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October 23, 2019

Building New Parlor A Once-in-a-Career Decision

 |  By: Jim Dickrell

Building a new milking facility is probably a once-in-a-career decision—unlike any other you’ll make in your lifetime.

Not only are parlors huge capital investments, they determine cow flow, cow time budgets and labor requirements for years if not decades into the future.

Such was the decision Rena Johnson faced when she was deciding what type of parlor she was going to install to replace a 40-year-old herringbone her parents had milked in since the 1970s. Rena operates Highland Dairy near Glade Spring, Va. with her family—her mom and dad, her brother-in-law and nine employees. Her husband works off-farm.

While that herringbone parlor had served them well over the years, it was in a barn with a low ceiling and poor lighting and ventilation. The double-12 herringbone was longer than her new double-16 parallel, and was dark, confined and hard to load. It was no longer capable of efficiently milking the Johnson’s 550-cow herd.

In fact, Johnson was milking half the herd 3X and the other 2X just to get the herd through the parlor each day. She and her crew found they could only push about 90 cows per hour through the facility, or less than four turns per hour.

After studying various options, Johnson opted to go with DeLaval’s newest parlor design, a P500 parallel parlor. In fact, it was the first P500 commercial installation in the world. The P500 features 4-cow, gang indexing and a rapid release system that allows operators to release all cows at once or by 4-cow gangs. It also has DeLaval’s “SynchroSweep” arms that gently nudge cows out of the milking position for more rapid exit.

All these features have cut her milking time nearly in half and allow her to milk the entire herd 3X. In fact, the double-16 would allow her to milk another 300 to 350 cows, if she ever decides to grow herd size.

“My dad and I talked about a double 12. But he didn’t like the idea of building a double 12 and have it expandable because those kinds of barns always seem to get cluttered up with other things in the unused space,” she says.

“Plus, we wanted to milk as quick as we can and then have our employees move on to other things,” she says.

When we talked to our employees about the new parlor, their biggest concern was that we would cut their hours,” Johnson says. “Our guys are from Central America, and they want to work as many hours as we can give them.

By going to the slightly larger parlor, she figured they could complete milking in 5 hours or so, and then move on to other tasks that weren’t always getting done on the farm. For example, one of the milkers now serves as a relief calf-feeder for Rena’s mother. Before, there was no back-up for her.

The new parlor also offers far more comfortable—and safer—working conditions for milkers. The milking center now serves as an attractive incentive to keep workers. Like other dairy areas, the labor market in southwest Virgina is highly competitive. There are five other dairies in her county and various factories looking for workers. “Our guys have been here a long time, and we wanted to keep them,” Johnson says.

The herd’s current tank average is about 80 lb/cow/day. Johnson knows her cows can do better. She’s working to refine her prep procedures to stimulate better milk let-down. And she’s also hoping to improve the herd’s nutrition.

“We need to get our feed situation in a better place,” she says. So her next investments will be in cropping equipment and feed storage to produce more consistent, higher quality forage. Better equipment also should allow her to do more double cropping, increasing both the amount and quality of feed available.

“When we get more consistent feed quality, I’m anxious to see what our cows can do,” she says. “We should be at 90 pounds with our genetics.”

But Johnson now feels she is poised for the future. “The dairy industry is always changing, and we may have to grow our herd size in the future to remain competitive,” she says. The new parlor gives her that option.

For more on the DeLaval’s P500 parlor, go here: