Developing a remodeled parlor can be an exciting process. It can also become complicated and sometimes overwhelming, but it can be done by following the process step-by-step. Determining your likes and dislikes is the most important part of the process and will affect whether the resulting facility is something you love, tolerate or hate.

The first step is to develop a list of business and personal goals. Use this list as a guide and follow it during the design process. When decisions need to be made, use this list to help decide if a particular decision accomplishes the goals listed.

Setting goals
Most families have specific personal and business goals they are trying to achieve with the decision to remodel a parlor and change the way they milk cows. Here are some common goals offered by farms that went through the planning and design process:

•improved health of back, knees and hips
•improved labor efficiency
•improved quality of life
•improved milker safety
•improved profitability

People use a variety of terms to describe the idea of building a low-cost parlor. “New Zealand” parlor, “swing” parlor and “low-cost” parlor are terms that have been used in the popular press to describe what has been implemented on many farms. These terms are not very accurate in describing what is possible in planning, designing and constructing a remodeled parlor.


The term “New Zealand” parlor is a good example. New Zealand has all kinds of parlors, including herringbones, parallels and rotaries. The “New Zealand” parlor term commonly used by the media describes a parlor where the cows stand in a herringbone arrangement with a parking angle of around 70 degrees. The milking system uses a high or mid-high milkline over the operator area with one milking unit shared between two stalls. The milking unit is swung from one side of the parlor to the other and is attached to the udder from the rear. The “New Zealand” parlor also describes a parlor that has a simple stall design, with the cows standing between a breast rail and a kick rail.

Even the term “low cost” has some negative connotation. To some it may mean “cheap”. To others building a “low-cost” parlor is a major goal of the farm and the achievement of that goal has allowed the farm to continue in the dairy industry. In many cases an existing structure such as the stanchion or tiestall barn is remodeled into a parlor to save the costs of a new shell and milkhouse.

Budgeting for the parlor
Farmers have to decide for themselves how much they are willing to budget for construction of a parlor. One rule of thumb is to spend no more than 20 percent of the gross annual milk sales on the parlor. For example, a dairy farm producing $240,000 of milk per year could spend $48,000 for the parlor. A ballpark cost for a new turnkey swing 12 parlor is $6,000 per milking stall. The ballpark cost to remodel an existing stall barn into a swing 12 parlor (not including a milkhouse) is $2,000 to $3,000 per milking stall.

It is common to hear from farms that have remodeled a parlor costs that range from $20,000 to $100,000 for double 6-12 parlors. Potential savings of 20 to 30 percent have been realized by farms that designed a swing line milking system in a remodeled parlor. They used some of their own equipment, bought used equipment, and traded equipment with the dealer.

Keeping the cost low
There is ample opportunity to manage the cost of the parlor. However, with a limited amount of resources (money), decisions will have to be made on what to spend money on now and what to wait to buy. Developing a good cost estimate will also allow an informed decision process to take place. Obtaining competitive bids on appropriate parts of the project will give a realistic cost of a project. The point in determining a budget estimate is to critically determine what you need and want, and to determine the minimum cost of achieving the design.

The following is a list of suggestions to keep the cost of a parlor to a minimum:

•Keep the parlor layout and stall design simple.
•Provide sweat equity for demolition and construction (use your own labor or labor from friends, family, neighbors).
•Recycle used or existing equipment in the new design.
•Buy used equipment from a dealer or at an auction.
•Remodel an existing building shell.
•Use the existing milkhouse.
•Reduce the amount of equipment required in the parlor design.
•Choose the basic line of equipment versus the high-end line of equipment.
•Prioritize the budget to help the decision process.
•Budget for required items first and add options later when cash flow allows.
•Stay within the budget set.

These are not new ideas. Many projects use several of these methods to keep the cost within budget. The opportunity for dairies in a transition from the stall barn system to a parlor freestall system is that there may be time available at this stage of the business to provide sweat equity without hurting the dairy operation. Use your talents or the talents of your family members, friends and neighbors willing to help. Some dairy farm neighbors have even set up parlor-raising groups to help each other build their parlors, similar to barn-raising activities of the past.

