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From Dairy Vet – September 2008

Time and motion study reveals how much time and effort can be saved

Automatic dipping and flushing systems may initially seem expensive, but apart from the disease control benefits, just how much labour can they release?

It has been shown that automating teat dipping and cluster disinfection between cows can knock as much as 94 minutes off milking time, worth a potential £17,155 saving in annual labour costs. According to a time and motion study on five farms with various parlour systems, installing the Automatic Dipping and Flushing system (ADF) reduced milking time by an average 50 minutes overall.

The scale of benefit from putting in ADF is related to the milking routine previously employed and the herd size. Automating certain elements of the milking routine releases time for the operator to adopt a more structured milking routine, says parlour specialist Ian Ohnstad of The Dairy Group.

Modern milking increasingly relies on replacing labour with technology as herd sizes grow and skilled staff remain in short supply. Extended milking times can lead to fatigue and lack of attention to detail, which is why the industry quotes a figure of two hours as the maximum stint in the parlour. “This hasn’t, however, been adequately researched,” says Mr Ohnstad, “and I think that as long as the parlour environment is acceptable (ie clean, light and airy), comfortable and pleasant to work in, a longer milking is bearable, particularly if someone is milking just once a day.”

However, he adds that farms are constantly trying to streamline milking and improve performance by adopting such things as backing gates, auto ID and auto shedding. But, he stresses, this shouldn’t be at the expense of milk quality and mastitis. “The general consensus suggests that a national increase in herd size and milk yield, combined with less skilled labour, are significant contributory factors holding back improvements in national milk quality. The majority of staff on dairy farms are more than fully occupied and constantly working to deadlines. This results in many units compromising on
their mastitis control programmes,” he explains.

Teat spraying, for instance, is quicker than dipping. Yet most vets recommend teats should be dipped after milking as it ensures better teat coverage and penetration of product into the teat canal, claims Mr Ohnstad. Many farms he visits have introduced the time-consuming chore of cluster disinfection between cows to try and control a high cell count or contagious mastitis problem.

“This is done manually using a disinfectant solution – usually dunking the cluster in a bucket or spraying solution into the liner. It is clear that any form of manual cluster disinfection is time consuming; it extends the milking and puts additional stress on an already busy operator.” Of the five farms studied in autumn 2007, two (A and B) had new ADF installations, while the other three were existing users. The new farms were observed for two consecutive milkings before and after installation. Existing users disabled their ADF system and reverted to previous practices for two consecutive milkings, then were watched using the ADF again.

The total time taken to carry out each task in the milking routine was calculated. Although every farm showed a reduction in milking time after fitting ADF, Mr Ohnstad says that some time savings were related to other parts of the routine, such as loading the parlour and teat preparation. “Farm A, for instance, took 44 minutes to load cows before ADF and 28 minutes after, whereas Farm C spent 31 minutes on teat preparation before and 33 minutes after,” he says. Time associated with cow loading often fell because the operator was available to help the loading process.

“Before, they would have been busy dipping teats and cleaning clusters. It was encouraging to see some farms spend more time on preparing teats as this can directly benefit milk quality.” Farm B had the most significant gain from fitting ADF through saving cluster disinfection and reducing disruption to the milking routine.

Almost 50% of the overall reduction in milking time was directly attributed to automatic teat dipping and cluster flushing. In addition, milking routines were more structured and less erratic for all farms with the ADF system. Quantifying the financial benefits in labour saving is difficult when staff are paid a salary. Instead, quicker milking should be viewed as an opportunity to improve working conditions and staff morale – unless labour can be released to spend time on more quantifiable work such as paperwork, heat detection or foot trimming.

Since the study, Mr Ohnstad has been considering the maximum number of units in a parlour that can be handled by one person. “Up to now, with a good work routine, one person has been able to handle a swingover parlour of around 18 units, or up to 24 units in a doubled-up configuration.

“But in a parlour where more tasks are automated, one operator could handle more milking units efficiently. “When a technical solution can be applied to a task in the milking routine, there is potential to improve milking system performance.” But, like any piece of laboursaving kit, it doesn’t mean relinquishing all responsibility for that job. Regular checking and calibration is essential to ensure the equipment performs accurately, consistently and still manages to achieve time savings without cutting corners.

Reductions in overall milking time are beyond that which would be expected directly by automating teat dipping and cluster flushing. It is suggested that some of the additional labour saving is obtained by a more structured and organised approach to the milking routine.