Producing high-quality milk and milking more cows in the same amount of time, or milking the same amount of cows in less time, are on top of a manager’s mind when discussing the milking center.

Watters rick
Western Laboratory Director, Senior Extension Associate / Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine

One thing that has not changed is: In order to monitor the performance of the milk center, one has to be in the milking center gathering data and making observations. Milking center data or numbers alone only allow a manager to “theorize” why the number is what it is, but when you observe an entire milking, then one has the observations to match up with the numbers.

Milking center numbers plus observation is the “reality” of the milking center, and managers can use the combination to make management decisions that will allow the farm to achieve their goals for the milking center.

When it comes to monitoring the milking center with or without electronic records, one still has to observe and evaluate the same aspects of the milking center.

Key areas of the milking center that should be monitored at each milking are as follows: udder hygiene, teat-end cleanliness, milking routine timing, milk flow curves, average claw vacuum during peak milk flow, milking unit alignment, post-milking hand strip yields, teat scoring (Teat Club International), graph pulsators, National Mastitis Council equipment evaluation and housing/facilities risk assessment (bedding management, cow movement, overcrowding, etc.).


Monitoring the milking center begins when cows are brought to the milking center or when cows are made to stand up prior to milking. Improper movement of cattle to the milking center can lead to excited cows that won’t let their milk down.

Cattle housing areas are usually the dirtiest or have the highest volume of manure in the alleyways when cattle are being moved to the milking center; thus movement of cattle to prevent splatter of manure on the udder is paramount. Observe the housing area to make sure there is enough bedding in the back third of the stall, the back of the stalls are clean, and alleyways are not overflowing with manure.

Udder hygiene is a major player in the efficiency of the milking routine as well as a risk for mastitis. It is important to determine if a dirty udder has short- or long-term manure build-up. Manure that is crusted or dried on the udder is long-term build-up, and this can be from not having enough bedding in stalls and not cleaning the back of the stalls often enough.

Short-term manure build-up is manure that is still wet on the udder and can be in the form of splatter or a wet layer of manure covering the rear udder, which could be from overcrowding. Not only do cows with dirty udders take longer to clean prior to milking, researchers in 2003 determined cows with dirty udders were 1.5 times more likely to be infected with a major mastitis-causing pathogen as compared to clean cows.

The milking routine is the one component of the milking center owners/managers have the most control over, but it is also the area of the milking center with the greatest variation. Variation in the milking routine happens because of lack of control of factors not directly associated with the routine, and these are the areas that need to be controlled.

One way to look for variation is to use the Lactocorder, a milk meter that can be used to monitor the milking routine and look for bimodal milk curves. Eighty percent of the milk in the udder is under the control of the hormone oxytocin. Tactile stimulation of the teat will cause the release of oxytocin and lead to the milk letdown reflex.

If the milking unit is attached too soon after stimulation, the cow will have a bimodal milk curve, or a milk curve with two peaks instead of one peak. Bimodal milk curves most times lead to lower peak flow and longer milking unit-on time. It doesn’t matter if you pre-dip and then forestrip or forestrip and then pre-dip, but what is important is the teats, specifically the teat ends, are clean and the milking unit is attached to the teats two minutes after stimulation occurs.

Monitor teat-end cleanliness by taking gauze soaked in alcohol and rubbing it across each teat end after teats have been prepped and cleaned for milking. Once a week, evaluate the cleanliness of 10 teat ends; the goal is having eight out of 10 teats considered clean. A clean teat-end swab has no manure on it but can have some discoloration from the pre-milking teat disinfectant.

Factors that impact the two-minute lag time from stimulation to milking unit attachment are not having adequate supplies when milkers need them, milking unit fall-offs on opposite side of parlor, cows not voluntarily loading in the parlor and high-maintenance group of cattle (fresh heifers or special-needs animals).

How can these factors be controlled in order to reduce the negative impact on milking performance? Make sure there are enough supplies for an entire milking, and make sure milkers know they need to have these supplies in their possession prior to starting the milking routine.

Work on shielding the entrance of the parlor so cows voluntarily flow into the milking center without human interaction. Provide one additional milker when high-maintenance groups are being milked.

