Milking Parlor Efficiencies-Time is Money, or is it?

As the dairy industry continues to consolidate, cows are being milked more rapidly through larger milking centers on larger dairies than ever before. Parlor efficiency is critical, however jeopardizing milk quality for the sake of speeding cows through the parlor could result in severe problems. 

 Milking parlor management is more important than ever and consists of managing labor, milking procedures, milking equipment—as well as evaluating parlor performance. Dairies might ask the question as to what they are trying to do in their parlor; what are the reasonable measurements of efficiency—and how important is milk quality.

In this story, two dairy producers—one located in Central California and the other in North Eastern Iowa talk about their take on milking parlor efficiencies and why they chose the milking parlors they have.
Carrousel Milking Parlor
Jim Ahlem Dairy
Hilmar, California
Jim and Carol Ahlem own and operate James Ahlem Dairy in Hilmar, California with their oldest son Grant as General Manager and Joe Monteiro as their long-time herdsman of 27 years. Together the team at James Ahlem Dairy milks 2,100 Registered Jerseys on their home dairy in Hilmar; one that was started in the early 1930’s by Jim’s father, Jim Senior and then taken over by Jim in 1978. Recently in 2009, Ahlems purchased a second dairy 18 miles east of Hilmar in Denair, California, where they milk 1,700 Jerseys. This dairy is managed by their son, Vance.
At the home farm, Ahlems milked in a 12-stall flat barn, which ended up being a 14-stall barn by the time they were finished building their new parlor—a 40-cow carrousel parlor that floats on water. In 1997, Ahlems were milking 1,110 cows. “We decided it was time for a newer, more efficient parlor,” Jim said. “We never stopped milking in the flat parlor, as we were finishing up washing the parlor; the next group of cows was coming in.”
In late 1995, Jim made a trip to New Zealand with his brother looking at parlors. Jim traveled out of country for “the ride” and did not have any desire to purchase a parlor at that time. However, he was impressed with the ease of the floating carrousel milking parlor and the fact that there were no moving parts—so impressed that he decided to build the first rotary parlor in the Hilmar area.
Ahlem purchased the parlor and also spare parts that he still has yet to use to this day, in New Zealand and they were shipped to America. He is extremely happy with his parlor and has no regrets putting the carrousel in his barn. “The biggest con of this parlor is that it is not as easily expandable like other milking parlors,” Jim said. “It is 13-years-old and has held up very well.”
When it comes to milking in the parlor, Jim is happy with how it works. It takes approximately eight minutes for a cow to go through one rotation. Cows enter and exit the parlor individually one at a time. Cows are pre-washed in a wash pen and fore stripped immediately once they enter onto the carrousel and then the milker immediately puts the milking unit on. “I believe if you do a good job keeping corrals and free-stall barns clean, the cows will be clean,” Jim said. “We do not pre or post dip and are able to maintain excellent quality.”
Ahlems use one and a half milker during each shift twice a day. “One guy is bringing cows, the other guy is attaching machines,” Jim said. “It takes 9 ½-10 hours to milk cows each shift.”
Their hospital cows are milked in the old flat parlor. Ahlems catch problem cows in a catch corral at the end of the milking parlor and move cows immediately down to the old milking facility. “We keep hospital cows completely separate from the milking herd,” Jim said.
At James Ahlem Dairy their current rolling herd average hovers around 20,000 pounds of milk with daily weights of 63 pounds. Their somatic cell count is consistent at 200,000.
Ahlems dairy in Denair, California has a double 32 parallel parlor with individual indexing and rapid exit that requires three employees per shift; two milkers and one pusher. They both pre and post dip and load cows one side at a time. Jim personally thinks that a parallel barn is only as fast as your slowest cow and a carrousel barn allows slow cows to go around more than once. “I personally like the carrousel over the parallel parlor,” Jim said.
Ahlems’ Jersey cows milk around 60 pound of milk per day and somatic cell count runs between 170,000-180,000 at the Denair dairy.
Parallel Milking Parlor
Blanchard Family Dairy LLC
Charlotte, Iowa
Mitzie Blanchard along with her five sons: William, Ben, Brian, Seth and Brent make up the team at Blanchard Family Dairy LLC in Charlotte, Iowa. Mitzie represents the third generation of dairy farming and her sons the fourth generation. In November 2003, they built a new facility on their home farm and currently milks 550 cows three times a day.
They also milk 130 cows twice a day on their ‘old’ facility, which is located on the same site of their new dairy facility. The older milking facility is a flat 10 wooden stanchion parlor. The cows have to back up to exit the parlor and in Mitzie’s opinion, it was “hard on big cows and not time efficient by any means.”
When Blanchards decided to build a new facility—it was to update the entire facility, not just the milking facility. They built from scratch and toured a lot of dairies in the Midwest with their project manager, Rock River Dairy. “I liked parallels and felt that a double 12 with rapid exit was the way to go,” Mitzie said.
Blanchards house all hospital cows in their older facility and milk them in the old barn. “We don’t risk having any antibiotics in our new barn, so all fresh cows, sick cows and late lactation cows all go down to the older facility,” Mitzie said.
When it comes to the parallel parlor, Mitzie is very happy with her double 12 and feels that it is efficient for their operation. “We can get more cows through in less time,” she says. “However; the milkers do get dirtier milking from behind the cow versus standing next to them in the old flat barn.”
Milking in Blanchards parallel parlor is fine tuned with very well trained employees knowing how to run things to the owner’s standards. They load one side at a time, which takes no more than 60 seconds. Crowd gate helps guide cows to the parlor, so no employee has to exit the parlor to push cows in. Two milkers operate Blanchards double-12 parallel, with one milker standing by the entrance and one by the holding pen. When the first four cows come into the parlor, the first milker wipes sand, pre-dips, wipes the cow and allows 90 seconds to pass before attaching the milking unit. Once the milker is done with that side, she post-dips the other side and lets them out and begins loading.
“We believe that lag time is essential to allows cows to drop their milk,” Mitzie said. The other milker begins milking the last eight cows once entered into the parlor in the same fashion as the first. With rapid exit, it takes cows only a few seconds to exit the parlor.
Blanchard Family Hill Dairy runs a somatic cell count of 150,000. The lower dairy, who deals with more of the “problem” cows runs a higher cell count, but it is still under 250,000. Their current rolling herd average is 26,500 pounds of milk. “The older dairy averages 80 pounds a cow and the newer dairy averages 89 pounds a cow,” Mitzie said.
Mitzie stresses that she is very happy with her double 12 parallel parlor and at their dairy, they do not push for time—they push for quality. “We have a very relaxed environment,” she reports. It takes 6 ½ hours to milk the cows. “We try to do a good job in training our employees well, take the time in the front to get the cows clean, let them drop their milk—and get the most milk out of them.”
These two progressive, excellent dairy producers exemplify that effective parlor management combined with parlor efficiencies can result in a great combination—getting cows through in a good time frame while not jeopardizing milk quality. When it comes to examining your milking parlor’s efficiencies—ask the right questions. Do not just review your milking labor, milking procedures and milking equipment and how you can speed up the process—look at your end result and make sure it matches your farm’s goal of producing good quality milk and a production level you are content with.