It’s not uncommon to find time spent milking cows accounts for a large proportion of man-hours on a typical dairy unit. But a desire to increase throughput using limited capital and existing buildings is far from straightforward, warn advisers.

A few extra units added to the existing parlour may seem the most obvious answer but the confines of existing building fabric and poor cow flow could cream off any perceived gains.

According to dairy business consultants Promar, producers would be best placed to look initially at existing machinery. Ensuring this is working effectively could cut cow time in the parlour and – importantly – improve cow teat condition and herd health, says Mark Scrivens, Promar’s national business manager for milking systems.

“Most farms, even when they’ve upgraded equipment in the recent past, would be surprised to find the milking equipment does not meet the needs of the cow milking today.

“Over the past 15 years milk yield has increased steadily effectively the cow is delivering 50% more today than she was back then.”

First thoughts for producers should be to consider having parlours checked by a qualified technician. There are two main tests static and dynamic – the latter being more thorough as it tests the equipment and operator in action – varying in price from about £135 to £150.

“Improving parlour performance isn’t necessarily about investing capital, but about managing what we do during the milking routine. The problem is that often, regardless of changes in staff or equipment, people continue to do what they’ve always done. And that’s not necessarily the right thing.

“It’s rarely the cow that’s at fault in 27 years of testing I’ve not seen a machine that couldn’t be improved,” he says.

working in dairy parlour 
Improving parlour performance isn’t necessarily about investing capital, but managing what is done during the milking routine.

Small improvements can yield great rewards. Ensuring teat liners, vacuum rates and ACRs are working effectively, for example, can reduce tissue and teat-end damage and risks of mastitis. “If an ACR stays on for 20 seconds too long for each cow that’s an extra 33 minutes for a 100-cow herd passing through a parlour.

“We have to focus on the wear and tear on the cow. The parlour is like a car it’s not a dangerous thing in itself, but it’s the person driving it that makes the difference.”

Some testing of parlours is mandatory under Farm Assurance static tests should be done annually, but there’s no reason why that cannot be more frequent if changes have been made to the equipment, he stresses.

“Ideally, dynamic testing should also be regular and if you’ve not had one undertaken in the past two or three years it’s time you did. Cow yields may have changed markedly, but has the routine kept up?”

Teat end damage, rising cell counts, vet bills and higher replacement rates all culminate to bring a sizeable costs to the dairy business as well as prolonging time in the parlour tubing infected teats and discarding antibiotic milk. “It is avoidable.”

Where parlour testing and routine have led to efficient operations, the question of where to invest capital can remain a vexed issue. Cow flow is a critical factor in parlour throughput so some may consider installing electric backing gates in collection yards as a time-and labour-saving measure, suggest advisers.

In the parlour, automated teat dip and flush systems can be fitted taking the strain out of the critical, but often time-consuming, task of udder hygiene.

Although not immediately apparent, an improvement in cow accommodation hygiene may also pay dividends by improving udder health. Again, reducing time spent tubing infected teats and disposing of waste milk cuts both unnecessary cost and time.

The options are as diverse and the dairy businesses in operation, but there is one unifying objective, suggests Mr Scrivens: “In the present climate our aim has to be improving cow health, comfort and longevity. And that begins in no small way in the parlour.”