Take advantage of opportunities when they present themselves. Auctions and sales may have the equipment you need or can adapt to your design. Going through a planning exercise and having a plan in mind will allow you to make informed decisions when opportunities arise. Many milking equipment dealers have worked on remodeled parlors and can offer design assistance if the right questions are asked. You have to be clear on what your goals are and explain them to the contractors involved.

The milking center should be as close as possible to the housing area. However, in the transition, the new site for the cow housing (and new parlor someday) may be a distance away from the stall barn. It is reasonable to walk cows some distance between the freestall barn to the remodeled parlor. Farms have walked cows over 800 feet from the new freestall barn (and someday the new parlor) to the remodeled parlor for several years during the transition.

Compromising on the future site of the new dairy may affect other design issues like the freestall barn, manure storage and feed storage siting. Using the stanchion or tiestall barn as a remodeled milking center can fit in very nicely in the transition.

Remodeling planning and design
The milking center should be designed for both the cow and the person milking. It should serve the function of milking efficiently with a good environment for the cow and the operator. The design should also be as flexible as possible and allow for future adoption of new technological changes. There are a variety of buildings such as machine sheds, hog barns and dairy stall barns that have been used to remodel into a parlor. A building that is structurally sound and at the proper site is a good candidate for remodeling.

There are a variety of ways to remodel the building into a parlor. The choice of the milking stall design and milking system will influence the cost and difficulty of the project. The resources of an individual farm can vary significantly. One farm may have a good structure to work with, while another has extra labor available. The challenge is to make the best use of the resources available to meet the goal of developing the parlor while keeping the cost within the budget.

Remodeling requires good planning, design and sometimes creative solutions to problems posed by the existing facility. People can be very creative when posed with their own set of unique resources. However, there are some basic principles that should not compromise the parlor design.

Adequate space and good cow flow are examples. Other design principles can be adapted to the existing situation. Stall design and milking system options are examples. However, the resulting design should be functional and meet the goals set down in the beginning of the process.

Good planning won’t eliminate all mistakes but it should reduce the number and severity of mistakes that inevitably show up in any project. Remodeling projects almost always encounter unforeseen conditions or surprises that can change the planned project in some way. Understanding this can happen should allow the project to proceed by adapting the design to meet the conditions found.

Space and functional design
In many cases the existing stall barn is in reasonable shape to continue to be used in the dairy operation. It is also reasonable to use the stall barn as a milking center since the milkhouse is adjacent to the barn and can continue to be used in the remodeled parlor plan.

The milkhouse is a valuable resource that can significantly decrease the cost of the project if it does not have to be rebuilt. The parlor space should be placed as close as practical to the existing milkhouse to reduce the distance milk must be pumped from the receiver to the milk bulk tank. Additional bulk tank space can be added by bulk heading into one of the milkhouse walls.

It is very important to consider cow flow into the holding area and parlor. If good cow flow requires the parlor to be placed further away from the milkhouse it is probably a better decision to pump the milk a little further compared to having poor cow flow.

When space for the parlor and holding area are laid out in the existing stall barn, there is usually very little space left for housing and feeding cows. Also, there may be more appropriate use for the remaining space such as a catch pen or treatment area. In general, it is best to maintain a single use for the remodeled space. Trying to continue to house and feed part of the milking herd or the dry cows in the extra stalls in the barn may not be a good use of the space; it is usually too labor-intensive and can create other problems for either use such as poor ventilation of the housing or poor cow flow into and out of the parlor. Using the existing stall barn as the milking center usually requires new cow housing somewhere else (usually in a freestall barn) that creates a better environment for the cow and is more labor efficient.

Construction process and relationships
In many cases, the farmer will act as the general contractor, hiring other contractors for carpentry, concrete, equipment and milking system work. Acting as the general contractor can save money, but it does require time to oversee construction, manage the contractors and deal with conflicts.

As a dairy farmer acting as the general contractor, be aware of the other side of the coin. Be prepared to spend the necessary time to manage the project during construction. If the time is not available for you to manage the construction process, or the expertise is not available, then it is probably better to hire someone who knows what they are doing. Ten to 15 percent of the project cost is commonly charged by a general contractor for providing those services.

