Emma McCormack, a final-year Agriculture student is back with her third Student Update to compare the external rotary milking parlour with the conventional herringbone.
Farmers do not make big decisions lightly. Often their infrastructure is outdated but a lot of research; planning; money and risk required to modernise farms. Once you buy a machine, it is losing value and big purchases can involve even bigger figures.
However, if it saves the farmer a lot of time, and makes his job safer or easier – is it ever going to be a regret? Just like buying a house, you’re putting a lot of money on the line so you need to have done the maths and be confident that it is an achievable purchase.
The topic of rotary milking parlours is often discussed widely, with many arguments for and against these modern machines. I have approached many farmers for their opinion on this topic, those with different sorts of rotaries and those without. The general consensus seems to be that the huge initial investment is a big turn-off for most herringbone owners and they don’t enquire any further than the cost. They know that milking over 300 cows in a herringbone is taking so much longer, even with help, but see no option but to hire someone to assist them.
Farmers have no control over some factors, such as weather; supply/demand and a bit of luck too. This is why they are wary to make the large investment as they’re always unsure of what lies ahead. The year 2018 so far, is an example of how things have plummeted from one harsh extreme to the other – it’s difficult to be prepared for everything.
It’s been a long, tough spring in Scotland where I was farming, and also at home for my father. I have to say though, with a large herd and a herringbone, farmers are either taking up to twice the length of time to milk, or they have an extra labour unit or several, there to assist them.
Sometimes, farms are a family affair and help is available but when the job can potentially be a one-man operation with the same income and can be so much faster, is this not the future? A lot of dairy farmers are paying part-time; full-time or relief staff to assist with the running of the farm, as it is no easy task. Every farmer needs a few days off here and there – it is such a demanding occupation. This running cost of extra labour over a number of years and has got to accumulate to a sizeable figure, right? That’s not taking into account the time that could have been saved.
A justifiable purchase
I see it as a justifiable purchase in a lot of cases, and I would much prefer to pay off a parlour over 5 or 6 years than pay for constant extra labour as it’s money I’ll never see again.
I’ll have the parlour for a very long time if it’s well maintained, and I’ll have twice as much time to myself to do all of the things that farmers normally decline the offer of.
Time in itself is very valuable and if farmers spend less time in the parlour, they’ve got more time to themselves or to work - either on the farm or elsewhere. Milking isn’t such a tiring task with a rotary; it does a lot of the work for you.
Most dairy farmers love the lifestyle, otherwise they wouldn’t last in such a tough occupation, but milkings can get long and repetitive, especially if you are facing into a few hours of work yourself, twice-a-day, every day, especially in those long, cold winter mornings when most of the country is still sleeping.
Work smarter with the numbers and not so hard with the hours, would you agree? I’m expecting a debate from people, as it’s a very two-sided discussion but this is just my opinion, or opinions that have been offered to me by farmers I have asked sp I’m open to discussion on it.
If you feel I’m way off track and herringbones are the future, I’d love to hear your thoughts. I have milked in both, and I still aim to gain a lot more experience, but currently, I think rotaries are where it’s at. No farmer can run on fresh air – nor can their cows – income is crucial in order to improve; grow and better your farm.
Financial help from the government is always welcome, but rules and regulations are ever-changing and there’s plenty of paperwork to be done, to be eligible for any monetary aid. I’d like to focus on doing well independently – is it realistic, today?
From what I have seen, it is very achievable but there’s a lot of hard work and investment required to achieve great things, and it does not happen overnight.
A few people have told me that scrapping the parlours altogether and introducing robots is the forward path from here, but I don’t agree. I know they suit some people, but dairy loses some of its personal approach, in my opinion.
I don’t know much about robots - they definitely do save time but they just never appealed to me. I gather that one robot can cater for an average of 80 cows so it may not be the most cost-effective way to save time, in a large-scale enterprise. I’m sure they suit some people well, though.
In a well-designed rotary parlour, cows flow constantly. The operator can concentrate on milking and cow health, watching out for lameness, for example. You can potentially stand in one place and milk 500 cows in 90 minutes, alone – which I have done and seen done. The fewer people and noise around, the more content the cows are and the more milk they leave behind in the tank.
A rotary doesn’t require much movement, and the parlour is straightforward so you wouldn’t need a very experienced milker. I started milking a 500-heifer herd in Scotland, in a 54-bail Milfos rotary parlour. It was easy to get accustomed to and I couldn’t get over how efficient the parlour was.
