There are plenty of reasons not to have a mobile milking parlor, especially if you just lived through winter in the northeast. Open air milking is for the birds when it’s -20 out.
But what if it made sense? Because you live in a more temperate climate, or you’ve gone seasonal, or you’ve got a place to park the parlor where it’s not quite so miserably cold? Maybe then it would make sense to have a milking parlor that you could hitch up to a tractor and bring to the cows, instead of bringing the herd back to the parlor.
This would also make sense if you were farming on rented land, or on land that was spread out. Or, maybe you and a neighbor were going to share the investment. (Making sure, of course, to develop a business agreement that both of you agreed to.)
We were curious as to what was involved in mobile milking parlors, and went to look for them. The only farm in the US that we could find producing Grade A milk was at Organic Pastures in California, where Mark McAfee champions raw milk with a herd of 540. He built a parlor of his own design, and he moves it through their 500 acres of pasture to four stations with water, power, and waste management.
After about 15 years of use, Mark said he’d still do it again, and milk with a mobile facility. But, he’d make a few changes. First of all, if he was building it again, it would be flat and as low to the ground as possible. He would eliminate the moving parts. They had built it with a hydraulic lift to raise the cows up, but the lift only lasted about a year. Then they went to a ramp, but it’s really a lot steeper than he’d like. Mark said he thinks an 18″ rise would be ideal.
The mobile parlor allows them to move away from waste, but their herd size has outgrown the mobile system. He sees it as more suited for herds of 50 or fewer. The Organic Pastures milking parlor is going to become a lot more stable in about 6 months, with the construction of a centrally located facility. They are taking a few lessons from their mobile parlor, though. They’re building multiple single lanes for the cows, with a lane for manpower between each cow lane. They’ve found that with the multiple lanes, the cows get washed, stand to dry, and then move in, one lane at a time. This allows the cows to go in cleaner and, more importantly, drier than if they were funneled in. With more labor outside the parlor, it cuts down on labor inside the milking parlor.
Mark told me he knows of two other mobile parlors, both of much smaller scale (milking 6 & 25 cows, respectively). The smaller herd is milked in a modified horse trailer, which is moved every few days. Moving it is pretty simple: rubber mats are laid down, doors open up and it’s ready for business. That parlor is in California, but the other, serving 25 cows, is in Idaho. Milking in a mobile parlor in California, we can figure out. Idaho is a challenge.
Then we found out that Wolfe’s Neck Farm, in Maine, was getting a mobile milking parlor. Maine. Mobile milking parlor.
Here’s what is behind their decision. Wolfe’s Neck Farm is a not-for-profit farm on the coast of Maine. They are working with Stonyfield Organics to help new and transitioning commercial organic dairy farmers. (Full disclosure: Stonyfield is an underwriter of On Pasture, and Rachel spent some time working with Wolfe’s Neck Farm in 2013. We had no idea that either entity was involved in mobile milking parlors when we started this story.) One thing they realized is that many farmers don’t have a lot of capital starting out, and may rely on leased land. (See article on Cow Taxis.) In order to give trainees a chance to milk, and move on, they looked into mobile milking parlors.
To make the decision, UMaine Extension’s Rick Kersbergen went on a world tour. He visited the mobile milking parlor in California, and he went overseas, including to the Eurotier, the world’s largest farm show, held in Hanover, Germany. Rick found that there were different mobile parlors to choose from. One of the criteria he had was that milk would pass the pasteurization requirements, and another was that he wanted to make sure that the parlor would survive the conditions he was sure it would face. After looking at the different options, because there are different options outside of the US, he settled on a Dairymaster unit. Another advantage of going with a Dairymaster is that they have offices in the US for parts.
The unit that they chose has a self-contained milk room that could pass inspection. They also worked on a housing system for winter milking, where the unit would go into a storage-type facility, allowing it work exactly like a milking parlor. For mobility, though, they are setting up several places on the farm where they will be installing concrete pads and docking stations with water and power. During the grazing season, the mobile parlor will spend about 4-5 weeks at each station, and move to the next one.
Since Stonyfield was sponsoring this endeavor, the finances were a bit easier (a lot) than if it was farmer funded. They were able to get a parallel 8 system, with only one side, with bells and whistles, including a hydraulic lift (like a little elevator for the cows), milk metering, automatic take offs, and automatic cow ID. The parlor should be able to go through a set of 8 cows in 10 minutes, meaning they can milk about 48 cows per hour at top efficiency. Total price tag: $80,000 plus import costs from Germany. Dairymaster is working on FDA and other regulatory issues involved in bringing the mobile parlors commercially, and hopefully that option will soon be available.
Yes, that’s not cheap to buy a mobile parlor, but remember, they didn’t cut corners. If they were getting a milking parlor to install into a building, they’d be paying between $30,000 and $100,000 for a two-sided parallel 8 (milking 16). That price can go up to $300,000 if you really want the add-ons. Not to mention installation costs. So, while this wasn’t the cheapest option, it’s not that far off, and there are cheaper options to be had. One of the big hurdles will be a parlor that can pass inspections, and provide Grade A milk.
The mobile parlor doesn’t arrive until June, and once they get it running, we’re looking forward to a full report. You can also find plenty of other options online, including the Mototech and many more.