Putting parlor data to good use

Carole Curtis
Milking parlor data can be used to evaluate the people, equipment and cows to effectively improve dairy performance.

Ft. Atkinson - Parlor data can go wonderfully far beyond mere milk production levels.

It can be used to monitor individual cow performance, track personnel performance and evaluate equipment function, Dr. David Reid, Rocky Ridge Dairy Consulting, said during the March "Hoard's Dairyman" webinar.

Reid, an award-winning milk quality expert with international reach, spent nearly 40 years as a practicing veterinarian before opening Rocky Ridge Dairy Consulting in Spring Green. His presentation, "Making Use Of All That Parlor Data" was co-hosted by Mike Hutjens, University of Illinois, and Steve Larson, Hoard's Dairyman.

Reid credited Dr. Steve Stewart, University of Minnesota, with the push to use computerized information generated in the parlor to effectively improve dairy performance.

"He preached this from day one - that we can evaluate the people, the equipment and the cows when we have individual milk weights from a parlor, " Reid said.

Stewart's research project, which ran several years, included Steve Eicker, Valley Ag Software; Graeme Mein, Doug Reinemann University Of Wisconsin Milk Lab; BouMatic; and dairy farm evaluations by Reid and Andy Johnson.

"We spent a lot of time looking at how we could make evaluations of the data to know how the people performed and what else happened in that parlor," Reid said. "It really opened many of our eyes to what the possibilities are."

A lot of dairy producers do not realize how much their parlor is stifling the dairy's performance. "Parlors can be a huge bottleneck, not only from a performance point of view, but certainly from a production point of view," Reid said.

All too often, he observed, decisions about udder preparations and equipment settings are made in knee-jerk fashion. "It's not looking at what is going to be the impact of this decision and what, really, are we going to measure to know whether the change we just made has been effective or is it not effective and we need to not do that in the future."

The data generated by Dairy Comp 305 reveals the individual cow's milk flow pattern while the milking unit is attached, broken down into phases.

One of the things the researchers looked at was low flow, defined as less than 2.2 pounds of milk per minute, which occurs at the beginning and at the end of the unit's time on the cow.

The front end is definitely influenced by udder preparation and the overall attitude of the cows when they come into the parlor, while the far end is influenced by take-off and equipment settings.

Reid has observed that low SCC herds, which are usually also high-producing herds, typically have more consistent udder preparation, more relaxed cows in the barn and parlor, and a high degree of consistency between the groups of milk harvest technicians and milking-to-milking.

"People have a huge impact on the performance of the parlor," he noted.

Training is critical

Another observation Reid finds interesting is many producers want to improve parlor performance with equipment adjustments and/or the purchase of new equipment. It is much easier and less stressful than training people in the parlor, he pointed out.

"Really, when we think about the best way to improve the overall parlor performance, probably the single most important thing we can do is to train people and then use the parlor data to motivate those people," Reid said.

Keep score. "Know how did they do today, how did they do yesterday and what's normal for each of the shifts," he suggested. "The goal is what's normal, and then go from there."

If one crew can achieve certain numbers, he questions why the other crews aren't."Figure out if it's the crew or the cows' attitude," Reid advised. "The numbers should be relatively consistent if there is consistent udder prep and people are properly handling the cows, usually on the way into the parlor."

Better, not best

Reid runs into lots of dairy farmers who think their parlor is running at its best, so they lock it down. "But thinking whatever you are doing is the best way prevents you from looking for a better way," he said. “'Best' is the enemy of 'Better'”.

Reid has been looking at parlor summaries since the mid-90s and is amazed at the performance he is seeing on some dairies now. "It has happened slowly and incrementally, but it's changed dramatically what's goes on in parlors," he said.

Researchers and producers have learned a lot about fine-tuning udder preparation, fine-tuning equipment settings and then monitoring what happens on a milking-by-milking basis.

Producers who get it right are nailing down exceptional numbers, like the 3x dairy making 20 pounds of milk in the first two minutes. "If anybody would've told me we could get 34 pounds of milk in 3.6 minutes a few years ago, I probably would've said 'you're crazy'," Reid said.

Don't fall into the trap that because something has always been done one way, it should always be done that way, he advised.

Dairy producers often tell Reid their milk production varies depending on the milking of the day, with the morning milking always higher. "I would say with really fine-tuned cow handling and udder preparation and equipment settings, they come together," he said.

Milkability guidelines

Remember that guidelines are only guidelines. "What is important in the parlor data is what are the numbers now and what happens to the numbers when management makes changes, either to equipment settings or to personnel or any other changes," he said

Reid likes to compare the milk per cow, average pounds of milk per minute, average duration, number of cows per stall per hour, and the peak flow rate between milkings.

Two minute milk is one of the best ways to evaluate overall udder preparation and cow handling in the parlor. For 2x herds, it should be 18.5 pounds, while 3x herds should be in the 14.5 pound range.

The percentage of units attached is driven by the number of technicians, the size of the parlor, and the procedures and routines being followed. The goal is to have consistency between all milkings and all technician groups.

Another important figure is the frequency of unit fall offs and adjustments. It should be less than 5 per 100 cow milkings. Early intervention may indicate low vacuum level or poor udder prep or timing, he noted, while late points to unit alignment, poor liner condition or over milking.

Monitoring via milking reports

The issues controlled by the milk harvest technicians are the average flow, average duration, milk in the first two minutes, time in low flow and manual detaches. The parlor data can be used to encourage desired technician behavior, as well as monitor the response when something is changed out, like shutoff valves.

Reid suggested posting several performance indicators, such as milk per cow, turns per hour and milk flow in the first two minutes, after every milking. Once a week, he holds a brief meeting with each milking crew to review the numbers and protocols.

"It's a brief meeting, but it reviews the procedures and routines and says here's your report card for last week," Reid said. "It's, simply. good coaching and it's important. "