All too often a slow milking can be blamed on inadequate milking machinery, but rather than blaming equipment for substandard performance, poor milking routine could be at the heart of the problem.
Consultant Ian Ohnstad, of The Dairy Group, says tweaking routine can speed up milk flow and make an existing system acceptable.
“Often farmers are not allowing enough time for milk let down, resulting in reduced flow rates and increased unit-on time. More time needs to be spent preparing cows for milking.
“You may have the prep/lag time correct, but if you’re just giving teats a cursory wipe with a towel it’s not enough stimulation.”
US research has shown that 15-20 seconds of initial teat stimulation is needed to get full milk let-down, however, in reality, cows are probably only getting four seconds.
“We commonly talk about milk harvesting, but maybe we should start talking about oxytocin harvesting,” says Mr Ohnstad.
Milking times are strongly influenced by slow-milking animals. A herdsman will commonly know which cows these are and cup them on as soon as they come into the parlour, however, this could be making the situation worse as stimulation times are reduced.
“It is often tempting to remove part of a routine to speed up milking – particularly in the summer when udders are clean – however, there is a need to invest time, to save time.”
Disrupted cow flow in and out of the parlour can also be a major frustration. Simply addressing stocking rates and air flow could save many producers a headache, says vet John Cook, European technical services director for Genus ABS.
He says heat stress is a big issue in collecting yards and is one of the main reasons for slow milking times.
“This is one of the main areas for improvement on UK dairy farms. When cows are heat stressed in the collecting yard, as soon as they step out into the air after milking, they stop to cool down, disrupting flow.”
Dead ends and sharp corners on exit and entry to the parlour can further exaggerate the problem, however, space for every cow in the collecting yard is key.
“Ask yourself whether you can group cows more intelligently so they can be brought into the yard in smaller numbers. Installing fans in the yard can also be done relatively inexpensively.”
Longer standing times also mean less time spent eating, while heat stress can impact on conception rates, heat expression and embryonic losses.
“When milking time extends to more than three hours a cow a day, it will have a negative impact on health and fertility, which will ultimately hit the pocket,” stresses Mr Cook.
Lying times are also crucial, and although correct cubicle dimensions are critical in encouraging resting time, management routine can be just as important.
Mr Cook says all too often cubicles can be adequately designed, but feed routine can disrupt resting times.
“Sourcing adequate feed is a major behavioural drive that influences everything else. When a farm is feeding once a day or at sporadic times, cows spend a lot of the time hanging around waiting for feed, rather than lying.
“Management needs to be consistent to train cow behaviour to be consistent – a lot of farms aren’t achieving this.”
Mr Ohnstad also recognises the benefits of training cows to routine. He says delivering feed while cows are being milked will make them more willing to leave the parlour and thus improve cow flow. “It’s important to get both cows and humans in a routine,” he says.
Tweaking routines can speed up milk flow and make an existing system acceptable.
We commonly talk about milk harvesting, but maybe we should start talking about oxytocin harvesting
Key points for improving milking times
* Stimulate teats for 15-20 seconds for maximum milk let-down
* Regroup cows to reduce stocking rate in the collecting yard
* Consider installing fans in the collecting yard to reduce heat stress
* Feed out while cows are being milked
* Remove sharp corners and dead ends on entry and exit
* Train cows to a routine