We've all been there, driving down the road when the “service engine soon” light or another dashboard icon pops on. No matter which light it is, it’s an indication that something is wrong and it’s probably a good idea to get the car serviced.

Very much like your automobile, your milking parlor is also a machine that needs regular service to get the most operating efficiency out of it. Unfortunately, due to the recent financial free-fall of the dairy industry, many things on the farm have gone by the wayside, including regularly scheduled maintenance of the milking parlor.

The problem with skimping on parlor maintenance is that milk quality and overall herd health are impacted. “It’s like sending your wife down the road in a car with bald tires — you wouldn’t do it. But dairymen will go ahead and milk 2,400 cows with bald tires,” says David Reid, owner of Rocky Ridge Dairy Consulting in Hazel Green, Wis. Here’s a look at five areas in your milking parlor that need regular servicing.

Change milk hoses at least every six months.
“The milk hose is a simple subject, yet poor barn practices result in losses of possible bonus premiums,” says Ken Franks, a milk-quality consultant with 25 years experience. “Many people spend too much money on super-quality milk hoses, but then refuse to change them in a timely manner because of the cost.”

Reid agrees that most dairy farms grossly over-use their milk hoses. This is an issue because if milk hoses are overused, cracks develop, which allows air and bacteria to get in the line at the connections to the claw or other milk line components.

Another area of concern is length of milk hose. “It’s not uncommon to go into a parlor and see milk hoses of all different lengths attached to the claw,” says Reid. The problem is that if hoses are too long or too short, they can become twisted and won’t properly align the claw with the cow’s udder. As a result, the cow doesn’t get milked out completely, which impacts milk production and quality.

Check claws for cracks.
If the machine is kicked by a cow in the parlor, the claw nipple can easily cause a hole or tear in the short milk tube of the liner. “It’s important to check all liners for tears or holes at the start of every milking,” says Reid.

Air vents in the claw also need to be kept clear and unblocked.

The hole in the claw is usually about 0.8 to 1.0 millimeters. The proper factory-supplied tool should be used to unblock the hole if it becomes plugged. If the proper tool is not used, the air vent can be drilled larger, especially if needles are used. This impacts air flow in the claw. The proper tool should be kept in the parlor at all times.

If the milking unit or claw has any internal gaskets, these should be replaced at least every six months.

Replace liners regularly.
There are a wide range of liners available in the industry, so each liner should be replaced according to manufacturer recommendations. All liners have a definite life span.

The longer liners are used, there is a greater chance of the rubber deteriorating and bacteria being harbored. Older liners also squawk more, which can have a major impact on the new mastitis infection rate. Liner tears can also result in milk getting into the vacuum line.

“Unfortunately, a lot of dairymen use liners far beyond when they should,” says Reid.

Ensure the pulsator is functioning properly.
As the pulsator opens and closes the liner, it extracts milk from the cow’s udder. Typically, 60 percent of the time the pulsator is open, extracting milk, and 40 percent of the time it is closed, stimulating the teat end and pushing blood through the udder. “If the pulsator milk-to-rest ratio is off, a whole host of problems can occur,” says Richard Avila, owner of Avila Dairy Equipment in Hanford, Calif. “When a dairyman calls with mastitis, the pulsator is one of the first things we go in and check.”

Every manufacturer has rebuild recommendations for pulsators. The problem is, not everyone follows manufacturer recommendations. “If dairymen aren’t going to follow manufacturer recommendations, it’s important to try and rebuild the pulsators at least once or twice per year depending on herd size,” says Avila.

The National Mastitis Council reports that the subtle effects of inadequate pulsation may be the single most important cause of poor milking performance and machinerelated mastitis problems.

5. Pipeline vacuum level Analyze vacuum levels. Vacuum is crucial to cow health. Too high or too low vacuum can cause damage to the teat ends.

Pipeline vacuum should be adjusted and checked regularly to achieve the correct average peak milk claw vacuum based on the liner being used on the dairy. Different liners can have different recommendations. Peak vacuum, measured between the first and second minute after attachment, should be measured on a regular basis. If vacuum levels are not correct, milking time and udder health can be affected and high-producing cows will not get milked enough.

One thing to note is that vacuum can be affected due to milk in the header. “This happens more than you might think,” says Franks. A common cause, he says, is when a milker turns off the milk pump to change filters during milking. If he or she is too slow, or changes filters when the cows just start milking, the receivers will flood. While the vacuum trap ball should prevent this, many times it will not.

As mentioned earlier, liner leaks can cause milk to get into the vacuum line. Unfortunately, many vacuum lines do not contain a drain so the milk stays in the line. “I routinely uncap vacuum lines and find liquid milk or a buildup of old milk that has to be cleaned out,” says Franks.

Don’t overlook the vacuum pump itself when doing maintenance. If the pump is not included in the service, the capacity may be reduced which creates milkability issues such as slower milking or more liner squawks. The vacuum pump can also become cracked or damaged.

Avila notes that it is also important to have the automatic detachers operating at their maximum efficiency so the milking unit is removed from the cow at the appropriate time.

At the end of the day, it’s very easy to add up cost of maintenance when bills come in the mail. But choosing to skimp on  maintenance is like stepping over $100 bills to pick up nickels in savings, says Reid.

Service engine soonTo ensure that milk hoses are cut to the exact length every time a new one is needed, David Reid, owner of Rocky Ridge Dairy Consulting in Wisconsin, suggests installing this hose-measuring aid.

First, establish the correct hose length for your milking parlor. Then, cut a PVC pipe to this length, placing a cap on one end. Be sure to cut out a section of the pipe next to the cap; this will allow employees to make sure the hose is all the way to the end of the pipe before cutting. Next, install the PVC pipe near the area where the milk hose is stored. “This simple device ensures your employees cut the hose to the exact length every time a hose needs to be replaced,” explains Reid. It also saves the dairy money because milk hose is not wasted.

Reid also advises to keep several short sections of milk hose with the appropriate-sized stainless steel nipple in a covered container in the parlor to use if a cow short-loads or a heifer pushes far ahead. “If any of these hoses are used, they should be installed in any unit so the hose is cleaned like all milk hoses during the normal wash cycle,” he adds.

Lower the cost of parlor maintenance
To lessen the financial impact of parlor maintenance, sit down with your dealer and set up a yearly maintenance schedule.

“Setting up a schedule for the year allows you to decide who is going to do what for service,” says Richard Avila, owner of Avila Dairy Equipment in Hanford, Calif. “Each month, you can do a few things and spread the cost out over time.” Knowing the cost of maintenance ahead of time allows the dairy to budget money for maintenance each month.

This should save you from getting a $20,000 bill in parts in an emergency situation, says David Reid, owner of Rocky Ridge Dairy Consulting in Hazel Green, Wis. It also saves you from having to shut the milking parlor down for three or four hours during an emergency and delays in harvesting milk.