By Tom Collins
SOUTH MOUNTAIN — Parker Boyd remembers the first day he gave a try at three milkings a day five years ago.
The 31-year-old runs James-Dean Holsteins, a tie-stall operation with his father Dean and mother Terry at South Mountain near Kemptville, and milks 63 cows using GEA Westfalia portable milkers. He said the increase in production was instantaneous. Within two days of making the switch from two milkings, 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. But 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.
Boyd, whose top cows now produce 60-70 kg per day, up from 55 to 60 kg, said he would never be able to go back to 2X milkings.
“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.”
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.
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.
Kevin MacLean, of Ripple Brook Farm at Napanee, also increased from two milkings to three per day. He thought about making the switch for quite a while, but it wasn’t until he hired an employee who had experience with 3X milking that he recently went for it.
Six months after switching, MacLean saw a 23 per cent increase in production. MacLean said 3X milking means less milk leaking in the stalls, leading to fewer bacteria and flies. He’s also seen fewer serious cases of mastitis since the switch.
“Since there’s always someone in the barn for almost 20 hours a day, it’s easier to spot if something is wrong with a cow and treat it quickly,” he said.
MacLean’s biggest issue was the cows produced too much milk. He culled the herd from 125 cows to 100.
Farmers say employees are key to successfully increase daily milkings. While MacLean does the morning milking — each milking takes about 2.5 hours using the BouMatic double-8 herringbone parlour — he has employees for the other two milkings and always has feelers out for who might be interested in a job should an employee leave.
“You always have to be on the lookout for someone who can milk for you in the future,” he said. “If someone moves on, you have to anticipate. You have to pay them well and treat them well and give them time off when they want it. If I can keep the workers, I’ll keep doing 3X for sure. If you don’t have the workers, you can’t keep doing it.”
Gerald Pulver, at Napanee, has twice tried to increase milkings to 3X per day, but had to stop both times because he couldn’t get enough quota to keep up with his milk production and because he has had trouble finding employees. One of the reasons he’s now installing robots in his barn is to get the milkings back up to three times without the employees. The robots should be ready to go by mid-August.
“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 that I can find. It’s the other two milkings that are the hard ones.”
It takes two people 2.5 hours to milk 165 cows with the herringbone parallel parlour in Pulver’s barn. He said the cows are more comfortable with 3X milkings because their udders aren’t as full.
Gerald Crowder Jr., west of Winchester, milks 35 cows in his tie-stall with a GEA automatic takeoff. Crowder made the switch to 3X milkings four years ago when he had eight cows he had to dry up but extra days of quota to fill. He figured he wouldn’t have enough milk for the extra days without those eight cows. He was hosting a tour with Australian farmers who told him they do 3X milking. That got him thinking about giving it a try.
“We went up 100 litres right away,” he said. “We filled the extra days plus some. And we were able to cut down on cows.”
It takes Crowder about 50 minutes to milk the 35 cows. He estimated he would need 50 cows to get the same production with 2X milkings, and each 2X milking would take about 100 minutes.
Crowder is among the rare 3X farmers these days who does almost all the milkings himself. With the way the milkings are timed, Crowder is able to have supper with his wife and kids every evening, something he wouldn’t be able to do with 2X milkings. But last year was tough as he only took three days off the whole year.
This year he has a couple of part-time employees to give him more of a break.
Crowder said the cows took to the change faster than he did.
“The first day was the funniest because they kind of take a little jump and go ‘What are you doing milking me at noon?’ ” he said. “By the fifth day, I was like, ‘Holy jumping, this is ridiculous.’ But in five days, you don’t know what’s happening. You need to do it for at least a month to know what you’re going to gain or lose.”
Crowder said farmers need to have the cows and the production for 3X milking to be worth it.
“If you’re not making a 40 kilo average plus on 3X, it’s not worth it,” he said. “It’s not even worth trying. Go back to 2X cause you’re putting more money out the door than you’ll be putting in your pocket.”