Milking Machines

Milking machines are used to harvest milk from cows when manual milking becomes inefficient or labour intensive. The milking unit is the portion of a milking machine for removing milk from an udder. It is made up of a claw, four teatcups, (Shells and rubber liners) long milk tube, long pulsation tube, and a pulsator. The claw is an assembly that connects the short pulse tubes and short milk tubes from the teatcups to the long pulse tube and long milk tube. (Cluster assembly) Claws are commonly made of stainless steel or plastic or both. Teatcups are composed of a rigid outer shell (stainless steel or plastic) that holds a soft inner liner or inflation. Transparent sections in the shell may allow viewing of liner collapse and milk flow. The annular space between the shell and liner is called the pulse chamber.

Milking machines work in a way that is different from hand milking or calf suckling. Continuous vacuum is applied inside the soft liner to massage milk from the teat by creating a pressure difference across the teat canal (or opening at the end of the teat). Vacuum also helps keep the machine attached to the cow. The vacuum applied to the teat causes congestion of teat tissues (accumulation of blood and other fluids). Atmospheric air is admitted into the pulsation chamber about once per second (the pulsation rate) to allow the liner to collapse around the end of teat and relieve congestion in the teat tissue. The ratio of the time that the liner is open (milking phase) and closed (rest phase) is called the pulsation ratio.

The four streams of milk from the teatcups are usually combined in the claw and transported to the milkline, or the collection bucket (usually sized to the output of one cow) in a single milk hose. Milk is then transported (manually in buckets) or with a combination of airflow and mechanical pump to a central storage vat or bulk tank. Milk is refrigerated on the farm in most countries either by passing through a heat-exchanger or in the bulk tank, or both.

In the photo to the right is a bucket milking system with the stainless steel bucket visible on the far side of the cow. The two rigid stainless steel teatcup shells applied to the front two quarters of the udder are visible. The top of the flexible liner is visible at the top of the shells as are the short milk tubes and short pulsation tubes extending from the bottom of the shells to the claw. The bottom of the claw is transparent to allow observation of milk flow. When milking is completed the vacuum to the milking unit is shut off and the teatcups are removed. 

Milking machines keep the milk enclosed and safe from external contamination. The interior ‘milk contact’ surfaces of the machine are kept clean by manual or automated washing procedures implemented after milking is completed. Milk contact surfaces must comply with regulations requiring food-grade materials (typically stainless steel and special plastics and rubber compounds) and are easily cleaned.

Most milking machines are powered by electricity but, in case of electrical failure, there can be an alternative means of motive power, often an internal combustion engine, for the vacuum and milk pumps. Raghav Gowda from Karnataka, India has developed a low cost environment friendly milking machine which uses a 2-piston reciprocating pump operated manually for creating vacuum. Milk cows cannot tolerate delays in scheduled milking without serious milk production reductions.

Milking shed layouts

Bail-style sheds— This type of milking facility was the first development, after open-paddock milking, for many farmers. The building was a long, narrow, lean-to shed that was open along one long side. The cows were held in a yard at the open side and when they were about to be milked they were positioned in one of the bails (stalls). Usually the cows were restrained in the bail with a breech chain and a rope to restrain the outer back leg. The cow could not move about excessively and the milker could expect not to be kicked or trampled while sitting on a (three-legged) stool and milking into a bucket. When each cow was finished she backed out into the yard again. The UK bail, developed largely by Rex Patterson, was a six standing mobile shed with steps that the cow mounted, so the herdsman didn’t have to bend so low. The milking equipment was much as today, a vacuum from a pump, pulsators, a claw-piece with pipes leading to the four shells and liners that stimulate and suck the milk from the teat. The milk went into churns, via a cooler.

As herd sizes increased a door was set into the front of each bail so that when the milking was done for any cow the milker could, after undoing the leg-rope and with a remote link, open the door and allow her to exit to the pasture. The door was closed, the next cow walked into the bail and was secured. When milking machines were introduced bails were set in pairs so that a cow was being milked in one paired bail while the other could be prepared for milking. When one was finished the machine’s cups are swapped to the other cow. This is the same as for Swingover Milking Parlours as described below except that the cups are loaded on the udder from the side. As herd numbers increased it was easier to double-up the cup-sets and milk both cows simultaneously than to increase the number of bails. About 50 cows an hour can be milked in a shed with 8 bales by one person. Using the same teat cups for successive cows has the danger of transmitting infection, mastitis, from one cow to another. Some farmers have devised their own ways to disinfect the clusters between cows.

Herringbone Milking Parlours— In herringbone milking sheds, or parlours, cows enter, in single file, and line up almost perpendicular to the central aisle of the milking parlour on both sides of a central pit in which the milker works (you can visualise a fishbone with the ribs representing the cows and the spine being the milker’s working area; the cows face outward). After washing the udder and teats the cups of the milking machine are applied to the cows, from the rear of their hind legs, on both sides of the working area. Large herringbone sheds can milk up to 600 cows efficiently with two people.

Swingover Milking Parlours— Swingover parlours are the same as herringbone parlours except they have only one set of milking cups to be shared between the two rows of cows, as one side is being milked the cows on the other side are moved out and replaced with unmilked ones. The advantage of this system is that it is less costly to equip, however it operates at slightly better than half-speed and one would not normally try to milk more than about 100 cows with one person.

Rotary Milking sheds— Rotary milking sheds consist of a turntable with about 12 to 100 individual stalls for cows around the outer edge. A “good” rotary will be operated with 24–32 (~48–50+) stalls by one (two) milkers. The turntable is turned by an electric-motor drive at a rate that one turn is the time for a cow to be milked completely. As an empty stall passes the entrance a cow steps on, facing the centre, and rotates with the turntable. The next cow moves into the next vacant stall and so on. The operator, or milker, cleans the teats, attaches the cups and does any other feeding or whatever husbanding operations that are necessary. Cows are milked as the platform rotates. The milker, or an automatic device, removes the milking machine cups and the cow backs out and leaves at an exit just before the entrance. The rotary system is capable of milking very large herds—over a thousand cows.

Automatic Milking sheds— Automatic milking or ‘robotic milking’ sheds can be seen in Australia, New Zealand and many European countries. Current automatic milking sheds use the voluntary milking (VM) method. These allow the cows to voluntarily present themselves for milking at any time of the day or night, although repeat visits may be limited by the farmer through computer software. A robot arm is used to clean teats and apply milking equipment, while automated gates direct cow traffic, eliminating the need for the farmer to be present during the process. The entire process is computer controlled.

Supplementary accessories in sheds— Farmers soon realised that a milking shed was a good place to feed cows supplementary foods that overcame local dietary deficiencies or added to the cows’ wellbeing and production. Each bail might have a box into which such feed is delivered as the cow arrives so that she is eating while being milked. A computer can read the eartag of each beast to ration the correct individual supplement. A close alternative is to use ‘out-of-parlour-feeders’, stalls that respond to a transponder around the cow’s neck that is programmed to provide each cow with a supplementary feed, the quantity dependent on her production, stage in lactation, and the benefits of the main ration

The holding yard at the entrance of the shed is important as a means of keeping cows moving into the shed. Most yards have a powered gate that ensures that the cows are kept close to the shed.

Water is a vital commodity on a dairy farm: cows drink about 20 gallons (80 litres) a day, sheds need water to cool and clean them. Pumps and reservoirs are common at milking facilities. Water can be warmed by heat transfer with milk.

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