Questioning three times

In this first of a two-part story about solving the wrong problem, we look at the pros and cons of milking three times.

Every now and then, it is good to question what we do or the way we do things. We need to make opportunities to evaluate whether practices still work, to see if there is something better and to ask how well our goals are being met. In the end, we are either renewed in our commitment to the way we do it, or we change for different results.

But still I was surprised when two producers talked to me in one week about switching back from milking three times to twice.

Sure, question things, but question milking three times? Isn’t the doctrine on that sacred? Hasn’t it proven itself beyond doubt? But obviously when it came up in two separate instances from widely separated producers, I had to start working through the process of evaluating the pros and cons myself, and then with these producers.

Resources are available to help you think through that question; an article by Dr. Craig Thomas that was published in the Michigan Dairy Review and a graphic spreadsheet by Dr. Victor Cabrera from University of Wisconsin.

Among the “truths that we hold to be self-evident” are that we produce more milk on three-time-a-day milking than on twice a day. The amount of the increase will vary depending on management, feed quality and other factors, but more milk, nonetheless. In addition, we often cite that milk quality is improved since we are emptying the udder at shorter intervals, cleaning teats an extra time and dipping them again. And of course the most important part of the doctrine is that these results more than pay for the added costs of three times milking.

What are the added costs? Labor is first and foremost. Not just the added hours or added employees, but also the added time spent by the farm owner training and managing those employees. Increased milk production doesn’t happen without added feed intake so that cost must be calculated as well. Direct costs include electricity, chemicals and dips.

What else happens when farms milk three times? Cows are observed at shorter intervals and maybe the employees observe cows with problems sooner. Barns may be scraped an additional time and therefore cows have less exposure to manure and mastitis-causing bacteria. Maybe cows are fed an additional time providing fresh feed that may encourage increased intake.

Are there other potential costs or downsides? If group size and parlor through-put is such that cows are standing in the holding pen and away from beds, feed and water for more hours of the day, they may suffer increased foot stress and decreased feed intake. The added milking, while usually positive from a production standpoint does carry added risks if milkers are not doing an excellent job in the parlor. They may infect cows at milking time and there is an additional opportunity for a mistake with treated cows.

Margins in the dairy business have certainly gotten much tighter. Feed costs are up and labor costs are high. Is it time to re-evaluate milking three times?

We could set up a partial budget form, we could list pros and cons on a balance sheet and we could figure the additional costs/returns of every factor we mentioned. However, in just about every case, I am convinced that the added investment to milk three times is fully justified.

In these two cases, when I made visits to the farms, it quickly became evident that this was not an issue of a partial budget analysis. Rather, in each case, there was a root problem that overrode the partial budget.

So the point of this is that consultants need to make sure they dig deep enough and don’t try to solve a superficial issue that isn’t the real problem. And that as producers, we need to be honest with ourselves and remember that the greatest challenge of operating a dairy farm is not in cow management, crop management or even in money or people management. The greatest challenge in operating a dairy farm is managing oneself; it is the challenge of understanding where a business needs to go and what we need to change in how we do things to make that happen.

Related Michigan State University Extension News article: Getting to the root

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