in flowing and/or standing water in some cases.

During the washing process of crops or parts of crops (e.g. tubers, beets), adhering harmful organisms can get into the wastewater. If this is not decontaminated, pathogens such as Ralstonia solanacearum, potato cyst nematodes, Phytophthora species or virus particles can enter still or flowing waters.

We try to point out these dangers by appropriate educational measures and thus reduce the risk for crop production.

Last updated: 10.10.2023

automatically translated