I’d set the speed to suit my own pace and adjust it as I pleased. I felt I had been milking in a rotary forever. It would be far different in a herringbone, with 500 heifers. Once the cows got used to the system, they flowed seamlessly.
The cows were content on the rotating platform. I think they enjoy the constant movement as they’re milked – and are less inclined to get bored, as they are when stood in a herringbone waiting on a slow cow and sometimes like to kick off the cups.
Also, drafting is effortless in a rotary. Automatic systems are modern, and you can continue to milk away, knowing that a cow that needed to be pulled out, will be. Rotary parlours are handy for a lot of jobs, not just milking.
In Scotland, all of the AI was done on the platform, as well as scanning; vet examinations; replacing tags; tail clipping; injecting; stripping teats and heat detection, thanks to a vet platform at cups off. There was little use for a handling yard anymore. It made a lot of jobs safer, for both cow and farmer.
Some farmers mentioned that they have less of an opportunity to wash clusters before cupping the next cow, as you would in a herringbone, but they’d blast them with a hose regularly and maintain a high standard of hygiene in the parlour at all times. Some people dip the cups in peracetic acid, for example, between cupping cows to ensure the prevention of bacteria spreading.
Once the cows had taken the gleam off the shiny, new bars in those first few days they weren’t so wary. After plenty of adjustments, we found how to operate the parlour to suit the cows best, from our own technique; rotation speed and cup pressure. Happy cows made our job far easier.
We found that getting rubber matting put down at the points where the cows entered/exited the rotary, it prevented problems like lameness/white line, as cows turned to walk away after being milked.
The cost is huge, and with less than 300 cows, it doesn’t pay you, but I would value a rotary far more than any tractor or shiny new feeding wagon on a dairy farm. There are pros and cons, as with anything.
Depending on how the parlour is designed, the plant room may be out of sight so caution is required to ensure that milk isn’t being lost down the drain during milking, or that the water/cleaning products aren’t going into the tank during the wash.
Time and technology
Milking can become quite mundane, as you’re stood in one place the entire time. Although the fact that it’s only taking half the time it normally does justifies this. The operator doesn’t move from cups on, so they may not get a chance to keep an eye for cows kicking/leaving not fully milked/cows reentering after they’ve already been milked. The larger the rotary, the more cows you can milk at a high speed without returns. 60-bail rotarys seem to be popular.
Technology can prevent returns from being fed again, but features like this are extra and come at a price. You could put someone at cups off, but it defeats the purpose which is to make milking a one-man job. A good teat spraying system is important, as cows come in different sizes. I’ve seen a pod system in action - it was good but didn’t offer full coverage if cows were smaller/larger than the average.
In a large herd, you’re bound to have a few slow girls. If they’re getting a few extra kilos of feed every day, you’re going to notice it when you’re paying for the cake. You can watch out for them, mark them or allow technology to prevent this, at a cost.On the plus side, they aren’t slowing you down - we all know the struggle of waiting for that one cow to milk out after delaying the whole row. She might be your best cow, but she is slowing you down every day.
ACR’S are brilliant but can work against you. The sensors detect when the milk flow slows down and stops and removes cups, but sometimes when the milk flow drops below a certain level the cups may be removed but she may not milked out.
However, this is an issue that could occur in a modern rotary just the same. That’s where experience comes in and being familiar with the slow girls helps too. Rotary parlours are modern, so this can mean that repairs are expensive. Any adjustments that need to be made can require a tech from the company to call out, which can be inconvenient/costly.
Some farmers milking in rotaries said they were no safer than in a herringbone, and you always need to be cautious, for example, cows can get their legs/heads stuck between bars, and the platform continues turning until you press stop.
You need to know what you’re doing and be alert, as on any farm. Milking speed should be low while cow and farmer to get used to the parlour.
I have spoken to plenty of people to gather information on external rotary parlours vs. conventional herringbones, and though there are a few small issues in rotary’s, nobody regretted their decision to upgrade.
They have all parroted each other, in how quickly they can milk now, and how it’s so much less labour intensive. That’s the bottom line in my eyes – there’s no arguing with that. Time is money.
What do you think – is the rotary parlour the future for large-scale dairy farmers willing to spend the money, or should they stick to the old reliable herringbone?