One advantage of a general contractor is the connections the contractor has with other subcontractors. Subcontractors are more likely to bid and work with a general contractor they have a long-standing relationship with compared to an individual farm, who they may never work with again.

Timing the construction
The construction process may take between two to three months from start to finish. Milking during the remodeling construction project can be a stressful time for both the milker and the cows. The space to be remodeled will have to be vacated during construction. Milking can be done in part of the barn unaffected by the initial construction phase such as the future holding area. The stalls in that part of the barn can be used as a flat barn parlor and switching small groups of cows several times.

The existing milkline system can be used to milk without interfering with the space that is to be remodeled. When the new parlor and milking system is ready to be switched over, it hopefully can be done between morning and night milkings easily.

Structural changes
During the structural changes, proper shoring and blocking should be used to support the existing structure to keep the work area safe during construction. An experienced contractor or engineer should be consulted to properly size the replacement beams and posts. This is too important a design change to allow a quick uninformed fix.

For 32- to 26-foot-wide clearspan stall barns it is relatively easy to accommodate almost any type of parlor stall design without major structural changes. The barn will have to be 32 to 40 feet wide to accommodate a parallel stall with rapid exit. In this case, both rows of posts may need to be removed to accommodate the required width for the stall and cow platforms. Some farms have removed the entire second floor over the parlor and framed it with clearspan flat trusses to increase the width and allow easier interior finishing. This may seem to be a costly decision, but cost estimates have shown that it is a reasonable approach to make the parlor space functional.

Concrete demolition
The existing stall barn concrete floors and curbs are almost never at the correct position, slope or elevation to fit into the new parlor design.

Existing concrete will almost always have to be removed to lay out the remodeled parlor walls, curbs and flat work. Although most people dread the thought of tearing out old concrete, it is, in fact, a relatively simple task if the right equipment is used. A large barn door or wall opening and the necessary ceiling height must be available to allow access by a skid steer loader. A skid steer loader with a hydraulic jackhammer attachment can make short work of existing concrete. The skid steer loader can then be used to carry away the spoils. The skid steer loader can also be used to dig out the operator area for concrete form work to be placed.

The cost to remove and replace the concrete properly can impact the functional use of the parlor for a very long time. Good design and new concrete can save time by reducing chore time for parlor and holding area clean-up.

Factors that affect cow throughput
There are several factors that can affect cow throughput performance of a parlor, including:

•milk production level
•milking routine
•number of persons milking
•parlor design

For example, a high-producing herd will take longer to milk than a lower-producing herd. If udder preparation is minimized, milking time can be decreased, but potentially at the cost of milk quality. Predip hygiene can reduce parlor performance by 15 to 20 percent because the operator must make two additional passes by the cow. One slow milking cow in the line will decrease parlor throughput.

In general, swing equipment parlors and low line equipment parlors with a similar milking routine will operate at equivalent cow throughputs. If cow flow is poor because of design errors, cow throughput is reduced. Remodeling compromises in exit space, pit depth and gutter or grate interference can reduce parlor performance by 25 percent compared to new construction without design compromises.

Sizing the parlor
The parlor should be sized to have a milking chore time of 1.5 to 2 hours or less per milking group including setup and cleanup. This translates into an approximate milking time of 1 to 1.5 hours. One way to look at cow throughput is to determine the time it takes to milk a side. A turn (cycle) is defined as the time measured from the entrance of the first cow on a side to the next time the first cow enters the same side. A well designed parlor can turn a side (cycle) in 15 minutes or provide 4 turns (cycles) per hour (8 sides per hour). A cycle time of 12 minutes or 5 turns per hour per side (10 sides per hour) can probably be achieved with minimal udder preparation and very good cow flow.

Design information suggests parlors be designed to have three to five turns per hour per side (six to 10 sides per hour), with an average of four turns (eight sides) per hour. This means that the cycle time ranges from 12 to 20 minutes, with an average of 15 minutes.

To determine the parlor size assuming four turns per hour (eight sides per hour), take the number of cows to be milked and divide by eight for a one-hour milking time or 12 for a 1.5-hour milking time. This will be the number of stalls needed per side.

