Parlour choices: Dairy farmer shares experiences of rotary and herringbone units

Hailing from Kilkenny, the Hickey family is well known in farming circles. Pat and John Hickey, along with Pat’s wife Elaine, operate three dairy holdings under a partnership agreement in the counties of Kilkenny, Westmeath (Ardnacranny Farm) and Roscommon (Fortview Farm).

Pat and Elaine oversee the two farms in the midlands, with herds of approximately 300 and 400 cows respectively. One farm features a herringbone parlour, while the other is equipped with a 40-bay rotary parlour.

Speaking at this week’s International Agricultural Workforce Conference, Pat outlined the key differences he’s witnessed between the two milking systems.

Ardnacranny Farm

Telling his story, Pat said: “Ardnacranny Farm was purchased in 2005. I moved from Kilkenny with 220 heifers in January 2006 and commenced milking in a 10-unit, double-up parlour.

“We spent about €5,000 getting it into working order until we could get a new parlour built. As the existing yard was at one end of the farm, we decided to move to a centrally-located greenfield site for the new parlour on the 100ha milking platform.

We were planning on carrying 300 cows, so we put in planning for a 30-unit herringbone parlour.

“As we had high borrowings due to purchasing the farm, we put in a very basic 30-unit DeLaval herringbone with duo-vac to allow it to be operated by one person when required, which happens to be most of the time.”

An Alfco semi-automatic drafting facility, a 20,000L tank and a flood washing system were also installed in the rectangular-shaped collecting yard.

“We also decided to take ‘advantage’ of the Farm Waste Management (FWM) grant scheme, which turned out to be a mistake; it added a lot of time and expense to the build, with the result that it was September 2008 when we commenced milking in our new parlour.

“At that stage, we were putting 280 cows through the 10-unit, double-up parlour. Suffice to say when sales people try to tell me of the efficiencies of double-ups, I politely disagree,” he said.

Fortview Farm

The second operation – Fortview Farm – was advertised for sale in 2012. At the time, Pat was milking 300 cows in Westmeath and John was milking 200 cows in Kilkenny. Between both locations, they had sufficient numbers of young stock to stock the farm.

Pat explained: “We purchased 90ha and leased the remaining 40ha for 10 years. It was a complete greenfield site with no buildings.

“We laid out the farm to carry 350 to 400 cows and planned our facilities accordingly. Our initial thought was a 36-unit herringbone with automatic cluster removers (ACRs) and we were pricing companies on that basis.

“Bertie Troy of Grasstec and an agent for Milfos came to price the job. At the end of the walk, he asked us had we considered a rotary.

We laughed and said: ‘Bertie, we haven’t won the lottery.’ But he was pointing it out because Roscommon was going to be a full-paid labour unit and there might be efficiencies to be gained there.

“Over the following week or 10 days, we mulled over the idea and we decided to go look at a few. It’s not until you see a rotary parlour in action that you appreciate the efficiencies from a labour point of view that are possible to be gained.

“So, we changed our mind and we went and priced rotary parlours. We decided to go with a 40-point rotary with removers being the only frill.

Have we realised the benefits? I asked our farm manager of the Fortview Farm, Brendan Elliot, about the comparisons of the two parlours and he looked back and just said: ‘There is no comparison.’

How each farm operates

The two farms are operated as mirror images of each other, Pat explained.

We run a very compact spring-calving system on both farms. Six week calving rate was 84% this spring. We spent +270 days at grass in 2017. We run a relatively high-EBI crossbred herd and we produced about 470kg/cow of solids last year.

“Labour consists of myself and Robert Swiercz, who is with us 10 years in Ardnacranny. My wife Elaine is on a career break from primary teaching and is rearing our three kids.

“In springtime, we employ a local lady for four hours in the morning and Elaine rears the calves. We also hire a student for the spring; however, this year, there was none available, so we hired a local man to work three days per week.

“We calved around 320 cows in Ardnacranny and will milk on average 280, with the balance going to Fortview. We also rear all of the heifer calves in Ardnacranny for both farms.