Do you see milkers reaching or on their tippy-toes in order to clean the teats or attach the milking unit and, if so, what can be done to remedy the extra time it takes when reaching to prep cows?

Oftentimes, when analyzing the milking center, I find myself in discussions with dairy producers about the number of steps in the milking routine or the order of the steps in the milking routine; however, one of the greatest impacts on the success of the milking routine is the cleanliness of the udder. How much longer does it take to clean a dirty udder or teats as compared to a clean udder or teats?

Milking equipment oftentimes is the focus of poor milker performance or poor milk quality; however, if properly maintained and serviced, milking equipment is rarely a major player in poor milking center performance and milk quality. The guidelines for analyzing vacuum and air flow in the milking center can quickly rule in or rule out milking equipment as a potential risk for machine-induced mastitis.

Monitoring pulsation and claw vacuum are two tasks that should be performed during each visit. Faulty pulsation or improper claw vacuum are factors that can have a negative impact on teat health and milking center efficiency.

Milking unit alignment is important, noting that improper milking unit alignment can lead to overmilking on some quarters, which can result in teat health issues. Having a milking unit alignment device is only half the battle; the other half is making sure milkers know how to use the milking alignment device.

Detacher settings are another component of milking equipment management that can have a profound effect on teat health and milking center efficiency. The majority of farms I work with significantly overmilk cows. Post-milking hand strip yields are one way to determine if cows are being milked out properly or if they are being overmilked.

Hand-strip each teat for 15 seconds, directing the milk into a measuring cup, and record how much milk you have stripped from all four teats. The goal is for 80 percent of cows to have 5 to 8 ounces of milk harvested by hand-stripping. Be sure to note if there are quarters that have significantly more milk than others.

This can be helpful in explaining the consequences of poor milking unit alignment. After milking, it normally takes the teat end 30 to 60 minutes to close; however, when a cow is overmilked, the teat end may remain open for up to eight hours.

Analysis of the teat immediately after milking can provide evidence to support your findings related to claw vacuum, overmilking, milking unit alignment and so much more. Teats are evaluated by the methods set forth by Teat Club International.

Palpation of teats immediately after milking can determine teat-end firmness or edema and dryness of skin. Visual observations of teats are also made for swelling at the teat base, teat lesions, teat hemorrhages and hyperkeratosis.

Cows that are kicking at the milking unit during detach, or kicking at you while palpating teats, are signs of overmilking and discomfort for the cow. The cow and the teat can tell you so much about the milking center settings.

A team approach is taken when providing results back to the farm. The importance of having everyone at the table for the follow-up meeting can’t be understated. Along with the owner and manager, team players should include the herd veterinarian, milking equipment provider, milk inspector, nutritionist and anyone else the owner or manager deems necessary.

It is important all parties know what recommendations are being made and what management changes are going to be made. Providing the owner and manager with a couple of short-term (immediate) changes along with a few long-term changes is recommended. Be sure to set dates for completion and the parties responsible for completing each task.

Monitoring the milking center for equipment, milker and shift-to-shift performance are aspects of milking that need to be observed routinely in order to identify udder health risks. Cowside evaluations prior to, during and immediately after milking will be made to determine the impact of the milking machine, milkers and facilities on the risk of mastitis.

A complete milking time analysis should be completed three times annually and, if done routinely, it provides the owner or manager with a baseline of the herd that can be used when managing the milking center.

Success of the milking routine and production of high quality-milk is possible when management focuses on developing synergies between the cow, environment and humans. In order to properly evaluate the milking center, one has to spend an entire milking shift or more in the milking center in order to provide observations that go along with the numbers gathered. We can’t manage numbers, but we can manage what caused the numbers.  end mark

PHOTO: Dairy Parlor. Photo by Mike Dixon.

Rick Watters, Ph.D., and Paul Virkler, DVM, are staff with Quality Milk Production Services, a program of the Animal Health Diagnostic Center in the department of population medicine and diagnostic sciences within the college of veterinary medicine at Cornell University. It offers a variety of services, notably on-farm evaluations of management and equipment and whole-herd milk cultures, through its laboratories in Ithaca, Warsaw, Cobleskill and Canton, New York.