Building a new parlor, whether it is a traditional parlor or a robotic system, can be an exciting time. Unfortunately, it does not come without a few stressors and a handful of headaches.
There are things you can do to limit these, but not all of them can be solved in advance. Flexibility is key.
The first time I was at a farm startup, many things seemed strange in a good way.
Most notably, when walking up to the old barn, the common drone of the vacuum pump was gone. I found it sad, as it reminded me of other dairy farms that have sold out to never walk back into the barn before the sun and flip the breaker to bring the parlor to life.
Luckily, within minutes, I heard a new sound from the new vacuum pump throttling up and down as units came on and off.
As I helped them during the first 12 hours, everyone seemed very excited. However, by the 16th hour, people were tired. They were still excited, but a little more preparation may have made things go easier.
You’ll need help
The first key to a successful startup is figuring out how much help and gates you are going to need and then adding a couple more people. Remember that while some things on the farm can stop for a day during startup, by day three most of the other farm activities need to resume.
In a perfect world, you would only move into new systems during the winter, when feed does not need harvested, but that rarely happens.
For both robots and parlors, the cows are not going to walk in on their own the first few milkings. You will need extra help to get them in calmly until they are comfortable with the new surroundings.
During the entire startup, it is imperative that no one ever gets excited and spooks the cows, or things will get even harder in a hurry if every cow puts her brakes on and turns to go the other way.
The length of time you will need extra help will vary by farm and type of startup.
New robotic milker
When starting robots, the amount of help you need will decrease over time, but it is very important to have enough help. You will probably need two people per robotic milking stall the first couple of days and one person per stall the rest of the first week to move cows to the robots around the clock.
During week two, three, and maybe four, you will need a cow fetcher almost around the clock to point cows in the right direction to go to the robots.
By this point, you should be done with large fetch pens but will still have more cows to fetch than you wanted to for another couple months.
Those next couple of months are important so that the cows do not become attached to being fetched. Your goal should be to make sure the fetch cows are milked twice per day but at slightly different times so that they never develop a routine of you coming to get them.
Minimizing the use of a holding pen at the robot is also a good plan.
The cows that were dry during startup or are dried up within the first couple weeks will need trained once they freshen. This will take more time than in the future since eventually you only have to train heifers.
Training heifers tends to be easier than cows, as they have never known anything other than your new parlor.
Another thing that can help a startup go smoothly is to learn the technology you will be installing before you start milking and need to use it to manage cows. Most new parlors produce plenty of data, which can be overwhelming to learn while you are busy helping the cows learn your new parlor.
Activity monitoring systems take a few days to develop a baseline but can be a great help in managing your cows. It will help you know who is sick and if anyone might be in heat.
Another tool is conductivity, which can help manage udder health and mastitis. This is an important tool, especially if you will no longer be doing the milking yourself.
Conductivity can be challenging when you first start using it. Your system may have reports that average all 4 quarters together or may measure each quarter individually.
While both systems and reports are useful, understanding what amount of variation is significant and how to read the reports before startup is important to early mastitis detection.
With correct prior planning of labor, cow flow, and technology, your new parlor startup will go much smoother.
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