While we are waiting for our vat to be fixed I thought I’d take the opportunity to introduce our mobile milking parlour!
I’ve been putting off my public rave about this until our license came through. To our knowledge this is the first licensed mobile milking parlour in the country and we weren’t sure how things would play out. But we were so pleased that DFSV could also see the benefits of this system and have been really supportive of it. yay!
Reason to challenge the norm.
Whenever you have large amounts of animals congregating in the same place regularly, it’s a given that you will end up with environmental problems. Concentration of manure creates high levels of nitrogen, the plants which then grow are usually considered weeds; cape weed, mallow, nettles etc. Severe animal impact results in dusty bare ground in summer; burning off any fertility in the soil and making a hard pack surface for water to run off. In winter a muddy pit which leads to dirty animals. As udders and teats get dirty the risk of mastitis increases and increased udder cleaning time. It’s also just not very pleasant working in mud every day, cow and human alike.
However, once you turn down the concentration dial, both these problems: fertility and impact, become incredibly valuable tools, if not vital, for restoring landscapes functions. If only you could have these elements spread out across the paddock rather than concentrated in holding yards, lane-ways and dairy parlours.
Enter the mobile milking parlour. This is certainly not a new concept. In Europe these are regularly used with smaller herds, particularly in grazing events such as the Alpage where animals spend summers moving up the mountain to take advantage of magnificent pastures. To bring the herd back down the mountain for milking daily would defeat the purpose completely. So we had many examples to offer inspiration when designing. While on my 6 month sabbatical up the east coast I spoke with many dairy farmers about this concept. It was at the dinner table at Elgaar farm in Tasmania that Joe started designing the basic trailer with me, what would work and what wouldn’t.
1.) It seemed silly to do the wash down in the paddock which would require hot and cold water and cleaning chemicals. We already have all these at the factory, so why not have all the equipment based on the back of a ute which drives back to the factory with the milk.
2.) Many of the European models don’t have a floor but we decided for hygiene purposes we wanted a cleanable floor with good airflow, which means feet and milking equipment are always off the ground. It was suggested that expanded mesh as the floor could cause damage to cows hoofs over time, Oli had acquired some old mining trommel mesh which was super strong and smooth.
3.) We wanted the trailer as compact as possible for moving through gates and around paddocks. We did the calculations and with the way we milk discovered it wasn’t that much quicker to milk four than three. We then spun the stalls around so they come in one side and out the other.
4.) It has room to evolve. Currently our vacuum pump can only milk one at a time. So I milk from the middle bay, cow on left on the cups while I prep the cow on the right and visa versa, just like a micro herringbone dairy. Then if we expand to a bigger vacuum pump I can milk from the back under the verandah with cows in all 3 stalls.
5.) Calf pens. I’m running a calf at foot operation. So ideally I want all infrastructure in one. So at the back of the parlour is the pop out calf pen with roof. After a week the calves spend the nights here where they can still have contact with their mothers but can’t drink. The cow can come and go all night, checking on her calf and going out to graze. Then everyone’s near-by for milking in the morning and followed by letting the calves out for the day with their mother.
6.) The engineering of how the beast would be movable had a lot of shelved ideas. We ended up with hydraulic rams on two back wheels and a front foot which raise and lower the parlour to the ground. The only unavoidable downfall of the parlour is how top heavy it is. Driving through the paddocks must be slow and avoiding bumps and strong slopes where possible.
There is good reasons the standard for dairy is permanent infrastructure with holding yards and laneways. Animals get used to the the routine and it’s easy to train newbies as they follow the animal in front and the yards help to push them in.
So much of milking is habitual for animals. The famous Salers cow in France are milked in the fields with no restraint. Having a tame, calm herd is very important for training in a mobile milking system with no yards and lane-ways. So far it’s been successful. Within three days of training, all five cows have been correctly in the parlour on cups. I say correctly as often the first milking or two may involve them eating off the floor and having their back legs on the ground, reluctant to fully succumb to the stall. Some have been lead in with a halter for the first few months. As Joyce is not halter trained I use make-shift yards while she learns the ropes. But when habit kicks in along with the hunger for breakfast, they all seem to walk themselves in. But this all takes time and patience. Once trained they might be waiting for my arrival or I can call a name and they come over from grazing but its a significant investment.
In stationary dairies there is usually a concrete holding yard where cows wait to come in. This and the dairy must be cleaned out with water at the end of every milking. Basically your mixing excrement with water, significantly increasing the volume and boy do bacteria flourish a moist environment. This ‘problematic’ waste is then held in settling ponds; making sure it doesn’t leak into any water courses and then spread back out over the paddocks with machinery. Hmm actually we do the same with human waste. This is a huge water user, the average dairy milking 100 cows can use around 6000ltrs a day in washdown (this includes the milking lines). The advantage of milking in the paddock is I just move the parlour, preferably before there is noticeable build up of poo and bare ground. On the rare occasion that a cow poos in the parlour, I simply sweep it out and pour a bucket of water over until it’s clean. The water is quickly absorbed into the ground under the mesh flour in that case. Both the quantities of poo and water are much lower and the airflow over the mesh means it dries much quicker.
The second important factor which influenced us to build a mobile milking parlour is that we are leasing land. I need all my infrastructure to be portable so that when I move properties I can take all my investment with me. My business is not attached to land, as my situation changes it can come with me, or it can be sold to anyone anywhere in the country.
In all, the parlour itself has cost us $5200 in materials and 210hrs of Oli’s labour. We have made a few adjustments over time, with many versions of power and vacuum pump location until we finally installed the inline milking lines.
The parlour was the first bit of infrastructure we designed and Oli built. You would think that because of this, we would come across many problems and things we wish we’d done differently. But no, there is not a mornings milking that I don’t rejoice in how well it all works.
I look forward to sharing a video of the pack-up, move and set up when we finally get to making one. It’s exciting stuff!