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Dairyman retrofits small parlors on a budget

Tamara Scully for Progressive Dairy Published on 12 May 2020
 swing-eight parlor

Steven Weaver of Meadowley Farm in Morrisville, New York, milks his seasonal herd of 65 cows in his handmade retrofitted parlor. With two people milking, the cows are all back out onto pasture in one hour. But it wasn’t always that way.

Upon relocating from Ohio, the Weavers settled onto a farm with an existing tiestall barn. Opting to try to use the facilities as they existed didn’t work out. The cows, which were not trained to a tiestall, didn’t adjust. They were anxious and uncomfortable, and all that bending down to milk wasn’t too comfortable for the humans either.

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Weaver opted to create his own low-cost, swing-eight parlor, complete with a front counterweighted pendulum gate, in what was once the tiestall barn. The gate requires a clearance of 8 feet, 6 inches and required a ceiling cut. The cow deck is 6 feet, 4 inches from the ceiling. There is 23 feet in between the walls for the eight-stall parlor design. About 4 feet of space on each side for the cows to enter and exit the parlor works well. The cows exit the stalls, turn and return to an area behind the holding pen. A simple pipe works to keep those coming and going separated.

His goal was to make a parlor that worked for his family’s needs as well as the cows’ comfort. A pit with a ramp that’s incline is not too steep, just in case an errant cow finds her way into it, also allows easier access for his family.

“Our parlor is open at the end. The pit slopes up, and we can walk in,” Weaver explains.

The cow deck, which slopes down just enough to allow easy cleaning, drains into the catch basin and is piped out from there. Forty-five-degree elbows, instead of 90-degree turns, help to keep the waste lines open, as does regular maintenance.

The retrofit has been successful, and he and his sons have diversified their farm income by adding another enterprise: building simple, low-cost parlors for other area farms. While most of these are built for new facilities, they’ve retrofitted several – including their own – into existing barns.

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pendulum gate parlor

Pros and cons

After a few weeks, the heifers learn to come into the parlor and turn properly. Weaver recommends setting a stall angle of no more than 70 degrees, probably a bit less, so that the cows have a hard time turning around.

His cows flow nicely, without any pushing or pulling, keeping them calm and making milking faster. If one heifer is inside the door, ready to occupy the stall, they all flow smoothly. He doesn’t need to go into the holding pen to load cows. There is 15 square feet of space per cow in the holding pen, and no gate separates the pen from the stall area. Only the front pendulum gate, which can be operated from anywhere within the pit using a clothesline pulley system, is needed to keep the cows where they should be. A back gate, made of simple pipe on a pivot, is also operated from the pit and only used when the last group of cows is loaded, to keep cows from returning to the stalls.

“As soon as the set that’s milked is out, it’s full again,” Weaver says of his system. “For small parlors, I don’t see rapid exit as an advantage. Cow flow trumps a rapid exit.”

Kicking cows – their feet are right at face level – can be an issue. If the milker is too close, or if a small cow is too far up in the stall, getting kicked is more likely. Otherwise, the cows will kick the bottom rail. At first, they did not install a kick guard, but found that the cows were uncomfortable without one and tended to stand against the gate and push, once resulting in a cow that slid under the gate and fell into the pit.

A rough floor keeps the cows’ footing sturdy. There is no heat in his parlor, so it can be a bit cold during the winter. The bonus is that it stays very cool during the summer, Weaver says.

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Parlor cost

Originally, Weaver’s parlors were designed using a pipe clamp system, but with his sons now older and involved in the business, they’ve opted to weld black pipe, which they then send out to be galvanized. Galvanized pipes emit fumes during the welding process. Everything is fabricated at home, which cuts down on the time they need to install the system. Thus far, just a few years in, they’ve completed 20 parlors.

The parlor fabrication fits into their farming schedule, as they do the majority of the shop work in the winter, so the installations are ready to go during the rest of the year. Three people can install the parlor in about six hours, with any minor adjustments made on-site. Weaver advises the farmers to milk in the morning, have the installation done, and the cows can be milked in the new parlor that evening.

Even in the depressed dairy market, Weaver’s parlors have been in demand in the community. So far this season, they’ve installed three parlors, with two more being installed at this time.

“You can spend a lot of money. We are bare bones, low-cost,” he emphasizes.

One swing-eight parlor with polycarbonate splash guards and stainless steel kick guards is $7,500 installed, within two hours of the Weavers’ home farm. This includes the drop where the pipeline will hang, but not the pipeline. An optional upgrade to stainless steel is available, but so far no one has chosen that option. Everything is lagged or bolted into the floor or the ceiling, so it is readily removed. Adding stalls or increasing travel distance adds to the cost.

Weaver sums up the advantages of converting his tiestall barn into a low-cost milking parlor. His cows are happier, milk more quickly and spend little time in the barn. He can comfortably and efficiently milk the herd, and readily clean the parlor. The cost to install the swing type of parlor is minimal, versus the labor and time involved in milking with a less efficient setup from an old facility. And his low-cost parlor design works in new buildings, too, as a low-cost way to build a milking parlor without breaking the budget.

“I think this system fits very well with small, grass-based dairy,” Weaver summarizes.  end mark

Weaver spoke at the recent Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance, held in Canastota, New York, in September 2019. For further information on his low-cost parlor design, he can be reached at (315) 684-3228.

Tamara Scully, a freelance writer based in northwestern New Jersey, specializes in agricultural and food systems topics.

PHOTO 1: One swing-eight parlor with polycarbonate splash guards and stainless steel kickguards is $7,500 installed, within two hours of the Weaver’s home farm.

PHOTO 2: One feature of Weaver’s low-cost parlor installation is a front counterweighted pendulum gate, which requires clearance of 8 feet, 6 inches. Photos provided by Steven Weaver.

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