Focus on staff to get the most from rotary parlours

More and more producers are investing in rotary parlours to cut milking times and get their dairies running more efficiently.

But the move from a herringbone system can be a big change – not just for cows, but also for staff – and careful management of parlour employees is vital if you are to get the best from your investment.

“Going from a herringbone to a rotary and not understanding the labour implications is the biggest stumbling block I come across,” says Ian Ohnstad of the Dairy Group.

“Rotary parlours are an incredibly efficient way of getting cows milked quickly and getting staff out doing other jobs, but they need to be staffed properly.”

Having invested significant sums in machinery, Mr Ohnstad says many producers may be reluctant to see labour wages in the parlour increase.

Where to position staff on a rotary

Staff positions on a rotary depend entirely on rotation speed, which can alter depending on how long it takes staff to prepare a cow for milking.

  • In an ideal scenario a rotary should have three staff members
  • The first worker should prepare the teats within a few blocks of where the cow steps on to the platform – this gives the cow a chance to settle down and workers a chance to encourage a reluctant cow on to the rotary gently
  • The second operator should be ready to attach the cluster 60-90 seconds after the teats are prepared
  • The third person should be at the cups-off position

  • Putting mats or other markers on the floor can help staff get a sense of timings, so they know to attach clusters when milk flow has been properly stimulated

  • Staff numbers

    On a typical 44-point external rotary, at least three staff members are needed during milking to get the systems working as efficiently as possible, he says.

    “Ideally you need to have a person doing teat preparation and mastitis protection, someone putting the cluster on the cow and another removing the cluster at the end of milking.

    “There are examples of parlours operating with less than three people if they have dynamic systems with automatic cup removers and back-flush systems, but I think they are likely to be making compromises and feel happier with three people positioned around the rotary (see below).”

    Giving staff time to get used to a different system is also important when moving to a rotary parlour, Mr Ohnstad says.

    “Just as the cows have to get used to moving in single file and stepping on to a moving platform, there’s a degree of adaptation for the operator too.

    “You see people trying to milk too quickly and if they turn up the rotation too quickly then cows don’t latch on and you have to put the rotary in reverse to go back and correct things.

    “Finding an appropriate rotation speed for staff to be able to do their jobs is vital.”



    Izak Van Heerden, an extension officer at DairyCo, agrees timing of the rotary and understanding the speed at which staff work is key to getting the system running efficiently.

    “Calculating how long it takes for a parlour to rotate and deciding where staff should be positioned will differ for each system,” he says.

    “The common mistake people make is to try to get the clusters on as quickly as possible, because they think it will make milking faster,” he says.

    “But if you put the clusters on before the milk reflex kicks in you will have dry milking, which can cause teat damage.

    Lag time

    “You should wait 60-90 seconds after preparing the teat so the milk is stimulated. Taking time with the cows will actually make milking quicker and more effective.”

    To decide precisely where staff should be positioned, time how long it takes to prepare teats and calculate where the milk reflex position will kick in along the rotation.

    “If you have one person milking, time how many cows they can strip and dip in 60 seconds. If they can do five cows, time it so they can go back and put the clusters on those cows,” says Mr Van Heerden.

    “If you have more staff, look at how each member works to come up with an average speed to make use of the milk lag time to get the clusters on.

    “I have milked in internal and external rotaries and getting the timings and the rhythm right is important, but once you have that right it can be a great system,” he adds.

    Case study: Scott Kirby, Harper Adams University College

    Scott-KirbyMoving from a herringbone to a rotary system required a degree of change for both staff and cows that Scott Kirby, manager of Harper Adams University College farm, hugely underestimated.

    “The learning curve for both the cows and the people in switching systems was huge,” he says.

    “The new unit coincided with us moving into a new parlour, so there was lots of change and the cows were nervous.

    “Every cow had to be manhandled on to the platform, but then we got locked into a vicious cycle where the cows became reliant on being pushed on to the platform, which hugely slowed things down.”

    After reviewing camera footage of what was happening in the collection yard, Mr Kirby realised that parlour operators in the cows’ field of vision were deterring them from entering the platform.

    “The first guy who cleaned the cow was pretty much in front of where they walked in,” he says. “By moving him further around and by thinking about what people were doing with hoses so the cows weren’t startled, things improved hugely. We also became stricter with the way people operate, as initially there was too much variation,” he adds.

    “We created roles for workers and consistency that the cows could get used to. We also put mats on the ground so people knew where to stand.”

    Mr Kirby now has two operators in the parlour, one preparing the cow and another four spaces down to apply the cup after milk flow has been stimulated. A third worker is positioned in the shed to clean beds and move other groups for milking.

    “Finding the right system that worked for us has been a slow process and we had lots of conflicting advice from different people,” he says. “But looking at the cows’ behaviour and trying to understand the effect of the new system on them really helped.”

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