How to improve milking efficiency and cow welfare

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Improving milking efficiency makes sense for practical management benefits, financial incentives, and animal health and welfare.

Greater efficiency will allow smaller herds to spend less time milking, while larger herds will be able to milk more cows in the time available.

This can help with labor management and variable cost dilution, improving staff retention and profitability.

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Animal health and welfare have a circular relationship with milking efficiency. Most elements of the milking process that increase milking speed also improve health and well-being.

The healthier the herd, the fewer cows that slow down milking by being on treatment.

The improved health is due in part to better udder health and in part to cows spending less time standing on concrete away from feed.

Measuring milking efficiency

Different measurements are useful for different farming situations, and it is important to choose the appropriate measurement.

Cows per hour:

  • Most important for large herds where staff lack hours in the day for milking
  • Significantly affected by yield, so often misused to compare performance between herds.

Milk/hour:

  • The closest reflection of the profitability of your milking, balancing the milk harvested against your operating costs
  • Of limited use in comparing different farms as it is closely related to parlor size.

Milk/stable per hour:

  • A reliable way to check that you are getting the most out of your milking machine, regardless of parlor size, making it useful for herd benchmarking
  • For swing parlours, with twice as many stalls as milking units, slightly different targets for this metric are needed.

A variety of other metrics such as milk/work unit per hour or milking margin/hour can be used to answer specific questions when looking at changing staff numbers or the cost of new infrastructure.

Milking efficiency targets

For each metric, we will apply different targets depending on the farm situation. This allows us to ensure that the goal is ambitious, but achievable.

For example, 130 cows per hour would be a reasonable target for a herringbone parlor, but would be very poor for a rotary facility where we can expect over 250 cows per hour.

Guidelines for milking efficiency

Advance Milking collected data from farms across the UK to establish the range of performance figures.

These graphs show the distribution of performance across UK herds of all types and milking systems.

  • The green box shows the performance range of the middle 50% of herds.
  • The X in the box indicates the average “average” performance.
  • The lines above and below the boxes show the range of performance for the top 25% and bottom 25% of the herds.
  • Green dots are “outlier” farms.

Targets should be farm-specific, but general guidelines can be based on the top 25% of each metric’s range:

  • Cows per hour: 130 in herringbone and quick exit parlors; 270 in rotary milking parlors
  • Milk/hour: 1,500 kg on the cob and in the rapid exit milking parlour; 3,500 kg in rotary parlors
  • Milk/stable per hour: 40 kg in swing parlours; 55kg in double-up; 65 kg in rotary configuration.

Improve milking efficiency

Milking efficiency is influenced by a combination of interacting factors.

Milking routine, udder health performance, milk production, staffing rate, milking parlor size and design, and milking machine settings can all be changed to improve efficiency.

We can identify areas that limit efficiency by looking at more performance numbers.

In herringbone and quick-exit parlors, the ratio of milking time to non-milking time indicates whether additional gains will come from adjusting milking machine or routine settings.

In rotary parlours, we can look at occupancy rates, stops and second turns to show what factors reduce efficiency.

Video footage is a great way to perform a “time and motion” analysis of the milking process and dynamic testing of the milking machine demonstrates the effectiveness of the unit’s operating period.

Opportunities to increase efficiency vary from herd to herd, but the most common source of improvement is changing the Automatic Cluster Removal (ACR) settings to give earlier detachment.

Advance Milking has demonstrated that on average, increasing milk flow that triggers ACRs above 300ml/min (a common default setting) results in an increase of 9.4kg milk/stall per hour.

This improvement is further reinforced by the optimization of milk letdown stimulation.

Milking speed in context

When we make changes, we must always consider the long-term effects.

Taking shortcuts in the milking routine may speed up milking today, but if this results in higher mastitis rates, milking will be slower and more difficult in the future.

Similarly, adjusting machine settings to achieve a high milking speed will only improve efficiency if done safely, without long-term changes in teat health.

A useful “quality control” metric is the amount of unsaleable milk. If more than 1% of the total milk produced is discarded, no matter how fast you milk it cannot be considered effective.

The same goes for missed milk quality bonuses – none of the current UK contracts have such stringent requirements that it is not profitable to meet them and maximize the amount you receive for your product.

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