WHILE IT pours down outside during the winter months - and most of the rest of the year, for that matter - being more efficient with water is probably one of the last things on farmers' minds as they prepare for the year ahead.

As the owner of a farm myself, and coming from an agricultural background, I realise that water doesn't become a pressing issue until it's a stretched resource, often during the summer.

The reality is, however, that smarter water use is something farmers, and the agricultural sector as a whole, should be taking seriously all year round regardless of the current weather.

There are some real benefits to be realised from more efficient water use. While it might be pouring now, farmers need only think back to the summer of 2013. From July 3 until July 23 many will remember we experienced a particularly dry period when there were fewer than five millimetres of rainfall in parts of the country.

But by taking some relatively simple and straightforward measures, Scotland's farming community could benefit from a water supply less dependent on meteorology, while also significantly cutting its bills.

There are three main areas in which farmers can cut down on consumption, conserve for arid periods and save money on water.

Alternative water sources

One of the best ways for agricultural sites to cut water costs in the long term is through using alternative water sources, particularly where large volumes of water are needed for irrigation. These can range from natural water courses such as canals and streams, to boreholes and lagoons.

Canals and streams are especially suitable for irrigating fields, but water from these sources can also be used for washing. This type of water also tends not to require much in the way of treatment.

Of even more use is the water that can be extracted from boreholes. The water can easily be treated even up to the standard of drinking quality, because it is filtered through rock, making it generally cleaner than the water from rivers or canals and therefore suitable for multiple purposes.

Where appropriate, these are relatively easy to install and, with a fair wind from regulators, can take just 10 to 12 weeks to get up and running. The only caveat to the use of boreholes is that there can only be so many in one place without draining the aquifer.

Boreholes tend to be the most common alternative water source among the farming community and there tends to be a spike in demand for them when the weather heats up. They are likely to pay themselves off over two to five years depending on the quality of water that is extracted.

It's worth bearing in mind, however, that both canal and river water are still suitable for use in irrigation and washing, particularly if conveniently located near a farm.

Another less used alternative is the structuring of a lagoon which will hold water for prolonged periods of time, but this will require a firm grasp of drainage to ensure untreated water does not contaminate this source through pesticides and any other chemicals.

Trade effluent

The main source of trade effluent, predominantly in arable farming, is from water used to wash produce. Filtration is the primary and most effective way of treating the effluent, allowing its potential reuse.

Treatment will depend on what the water has previously been used for and exposure to different chemical agents. Some water will require biological treatments before being suitable to return to the water system, while others will only require minimal filtration to remove solids like worms and dirt.

There are various devices that can be used to do this, and many of them are easily accessible and will help remove the vast majority of solids and dirt. The particular piece of equipment used will depend on the size of the particles that need to be removed but these can include centrifuges and different kinds of filters. Proper treatment of this water can help cut a farm's bill through reduced waste water charges and reuse.

Efficient use of resources

Harvesting and recycling grey water, which is basically water which has been used before, is one of the many ways the agricultural community could save on consumption and costs. Much of the water that has been used for washing, for example, will be usable again for other farmyard tasks.

Equally, harvesting rainwater by installing tanks to collect rainfall from sheds, barns or other structures is a great way of cutting bills and making use of natural water sources. This water can then be used for washing produce, watering crops during dry periods or as drinking water for livestock.

Another way of achieving efficiencies is through automated meter readings which can be used to monitor usage. Many farms will be on one meter, but the installation of several sub-meters will help you identify any anomalies in your system and their specific locations. For example, livestock can knock valves off pipes, leading to leaks and uncontrolled spillage. These can only be remedied if you can identify the problem.

It's also important to understand what your water infrastructure actually looks like. Given the vast nature of many farms, it's not always easy to know where pipes, drains and valves are located. Network mapping, whereby you create a detailed record of the location, type, size, age and layout of underground water and other utility pipes, is a great way of monitoring this and can be used for planning purposes too.

Water is an important natural resource and part of Scotland's future. There's a great deal more that can be done to reflect this in how it is used across the country, and what has been discussed here are just some of the many ways in which Scotland's farmers can save water and money on their farms.