Replace, extend or improve - these are the three options available to dairy farmers considering investing in their milking parlour set-up. But before any decisions are made it's worth asking some pertinent questions that could result in making some big savings.
That's the advice of Richard Davies, DairyCo technical officer, who says while cow numbers are increasing in many herds, the milking parlour is often the last part of the system to come up for review.
"Some farmers and staff are now finding themselves spending longer in the parlour than they want to - and when you consider two hours for every milking session is reckoned to be the maximum time anyone should be milking in terms of maintaining a good level of efficiency, a lot of people are in there considerably longer than that. And it's often simply because the number of cows is more than the system should really be coping with," says Mr Davies.
While making a big investment in a new parlour set-up may be the only way forward where existing parlours are clearly outdated and don't justify improvement, extending an existing parlour or simply modifying to up-grade the system is worth considering - providing decisions are made after fully evaluating the herd's current and future requirements.
"Upgrading by introducing new technology is the most popular way of modernising without investing in a new parlour. It's a way of creating a working environment that should be fast and efficient and relatively easy to operate once the technology is mastered - but none of that's any good if it's too complicated for the operator and the technology isn't fully utilised.
"So it's important for farmers to know exactly what they really want in terms of the latest gadgetry and make sure they'll make the most use of it," says Mr Davies.
With no shortage of good quality, second-hand parlour equipment on the market, many herd consultants are now recommending comparing costs of new versus second-hand before making any parlour upgrade decisions.
But as well as actual parlour refurbishment there are significant improvements to be gained in terms of improving milking-time efficiency by making alterations to cow-flow.
"Shedding gates, backing gates, wider exits and no 180° turns can all make really big improvements. These are the options that shouldn't be underestimated when trying to improve milking-time efficiency."
Staffing continues to be an issue on many units and providing a higher standard of working environment is now clearly an asset when recruiting labour.
"The parlour is all too often at the end of the line when it comes to investment as part of herd expansion, but when investing in a new parlour is out of the question there are plenty of opportunities to make improvements that can improve the standard of milking for the cows and those doing the milking - and its increasingly important to get it right on both counts," adds Mr Davies.
CASE STUDY: Peter Norris
An expanding herd and a move to a new farm put milking parlour efficiency high on the agenda of Lancashire dairy farmer Peter Norris. But without making the considerable investment required to install a new set-up, an upgrade costing about £50,000 is now successfully milking the 300-cow Clayholme Holstein herd at Priory Farm, Hornby, Lancaster.
The Norris family moved to the new farm seven years ago - albeit from a farm at the other end of the village - which had a Fullwood 24:24 parlour.
"Initially we tidied-up the parlour and took out the old feeders but we knew we'd got to look at a more long-term improvement - either replace it altogether or see if we could extend and upgrade it for less cost," said Peter, who farms with sons Andrew and John.
The existing parlour was not ideally situated within the farm buildings, but to re-locate to a new parlour building on a green-field site adjacent to the farm would have involved "colossal expense". Eventually the decision was taken to extend the parlour's capacity by 50% to a 36:36.
"But we also needed to look at cow flow at the same time, says Peter. "We introduced a backing gate and it has made a big difference to getting cows through the parlour and reduced milking-time. And for what we've ended up spending we've achieved a lot."
The herd, which is milked twice-a-day, is now milked by two men in approximately two hours.
On the shopping list for improvements were stalls, cluster removers and new electronic pulsation. The only second-hand purchases were the feeders which are about to be linked to the new computer system.
"We wanted milk to flow downhill, so if we'd opted for a new system it would have meant either a rotary or a side-by side. In the system we've created the milk goes downhill, under the cow so we can use a lower vacuum," says Peter.
Andrew Norris says the upgrade and overhaul of cow-flow has made milking more efficient and knocked at least an hour off milking time.
The herd, which has an average yield of 9000 litres, is currently being fed solely on a total mix diet with a high inclusion of maize silage. The imminent installation of computerisation will see automatic feeders deliver in-parlour rations which will be a return to the herd's original feed regime.
A cost breakdown shows £32,000 has been spent updating the system - excluding farm labour but including the cost of the feeders - with an extra £27,000 for computerisation and pedometers.
"We'd have spent five times as much if we'd started from scratch with a new system - and it wouldn't have milked any faster," says Andrew.
*Anyone considering making changes to their milking parlour can use Dairy Wizard - available as a CD from Dairy Co - to enable various options to be evaluated.