WITH A 30-year-old parlour unable to keep pace with increases in today’s milk yields and cow size, the Madders family, at Church Farm, Coppenhall, Staffs, decided to replace the farm’s 24:24 herringbone unit.

The father and son dairy team of Bill and Michael Madders had revamped it twice already for their 200-cow herd. “But we have simply outgrown it,” said Michael. “We’re spending 3-3.5 hours for each milking – which is enough, and ideally we were looking at expanding by a further 50 cows.”

The dairy unit layout includes a straight run of parallel cubicle sheds on a level yard, neatly divided half-way across by a 16m wide, open feed passage. The parlour is housed nearby within one of the eight-bay long cubicle sheds.

“Our thoughts are to relocate the parlour to the feed passage and cover it over,” he added. But that was before the MDC event.

Parlour specialist Ian Ohnstad of the Dairy Group, formerly ADAS Dairy Group, and visiting producers agreed that the Madders’ reasons for change were sound because the existing parlour had limitations. “Increasing cow standing length would certainly compromise the pit area,” said Mr Ohnstad.

But before planning a new parlour, many factors must be considered. “Producers get hung up about what is inside the parlour, but what’s outside has a huge impact on throughput and efficiency,” he said.

Having answered the question of why change, producers began tackling other issues. Budget was a key driver. “Today equipment costs of £2000 per milking point and 80% of that on top for building costs are not uncommon,” said Mr Ohnstad.

Expenditure varies according to parlour design, with cow presentation dictating distance between milking points and overall length. Herringbone units see cow presentation vary between 32 and 60deg, putting centres at 680-1000mm compared with rapid-exit units where cows stand at 90deg, reducing centres to 550mm, he explained.

Different designs suit different units. Herringbones in which each milking point has its own cluster are flexible, but 18 points a side is about the maximum for a single operator to manage efficiently.

Swing-over herringbones – where cluster units are shared between stands either side of the pit – use equipment more fully, said Mr Ohnstad. And rapid exits are common for herds of 250-300 cows. Rotaries and automatic milking systems are also worth considering.

Understanding where time is lost in the current milking routine, aided by accessing MDC’s free Parlour Wizard service, can also help design optimum new facilities. “Typically, it takes 45-60 seconds a cow to load the parlour, prepare teats, attach clusters, spray teats and get cows out,” said Mr Ohnstad. “When you’re spending 10 seconds wiping teats, ensuring they’re clean before milking will improve throughput.”

Issues influencing cow-flow also needed consideration. In-parlour feeding could slow throughput and had been successfully dropped in many parlours. “Also, don’t get hung up on technology,” he said. “Only get what you need. ACRs and milk-flow meters are probably the must-haves for a unit of this size.

“And how many of you find yourselves leaving the parlour to bring in cows? Ideally, the width of a holding area and parlour should be equal and a backing-gate can reduce the workload. “Exits must also be clear, with no tight turns or tight spaces.” Curved walkways encouraged cows to move forward and shedding systems should be incorporated, he said.

Armed with this information, producers toured the site to suggest where a new parlour could be sited.

Despite the clear run of the open feed passage, its central location and accessibility for building work, the producers found fault. Mr Ohnstad agreed with three main concerns.

Its length was not enough for an adequate holding area, a parlour and a suitable exit raceway. With cow yards either side, shedding and handling facilities would have to be offset, leaving half the herd treading an unfamiliar path, slowing cow flow. And biosecurity would be compromised, with tankers travelling to the unit’s centre to collect milk.

Despite some disagreement, a better long-term option was suggested – relocating milking to the end of the site where an access road adjoins and extending an existing building to accommodate a bigger holding yard.

The Madders agreed the producers’ views were worth considering. “It certainly looks like we have to reconsider our plans in the light of what’s been said,” said Bill.

Before installing a new parlour, Mr Ohnstad also recommended producers visit other units to see different parlours on similar-sized herds. “Where possible, have a go at milking. You’re making a big investment – it’s essential you get it right.”