I have been looking forward to writing this blog post for sometime now. Times are changing in the dairy industry in the U.S. On one hand, we are witnessing the rapid consolidation of commodity dairy farms as they struggle to expand and take advantage of the economies of scale in the face of record low milk prices. Traditional family dairy farms are disappearing all across the country and are being replaced by large, industrialized dairy farms milking thousands of cows.
Resurgence of Small Dairy Farms
However, on the other hand, we are seeing unprecedented growth of small farms on less than 50 acres of land grossing less than $50,000 per year. The number of these small farms in the U.S. has been growing since 1982, according to the USDA Agricultural census. Many of these new small farms are selling their milk and dairy products directly to their customers for prices that dwarf commodity milk prices: $90 per hundred weight compared to $15 per hundred weight.
These small dairy farms are changing the rules of the game. Fifty years ago, when I was milking cows on a 40-cow Jersey farm in eastern Massachusetts, the name of the game was frugality. Spending money on time or labor saving devices was generally considered to be wasteful. Farmers were taught that their labor didn’t have any monetary value and they were encouraged to spend their time freely instead of their money. It was considered wise to spend a couple of hours fixing something worth $1.00.
For example, we milked with bucket milkers on the farm I worked at and shoveled the gutter by hand into a manure spreader every day, rain or shine snow or sleet. The hay baler didn’t have a kicker and we didn’t use hay wagons. Instead, the baler dropped the bales on the ground and we followed behind picking them up and tossing them up onto an old flatbed International truck. I remember it well, because the windshield was spilt and we could crank open both sides for a breeze. We also loaded and stacked thousands of hay bales in the hot barn haymows by hand without hay elevators. I worked for a $1 per hour and during the summer my weekly paychecks were routinely over $70.
Today “time is money and money is time." Farmers now commonly spend money on labor saving devices and they are encouraged to minimize their labor expenses. According to the USDA’s Cheap Food Policy, human workers are expensive and needlessly increase the cost of the food supply in the U.S.
Economics of Pipeline Milking Dairy Cows
This finally brings me to milking cows with a pipeline. Ever since I was a kid, I was told that pipelines only made financial sense if you milked 50 cows or more. Many farmers and dairy technicians will still tell you that, partly because they simply cannot understand why someone would want to milk fewer than 50 cows. It is that “get big or get out” mentality. For me, it is that “getting paid $90 per hundredweight verses $15 per hundredweight” mentality.
If you are a small farmer like me, you have to place a value on your time. I value my time on the farm at $20 per hour. I save an hour per day milking my cows with a pipeline compared to milking with buckets. That amounts to $20 per day, $140 per week, $560 per month or $6720 per year.
As I have been milking my cows in my barn for ten years I have saved $67,200 worth of my time in the context of what economists call “Opportunity Costs”. To quote Wikipedia: “Opportunity Costs play a crucial part in attempts to ensure that scarce resources such as time are used efficiently. Thus, opportunity costs are not restricted to monetary or financial costs: the real cost of output forgone, lost time, pleasure or any other benefit that provides utility should also be considered an opportunity cost.”
I don’t use any more detergent or electricity with a pipeline then I would use milking with buckets. Truthfully, each milking takes less than ½ hour, unless I run into a problem. My pipeline has been virtually maintenance free and I bought it used out of an old barn in New Hampshire 10 years ago, where it had sat unused for a decade or more. The only thing I have to replace every two or three years is a little, black, $5 stopper at the base of the receiver jar, called the flapper valve.
A Pipeline Milker in Action
I encourage you to take the time to go to our website and watch our video called Morning Chores. It shows our pipeline in action and just how easy it is to use. A picture is worth a thousand words. But it is a very simple process: You prep the cows as usual and turn on the vacuum pump and bring out the units one by one, hook them up to the vacuum line and put the claws on the cows just as you would with a bucket milker.
I have found that one person can handle three units at a time – though many a dairy farmer has bragged about using many more. I think the cows just get over milked if one person tries to run more than three units on a pipeline.
The pipeline in my barn is a NuPulse. It is designed so the milk line is also the vacuum line. It is a very simple set up. The pulsators are actually mounted in the claws. I think they work great. I have been using NuPulse units for nearly thirty years and for ten years in my present barn. And, knock on wood, I haven’t had one case of mastitis in 10 years.
Pipeline Milkers and Milk Quality
In addition to saving time and being easy to use, a clean, properly configured pipeline allows you to produce much higher quality milk. The milk isn’t exposed to the air and barn odors as it flows from the cow directly into the bulk tank where it immediately starts to cool. If you are marketing your milk directly to customers, maintaining a superior flavor and long shelf life is critical. There is no better way to do that than with a pipeline. Our raw milk will stay fresh for two weeks or more.
When I am done milking I simply hang my units on the cleaning manifold above my wash vat, turn the control box to “Wash”, flip a switch and walk out the barn door. The Clean In Place (CIP) function of my pipeline automatically flushes, washes and rinses the pipeline and my claws. I have found it to be very important to break my claws down once a week and manually scrub them as I check their overall condition. Each spring and fall, I completely rebuild the milking units and replace the milk hoses, air tubes, inflations and other rubber bits and pieces.
For several years I worked with an FDA dairy testing lab and we tested a lot of milk samples from both large and small farms. Unfortunately, we found that many small farms had quality problems with their milk, including high bacteria counts and mastitis. Those problems could be indications of poor sanitation and milk handling, including slow cooling.
I suspect that many small herd dairy farmers are simply overwhelmed by the amount of work that have to do every day and occasionally skip important maintenance and cleaning tasks simply because they run out of time.
I can point to my pipeline as the one single tool I use every day that saves me the most time and grief and makes it possible for me to operate a micro dairy and have a full time job at the same time. Pipelines absolutely make sense for small herd dairies in today’s economy.
Yes, they can be a significant investment. Installed, a used but upgraded pipeline will cost $10,000 to $15,000, or about the same as a good used tractor but they are a wise investment for small herd dairies — the right tools for the right job. Don’t underestimate the value of your time or the importance of producing great tasting milk with a long shelf life. Have fun!
Steve Judge is a long-time dairy farmer and micro-dairy expert at Bob-White Systems. Driven by a passion for the Slow Food movement and a desire for communities to enjoy locally produced, Steve's goal is to create appropriately scaled dairy technology and equipment that will give small-scale dairy farmers the opportunity to sell safe, farm fresh milk and dairy products directly from their farms to friends and neighbors. Read all of Steve's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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