Parlour management – and its impact on udder health

Speaking at the recent MEA (Milking Equipment Association) conference, Bill May, BVSc CertCHP DBR MRCVS Veterinary Surgeon/Director at LLM Farm Vets in Cheshire, highlighted the importance of proper parlour testing, maintenance and routines to maximise animal health.

Dairy farmers may be enjoying the recent increase in milk prices; however, we are all aware that the global market is volatile and high prices can not be taken for granted.

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The current break, though, gives us the opportunity to reflect on what investments and changes should be considered for the dairy farm business to ensure it is more resilient for the future.

Cheshire Vet, Bill May, who is widely recognised for his particular expertise in mastitis and cell count management, has some recommendations for parlour management.

“First and foremost, ask yourself if the machine is working correctly,” says Bill. “All too often, it is easy to do the bare minimum in terms of  testing and maintenance – yet the milking machine is a major investment to your business, is exclusively responsible for ‘harvesting’ milk for income and can significantly affect the quality of the milk produced and the health of the animal.  If not functioning correctly, it can actually cost you a lot of money. Whilst every farmer has to focus on costs, this is one area that requires more attention on many farms and investment here definitely has the potential to save you money.

“It may seem obvious, but make sure you have someone qualified to test the equipment – having a technician with an industry accreditation will give you confidence that the critical elements of the equipment are being tested to the appropriate standards. You wouldn’t have your car tested by someone not qualified – apply the same logic to your parlour.

“I want to emphasise this because, through my job, I am frequently called out to farms that are having mastitis problems, which can often be related back to either the milking machine or to milking routine issues.

“A milking time assessment of teat condition can often give me lots of important information about the milking practices at that farm and help me diagnose the problem.  Teat condition or teat lesions, either induced or spread by milking machines, are common and include:

  • Hyperkeratosis – (a build up of abnormal amounts of keratin at the teat end) – due to over milking at the beginning or the end of milking
  • ‘Ringing’
  • ‘Wedging’
  • Congestion/oedema at teat end/base
  • Discolouration
  • Haemorrhage

“These are all signs of incorrect milking practices or milking machine function. Lesions can also be infectious, for example Bovine Herpes mamillitis, Cowpox, Pseudocowpox or even Foot and Mouth Disease.

“The wider consequences of these teat lesions are obviously mastitis and the pain and discomfort associated with that, but also increased antibiotic use, cost, loss of milk, higher cull rates and lower staff motivation, due to additional work related to managing sick cows.

“We must never lose sight of this wide-ranging impact of the conditions caused by poor parlour function and maintenance.

“It’s a lose/lose scenario for everyone from the cow, the farmer and his staff, the vet, milking engineer, the milk buyer, retailer, and ultimately the consumer. No one in this equation benefits from these unnecessary udder health issues.

Bill goes on to say, “The good news is that a lot can easily be done to correct these issues. So, lets focus on prevention and not treatment – what you can do to improve teat condition and mastitis incidence on your farm.

“I think the biggest factor to consider is staff – are they trained, motivated and capable? They are a huge asset if working effectively. In terms of parlour function, they are the people who are familiar with the workings and noises so can spot any changes quickly. But they need to act on that and be confident to do so.”

When it comes to parlour checks, Bill suggests looking at the liners, “Do the liners fit the teats? Is the shape and material suited to your herd? There are serious consequences for using inappropriate liners – not only slower milkings, but also liner slip – increasing the risks of mastitis. In most herds the cows have a range of teat lengths and shapes but these can be measured to help find the most appropriate type of liner for your cows and machine.

“Another basic thing to monitor is the operating vacuum of the milking machine –  all staff should know what vacuum level should be used for your plant and should check this daily.

“Watch out for pulsation factors – if you suspect a particular milking unit is not milking out cows properly make sure it is checked.

“Another simple daily check should include air bleeds,” adds Bill. “Are they clear? – if they’re not, milk can flood the claw and change the vacuum under the cow’s teat, resulting in teat end impacts and an increased mastitis risk.

“Depending on your parlour design and milking time practices, over milking can be a common practice and can significantly damage teats. This commonly occurs at the start of the milking rather than at the end due to a lack of adequate teat preparation with the resultant ‘biphasic milking’ contributing to slower overall milking times and hyperkeratosis.

“It’s a worthwhile exercise for all herd managers to look through the herd and assess teat condition, shortly after milking when the clusters have come off – it is an excellent way to assess how the parlour is performing”.

He adds, “Be mindful that the milking process must achieve the ultimate compromise of extracting milk from the cow quickly, gently and completely and teat condition will tell you if this is being achieved.

In addition, Bill suggests analysing the incidence of clinical mastitis and individual cow cell counts. “A lot of mastitis is nowadays at least partly a result of the cow being housed in a poor environment and being exposed to faecal pathogens such as E.coli and Streptococcus uberis. The patterns of infection and the self-cure rates can sometimes give an extra clue about pathogen prevalence, although routine surveillance using bacteriology will confirm this and remains the gold standard.

“As briefly referred to earlier, ensure comprehensive testing of the milking machine. A dynamic test will give you data necessary to ensure your parlour is functioning correctly when in use – which usually isn’t identified in a static test. It should also include general observations of the milking process itself, so for example, the operator’s routine and behaviour, cow behaviour, teat & udder cleanliness, teat condition, milk let-down etc. This is incredibly valuable information for any herd manager to consider if changes need to be made and where.

“Something that, as an industry, we need to do more is benchmarking. This can be between cows, between staff, farms and even countries. How are we performing? Can we improve? What is achievable?  – Sometimes comparing ‘like with like’ can be a challenge but we need to have some better way in which to analyse performance in the parlour, both human and machine. If we want to improve performance, we need to look out, see other practices, new research and consider new technology.

“And I hope future parlour technology will include more benchmarking data as standard. There is a lot to be gained from combining available ‘metrics’ and benchmarking machine performance.

“The industry needs to have a unified approach to milking, away from the focus of how long it takes and more towards the target of improved (or even zero) mastitis and maximum cow welfare.

“As dairy farmers continue to get more minimum standards dictated in their milk contracts, it is advisable to be proactive and ensure your systems prioritise animal health. This will be reflected in both the production and the herd’s overall milk quality – both offer the opportunity to lower costs and maximise future milk prices for your business,” he concludes.