Spending more than 12 hours daily milking 300 cows through a dated 10:10 parlour would be unthinkable for many, and making the transition to a 40-point rotary was a life-changer for the Manning family of Bank Farm, Shropshire.
Traces of blue paint on a cow shed’s steel pillars act as the only visible reminder of where the old parlour stood at Bank Farm. Until 2011, it was the site of twice-daily milkings which deserve the term ‘epic’, if only for the perseverance of those who worked within its confined space.
The 150-hectare (370-acre) business was at the time run by Phillip Manning and his parents David and Beryl and had expanded progressively to 300 Holsteins and about 25 Jerseys with average yields of 8,600kg and 6,000kg respectively.
Phillip says: “Dad did most of the milking and I helped out when needed. I did not like the old parlour at all as it was far too cramped and, as a result, became a source of tension between us.”
As breeding progressed, a growing number of cows no longer fitted the old standings. The dated facilities, along with cows being housed in loose straw yards, also impacted on milk hygiene with rising cell counts making worrying reading.
He says: “From as early as 2002, Dad had dreamed of having a rotary parlour, and in 2011, we had decided to go ahead.”
With cow sheds occupying the upper end of the farm’s sloping yard, plans were drawn up for the new down-bank development which was closer to road access.
Phillip says: “It fitted my desire of having no outside traffic driving into the farmyard to either collect milk or deliver feed, helping improve bio-security.
“Dad was determined a rotary was the way forward, having visited dairy units in New Zealand. We wanted a simple design with no unnecessary technology, as, for me, its prime job is to harvest milk quickly and allow cows back to feed and housing with no unnecessary standing time.”
Several dairy farms with rotaries were visited to help formulate ideas on layout.
“This was probably the best investment we made,” says Phillip. “Common advice was to make the collecting area twice as big as you would think to cope with expansion.
“We chose a Milfos parlour manufactured in New Zealand, after seeing one working near Carmarthen. The company was really the only one which had listened when I said we did not want anything fancy. It is fitted with automatic cluster removers, yield meters and a feeder.”
Groundwork for the development began in October 2011, says Phillip’s sister Jayne.
She says: “The one thing you do need is a construction and installation team which works well together or it would be chaos. We had John Hilditch, who had built a rotary parlour, and we set the team an unrealistic deadline of May 21, 2012, for the first milking, which we came very close to achieving.”
To cap costs, a simple steel portal frame shed was erected to accommodate the rotary parlour, leaving an all-weather 16,000-litre milk bulk tank to be located outside.
Helping to reduce further spending, cow flow from the existing cow housing to the new parlour needed little improvement and today is accessed via a large gently narrowing collecting yard.
Phillip says: “We do not have a backing gate, as in my opinion, you should not need it if the parlour design is right.”
The works had an unexpected beneficial impact on family life, he says. “Once we could see progress being made, tensions generated over the old parlour just went.”
As the May deadline approached, everyone pitched in to get the new parlour ready, says Jayne – who along with two other sisters, Ruth and Emma, worked away from the farm at the time.
Jayne says: “It was a real team effort, but with early starts and late nights, we were able to get the first cows milked on May 22.”
A temporary race was made using Heston bales to funnel cows to the platform. Transition was largely straight-forward and the first milking was completed in just two hours and 10 minutes – a saving of almost four hours.
A mind-shift was needed with the change in parlour design. Phillip says: “It has brought its own pressures. There has been a shift in the demand on labour in a shorter window during milking to get the cow yards cleaned out.”
This has been compounded by the shift from straw yards to the current 482 sand cubicles in a successful bid to improve milk hygiene and cow health. To date, Bactoscans for the larger 480-cow herd supplying a liquid contract have fallen considerably.
He adds: “We now house cows for most of the year, as we only have 60 acres for grazing nearby, although there is access to a loafing area when conditions allow.
“We employ two local girls, Amy and Kirsty, who do the weekday milking with one wet-wiping and drawing off while the other puts on clusters.
“While it is true you do not get much time to see each cow during milking, they have more time to express themselves naturally in the yards, particularly when bulling. I tend to artificially inseminate cows on the platform during milking rather than draft them off as it is part of their normal routine.
“We will invest in an auto-shedding gate at some point to assist with drying off cows, having already installed a teat auto-sprayer for post-milking hygiene.”
The herd calves all-year-round with an emphasis on black and white genetics. Phillip had introduced Jerseys to the Etsill herd of Holsteins, but demands on time and a question mark over the financial viability has seen the decision reversed.
Focus has remained on developing a simple system around Bank Farm’s limit on the amount of forage which can be grown.
He says: “Our land is heavy clay and first cut is not possible until late May or early June. But we grow a good crop of whole-crop wheat, yielding 15 tonnes/acre, and have introduced it as a third forage to the TMR diet.
“It complements 130 acres of maize grown locally on contract, which is layered in two new clamps with either first cut grass silage or whole-crop. John Allcock of NWF helps formulate the ration based on my belief that if it is simple, it gets done.”
The TMR is 10 per cent grass silage, 40 per cent whole-crop, 50 per cent maize forage mixed with 5kg/head of a protein blend, 1.5kg/head molasses and a tailored mineral mix aimed at providing for maintenance, plus 29 litres of milk, says Mr Allcock.
He says: “It is about the top-end without running into acidosis. A walk around the yards looking at consistency of manure suggests the physical structure of the diet suits the cows.”
With average yield improving from 7,672 litres/cow in January 2013, after a very difficult forage year in 2012, to 9,668 litres/cow in January 2014, the herd has room to improve further, he suggests.
Butterfat has risen from 3.6 per cent to 4.3 per cent over the past six months, with an in-parlour feeder topping up each cow feed according to milk yield.
With some high yielders taking longer to milk out, Phillip says a 50-point rotary may have stood the farm better in the longer term if cost had not been a limiting factor at the time.
But the achievement of financing and constructing the parlour has a deeper resonance for the family. After only a week of seeing it in action, Phillip’s dad David passed away suddenly and unexpectedly.
Beryl, who remains at the heart of the farm, says: “It was his ambition to have the first rotary along this road and he achieved it.”
Life in the first few days after the rotary was installed had seen a marked change in family life. David was no longer anchored in the old parlour for long hours allowing for daytime meals together. Since the tragedy, Jayne has returned home to help with farm administration, while Phillip remains hands-on with the herd.
The parlour has brought a revolution to family life and Phillip sees a possible opportunity to introduce a second Milfos rotary in the next decade – albeit this time to milk goats.
“You can keep a lot more goats to the acre than cows,” he says.