How to Dial in Parlor Efficiency
February 26, 2020
Imagine trying to manage parlor efficiency on three dairy farms with three different types of parlors.That’s a daily challenge for Rick Schwenck, a partner and director of livestock management at Breeze Dairy Group in Wisconsin.
“Parlor efficiency is getting the cows milked consistently and doing a high-quality job,” Schwenck says. Breeze Dairy Group milks cows in a double-44 parallel, a double-35 parallel and a 72-stall rotary. Training is key to achieving efficiency across three different systems.
“We use a territorial milking scheme so milkers have specific tasks in the parlor, and we ensure they are well trained in their position,” he says. “Another key is having everything functioning properly in the parlor at all times.”
Parlor maintenance is owned by the individual parlor manager, who oversees the parlor and milking teams. Breeze Dairy Group also uses teat scrubbers to help with consistent cow prep on two of their farms, and each facility has a separate hospital parlor so only clean milk flows through the main parlors.
When you’re not getting the output you desire from your parlor, where should you turn? Kristy Campbell, a manager of DeLaval’s dairy advisory team, says there are three critical areas to evaluate to determine the cause of inefficiencies in the parlor.
“When dealing with a performance issue, most people automatically go to data and milkers first because they’re the ones milking the cows,” she says. However, Campbell starts with the cows.
EVALUATE COW FLOW
When Campbell arrives at a farm, she finds it most beneficial to watch cow flow.
“I’m watching cows flow in and out of the barn. From the holding pen into the parlor and out of the parlor down the lanes. How does the next group come in? How are people interacting with the flow?” she questions.
The whole process, regardless of parlor type, should be seamless. You’re trying to accomplish continuous flow — cows that willingly walk in and out of parlors. You don’t want a parlor crew waiting on the next group of cows, she says.
Issues can arise when pens are too large for the parlor size, or when cows are physically too big for an older parlor.
"The No. 1 thing I always look for is whether cows flow and move appropriately,” she says. It’s one of the most important factors to analyze first. If proper cow flow is not possible in the parlor, efficiency isn’t either, she adds.
DETAILS FROM DATA
Next, Campbell analyzes the data from milk meters, if available.
“The reason why I go to data second is because if you stand there and watch, most people will do exactly what they’re supposed to do,” she says. “The data tells me a whole lot more.”
By analyzing milk meter data, Campbell is able to learn the number of cows being milked per hour, the amount of idle time in the parlor and if take-offs are being used appropriately. Milk flow data can show if milkers are skipping any steps in the prep routine.
“Are we doing a good job on the front end of milking to get good letdown, so cows are milked out in an appropriate time?” she says.
Depending on the type of system, Campbell can also access information about cows kicking off machines, liner slips and claw blocks. She can tell if milkers are putting cows in manual mode too often or detaching a unit quickly when they should let the automatic take-off do its job. Among all of the data she’s looking for one thing: Are the milkers doing a fairly decent job on a fairly consistent basis?
“They might not be doing a great job but are they consistent? That’s the question,” she says. “If they’re not doing a great job and they’re not consistent that’s a lot of work to fix.
“If the milkers are doing a marginal job consistently, there’s a lot of hope, and we can improve some of the things they’re doing.”
The way people interact with equipment and cows is the third aspect Campbell evaluates. “If milkers are not doing a fairly good job I try to figure out why,” she says. “Is there a reason why they can’t do a good job? Sometimes milkers think they are doing the right thing, but, in fact, it is not necessarily the right thing to do.
Here’s a simple example: When milkers need to refill their dip cups they do so using a gallon jug in the parlor. When the gallon jug needs refilled, a milker has to walk two barns over because that’s where teat dip is delivered and stored. Once the milker refills the gallon jug he or she heads back to the parlor. The process takes five to 10 minutes.
“So they’re either not going to do it, or they’re going to take their time,” Campbell says.
“Are there reasons milkers choose to do a job a certain way, which might not be the way we want them to?” Campbell asks. “Whatever they are doing, they’re doing it for a reason.
”If we can pinpoint the reasons that prevent our teams from doing the job right and then eliminate them, she says, we give milkers the opportunity to achieve efficiency in the parlor.
PROFITABILITY VS. EFFICIENCY
When it comes to parlors, there is a difference between profitability and efficiency. Unfortunately, the metrics used to determine both are often used interchangeably. One measure of profitability sometimes confused with efficiency is pounds of milk per full-time equivalent or pounds per man hour.
Campbell says this metric is defined as the pounds of milk you can produce with X number of employees. Note: this metric includes all employees.
“That might be the most equitable way to describe profitability between two different parlors, but not necessarily efficiency,” she says.
An example of an efficiency metric is the number of cows per hour through the parlor, which does not take into consideration milk production.
“Parlor efficiency numbers are what we tend to look at when talking about performance because everybody wants to get the most milk possible out of their parlor,” she says.
While profitability and efficiency are both important, it’s critical producers not confuse the two.