By Tom Collins
THEDFORD — Dylan Stewardson remembers the first day his farm tried three milkings a day two years ago. Production spiked.
The 25-year-old runs Stewardson Dairy with his parents Jeff and Brenda, brother Dan, sister Nicole and wife Carley. They milk 288 cows in a freestall barn with a double-10 parallel milking parlour in Lambton County. Although his parents tried three times a day milking in the 1990s, they dropped the idea because it was too difficult to find hired help.
Stewardson wanted to give 3X milking another try, and got his chance two years ago when he needed to fill a little bit of extra market. With quota increases since then, they’ve been able to keep milking three times a day.
“The market kind of exploded at the same time we started three times a day,” he said. “There’s more quota available. And since then we’ve had a lot of increases and quota given and purchased through the exchange.”
CanWest DHI says only 10 per cent of all Ontario herds are milked three times a day. If you exclude farms with robotic milkers, only five per cent of dairy farms milk three times a day. OMAFRA says studies show 3X milkings improve udder health and also lower somatic cell counts.
Farmers who make the switch notice an immediate increase in production. Stewardson’s cows were averaging 35-36 litres a day on 2X, but production increased 10 per cent immediately and has been as high as 44 to 45 litres a day. Farmers say by increasing the milkings, their workload stays the same but it improves their work hours. The key is finding good, reliable farm hands to get that extra milking done. Generally, the going rate for rookie milkers can range anywhere from $12 to $16.50 an hour with night milkers earning a $2 premium. Those who have been around for about a year might be paid about $17-$18 an hour and those who do other work around the barn could earn $25 an hour.
Stewardson used to do 11 of the 14 milkings a week with 2X milking. With a hired full-time milker, he now only does 11 of 21 milkings and the milking times have changed. He used to be in the barn at dinner time but is now usually done by 4 p.m., which allows him to spend a few hours with his wife and young daughter.
Enjoying the extra family time, there’s no way he would never go back to 2X milking.
“Our farm is definitely more profitable, but I also appreciate our lifestyle the way it is now,” he said.
But it’s not all smooth sailing when you add a milking. Stewardson saw the pregnancy rate in his cows drop from a 26 to 27 per cent success rate to 23 to 24 per cent.
“The cows just don’t get pregnant as well as they used to,” he said. “I think cows need to spend more energy making milk rather than focusing on maintaining a pregnancy.”
Cees Haanstra — who runs Greiden Farms Ltd. at St. Marys with his wife, Hinny — first started milking 3X in 1996 and has never looked back. He made the switch because the cows were leaking milk and their behaviour changed.
“Cows were producing 37 litres (daily) average and they couldn’t hold milk anymore,” he said. “The cows were standing behind the holding area waiting. They can’t speak, but they would have told us ‘we want to be milked.’ ”
Haanstra saw an 11 per cent increase in production in the first day. He now milks 600 cows in a double-11 herringbone milking parlour. Each milking takes about six hours and it’s easier to spot a problem since someone is almost always in the barn. Success is dependent on employees, he said. For his farm, the two-person night crew is pretty much full-time employees that are on salary.
There are extra costs when milking cows 3X: The cows eat more, extra labour is needed and even things like more soap is needed to clean the parlour after every milking. But Haanstra estimated it would take an extra 150 to 200 cows to fill his quota if he went back to 2X milking, which would mean enough feed, buildings and time for those extra cows.
Parker Boyd, who milks 63 cows using GEA Westfalia portable milkers in his tie-stall barn south of Ottawa, said within two days of making the switch from 2X, production rose an average of six kilograms per cow.
“It was great because we needed the milk and we were underproducing,” he said. “Within the first 24 hours, you could tell the cows were milking more. It was hard to believe how full the cows’ udders were at each and every milking. You expect to see the udders not so full, but when you went in eight hours later, it was just like it was when it was 12 hours (between milkings).”
While some operators hesitate about increasing to 3X, those who jumped in saw an immediate production increase. But most say 3X only works as long as you have reliable hired help.
Boyd’s cousin did the night milkings but eventually left to work at EastGen after graduating from Kemptville College. Boyd and his dad tried to do all three milkings themselves, but were too overwhelmed. With no extra help, they went back to two milkings a day.
“It was depressing,” said Boyd, who said production decreased just as quickly as it had increased.
Eighteen months ago, they gave 3X another shot to take advantage of quota increases. This time they hired an employee to do the afternoon and evening milkings. The cows’ production shot up from 32 kilograms to 40 kg within a week.
“We couldn’t stay in business very long if we were still at 32 litres,” said Boyd. “If I lost a hired man, I’d do everything I could to find another one. If you have a cow with a small udder, it’s amazing. If a cow with a small udder can’t hold as much milk, she turns the tap off eventually. When you get her to 3X, she’ll take right off.”
The increased production also brings increased costs. Cows milked 3X eat more, so more feed is needed. And since the extra milking brings down the milk fat content, Boyd adds a palm fat energy boost to the feed to keep the milk fat content at normal levels. That boost keeps the milk fat at 4.1 per cent. Without the boost, the milk fat drops to 3.9 per cent within a week.
Napanee’s Gerald Pulver has twice tried to increase milkings to 3X per day, but had to stop both times because he couldn’t get enough quota and had trouble finding employees. So, he’s now installing robots in his barn is to get the milkings back up to three times.
“Help is so hard to come by,” he said. “It’s brutally hard. I find it harder to find help for 2X than for 3X. That night milking, there’s people who have different shifts at work who just want a little extra income. It’s the two (day time) milkings that are the hard ones.”