“The heifers come back from Fortview at about 10 days of age and we rear them to calving. Fortview, which is about 40 minutes away, has two full-time employees.

The aforementioned Brendan Elliott, who is with us since we started in Fortview five years ago, has full control over the daily operations and – to be honest – we are blessed to have him.

“In the first year, I was there two-to-three days per week, but now I just do two-to-three flying visits per month. Brendan has an assistant manager. This spring, he had a night calver who worked four nights and one full day for the six busy weeks of the spring.

“They carried the empties and late calvers for both farms and calved down 360 cows. All bull calves are sold off the farm and heifer calves are reared in Ardnacranny.

“As a result, milking is the main job each day for the remainder of the year. All other jobs, except winter feeding and some fertiliser spreading, are done on contract on both farms.

“We have built up a very good relationship with our local contractor and we get a great service in return. As milking is a one-person operation in Fortview, Brendan can come back to help in Ardnacranny with any large jobs such as test, scanning or dosing,” Pat added.

Comparing the parlours

Touching on the different parlour options on both farms, Pat explained: “Fortview has an automatic washer, ACRs and a backing gate on a circular yard; but no drafting.

“We fitted retention this springtime, which we found – to our cost – is a necessity. We pre-spray the cows with a low-cost spray unit. Ardnacranny had an automatic washer, but I sent it to Fortview as I didn’t like it.

Throughput for the rotary parlour in Fortview would vary from 240 cows per hour at peak to 300 cows per hour in the autumn.

“Ardnacranny is fairly steady at 130-150 cows per hour with one person. This would increase to 180 cows per hour with the addition of a second person.

“But, after doing a milking in each, there is no doubt – even though there are more cows going through the rotary – that it is much easier on the operator.

“We have fitted the retention in Fortview and, without doubt, an automatic backing gate is a must in Ardnacranny. To be honest, in hind sight, if I had a choice between drafting and a backing gate, I would have fitted the backing gate first.

“There would be about €2,000/unit difference in the purchase price between the rotary and the herringbone. However, if the comparison was done on a per cow basis, it would be closer. The ancillary construction cost would be similar for both. However, there is three-phase power on the Fortview farm.”

Table source: Teagasc

When it comes to time savings, Pat said: “It is up to everybody to make up their own mind on the value of their time. If we put that 90 minutes (difference between rotary and herringbone) over 300 cows over a year, that’s 450 hours.

“If you make that up at a reasonable cost of €20/hour, it’s over €9,000. From our point of view, because it’s fully-paid labour, it probably would be more of a visible cost. If you were in the pit yourself milking cows, you mightn’t put the same value on it.”

Other considerations

Commenting further, Pat added: “If I asked the lads which parlour they prefer to milk in, the answer would be the rotary.

I suppose it’s the fact that you can set the parlour at what speed you’re actually comfortable milking at. The cows actually come to you, rather than you moving to the cows.

Pat also noted that it’s easier to train in new staff with the rotary parlour.

“We can bring people in who have never milked before and set the parlour at whatever pace they are comfortable at. It’s amazing how quickly they can catch on.”

The Kilkenny man also noted that cow comfort is also better in the rotary unit, as only one cow can enter the milking platform at any one time.

“We noticed with the larger herringbone parlours, young cows are inclined to get bullied and you end up with 34 cows in the 30 unit parlour. It’s easier to train heifers on it.”

A whole host of tasks are also completed on the platform of the rotary parlour, including: topping up tail paint; AI; and scanning.

However, one of the disadvantages he did note in terms of the rotary is that the operator doesn’t see cows exiting.

Selecting the right parlour

Concluding, Pat said: “From our experience, we have come to the opinion that the 24-unit herringbone – for a one-person operation – is the most efficient parlour to milk cows in.

“If going any larger, we think you’re not going to see those efficiencies unless you put the second operator in there and then you are increasing labour.

“Therefore, if you’ve 250 cows on a greenfield site – or with a fair chance of going above 250 cows – we would advise giving serious consideration to the rotary.”