A flexible milking system improves life for farmers and cows.
Taking a flexible approach as to when and how often to milk the cows is proving increasingly popular on New Zealand dairy farms. Research conducted by DairyNZ, in collaboration with the Lincoln University Research Dairy Farm and six commercial dairy farms, confirms that being flexible about milking has little, if any, impact on production. In fact, it helps improve the health and condition of the cows, as well as the happiness of the people who work with the cows.
Dr Paul Edwards is no stranger to the 4.30am start to the working day that is often regarded as inevitable for many New Zealand dairy farmers and their staff. The senior scientist at DairyNZ grew up on a Northland dairy farm.
He understands the challenges presented by not only the early starts but also the constraints imposed by having to be back in the milking shed again mid-afternoon - day in, day out - all season long. Paul is a believer that greater flexibility in milking times, and frequency, makes dairy farming a more attractive proposition. And throughout the country an increasing number of farmers, their employees, families (and friends) agree.
Paul says flexibility greatly enhances the daily experience of those working on farm, making dairy farming a more appealing career choice, and giving everyone more options for following personal interests, such as sports or joining a local club, further studies, and for more time with family and friends - no longer having to miss a friend’s wedding, or get in a relief milker, or head home too early from a party.
“The timing and frequency of milkings determines what the rest of the day looks like, both in consideration of when other farm jobs can be done and when there will be time off work to spend with family, friends and other pursuits,” he says.
Following three years of research into flexible milking, Paul, his research colleagues, and farmers participating in the study, can now produce data confirming that more attractive milking schedules are possible with few or no production trade-offs.
The multi-factored research found that although there was no negative effect of a longer milking interval on fat yield, protein content was marginally reduced. Paul says these findings aligned with previous research including experiments conducted as far back as the 1960s.
The study also considered the health and body condition scores of the cows involved in the study, finding the animals proved to be healthier with a longer milking interval.
The flexible milking research was co-funded by dairy farmers through their annual DairyNZ levy, and by Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) Sustainable Farming Fund. It was conducted in collaboration with Lincoln University Research Dairy Farm, where Paul is based, and six commercial dairy farms with flexible milking approaches also took part.
Historically, milking on New Zealand dairy farms has been twice a day (TAD) taking two-plus hours each time, depending on the size of the milking herd and the milking system – generally milking at 5am and again at 3pm.
Paul says as herd sizes have increased milking time has been extended – some farms have been starting even earlier at 3:30am to get the job done. “These working hours are not a favourite, either with the farmers themselves, their staff, or their families, or anyone thinking about dairy farming as a career, so it’s no surprise farmers are motivated to try different milking options. Many struggle to recruit and retain staff in a tight labour market and ensure wellbeing for themselves and their employees, so it is good news that there are many options to achieve greater workplace flexibility for individual farm teams.”
The research considered two aspects. Milking frequency, whether it was twice a day (TAD), once a day (OAD) or combinations of those, for example, milking three times in two days. And milking intervals, or the number of hours between each milking.
Research dating back to the 1950s showed no production difference between an 8–16-hour interval and a 12-12-hour interval, says Paul, with the result that TAD dairy farmers have moved towards 9-15 hours. “While a 9-15 break between milkings is more appealing, it offers limited benefits for improving flexibility because milking still needs to take place at the beginning and the end of the day. This is a key reason why options like three-in-two and OAD have become more popular – and they allow for milkings at non-traditional times of the day opening a range of options for the farmer, for example, employing part-time staff, or sharing staff between farms.”
John Totty, who farms 994 jersey and jersey-cross cows over two neighbouring properties totaling 333ha at Staveley in Canterbury, decided he would give flexible milking ‘a crack' after hearing Paul talk about it at a field day. Following the field day, he got in touch with Paul and subsequently became one of the six commercial farms contributing to the flexible milking research project.
After experimenting with different milking schedules during periods of summer-dry – his farm is not irrigated – he now milks 10 times in seven days, full-season. John says changing to flexible milking has been a win-win for everyone. "It has benefited both animals and people evenly. With 10-in-seven it's always a thrill to drive out and inspect the cows. They never look skinny no matter the time of year."
After trying OAD (once-a-day) and three-in-two, he says 10-in-seven seems to work best for his herd, the farm’s dryland system, his team – and for himself. "It’s helping to increase profitability through improved animal health, better reproductive results, and staff retention. There are also cost savings related to less milking, all without the large drop in production that we experienced with OAD."
With a few of his staff moving on, John took the opportunity of promoting flexible milking to attract the right people to his team. And rather than dairy speak and using language such as 'we milk full season 10-in-seven', John talked about the benefits of flexible milking. When advertising, he explained his system using terms such as '29 percent fewer milkings than traditional TAD and four sleep-ins per week’.
This tactic worked well, and John was able to fill all positions with good quality staff, despite the chronic labour shortages that the dairy, and other sectors, have experienced for several years now.
With a reduced milking frequency, he now has time to step back and act as an operations manager and business owner, rather than being 100 percent hands-on all the time. "This shift has come from a mixture of having a good team and time to build the team and farm manager’s skills, as well as developing processes for them to make their own informed decisions.”
Jeremy Savage is a farm consultant at Macfarlane Rural business in Ashburton, who has been with the South Island Dairying Demonstration Centre for the last four years, supporting the Lincoln University Dairy Farm (LUDF).
He says 10 and seven milking ‘weekend-ises’ the cows, and staff. “We're once a day on Tuesday and Thursday. On Saturday we milk at 11 in the morning, then Sunday we milk about nine in the morning. And then we're twice a day on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.” What they've found is that they can roster five days on and two days off at LUDF. It also gets a bit of a, a good routine for people, and he says, cows don't mind it as well. It's amazing how even after twice a day, after two days the cows pick up and their production's just the same as those TAD days when they kick in as well.
Jeremy acknowledges the impact of higher pay-outs in 2022 hit the profitability a bit harder than intended. “But we get genuine savings in labour. We were four staff members, we're now down to three and a half, plus they're getting more time off as well. Staff retention is a hundred percent for two years running, so that's a great result as well. So, we're really happy with that.”
“To put it in perspective, LUDF has a $1.14 million EBIT and it's cost us $40,000. So, the impact on our total profitability hasn't been as great as you would expect, and when you're looking at other alternatives in terms of adopting technology to make life easier for everybody, a $40,000 bill is not too bad, considering the impacts it's had on staff and on cows as well.”
For full details of the flexible milking study go to: