Buildings Focus: Milking 285 cows through a 50-bail rotary parlour in Co. Waterford

Farming in Ballymulalla, Co. Waterford, father-and-son team Jim and Tom Power milk a herd of 285 cows on a milking platform of 110ha.

It’s very much a family operation, with Tom’s mother Brid and wife Moya, along with their kids and his cousin, Shane, who works part-time and does a lot of milking and farmyard jobs on the farm.

Last February, the duo moved into their new 50-bail rotary parlour, having been milking 240 cows through a 20-unit herringbone parlour previously.

Like so many other dairy farmers, the Powers increased cow numbers once milk quotas were abolished in 2015 and it came to a stage where they had outgrown their old milking facilities.

They had the milking platform to accommodate and milk more cows; however, their old 20-unit parlour and collecting yard was coming under severe pressure.

As well as that, cow-flow and milking time were also becoming a major issue, with over six hours spent each day between the morning and evening milking.

During the week, AgriLand made the trip down to the Powers to see the new parlour and also to talk to Tom and his father to see how they find the new parlour and to see it in action.

L:R: Tom and Jim Power

Why a rotary?

Tom was quick to point out that he had no problem with his old 20-unit parlour, only that it was taking too long to milk the cows and because cow numbers were jumping year-on-year, it was just becoming unsustainable to continue to milk in it.

Speaking to AgriLand, Tom said: “I thought about going down the route of installing another herringbone parlour but I felt it wouldn’t properly fix our problems.

“We needed a new collecting yard as well because where the old one was we didn’t have space to expand it due to the layout of the farmyard and where other sheds were.

“The old parlour and collecting yard was built back in the 1980s for 70-80 cows, so we had well and truly outgrown it.

So, really and truly, we were left really with no option other than to build from scratch. I briefly thought about putting in robots as well but then after weighing it up, it didn’t make sense.

“To be honest with you, I love milking cows and seeing how the cows are doing and being able to check on them twice a day, so I don’t think, even after considering it briefly, that I would have gone down the route of robots.

“Also, our furthest paddock is about 1.75km away from the yard, so it wouldn’t make sense making cows walk that distance on a regular basis.

“I even thought about building a new parlour in the middle of the milking platform, to have it central but I just couldn’t bring myself to do that, after all the work my father had put in to build what we have, to get up and move away from it just didn’t feel right.

“So, after visiting a lot of farms that had installed rotary parlours, we came around to the idea and said we would go for it.

We had the grazing platform to accommodate over 300 cows, so we felt with a rotary, that to justify putting one in, we would have to get to that number and we are nearly at that point. We milked 290 cows this year and we hope to get to 310 next year.

“It’s a big investment but I must say we are absolutely 100% certain that it was the right decision for us.”

Who carried out the work?

Tom and Jim opted to go with a Dairymaster 50-bail Swiftflo Revolver rotary parlour. Like all modern parlours, it has many features which, Tom says, make life so much easier at milking time.

He explained: “The parlour is from Dairymaster and it was East Cork Dairy Services who I actually dealt with. They installed it for me basically.

Data source: Dairymaster

The building work was completed by Mick Fenton of Fenton Construction and the shed itself was supplied and fitted by Gleeson Steel and Engineering.

“The plumbing was carried out by Brodericks Electrical and the whole place was wired by Brian Whelan.

“I have to say everyone that was involved in the build did a super job. Like from where we started to where we are now is unbelievable.”

Cutting back on labour and reducing milking time

Tom added: “We moved into the parlour last February (25). Like I said before, it was taking too long to milk in the old parlour and we needed extra labour, so we just wanted a system which would reduce both of those issues.

In the old parlour, we would have been looking at a milking time of nearly three hours. Washing up was then awkward afterwards, as the cows were in a long holding area, so it involved a lot of scraping and washing down.

“However, as of now, we have halved our milking time on the rotary and we have halved our labour requirement, so we are delighted with that.

