Veterinary Wisdom

Is 3-times-a-day milking best for you, your cows?


According to the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Dr. Nigel Cook, the immediate effects of adding more cows to a pen are mostly positive, i.e., more milk in the tank; while, the long-term effects of overcrowding take more time to develop, e.g., more lame cows, thin cows, open cows, lower producing cows and so forth.

Farmers crowd pens more than in the past because the value of a cow in real dollars has, until very recently, continued to drop for a long time, and the cost of a building, per stall, has significantly increased.

Increasing parlor throughput by reducing the amount of udder stimulation time, for example, by not fore stripping, will increase the amount of milk sold per parlor stall per hour or per day. However, if reducing stimulation time results in more cows with delayed milk ejection, milk production per milking will be reduced by 7 pounds for every cow with a one-minute delay, according to Michigan State University’s Dr. Ron Erskine.

That is 7 pounds per milking, not per day. Farmers strive for more milk per stall by increasing parlor throughput simply because selling more milk per unit of fixed cost is always a promising idea, and of course, the cost of building a parlor has dramatically increased as well.

Cook also points out that milking cows twice a day versus three times a day reduces some of the negative effects of overcrowding, because cows have additional time to lie down now that they can skip one trip to the parlor.

Erskine also points out that milking cows twice a day may result in a smaller proportion of cows with significant delays in milk ejection if udder stimulation time is inadequate, because cows milked twice daily usually have greater intra-udder pressure due to the presence of more milk.

This is why Cook, Erskine and I recently found ourselves together in a room chatting about two-times-a-day versus three-times-a-day milking in today’s industry.

Most dairy veterinarians have seen at least one farmer sell a bunch of cows and then not seen a corresponding reduction in herd milk production. This may be because the other cows immediately compensate from having more stall space or bunk space and produce more milk. More likely, though, is that the cows that were sold were not all that productive.

Often, these are “broken” cows, meaning animals that were very productive at one time but due to a series of unfortunate events, for example, lameness, mastitis or poor reproductive performance, no longer are.

Dairy veterinarians who spend a significant amount of time evaluating milking routines also have all seen the effects of improving udder stimulation, including increased milk production per cow.

Veterinarians also have seen clients switch from twice-daily milking to thrice-daily and harvest 7-8 pounds more milk per cow per day. They have also seen clients who switched from three-times-a-day milking to two-times-a-day milking and did not see a significant reduction in milk produced per cow.

Taken together, these observations can be hard to reconcile, but on this particular day, we speculated that perhaps, in some herds with very high stocking rates, two-times-a-day milking might be a better choice than three-times-a-day milking, because of positive effects of cow health, milk ejection or both.

Dairy financial experts who consult for herds of significant size in our part of the country will often opine that milking 3X will return more net dollars than milking 2X, and past experience has shown this to usually be true. However, in some cases, that advice might be wrong. It might be wrong because we are not able to fully understand, calculate and project the cumulative effects of crowding pens and crowding parlors. This is not to suggest that anyone reading this article switch from 3X to 2X, but perhaps, some might want to ask more questions and explore the topic further. Three-times-a-day milking may not be best for you and your cows.

Jim Bennett is one of four dairy veterinarians at Northern Valley Dairy Production Medicine Center in Plainview, Minnesota. He consults on dairy farms in other states. He and his wife, Pam, have four children. Jim can be reached at [email protected].


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