Most farmers have the potential to make significant gains in milking efficiencies and teat health by monitoring milk flow rates, says milking specialist Ian Ohnstad of The Dairy Group.
He believes milk flow patterns are an under-utilised indicator of milking routine success, as they are a direct reflection of how well the teats are being prepared before milking.
“You want 50% of milk in the first two minutes. To get that, you need at least 90 seconds between the first contact and unit attachment. There aren’t many farms we visit where there isn’t some scope for improvement,” he says.
Flow rates can be manually monitored using a stopwatch to track milk meter displays after two minutes and at the end of milking. Advisers may also use a cow-side lactocorder. However, some specific parlour systems can automatically record milk flow patterns.
Mr Ohnstad explains how and why this data can be used.
Milk production and common issues
At the start of milking, cisternal milk (residual milk from the last milking) is the first to be milked out. This is followed by alveolar milk, which is let down as a consequence of oxytocin, produced as a result of teat stimulation and some conditioned reflexes.
The release of alveolar milk is not instantaneous, so the right intensity and duration of teat stimulation is needed so that alveolar milk immediately follows the last drain on cisternal milk.
The common issue identified on farm is bimodal milk flow. This is where the release of cisternal milk is followed by a period where little milk is produced, prior to alveoli milk release.
When milk flow temporarily slows:
- The vacuum level on the teat end increases – this can indirectly lead to hyperkeratosis and thus a higher chance of elevated somatic cell counts (SCCs).
- Congestion occurs in the teat canal.
- Milk flow rate slows further – leading to extended milking times, so more liner compressions on the teat and greater chance of hyperkeratosis.
Some parlour systems automatically record and display milk-flow patterns – and hence bi-modality – through individual cow milk-flow graphs. They will also highlight milk production patterns split out into units of time during milking.
Mr Ohnstad explains: “To track milk flow automatically, you need electronic milk meters and software that links to those specific meters.”
He says some parlour software records the information, but it is not necessarily utilisable or easily accessible. In addition, reports may be available on systems but farmers might not use them or be aware of them.
He urges producers without the automated systems to ask their manufacturer if they can access the data and suggests monitoring patterns weekly. This can identify any issues with bi-modality or milk flow in the first two minutes – both of which can be rectified by addressing the teat preparation routine.
As a “gold standard” Mr Ohnstad recommends a minimum teat contact time of 10 seconds, with good stimulation.
“You need decent, physical stimulation, not a cursory wipe. A lot of farmers see the role of wiping teats as just to clean them, but you need to bear in mind the stimulation,” he says. It should take 90 seconds between the first physical hand contact with the teat and cupping on.
By adhering to best-practice teat preparation, improved milk flow can lead to quicker individual cow milking times. However, lower overall milking times will depend on whether labour is sufficient to capitalise on a quicker milking by letting cows out of the parlour sooner. The main benefits will be improvements in teat-end hyperkeratosis and potentially, SCC.
Automatic milk flow technologies
There are various parlour systems that automatically produce reports surrounding milk flow:
- Afimilk – Milk meters work with Afifarm software to show milk flow graphs and production rates.
- GEA – Both milking-rate and milking-curve graphs can be produced, but it needs to be “switched on” as part of DairyPlan programme.
- Dairy Comp 305 – Capable of displaying milk flow data, but needs the right milk flow meters and parlour software capability.
- DeLaval – Milking speed and duration shown through Delpro software, but individual flow graphs are not displayed.
- Boumatic – Can get flow rates and individual cow milk flow curves with specific Boumatic milk meters and Boumatic software.
- Fullwood – uses Crystal software linked to milk meters or milk yield indicators. Can give flow rate per second, but needs to be configured and software updated. Individual milk flow per quarter graphs available in robots.
Note: Data may be accessible through other parlours. Ask your manufacturer.
Crutchley Farms, Nettlecombe, Dorset
Changing parlour routines in response to individual cow milk flow curves has resulted in lower milking times, increased milk production per hour, better teat condition and lower mastitis at Crutchley Farms’ Marsh Dairy in Dorset.
In January 2015, the parlour team was struggling with poor milk let down, meaning the ACRs had been turned off and put on manual for about 200 cows in the 750-cow herd.
Arthur Crutchley says: “That meant we were having a lot more hyperkeratosis and teats ends were being hammered.”
Cows are milked three times daily and have an average 305-day yield of 10,980 litres. During quarterly visits, the farm’s consultant, Ian Ohnstad manually monitors milk flow curves using a cow-side lactocorder. The farm’s 40:40 rapid exit Fullwood parlour also automatically monitors flow rates. One of Mr Ohnstad’s visits in 2015 identified significant bimodality of milk production caused by variation in prep/lag time.
Mr Crutchley adds: “The first cow may have a two-minute prep/lag time and the last one could have had five seconds. We can have up to nine different people milking cows, so it was getting the consistency in routine that we didn’t have.”
The parlour team underwent training to understand that better preparation could improve milk let down – and actually get them home earlier.
The routine of spraying, wiping and attaching the units was kept the same. However, rather than starting the routine as soon as cows began walking in, now a whole side is filled and then one person works on a batch of 10 cows. This ensures a prep/lag time of 90 seconds.
As a result:
- Milking throughput rates are consistently 150 cows an hour versus 120 cows an hour before, so staff finish about half an hour earlier.
- Output is up from 1,500/hour to 1,800 litres/hour.
- Teat end scores have improved so there are 1% fewer “very rough” teats. Mr Crutchley says this has been reflected in 10% less mastitis.
The improvements mean upgrading the parlour to automatically produce milk flow curves is at the “top of the shopping list” when milk price improves. Mr Crutchley believes this will help instantly show how well parlour routines are being implemented and create healthy competition between milking teams.