“Generally, only one person is milking. There isn’t a need for a second person really; however, a second pair of hands at washing up is always a big plus.

“I usually milk the cows, while my father would bring them in and, these days, as the cows are nearly fully housed he does feed them and then come in afterwards and help with washing up.”

Improving cow-flow

Cow-flow was a major reason for the change Tom said. The amount of time it was taking to empty rows in the old parlour and bring in another line was “a killer” and it was a big reason why another herringbone parlour wasn’t installed again.

Tom added: “Cow-flow was a big reason for the upgrade. With the rotary, you are standing in the one spot for the entire milking whereas with a herringbone you are up and down the pit for two-to-three hours morning and evening.

The bigger the milking herd got, obviously, the harder it got to maintain what we were doing. Here in the rotary, the cows are coming at you continuously. You can control the speed at which they are coming at you – which is great.

“The control panel, in each unit, is a real time-saver and allows us to milk the cows without having to stir. You can control what you want to do with the cow after she is milked such as drafting here or dumping her milk, for example. As well as that, the information you get on each cow from the computer is brilliant.

“There was nothing worse than having to leave the pit to find a cow you wanted to keep separate from the herd after milking. Thankfully, that is now a thing of the past with the new parlour.”

Features of the parlour

Tom said that the parlour has practically everything that you want in order to milk your cows efficiently and as quickly as possible.

He further explained: “It has all the ‘bells and whistles’ that new parlours come with these days. The main features would be that it has: automatic cluster removers (ACRs); a dump line; retention bars; a cluster flush system; and a feed-to-yield system.

We had ACRs and, actually, we just had put in a cluster flush system in the old parlour in recent years but it still wasn’t enough and, in truth, although it helped it, didn’t really eat into the time we were spending in the parlour as much as we would have liked.

“Going back to what I was saying about having control, having the ability to alter what we are feeding cows in the parlour is a huge advantage. Without it, you are probably rewarding cows that are not producing the goods and not giving enough to the ones that are.”

How have the cows taken to the new parlour?

As the saying goes ‘like a duck taking to water’, the same can be said for the Powers’ herd of cows. The transition from the old parlour to the rotary was smooth and Tom believes that this was helped due to the age profile of the herd.

He added: “Our plan was to have the parlour ready by Christmas and do a couple of dry runs through the parlour to get the cows used to it.

But, through no one’s fault, we didn’t actually get into it until the end of February and, by that time, we had 200 cows calved.

“So, I won’t lie, we were a bit worried about coming in here in February. A lot was going on, between calving and getting cows out to grass, but, thankfully we had a lot of help for the first milking.

“We actually milked the old cows in the morning and then ran the cows through the rotary afterwards at 11:00am without milking a cow.

“Our plan was to keep doing a couple of dry runs until the cows got used to it; however, after the first dry run, we decided we would milk them in the rotary and we haven’t looked back since.

That very first milking in the rotary, even though we had to push cows onto it, we were quicker doing that than milking in the old parlour.

“By day four in the rotary, we only had to push on 5% of the cows into the bails. The fact we had a lot of heifers this year [140] helped because they weren’t used to the herringbone and took to the rotary quicker than the older cows did.”

‘One of the best decisions we ever made’

Looking back on the first milking season, it was clear from talking to Tom that he was extremely proud and happy with the new milking facilities.

He said: “It was of one of the best decisions we ever made on the farm. We are absolutely thrilled with it.

“It has given us more time back that we were losing in the old parlour. We were always under pressure before to get cows started on time because it was going to take so long to milk them [in the old parlour].

It was getting to the stage where there wasn’t a whole lot of the day left where we could go off and do other jobs such as managing grass.

“Our best time milking the cows in the rotary parlour so far was about 65 minutes in the evening and you could add about another 10 minutes onto that for the morning milking.

“Wash up, with two people, takes about 25 minutes. So all in all, we would have cows brought in and let out again, depending on where they are grazing in roughly an hour and a half give or take – which is a massive improvement on where we were at before.”