How few can we do? The evolution of flexible milking frequency

How many milkings are needed in a pasture based dairy cows’ lactation to optimise productivity and profitability?

By Brent Boyce, Nelson/Marlborough FarmWise consultantBrent Boyce Small

Firstly – this is not going to be a scientific article. It’s not steeped in peer-reviewed data and statistics. It is an article based on observations and experiences over decades and the desire to push and prod our way out of what has become a claustrophobic corner of the dairying envelope.  

I have spent much of the last two decades looking at milking frequency options. Can we do less milkings and still maintain production and profit?

This desire to find workable options to the traditional twice a day (2AD) and once a day (OAD) milking regimes has been around for decades. The need has often been exacerbated by climatic conditions, and critically by the ongoing labour crisis in our industry.  

In November 2001 (with a horrifically wet spring in Murchison), my first serious meddling with the inflexible hours of the straight 16 hour milking regime occurred. This evolved to the 14-16-18 hour regime over the following 3-4 seasons. As more was learnt, greater changes to the length of hours between milking occurred. The system has further evolved to be renamed 3in2 (3 milkings in 2 days).

Wideshot rotary shed

As the architect and namer of 14-16-18, and latterly 3in2, I guess I have to shoulder a fair amount of the blame for wrecking a lot of peoples weekends (both in New Zealand and overseas). With 3in2; there are 10.5 milkings/week (or 21 milkings a fortnight). Evening milkings happen on alternate days; which tended to confuse weekends and milking rosters.  

Everyone loves the sleep-ins; but the weekend night milkings really messed up routines (especially family). However – on the plus side – farmers report that by doing 3in2, they can maintain (or even increase) milk production from mid-lactation over summer. And they have been able to farm as profitably as when they were on 2AD all season.  Doing less is good. 

The reality is that we work in a 7 day a week industry; but we live in a weekend based society. It is often hard to maintain a work/life compatibility between the two for both employers and employees.  

OAD milking (with just 7 milkings/week) is an obvious option to better manage work/life expectations. However, not all farming businesses wish to adopt OAD (for many and varied reasons). 2AD milking still involves 14 milking per week; and exacerbates the work/life conundrum.

So what are we missing here?  These are our current standard options:

Table 1: Current milking regimes:

Milking regime

2AD

3in2

OAD

Milkings in 7 days

14in7

10.5in7

7in7

However, there is something that has been staring at all of us for years.  Simply put – there are some massive gaps between our current 3 milking regimes:

Table 2: Possible milking regimes

Milking Regime

2AD

Possible?

3in2

Possible?

OAD

Milkings/week

14in7

13in7, 12in7, 11in7

10.5in7

10in7 ,9in7 ,8in7

7in7

Options for mid to late lactation

Who made the rules to say that we cannot milk at suitable times between our current 3 main milking regimes? There is enough anecdotal farmer evidence already to show that if cows are being fed the same as 2AD, they will produce the same (as 2AD) on 3in2 after 4 months of lactation.  

What would happen, that instead of going to 3in2 at say your normal Christmas time; you went to 10in7 then instead? You take out just ½ a milking per 7 days. In a fortnight you would do 20 milkings on 10in7; versus 21 milkings on the traditional 3in2. 

It may not seem like much, but there is a subtle difference. In comparison, your working week would then potentially look like this:

Table 3: Comparing 10in7to 3in2 (say December to March or seasons end?):

How does 3in2 look?

Milking times for 10in7

1st week

2nd week

Mon

5am and 5-7pm

5am and 5-7pm

11am

Tues

11am

11am

5am and 5-7pm

Wed

5am and 5-7pm

5am and 5-7pm

11am

Thurs

11am

11am

5am and 5-7pm

Fri

5am and 5-7pm

5am and 5-7pm

11am

Sat

11am

11am

5am and 5-7pm

Sun

9am

5am and 5-7pm

11am

Basically everything stays the same – but suddenly you have become “weekend-centric” in your milking frequency. You now milk 2AD on 3 days per week (Mon, Wed, Fri); and OAD 4 days per week (Tue, Thu, Sat, Sun).  

By dropping from 21 milkings on 3in2 down to 20 milkings per fortnight on 10in7 – you can now plan stable weekends. Just by removing that one single milking. Data collected from this seasons lactations here in the Top of the South is showing no significant change in comparison to what they normally achieved when starting on 3in2 around the Christmas period (for either production or SCC).

Let’s then imagine things go a step further – it’s now mid-March. Normally you might stay on 3in2 to the end, or may even go on OAD for the last month or two. What about trying 9in7 instead? There are 2 more milkings than OAD – the increased frequency of milking should maintain a higher milk harvest. This has not been confirmed scientifically, but the limited farmer observations to date are showing that 9in7 is better for both cow’s productivity and SCC than OAD (and it is better than 3in2 and even 10in7 for staff).  

