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Life before and after installing a “low-cost parlor”

Randy Pepin

Published in Dairy Star December 16, 2010

There have been numerous discussions on how to install what is termed a “low-cost parlor.” Farmers typically have low-cost parlors installed in existing stanchion/tie-stall barns and utilize a parabone design, which allows for both between the leg milking and installation in narrower width buildings. We usually realize construction savings by utilizing the existing barn, using a swing parlor concept, and the option of parlor construction with straight pipes and hand-operated gates. A “swing parlor” is designed so that each milker unit swings back and forth across the parlor pit, taking turns milking cows on both sides of the parlor. A low-cost parlor need not correlate with the terms low quality or cheaply made parlor. It only means that the farmer can install a quality, efficient parlor at a relatively modest price.

What have been the results and experiences of dairy producers who have installed these low-cost parlors in recent years? I visited a number of central Minnesota dairy farms where the producers had previously been milking in a typical stanchion/tie-stall barn and then constructed a parabone swing parlor. Some of these farms had been running multiple shifts through their stanchion/tie-stall barn while others had just one shift. Utilizing one or more people during milking in the stanchion/tie-stall barn or parlor varied considerably. After completing these visits, I compiled and summarized the cow and worker efficiency numbers, comparing before and after installation of the low-cost parlor. To make fair comparisons, the information was broken down into cows milked per person per hour. The table below summarizes the results.

Results of informal survey of dairy producers who converted to low-cost parlors
  Cows/person/hour (average)
Type of milking system All farms 1 person milking 2 persons milking Range
Stanchion/tie-stall barn 27.4 31.5 15.3 13-37.5
Low-cost parlor system 46.7 52.9 38.1 33.1-64.8

On the farms surveyed, the greatest impact on low efficiency in the stanchion/tie-stall barn was milking multiple shifts of cows through the barn. The greatest impact on low efficiency in the parlor was excess labor. It is common for many families to bring out additional family members to shorten the overall milking time; however, this practice reduces the efficiency per person. This practice may be acceptable with family labor, but when the milking labor is hired, working the numbers to reach a higher efficiency per person in the parlor may be fiscally prudent. It is important to note that some of the construction of these parlor operations in this study is incomplete; in that, they have not finished the holding pen, enabling crowd gates, or have not yet installed automatic take-off units. However, the construction cost savings of postponing these amenities may have been the difference in allowing the project to materialize.

The information gathered in my survey pointed out that all dairy operations increased their efficiency, measured by cows per person per hour, approximately twofold. Some farms saved two to four person hours per day in milking time. Other farms are parlor milking about twice as many cows as they had in the stanchion/tie-stall barn in the same amount of time. Either way this is a substantial savings to labor.

Another benefit of the low-cost parlor mentioned by every dairy producer visited is the advantage of not having to bend down to milk cows anymore. “Milking cows is not as much of a physical chore as before.” The increased ease of teaching someone else to milk cows while maintaining consistency of milking procedures was another well-appreciated benefit of this parlor system.

What about cost? The low-cost parlor upgrade varied widely in cost for each dairy operation depending on construction labor, the extent of building remodeling, installed parlor size, and initial installation of amenities such as a clean-in-place and automatic take-offs. The size of the completed parlors varied from double six to double sixteen. The price range varied from $24,000 to $90,000 and averaged $60,000 per farm that converted to a low-cost parlor. For most farms, the parlor is only part of the equation. Consideration must also be given to where and how the animals will be housed, such as a free-stall barn or bedding pack barn, and the cost to make that type of housing available for the milking herd.

While surveying all the dairy farmers in the study, I asked if they would want to go back to milking in a stanchion/tie-stall barn. Without any hesitation, they all said no; they would not want to go back to a stanchion/tie-stall barn for any reason.

In conclusion, what I found with this informal non-scientific but down-to-earth survey is that utilizing a low-cost parlor is more than just a lifestyle; it is a very efficient way of milking cows on many dairy farms today.

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