If you’ve read any Jane Austen novels, you’ll recognize the parlor as the location where ladies receive their gentleman callers. If the classics aren’t your thing, maybe you think of an old-fashioned beauty parlor, where grandmothers have their hair set. If you’re in the dairy industry, though, you know the parlor as the heart of the whole operation.
The parlor is the place where milk begins its journey from farm to fork. The ladies stop by multiple times per day, flashing their big brown eyes and batting their long lashes, while their farmers go about the meat and potatoes of the dairy business: the milking.
Farmers have several options when it comes to parlor size and style. Depending on the farm’s location, herd size, labor needs and milking frequency, they may choose to milk in herringbone, parallel or rotary parlors. As long as the cows are comfortable and the farmers have safe access to perform udder hygiene and attach the milk machine to the udder, the basic needs are met.
Regardless of parlor style, at a very basic level, the milking system works the same way in all of them. The farmers give their cows a quick glance to make sure they’re feeling well and looking good, and they perform standard hygiene procedures by cleaning each udder and applying iodine before attaching the milking machine. Generally, this is where technology takes over, performing the actual milking and moving the milk from cow to bulk tank, via a vacuum system, where it’s stored until it can be quality tested and transported by the hauler.
For Eldon and Hilary Marrs of Marrs Milky Way Dairy in Ault, Colo., technology takes over a bit earlier in the process. The partners — both in business and in life — recently installed a 60-stall, robotic rotary parlor, only the fifth of its kind in the United States. It was a large undertaking, and after months of construction, the whole family was able to take part in the first day of milking in the new parlor, helping teach the cows to enter and exit the rotary parlor.
Eldon explains that family was the driving factor behind installing a robotic parlor all along. “This parlor gives us the ability to continue a family dairy tradition,” he says.
Eldon’s father began milking in the 1930s, and Eldon himself has always been a dairy farmer. Since installing the new parlor, the dairy has doubled in size. He and Hilary now milk about 1,600 cows, and their labor needs have remained steady.
“We’ve been able to basically keep the same employee base we had prior to opening the new barn, while still expanding the herd,” Hilary says.
Automation and data collection have made this possible. At milking time, the ladies step on to the parlor one by one and ride around a large circle for one revolution. As each cow enters, the system scans a tag in her ear and tracks the information from each milking session. The milking machine attaches itself within about 15 seconds, performs udder hygiene, milking and quality testing. The system sends data on the milk from each quarter of her udder, monitors milk output from each quarter and detaches by quarter, as necessary. All this data can be monitored from a single screen, and each stall is color-coded so Eldon and Hilary know each cow’s status at a glance.
The whole process is quite orderly. The parlor is quiet — there’s no whistling or calling to the cows to cajole them into their spots. In fact, most of the cows are quite excited to board the rotary parlor, some even galloping up to the deck and giving a few playful bucks as they slide to a halt, awaiting their turn.
Two people can complete milking for the farm’s 1,600 cows from start to finish, and the data tracked by the robots alerts the family to any health issues nearly 24 hours earlier than without the robots, which was the Marrs’ second reason behind the installation: cow care. All that data gathered by the robots allows the Marrs family to give optimal care to their herd.
The parlor offers much more than just a location to milk cows. It’s a gathering place, for both humans and bovines. It provides an opportunity to check in and get the latest information, not unlike beauty parlors. And most importantly for the Marrs family, it’s the key to continuing a family tradition and giving their cows the best possible care.