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4 Tips to improve parlor flow and de-stress milking

Austin Turner for Progressive Dairy Published on 18 October 2019
Milking

Milking times are the most stressful points of a cow’s day. Removing as much stress as possible from the holding area and parlor can help improve milk let-down and ensure a complete milking.

When reducing stress at milking times, there are a few things to consider: physical design, distractions, the holding area and hygiene and maintenance.

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1. Build for the cows

Your milking parlor should be built based on the size of your cows and their natural body movement. Cows need plenty of space to swing their bodies; therefore, the parlor design needs to eliminate pinch points, sharp turns and edges. The design should also consider placement of manholes and corners to prevent cows from knocking into them or catching their hip bones and causing injury.

One area of the parlor that often causes interruptions in cow flow is sequencing gates. They should be positioned high enough on the shoulder so they turn with the cow. This higher positioning also helps keep the pressure off her belly when she’s in the stall being milked. Another consideration with sequencing gates is whether or not they are secured to the floor. Sequencing gates secured into the floor can be difficult for some cows to maneuver around when loading into their stalls.

If building a new parlor or renovating an existing parlor, be sure to choose a stall that can accommodate the size of animals that will be milked. Stalls should be wide enough that the cow fits comfortably, but not so wide that she has room to swing and move around. Typically, stalls range from 24-inch to 30-inch centers, depending on the breed. There are also options available that include custom indexing which can adjust for fresh heifers or different cow pens to provide the most comfortable fit for the animal and safest environment for employees.

Appropriately sized exits are also important. Cows need sufficient clearance to prevent injury as they leave the parlor. Several factors contribute to the amount of space needed for a safe exit, including the size of the animals, the type of exit gate, and any space limitations of the barn. Exit clearance can range anywhere from 5 feet, 1 inch to 6 feet, depending on these variables.

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As the cow leaves the stalls, be sure there is plenty of room in the exit alley for the cow to fully exit. The stalls should be able to successfully reset without bumping any cows which have left. Regardless of the type and size of exit, the goal is always for a fast, safe exit from the parlor.

The milking parlor shouldn’t feel like punishment, and a cow should have a positive experience with each trip to the parlor. Design this area for the most natural cow movements to eliminate irritation every time the cow enters.

2. Cut down on distractions

A key factor to steady flow in and out of the parlor is minimizing distractions from the cows’ path. As animals of prey, cows naturally have a heightened awareness of their surroundings. They are constantly looking for things that are out of place or could be a potential predator. Some breeds, such as Jerseys, are also generally more curious than other breeds. A consistent, well-designed parlor minimizes distractions and keeps cows moving easily into their stalls.

A cow likes to see where she is going. She doesn’t need to see unnecessary things that cause her to stop or slow down. Often, remodeling the parlor allows you to remove unnecessary posts and cluttered equipment to increase cow flow and comfort. You should also limit open doorways or windows to cut down on potential distractions or stressors. Further, be mindful of any new people or equipment additions to the parlor, as they can pose distractions and slow cow flow.

In addition to physical distractions, light or dark can also impede a cow’s vision and cause her to stop or slow. Cows want to know as much as possible about where they are going. Providing good lighting (natural or artificial) is important, especially when she needs to go through doorways or around corners. When positioning light, be mindful of any shadows created, as those can also cause cows to stop and investigate.

Noise is another factor that can add stress or distraction for cows in the parlor. Minimize yelling, banging, loud music and loud equipment. Any of these noises can trigger the release of adrenaline, which counteracts oxytocin – the milk let-down hormone.

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3. Holding area considerations

The holding area is another lynch-pin in the milking process. Most recommendations suggest 15 to 20 square feet per cow in the holding area. Be sure no cow is spending more than 60 minutes in the holding area before milking; less is better. Provide adequate ventilation year-round and cooling in the warmer months to reduce holding area stress.

When bringing cows from the holding area to the parlor, use the crowd gate judiciously. A crowd gate should be used as a suggestion to encourage cows into the parlor, not a tool to force them in. If the parlor is properly managed and designed, cows should enter the milking area willingly and at their own pace. They should walk in at a natural speed, neither hesitating nor running into the parlor. Avoid yelling when moving cows from the holding area.

4. Smooth operator

Having the best-designed parlor and holding area are of no value if they are not maintained and cleaned. All equipment should be regularly serviced and reviewed for potential failures. Check that all joints are moving smoothly and nothing is gumming them up to prevent cows from entering or exiting freely and easily. Make repairs and upgrades as needed. The potential savings of working with faulty equipment does not outweigh the risk of injury to employees or animals.

Cleaning equipment regularly also never hurts. A daily washdown helps prevent manure build-up and equipment wear. An in-depth washing on a quarterly basis ensures a more thorough cleaning and can also help identify any needed repairs.

The goal of every milking parlor and holding area should be a free-flowing and positive cow experience. By providing an environment where she can move naturally, without distractions or extra stress, you are improving the time the cow spends away from her stall and helping ensure a better milking experience for animals and people.  end mark

PHOTO: Parlor and holding area design, well-maintained equipment and a calm environment in the milking parlor area are all ways to reduce stress, thus encouraging oxytocin release before and during the milking process. Staff photo.

Austin Turner is with Turner Parlor Stalls. 

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