Cow comfort was the driving force in designing this parlor
Sorting through all the different design and feature options available for a new milking parlor can be a daunting challenge, even for the most experienced producer.
When they started mulling over prospects for building a new parlor at their 300-cow dairy near Lewiston, Minn., a few years ago, Bill and Jean Rowekamp streamlined the decision-making process by concentrating on making cow comfort the focal point.
To gather design ideas, the couple toured "many, many farms" for a first-hand look at parlors, poured over all kinds of product literature and talked with countless company representatives. At each step along the way, they asked a simple question: What would be best for the cow?
When they finally moved into their new double-12, parallel, rapid-exit parlor in August 2012, the Rowekamps were confident that they had built a facility that met their cow-centric criteria.
"It’s very bright and very airy in there," Rowekamp says of the 40'x42' structure housing the parlor. "You get such a different feeling than you did in our old parlor [a double-6 herringbone built in 1972]. It had low ceilings. It was dark, cramped and hot."
By comparison, the new facility features four 36" ceiling fans plus three 30" fans on one wall. And in the 100-cow holding area opposite that wall, there are four 52" fans.
"So there’s a lot of air moving through all the time," Rowekamp says. "It’s very comfortable for the cows. They just love it. When we get into those really hot, humid days in the summer, it almost turns into a problem for us. The cows like it so much in the parlor, they don’t want to leave."
Windows on another wall, plus rows of fluorescent lighting directly above the milking platforms (one panel of six light tubes for every two stalls), keep the parlor well-lit.
"We got the idea from the electrician we were working with," Rowekamp says. "He had put a setup like this in at another parlor, and he kept telling me, ‘Bill, you have to get over there and see those lights!’ "
Rowekamp is convinced that the quality lighting has led to the lower somatic cell counts, which now average around 150,000 in their new parlor. "It all comes down to cleanliness," he says. "It’s easier for the operator to get those teats clean and prepped right when they have good light to work in."
The more comfortable environment also relieves stress. "When cows feel comfortable, they let their milk down easier," he says. "It’s good for the milkers, too. Because they’re working in nice surroundings, their attitude is better and they do a better job."
Improvement in cow throughput is another positive, resulting from the change. In the old parlor, milking 300 cows took about seven and a half hours. "The system would just get done washing, and we’d be bringing in the first cows for the next shift."
In the new setup, total milking and parlor cleanup time with one operator is six and a half hours per shift. "Cows are spending three to four hours less in the holding area and parlor each day. That means there’s more time for resting and eating in the barn.
"When we were putting the financing package together, we estimated that would be worth about 2 lb. per day of additional milk. But we’re seeing an increase more like 3 lb. to 5 lb. per day," Rowekamp says.
Focus on cow comfort has led to faster throughput and more milk in Bill Rowekamp’s new parlor.
Improving management efficiency was another goal for the Rowekamps when they were designing their new parlor. They opted to go with Boutmatic’s SmartDairy system featuring auto identification, auto sorting and activity monitoring. "We looked at several different systems, and they were all pretty impressive. What sold us on this particular parlor was service. We had dealt with this company before and had a very good experience," Rowekamp says.
The identification system gets put to use in a variety of ways daily. "We can look at milk production and deviation in milk production and also at activity to identify and isolate cows that aren’t moving around as much as they might be," Rowekamp explains.
"We can also look at conductivity in combination with low activity and low milk production to identify cows that might be developing mastitis. It allows us to identify potential issues a lot quicker and then take action to get the cow over the problem. It’s a lot better for the cow," Rowekamp says.
The system also enables the Rowekamps to identify how much milk each cow is giving in a particular time frame during the milking process. "We like to see 50% of the milk coming out of the cow in the first two minutes," Rowekamp explains. "If it’s not, it’s an indicator the employee isn’t doing the prep the way we want it done.
"We can also track low milk flow. If the percentage gets too high, it’s telling us that the employee is putting the milker on before the cow can let her milk down," he says. "It’s great for retraining existing employees. If the numbers are outside of our parameters, we can call them in and show them the numbers along with a video from a camera that we have in the parlor. It makes it a lot easier for them to understand what’s going on and correct the problem."
Time-saving is the major advantage of the automatic sort feature. "In the past, we’d just go out in the barn with a clipboard and look for the cows that the vet was supposed to check that day. Then we’d have to round up those cows. Now we can do it from the office," he says.
"We tell the computer who we want sorted out, and the cows are in the pen when the vet gets here. The computer also keeps track of which cows are supposed to be in which pen. If they get mixed up, we click a button, and after the next milking, everybody’s back in the right pen. It saves us a mountain of time."