Even worse, they may not even be going into the parlor because they think that somehow the system is electronically monitoring itself. That sort of artificial intelligence would be nice, but is not here yet on the vast majority of farms. Monitoring your milking center still takes time and effort, although if you do have electronic records, many aspects of this can be done quickly and accurately when you know what key factors to look at.
We are strong advocates of initially performing a baseline assessment of your milking center to make sure the major components of the milking system are functioning properly. As outlined in our previous article in the Oct. 1, 2018, issue of Progressive Dairyman, this would include an evaluation in the following areas: claw vacuum, pulsation under load, milk line vacuum for 30 minutes, unit alignment, milking routine timing, milk flow rate analysis, milking efficiency and throughput timing, teat end cleanliness, strip yields, teat scoring, udder hygiene and facilities.
Analyzing the data from this type of evaluation will allow you to identify major areas that need adjustment. After adjustments are made, the system should be reevaluated to make sure other areas have not been negatively impacted. Once this is done, you can enter into a monitoring phase using your electronic records to ease the workload and improve accuracy, although we still recommend the full analysis be performed three to four times per year.
Depending on the size of your dairy, it may be helpful to designate one person as the milking center manager. This person would be responsible for the daily task of reviewing the electronic milking records for each shift from the previous day. Ideally, this person then communicates the good and the bad back to the milkers on these shifts so they have immediate feedback. If errors are noted with milking equipment function, then the appropriate corrective action is immediately put in place and followed up on as necessary.
Depending on the software you are using on your farm, you may find this data in the milking equipment manufacturer’s program, or it may be transferred into other herd management software. Either way, if you have paid for the software, meters and ID tags, you should get some value out of the data.
To assess the effectiveness of the milking routine on milk letdown, we advocate the use of this parameter: pounds of milk in the first two minutes (two-minute milk). If your software does not have this parameter, you can use average flow rate, although this takes into account the entire milking rather than just the first two minutes. The general industry goal for a herd milking three times per day is that two-minute milk is greater than 15 pounds. If you only milk two times per day, then use greater than 18 pounds as the goal.
You will need to look at your own data, though, and decide on your herd goal for this parameter as we see many farms well above these levels. Two-minute milk is strongly influenced by the milking routine timing, although there are other factors, such as improper cow handling and milk production, that can influence this. You need to communicate these influences, as well as your goals, to all milkers in a way they can understand their role to achieve this.
By monitoring two-minute milk on a daily basis, you will quickly see trends on your farm. If two-minute milk is low, you need to recheck the routine timing of the individual cows at both ends of the set of cows you are prepping. On a recent herd visit to a double-24 parlor prepping sets of eight cows, we discovered the cows in positions five, six, seven and eight of the routine had a lag time of less than 90 seconds from stimulation to attachment. This was leading to bimodal milk flow curves on these cows and a two-minute milk on the herd of 12 pounds, even though they were harvesting 28 pounds per milking.
The second parameter we routinely use is average milking unit on time or average duration. This parameter takes into account the entire milking. For dairies harvesting less than 30 pounds of milk per milking, the goal is to be less than four minutes. In order to provide feedback to milkers on a daily basis, some farms will post the daily printouts and use a green, yellow or red highlighter to communicate the message. For example, on a large rotary we work with, they use green for 4 minutes or less, yellow for 4.1 to 4.3 minutes and red for greater than 4.4 minutes.
If your average duration is higher than the goal, first look at the start of milking by assessing two-minute milk as outlined above. If two-minute milk is within the goal and average duration is still long, then evaluate unit alignment, your automatic take-off settings, the number of reattachments and the number of units put in manual mode.
If either the number of reattachments or the number of units put in manual mode is greater than 2 percent of the total cows milked per shift, then evaluate why. This may be an issue with milking equipment function or a miscommunication between management and milkers about when these should be used. If this looks to be an ongoing issue, you may want to include reattachments or units put in manual mode or both on your daily review list.
The third key parameter we think should be reviewed daily is pounds of milk per stall per hour. This parameter takes into account both the parlor efficiency aspect and the milking routine. The goal for herds milking three times per day is to be greater than 120 pounds per stall per hour and for herds milking twice a day to be greater than 150 pounds per stall per hour. In order to achieve these goals, milkers have to be doing a good job of efficiently moving cows through the parlor as well as performing a correct routine.
If your herd is not achieving these goals and you have not done a baseline assessment as outlined in the beginning, then we would recommend you contact your herd veterinarian or other advisers to help you determine the problem. At a recent herd meeting after an assessment of a herd milking in a double-16 parallel parlor, this topic came up and the action items to help correct this included: fixing the sequence gates in the parlor so they all closed properly after the cows exited, shielding the “V” at the entrance of the parlor so cows could not see into the pit, installing crowd gate controls down the length of the parlor and exploring with milkers why 25 percent of cows were being reattached.
Another benefit to having electronic milk flow data that is archived is the ability to evaluate longer-term trends. Many times when you look at something every day, the abnormal slowly becomes normal because the change is very gradual. We have seen this happen on individual farms that only look at the daily printouts. They miss a bigger trend in the data that may signal some other effect is happening, such as one milker negatively or positively influencing the data. At least on a weekly basis, the milking center manager should go into either the milking equipment manufacturer’s software or the herd management software if the data is being transferred and look at the data over a wider period of time.
In some of these programs, you can plot the data over time by milking shift or by pen of cows. For example, in a recent evaluation of a double-20 parlor, we plotted two-minute milk by milking shift over a one-month period. It became very obvious that one shift was significantly different than the other two shifts day after day regardless of what milkers were in the parlor. On discussing this further, it was determined the main issue looked to be milker fatigue at the end of a 12-hour shift.
Farm management sat down with the milkers and determined a way to rotate milkers through different positions so more breaks could occur and also milkers switched tasks to stay motivated.
If you do not know how to access this data in your system, we strongly encourage you to ask your milking equipment manufacturer or your other advisers to assist you in learning the software. Once you know how to find the data, then develop a standard set of parameters to look at on a scheduled basis.
For example, on vet check day, take 10 minutes and look at the set of parameters for trends that may be occurring. You will have to determine what works for you and your advisers, but based on the farms we have worked with, becoming comfortable with analyzing this data has paid them large dividends by spotting trends before they become a train wreck.
Remember that electronic records are an additional tool to complement but do not totally replace the time actually spent in your milking center. For example, teat end cleanliness is a critical factor in producing high-quality milk that cannot be evaluated from your computer. Also, it is important to verify that what you are seeing on the records is truly happening in your milking center.
If you only look at the electronic records and do not enter the parlor, then you can only theorize why the records are what they are, but if you enter the parlor during milking, then the reality is that you can observe why the values are what they are. We hope this article has motivated you to more effectively utilize a valuable management tool on your dairy. Good luck and your cows will thank you.
PHOTO: Electronic records are one way to review milking center performance. Setting daily and weekly parameters to analyze will help you spot developing trends. Photo by Mike Dixon.
Rick Watters is a senior extension veterinarian at Cornell University. Email Rick Watters.
- Cornell University / Quality Milk Production Services
- Email Paul Virkler