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Milking parlor’s mobility halted by cost and regulations

Holly Drankhan for Progressive Dairyman Published on 31 March 2016
Wolfe's Neck Farm purchased a mobile milking parlor

Wolfe’s Neck Farm in Freeport, Maine, purchased a mobile milking parlor after recognizing its potential to advance U.S. organic dairy production. However, that potential – like the machine itself – is stagnant.

“It was very clear from the moment the unit arrived here that there were going to be pretty significant challenges with it,” said Dave Herring, the farm’s executive director. “The punch line is: It’s not really mobile.”

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In fact, the single-sided parallel-eight parlor still stands on the concrete pad where it was first unloaded in August.

The farm planned for the unit to move between several docking stations on its property in order to utilize more of its 270 acres of pasture, Herring said. Due to topography, the farm can feasibly graze its 28 cows on only 65 acres and still move them into a stationary parlor for milking, he said.

The non-profit farm also thought portable milking parlors could decrease initial capital investments for new organic dairy producers, like those enrolled in the farm’s new two-year organic dairy farmer training program.

According to Wolfe’s Neck Farm’s website this program addresses the growing consumer demand for organic milk and increases the number of young people entering the industry.

In 2014, milk was the country’s top organic commodity, according to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service. It accounted for almost one-fifth of the $5.5 billion in organic sales that year.

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In Maine, more than half of the state’s 2007 gross revenues from organic products came from organic milk and hay sales, according to a report from the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.

Cows enter and exit the single-sided parlor at ground level

New producers opting to raise cows on leased land could take mobile milking parlors with them if they move, said Rick Kersbergen, an extension professor of sustainable dairy and forage systems at the University of Maine. He is partnering with Wolfe’s Neck Farm to develop its training program.

To search for an appropriate mobile parlor, Kersbergen traveled to the Netherlands and Germany during a six-month sabbatical. He visited the EuroTier, the world’s largest trade fair for animal production, held in Hanover, Germany.

Options were then reviewed by a state inspector. No baseline parlor met U.S. standards for Grade A milk as outlined by the FDA’s Pasteurized Milk Ordinance. Therefore, Kersbergen chose a company that would help adapt the machine for use in America.

The Dairymaster MobiStar 2G unit they purchased is the first of its kind in the country, Kersbergen said. It allows cows to enter and exit at ground level and be raised by a hydraulic lift for milking. A video of the machine in action is available at the company’s YouTube channel: EuropeDairySystems

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With automatic take-off and RFID readers for data collection, the parlor functions well as a stationary unit, Herring said. Wolfe’s Neck Farms shipped its first load of milk collected by the machine in late September. The issue is mobility.

Current U.S. regulations require the bulk collecting tank to be cemented to the ground, Herring said. The parlor also requires access to water, electricity and Internet as well as a mobile wastewater management system – all factors that limit its mobility.

Even moving the unit into an adjacent barn for the winter proved cost-prohibitive, and the farm opted to enclose it in its existing location.

“The way we feel right now about the mobile parlor is that it is a concept that we have not been able to prove works at this point for our needs in the way that we would have hoped and wanted and needed it to work,” Herring said.

Adding to the cost of moving and operating the unit is its large initial price tag: approximately $100,000 with importation fees and additional modifications. Wolfe’s Neck Farms offset this cost with a $1.69 million grant from Stonyfield Farm Inc. and the Danone Ecosystem Fund, which was presented in 2014 to begin the organic dairy farmer training program.

For farmers to reasonably invest in this technology, Herring said that the cost of the machine would need to be cut almost in half.

“As it turns out, its use as a stationary unit is expensive and much more expensive than it would have been for us just to put in a traditional stationary unit,” Herring said.

Even though the parlor did not function as planned, Herring said taking initiative is the true mark of success for the non-profit teaching and research farm.

Innovators in the U.S. could use the technology as a model for developing their own mobile milking systems, Kersbergen said. The extension professor is also interested in portable robotic milking parlors, which cows at pasture could use ad libitum.

Wolfe’s Neck Farms is working to design a traditional year-round barn and milking parlor for its organic herd, which Herring anticipates will be finished by mid-November. The mobile parlor, he said, will not be included in the blueprints.  PD

Holly Drankhan is a student at Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine.

PHOTO 1: Wolfe’s Neck Farm in Freeport, Maine, purchased a mobile milking parlor with the intention of moving it from one docking station to the next to utilize more of the farm’s pasture. However, due to cost and regulations, it has remained on the concrete pad where it was first unloaded.

PHOTO 2: Cows enter and exit the single-sided parlor at ground level and are raised by a hydraulic lift for milking. Photos by Jackie Stearns/Wolfe’s Neck Farm.

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