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Low-cost parlors

Randy Pepin

Published in Dairy Star April 8, 2008

When smaller dairy producers inquire about the cost of the parlors their neighbors with larger herds build they often conclude that a milking parlor is unattainable for them. The majority of smaller dairy farmers have no desire, or are unable, to expand to a size that would enable them to afford a modern one-quarter to one-half million-dollar parlor. Thus, they wonder if there is a lower cost alternative available for them.

Why is there interest in lower cost parlor options? The first reason that usually surfaces is personal health. Many of our former thirty to forty cow herds are now milking sixty to over one-hundred cows in their present tie-stall/stanchion facilities. All the bending down to milk cows has created a severe strain on the farmer's knees and back, forcing many dairy farmers to consider either building a pit parlor or exiting the dairy business.

The second biggest reason dairy farmers consider a parlor is labor efficiency; thus, less time spent milking cows. Other reasons are increased safety for both the operators and the cows, easier to train new people to milk the cows, and easier adoption of other labor saving and cow-comfort technologies such as TMRs, fence-line feeding, compost and bedding pack barns, and free-stalls.

A major potential cost savings is the ability to convert the present tie-stall/stanchion barn to a pit parlor with a holding pen facility. The existing barn already has an attached milk house, the farm well water is already in the building, and frequently a manure handling system is in place. As a result, cost savings of utilizing the existing structure could be well over $100,000 before constructing the actual parlor.

automatic takeoff parlor

Parabone double 8 swing clean-in-place automatic takeoff parlor

A perceived shortcoming of this conversion has been that the narrow widths of many tie-stall/stanchion barns do not properly accommodate the popular parallel milking parlor. Fortunately, the parabone parlor design allows us to build a modern efficient parlor into a building as narrow as twenty-four feet wide.

In a parabone parlor, the cows stand at a seventy-degree angle to the pit, enabling the cow milker to take advantage of between the rear legs milking like the parallel parlor. Since the cows do not have to make a ninety-degree turn into the stall, the parabone parlor fills rapidly and easily. In many cases, stall construction is from straight steel pipes, saving costs over the bending required for indexed stalls. The non-indexed stalls also allow for fast cow exit time.

"I have wood beams in my two-story stall barn," you may say. Properly sized and supported steel I-beams will usually free up the open space needed for the parlor/crowd gate area. If the ceiling is unusually low, installing the I-beams above the present joists and supporting the joists with hanging brackets also works well.

Another easily adapted technology is the swinging milk unit concept commonly called the swing parlor. The milk line runs down the middle of the parlor pit above the operator's head allowing each milk unit to milk cows on either side of the pit; thus, saving substantial money in milk unit investment. In a typical swing parlor, each milk unit is in use a higher percent of the time than in a low-line parlor.

One criticism of the swing parlor design is the absence of the low milk line. The advantage of the low milk line has been less vacuum fluctuation, thereby helping to lower SCC. In a swing parlor, the milk lift is only three to four feet. In spite of the advantages of a low milk line, modern milk equipment and milking procedures are permitting many dairy farms to maintain a very low SCC with a higher milk line.

Other labor saving technologies such as clean-in-place and automatic takeoffs can be easily adapted to a parabone swing parlor at construction or added later when finances allow. Many existing barns considered for conversion have space that allows for a palpation rail next to the cow return lane. This frequently overlooked feature in parlor construction can be a very useful tool as it allows for the diversion of cows into a controlled space for breeding and exams.

The significance of the low-cost parlor concept is that it enables many smaller dairies to incorporate the advantages of a milking parlor within an achievable budget. The actual construction cost can vary from as little as $20,000 to over $100,000 depending on the situation and the amount of options added. With a low-cost parlor, many dairies can now continue to milk the same amount of cows or slowly grow within from their own herd replacements.

For further information, contact me at the Todd County Extension office at (320) 732-4435 or email at

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