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1108 PD: Parlor renovation: Friend or foe?

Kent Scott Published on 24 July 2008

A necessary evil in the business world is change. Capitalism stretches every business to adapt to changes in the marketplace or be replaced by a business that will change. Each of us knows the phrase “no pain, no gain.” The business of dairying is not immune to these principles. For good or bad, the lifestyle that dairying has availed us for many years is being pushed by the marketplace to become more efficient. Don’t get me wrong, I know that innovation and husbandry will always be a part of the dairy industry, but efficiency and adaptability to changing markets are two principles that cannot be overlooked.

Over the last 12 years, I have been involved with more than 350 dairy businesses across North America that have made the decision to renovate their milking parlors. For them, it was a necessary step to maintain a competitive edge. The wonderful part of a free market system is that each of these dairies have had a unique perspective as to how their operation should function. For the most part, each has exhibited their own ability to be successful. Let us take a look at some of their motives for changing their parlors.

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Generally, efficiency in a milk parlor would, and should be, ranked high in the decision to remodel a dairy parlor. When looking at efficiency, usually three areas are considered. First is the parlor situation, maximizing the existing building’s potential. Buildings are expensive. Not only to build, but to heat, cool and maintain. It’s usually not difficult to determine if a building is being used to its potential. Step into a rotary milking parlor and observe the wide expanse of the building. It is a beautiful sight. This in itself is not bad, but must be considered when building in an area that requires heating or cooling during the milking process. Herringbone and parallel parlor buildings are very similar to each other. In many cases, plans can be interchanged. To compare these two style barns for maximum capacity, simply divide the area of the building by the number of stalls in the parlor. Once again it will be quite evident that the parallel style parlor maximizes the parlor space. However, not all parallel stalls are the same. A parallel stall with a vertical lift system requires less exit area than that of a parallel that pivots or hinges out away from the cows to exit. Personal preference usually plays the biggest role in choosing a style of parlor, but comparing efficiency is not subjective. It’s all a matter of numbers.

The second area of efficiency to look at is cow flow. To compare parlors for efficiency in cow flow is not as easy to do as maximizing the building space. Many variables come into play. Some of the areas that can be quantified for efficiency are entry times, exit times, number of cows milked per hour or pounds of milk harvested per hour.

To be efficient in cow flow, the cows must be comfortable. Parlor stall design definitely plays a role in cow comfort. Cows are creatures of habit and are motivated by peer pressures. To be the most comfortable, the parlor stalls need to confine the cow with the least amount of threat from the stalls, human activity and from other cows. Rotary and parallel stalls do a wonderful job of eliminating most of these threats. After entering these stalls, the cow has her own space in which she doesn’t need to concern herself with her peers. After she is loaded, she is less aware of the constant movement of the milkers as they prepare and attach the milking machines.

When looking at different designs of rotary and parallel stalls, it would pay to remember that cows are more comfortable if they have free movement of their head and neck while confined in the stalls for milking. Herringbone style stalls are at a disadvantage in that while the cows are confined in the stalls, the cows are subject to peer pressure from the cow in front of and behind her. This is noticeable as they enter the parlor. Some cows will work hard to be either the first or last cow in the barn. It is also noticeable loading herringbone stalls with some cows that hesitate to push other cows into position, while other cows seem to enjoy the confrontation. In herringbone stalls, the cows are more aware of human activity in the parlor pit and may react to this as well.

Exit times are important to cow flow. With the advent of rapid-exiting parlor systems, each of these parlor systems may have similar exiting times. However, cows that are not released as part of the total group, such as gang exiting, tend to linger in front of the cows remaining in the stalls. This inhibits the later cows from exiting, which in turn decreases cow flow in that the next group of cows cannot enter until all the cows have exited.

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To quantify cow flow efficiency, simply divide the number of cows milked by the amount of time it takes to milk them. Other factors of efficiency to look at may be the total amount of milk harvested per hour, the number of man-hours required to harvest that milk and the cost of equipment maintenance per month or year.

The third area of parlor efficiency is that of labor. This is the area of parlor efficiency that is most affected by parlor management.