To do 9in7, simply milk 2AD on say Monday and Thursday, and the remaining days are OAD:   

Table 4: 9in7 milking in late lactation:

Day

Milking times for 9in7

Monday

5am and 3-5pm

Tuesday

11am

Wednesday

11am

Thursday

5am and 3-5pm

Friday

11am

Saturday

11am

Sunday

11am

It should be noted that the milking times in the tables above are purely indicative. You may decide to milk earlier or later, and have shorter or longer gaps. 

Milking times for each day can be quite flexible – there are no set rules. At present these are farmer observations, awaiting the science. 

Possible best known practice at present is thus:

Table 5: Timing between milkings

Stage of lactation

Ideal max time between milkings (minimal losses vs 2AD)

Sensible longest times (some losses vs 2AD)

Stage of lactation

August to November

16 hours

18-20 hours

August to November

December to March

18 hours

20-22 hours

December to March

April and May

20 hours

22-24 hours

April and May

What Table 5 shows is that even in late lactation, there is usually some losses compared to 2AD even if going to OAD in say April. We know that using 3in2 and its varied hours works. Using 10in7 and 9in7 does extend times between milkings over the weekend etc. so it is important to try and time the milkings equidistant between each milking (halfway). 

The above discussion gives us some good options from mid-lactation. But, our crunch time for people is typically in the first half of lactation. Is there anything we can do there?       

Options for early lactation

Those of you with good memories or grey hair will remember a recommendation years ago from Dexcel (the precursor to DairyNZ); saying that you could milk cows OAD on Christmas day. I know a number who did – they milked at their usual 5 or 6am; and had some real issues with SCC or even graded. 

Whilst it may have seemed a bit of folly at the time – we got some great learnings from it.  

From what we know now, best practice would have been if that Christmas morning milking had been equidistant between the Christmas Eve (3pm afternoon milking); and the Boxing Day (5am morning milking). This gap is a total of 38 hours – halfway between would therefore be 19 hours. So the best practice for this Christmas morning milking would be 10am (19 hours since Christmas Eve 3pm; and a further 19 hours till the Boxing Day 5am milking).

Let’s use this. What would happen if say in a tough spring – when everyone was doing it hard – you could say “righto – on Sunday we milk just once”?  We know from Table 5 that if we did have a 19 hour gap (like the above scenario); there would be some minor loss.  

How much would that drop be? It’s likely to be minimal. We do know the cows will bounce straight back (when fed properly), and that any change in SCC would be a small “blip”. 

Essentially you have just milked 13in7. Not enough farmers have done this (yet) for us to say with authority that this could be the new normal. However, it is highly likely that we will have the numbers this coming season to have greater confidence. The question would then be, if Sunday OAD works – could we then do Wednesday as well and even have 12in7?  

Table 6: 13in7 and 12in7 milking in early lactation:

Day

Milking times for 2AD

Milking times for 13in7

Milking times for 12in7

Mon

5am and 3pm

5am and 3pm

5am and 3pm

Tues

5am and 3pm

5am and 3pm

5am and 3pm

Wed

5am and 3pm

5am and 3pm

10am

Thu

5am and 3pm

5am and 3pm

5am and 3pm

Fri

5am and 3pm

5am and 3pm

5am and 3pm

Sat

5am and 3pm

5am and 3pm

5am and 3pm

Sun

5am and 3pm

10am

10am

Mon

5am and 3pm

5am and 3pm

5am and 3pm

Tues

5am and 3pm

5am and 3pm

5am and 3pm

We don’t have enough information to recommend everyone doing this yet.  

What we will have is some early adopters trying it and learning lessons for all of us. The majority of dairy surveys indicate it is the lack of structured time off that makes our industry less attractive.  It is critical that we try to improve our work/life balance. If we could do this with minimal or limited productivity or profitability losses, and better retain staff it would be a great result.  

There is no doubt that our cows are incredibly flexible. We need to be as well. At present we are limited only by our imagination. 

Next steps

Some great news is that DairyNZ is now funding a project specifically looking at milking frequency on 3in2. This is to be based at the Lincoln University Research Dairy Farm, and is to be under the watch of their senior team – including Doctors Paul Edwards, Jane Kay et.al. These fully replicated trials are for 3 years, and the results will help us further define best practice for milking frequency.

So….how few can we do? No one knows – yet. These are just my imaginings so far. But it is a great opportunity for our industry to evolve its work/life balance, and to really attract and retain quality staff.  

Who knows? Maybe the potential is now here to be accepted at last into the fold of our weekend based society. Let’s see how it unfolds.