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1209 PD: 4X milking: Faster, more intense, but rewarding

Published on 05 August 2009

Dairy producer Art Groeneweg of Monroe, Washington, describes the transition between milking 3X and 4X milking as the difference between driving at 55 mph and 75 mph. It’s more thrilling, but also requires more focus and attention.

Groeneweg had considered milking more frequently about two years ago. He then began researching its benefits and kept a file of notes in his office. It wasn’t until earlier this year when milk prices collapsed that Groeneweg finally felt the nudge to make the transition.

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“My veterinarian Earl Aalseth had mentioned it. He said, ‘Milk price is getting to the point you are going to have to do whatever you can to survive.’”

First, Groeneweg met with his milkers and described the dairy economic situation.

“I told them, ‘There are going to be a bunch of changes. We either go broke and you can find another job. Or you can still have a job and you’re going to work a bit harder and get paid a little bit less so we can make it through this time,’” Groeneweg recalls.

Groeneweg’s Hollandia Farms is milking 545 cows through a double-16 parallel parlor with a wash pen, crowd gate and automatic take-offs. Aalseth says the parlor was built for speed that wasn’t being fully utilized.

“We knew it was taking seven-plus hours to milk 545 cows once. With five turns per hour, they should have been able to do it in about four hours. In a short parlor like theirs, it’s like a Southwest jet airliner – it turns quick,” Aalseth says.

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Groeneweg set the milking schedule so that his eight milking employees, two to a crew, would work two shifts each day. Milking now starts at 3 a.m. Each employee works 10 hours per day. His employees had a difficult time adjusting to the new schedule at first.

“It was a flat order: This is how it’s going to be. What say-so do we really have in the matter, given milk prices? I’m the boss, and I’m going to call the shots. I said, ‘If you don’t like it, I’ll find someone else that needs a job and is willing to do it.’”

The dairy’s herdsman monitors the dairy’s pre- and post-milking protocols for compliance. Regular meetings reinforce the protocols. The dairy also monitors SCC count on- farm in the bulk tank. Doing so helps more quickly identify if the dairy is developing a milk quality issue.

“4X milking is like driving down the road faster. If you’re going to crash, you can do it a lot faster,” Groeneweg says. “You have to monitor everything tighter.”

The dairy has seen a seven-pound increase in milk production per cow per day. The extra milk paid out extra dividends in May when Groeneweg’s co-op, Darigold, paid out a special payment of $1.08 for each hundredweight of milk produced during the month of May. The special payment was intended to help struggling co-op members like Groeneweg with cash flow in order to preserve the co-op’s milk supply. Besides more milk revenue, Groeneweg says the health of his cows’ udders have improved. The dairy’s somatic cell count has hovered near 170,000.

“Milking them on this new schedule gives these cows a bit more time to get out of the parlor, eat and relax,” Groeneweg says. “The schedule is more clear-cut for us.”

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Aalseth says there are three main benefits to 4X milking. The first is enhanced management.

“It raises all of your management up to another level. You don’t get that directly in the milk tank but get it eventually in cow health and performance,” Aalseth says.

Increased milk production is the second benefit. Studies show most cows produce 7 to 8 pounds more per day when milked more than three times a day. This is net milking revenue because it is extra milk with little to no additional cost, besides the slight cost to feed the cows a bit more.

“Mother Nature never intended the udder to act as a storage unit. It’s intended to be a secretory tissue and milked more frequently,” Aalseth says. “The increased oxytocin letdown will also help fresh cows.”

Groeneweg says he’s not 4X milking fresh cows for the first three days but knows he should be. It’s one of the improvements to his 4X milking schedule he’d like to make in the future.

Aalseth says dairy producers right now should be evaluating all of their resources to determine what more they can get out of them, if they were better managed. 4X milking and the parlor are just one such example.

“If you want to add a milking, the milking parlor will be managed better. The cows are getting better stimulation, milked faster, etc. – all the things that should have been happening at 3X. It’s more intensive management,” Aalseth says.

Right now low milk prices might put producers in the right mind-set for 4X milking.

“People are more accepting of change when more stress is put upon them,” Aalseth says. “Most people fear 4X milking. But it is simply a matter of putting your day on a schedule and going out and doing it. The herd health goes better now because everything is on schedule and we are never behind.”

The cows gained an extra hour or two per day outside of the parlor to eat or lie down, Aalseth says. Making sure a dairy has enough feed (about 3 extra pounds per cow per day) to sustain increased milk production is also important.

Groeneweg says to make 4X milking work well a dairy can’t have overcrowded pens and will have to get rid of its slowest-milking cows. That isn’t a bad thing given the current milk price downturn. These are cows, he says, that need to be culled anyway.

Even when milk prices rebound, Groeneweg says that he will continue 4X milking. He likes the management challenge and doesn’t want to lose the benefits.

“There’s no sense in letting that extra milk go,” Groeneweg says. PD

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