Cow preparation, milker-on time and post-milking practices all need to be evaluated and goals need to be set. Goals without accountability turn into wishes. Many great articles address this and other issues with labor in a parlor. Normand St-Pierre, a professor at Ohio State University, has written a great article, “Milking Parlor Efficiencies: Labor Benchmarks for Today’s Milking Parlor.” His article and others address each individual step of the milking process and what should be expected in terms of labor. A noted design connection to labor efficiency is the amount of travel each worker has to do in the milking process. As discussed earlier, parlor designs are not equal in maximizing space.

Just one other idea that is often overlooked is to group cows to improve cow flow. Slow-milking cows are not bad cows, but they can eat up time if waited upon throughout the herd. Profiling cows by milking speed and grouping them can make a big difference in cow flow.

The next motivation to remodel a milking parlor is to make room for herd expansion. Taxes, making room for more family members or hanging on to herd genetics may all be factors when discussing an expansion. It is vital to make certain all bases are covered. Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) are different everywhere. Available feed can be an issue. Many milk markets will not accept additional milk. Expansion may add additional responsibility to labor and management. We have witnessed situations where any of these areas of concern has thrown a big wrench into an expansion of a dairy.

Once these are covered, a good look at the existing parlor is needed. A new parlor is nice, but in a lot of cases finding additional animals and feed can put a big strain on a dairy’s budget. In many cases parlors can be remodeled to accommodate additional cows. It has been our experience that converting a herringbone parlor to parallel stalls has worked well in this process.

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On the other hand, in order to save money many have attempted to add additional herringbone stalls on either end of an existing herringbone parlor. Initially, the cost of converting to parallel stalls would tend to push a budget-constrained dairy to add a couple stalls on, but time after time we have seen a decrease in cow flow through these parlors. This is strictly due to cow comfort. If the first cow in the parlor has her face into a wall, she will not position herself correctly and will affect the loading of the rest of the cows. This is seen when the milkers are required to push and prod every cow into position. Similar results are seen when shorting the herringbone stalls is attempted. By shorting the herringbone stalls the dairyman has all of the expense of a remodel with reduced cow flow with a stall that the cow is not comfortable in.

Another expansion issue that may turn into a remodel is when cows are moved to another facility to be milked. If management, equipment and labor are shared between the two facilities, we have seen dairymen stretch their time and budgets with the expense of running two facilities, sometimes costing more than double. Bringing those girls home may pay off big time. An addition to housing and expanding the parlor to consolidate dairies is a viable option for many.

The final motivation to renovate a parlor I wish to discuss is when the equipment in an existing parlor just gets worn beyond repair. Keeping parlor equipment in good repair is a challenge. When choosing parlor stalls, a great rule of thumb is the more moving parts the more difficult and expensive it is to maintain. The major dairy equipment original equipment manufacturers do a great job of building parlors that really shine, but they disregard longevity. Here is an example. The most popular parallel parlor stalls sold to date have at least two design problems. First is the position of the stall sequence gates on a pedestal in the concrete floor. Cows flex the gate posts every time they enter and exit the parlor. These gate posts eventually break and are very difficult to repair. These sequence gate posts also become an issue when a cow falls between the posts. There just isn’t room to get the cow out of this situation without cutting the sequence gate post to make room for her to get on her feet. Quite often the cow is injured further in the process of extracting her.

The second notable design problem for most parallel stalls is the use of an air cylinder to hold the cows in loaded position. If the cylinder over time weakens or a couple of cows become excited and start to push the stalls, the air cylinders are not strong enough to hold them back. The cows walk through the stalls and along with them the rest of the group. With the downward pressure for the cylinders, these pivoting gates cannot be comfortable raking along the cows’ backs as they walk under the air-charged system.

Once the parlor stalls become worn enough to begin breaking, down time, expense to repair the old stall and injuries to cows can motivate a remodel. Quite often the splash may be in great shape, while the rest of the stalls are worn and dangerous. In this case, with a little shopping around, a suitable replacement for the worn fronts are available. In many cases, the new fronts are an improvement over the original parlor stalls.

Whatever the motivation to remodel an existing parlor, the renovation should always be an improvement in efficiency and appearance. It should also be a step to reaching a goal. PD

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