Labor management
To be most labor efficient, it is recommended the parlor be sized to have only one person milking. However, when first starting up the parlor or when training a group of heifers, it is a good idea to have the extra person(s) there to help during this stressful time (stressful for both the milker and the cows).

On many farms it is common to have two people working during the milking. One person typically milks cows and stays in the parlor operator area while the other moves cow groups and does other chores as necessary and convenient. It is common to hear from farmers after the remodeled parlor is running that the number of cows being milked per hour per person is almost double from what was possible in the stall barn.

Heating and ventilating the parlor
In the northern climate, heat will be needed for part of the year. This can be done with forced air or radiant heat systems. A recent option used by some farms is to place in-floor heat in the new concrete floors. A hot water heater, boiler or outside wood-fired boiler can be used to heat the antifreeze solution which is pumped through PET tubing placed in the concrete floor and alleys.

Zone heating is recommended. For example, zones in the cow platform, in the operator area and return lanes might be used. Each zone is controlled by a separate thermostat, which can be set to heat each surface to an appropriate temperature.

Ventilation is important in any parlor design. It should be considered in the initial plan. Hot weather ventilation can be achieved with tunnel ventilation or open sidewall designs. Cold weather ventilation can be achieved with negative, positive or neutral pressure design with appropriate fans and inlets and outlets. Paddle fans can help move air in the parlor and increase operator comfort.

Lighting the parlor
There should be a minimum of 50 candles of illumination in the udder area. Place lighting fixtures to minimize shadows in the udder area. Place fixtures parallel to the length of the operator area to allow light to penetrate down between the cows. A well-lit parlor will be a pleasant place to be compared to a poorly lit dungeon, common with older parlor designs.

Return lane(s)
Cow exit and return lanes should allow for straight cow flow as much as possible. In many cases, it is necessary to return the animals to the rear entrance of the holding area. This will require a return lane adjacent to the holding area. Single returns allow easier cutting of animals into pens on one side of the parlor as they exit. This area is usually available for placing a few pens along the return lane. Double returns require cutting gates and pens on both sides of the parlor. If width is limited it may not be feasible to have dual returns.

When cows exit out the front of the parlor, a wide platform to hold one side of animals is desired to allow the cows to move out of the way for the next loading. Most times the exiting cows do not immediately exit the parlor, and may lounge about for a time, which can interrupt cow flow.

Feeding area
A common question asked regarding parlors is whether to feed in the parlor or not. It is usually simpler to deal with the two issues separately. Feeding in the parlor is also one more job that has to be done that takes time away from the milker, which can reduce cow throughput. However, for graziers that job may more easily be done in the parlor compared to at another place and time in the chores.

Parlor feeding may improve cow entrance but it can also hinder cow exit, which can affect parlor throughput. Time and motion studies showed that cow throughput was severely compromised when feed was given in the parlor. Cows tend to stand quieter when not fed in the parlor. Cows may not spend enough time in the parlor to eat all grain needed, so if grain is fed in the parlor, feed only a small amount (three to four pounds) to all the cows. The parlor can stay cleaner and has less equipment in the way, which is better for cow flow.

Initial parlor startup
Parlor startup and training is a high-stress activity for both the cow and the operator. In seasonally calved herds, it may come at calving, which only adds to the stress. Minimizing the stress will help reduce potential problems but will not eliminate them. The new milking routine should be defined beforehand so everyone milking is familiar with the steps.

In a seasonal herd the training of new heifers may be more difficult than with the older cows. It has been suggested that the parlor be wet down to ease cleanup and that manure be spread around a new parlor to cut the odd smells of new concrete and equipment. On the initial visit, cows should be allowed to enter the holding area and parlor on their own. This could be done for several days, increasing the pressure to move through the parlor. At some point in this training the cows should be held in the line but not milked, released and allowed to exit the parlor.

On the first day of milking, additional help should be available to move cows into and out of the parlor if necessary. The goal should be to have the parlor operating with the correct number of operators in the first month if at all possible. PD

References omitted but are available upon request at

—Excerpts from 9th Annual UW Arlington Dairy Day Conference Proceedings