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What to consider when upgrading a milking parlour

That’s Farming speaks to Francis Quigley, Teagasc milking machine specialist, who outlines  what farmers should consider when upgrading a milking parlour in respect of location, collecting yard design, handling facilities, good cow flow & water systems. 

TF: What would you suggest for a 30-cow farmer with a 4-unit parlour who is considering upgrading a milking parlour to accommodate 100 cows?

Farmers should assess their current milking facility. Look at the structure and roof to see if they are in good condition. The ceilings may be low; there may be a loft overhead. Is the shed dark?

This will be unattractive to cows, and they will be slower to move from the collecting yard into the parlour, forcing the milker out of the pit more often. Farmers should check the pit’s depth. A shallow pit will mean the milker has to stoop; this will cause back injury over time.

Many older parlours have a fall on the cow stand running in the opposite direction to the fall on the milk line.

You can get away with this on a short parlour, but this is not acceptable in a longer parlour as the height of milk lift from each cluster will be different, which will result in different vacuum levels in the claw bowl as you move back the parlour.

Also, incorrect slopes or dips in the milk line can cause a range of issues, including increase mastitis, raised cell count, and poor hygiene due to drainage issues.

What is the best number of units to put in?

The number of units a farmer requires depends on the size of the herd.

The aim is to be milking between 7 and 9 rows of cows; this will ensure a milking time of no more than 1-hour 30-minutes. For a 100-cow herd, a 14-unit parlour will have just over 7 rows of cows to be milked.

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Individual row time will be affected by the pre-milking routine and the stage of lactation. An operator can handle 14-units where cows are prepared (cleaning/stripping milk). Where no preparation takes place, an operator can handle up to 22 cows.

Herringbone or side-by-side?

Choice of parlour will often come down to a farmer’s personal preference.
It is recommended to visit several different farms to see the various systems before choosing one.

Ideally, try milking in the different parlours to see which best suits you. In a side-by-side parlour, cows are right angles to the pit and clusters are applied between cows’ legs.

They are normally installed with a sequential baling system; this can add to the initial cost and the ongoing maintenance with the parlour.”

A popular option is the 2’6” (762mm) herringbone; cows are at 500 angles to the pit. The cows are further apart that with side-by-side, but the cluster stills go on between the back legs of the cow.

No matter which system you opt for, it is very important to check the dimension required as the parlour length and width will vary. If it is wrong, it can be hard/expensive to fix. The machine manufacturer will give you the recommended construction dimensions for their parlour.

What factors should a farmer consider when deciding on a location?

Location is the most important factor of a milking parlour. The parlour needs to be located so that there is good cow flow from the paddocks and the cubicles.

You need to avoid sharp corners and U-turns. The access route for the milk lorry needs to be separate from any cow roadways. This is to minimise any contamination of the milk lorry with dung.

Also, consider the prevailing wind direction; the parlour should be downwind of the dwelling house and upwind of other livestock sheds.

Also, shelter may be needed to prevent harsh winds from blowing into the milking parlour, making it an unpleasant work environment.

What is the best collecting yard design?

The collecting yard’s design will have a significant influence on the parlour’s location and direction.

The layout should ensure the cows are entering the back of the collecting yard.
Ideally, they will enter from the left or the right; this means they do not have to cross over a backing gate if fitted. The aim is to have the cows lined up facing the parlour.

Cows walking in past the parlour and collecting yard and then do a U-turn into the collecting yard should be avoided unless a circular yard is used.

The collecting yard will need to be big enough to hold the entire herd at a minimum of 1.5m2 per cow.

For a 100-cow herd, this is 1.5×100=150m2, e.g., 6m wide x 25m long. Rectangular yards are more popular than circular; they are easier to construct and much easier to expand. If the collecting yard is wider than the parlour, it needs to taper in at the parlour entrance.

What handling facilities are virtual?

An area is often not considered enough when designing a parlour is the drafting yard.
When farmers are used to smaller row numbers, drafting is not that much of a challenge as it is easy to pick one cow out a row of 4 or even 6. You have lots of time while waiting for the row to milk.

However, when cow numbers increase to 16 to 20, and you are trying to get 2 or 3 cows out of the same row, then drafting becomes a big priority, particularly in the busy months of the year like breeding time.

Even if you do not plan on investing in a drafting system straight away, it is very important to design a layout where there is space to install the drafting and handling at a later date.

What is required for good cow flow?

Good cow flow starts with the route into the collecting yard. This will ensure the cows are lined up towards the entrance to the parlour.

Cows need sufficient space to move so as not to upset the social order. There should be no steps or sharp inclines at parlour’s exit or entrance. Cows should have a sure footing at all times; surfaces need to be non-slip. There should be no doors at the parlour entrance.

Light is very important; the parlour needs to be bright, with plenty of natural light. This will help the cows to flow into the parlour quicker. This is important at the parlour entrance and also at the parlour exit.

There should be good space at the front of the parlour, so cows are not forced to take sharp turns. This not only helps cow flow but also prevents lameness issues.

What water systems should farmers consider?

Cleaning is a critical part of the milking process and needs to be part of the design.

Installing split drainage channels under the feed troughs makes the job of washing down the cow stand much quicker with less splashing of muck up onto walls. It also means it is easy to wash away dung between one row and the next.

A high-volume low-pressure water hose is essential for efficient washdown. However, a high-pressure hot wash with a short lance can make cleaning off clusters much easier.

The volume of hot water needed for a modern parlour needs to be considered when choosing your heating system.

With chlorine-free detergents, most wash routines involve at least one hot wash per day for the milking machine. Having a sufficient hot water supply to fill the wash trough quick enough to maintain the high temperature is vital.

“Night rate electricity is still a very efficient way of heating water. However, installing two hot water heaters may be necessary: one for the parlour and one for the tank.

Gas or oil heating systems are also a very efficient method; just ensure that they are designed to meet your parlour’s demands.

How much should your budget be?

The budgetary requirements of a new milking parlour will hugely vary depending on the individual circumstances.

There are so many factors that can influence costs. Can existing buildings be used? Do you need additional dirty water storage? Is the existing ESB power supply?

The specification of the milking equipment will have a big influence on the overall budget.

A very basic machine without feeders and maybe with some pre-owned parts from the old machine might start at around €2,000 per unit.

Atop-spec machine with swing arms, ACRs (automatic cluster removers), automatic front and rear gates, diversion line, electronic milk meters, electronic feeders, automatic identification, auto washer and electronic drafting could be around €8,500 per unit.

It is preferable to focus on getting the correct number of units over a greater level of automation.

If you opt for a high level of automation, is it imperative to ensure that all milkers, including relief staff, are well trained on the equipment’s correct operation.

Final words of advice for farmers upgrading a milking parlour? 

Farmers should avoid budget creep when upgrading a milking parlour. Carefully plan what you want to do, get your planning permission, and get several quotations for each element, building the parlour, dairy and collecting yard; the milking machine; the bulk tank; electrical and plumbing.”

When comparing quotations, ensure that you are comparing like with like. Remember, the more automation you add, the more maintenance costs will be involved in running and servicing costs.

It is worth asking about these costs in advance, e.g., how much is it to fit a service kit to a milk meter, how often is it required.

More farming tips and advice. Alternatively, you can visit Teagasc’s website.

Further editing by Catherina Cunnane 

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