The Economics of Once-a-day Milking

June 2007
Around 3% of dairy farmers (about 350) are currently milking once-a-day (OAD) throughout the year (not just at the tail end of the season as many farmers do). Peter Gatley from LIC says that the main attraction of OAD is the reduced pressure and stress on farm staff and stock, and a general reduction in costs. Production tends to drop initially but rebounds within a season or two.

An important problem is an increase in bulk milk somatic cell counts (SCC), particularly as milk volume drops and there is less dilution of cells. However, that also comes right after a while as the main offending cows are culled and farm staff get used to the system. In a recent survey, half of the OAD respondents said that their SCCs were the same as or better than before, and only about 7% reported major problems.

Gatley says that while a few stock react badly, the majority are healthier overall because they do less walking and are less stressed, and of course farm staff are less rushed. Quality of life for humans and animals is generally better, and that is reflected in the fact that 94% of OAD farmers surveyed intended to carry on OAD milking.

Economic comparison

You cant compare a bunch of OAD farms with a bunch of twice-a-day farms and get meaningful results. You have to compare the financial performance of a particular farm before and after the move to OAD. Ryan Anderle, FarmWise consultant for LIC, has been collecting such data from farmers from all over the country and also comparing their costs with dairy farm survey statistics.

Comparisons on the basis of per cow production dont mean anything because stocking rates vary after going OAD, but the farm area stays the same so returns and costs per hectare are useful bases for comparison, as are returns/costs per kgMS.

The figures, says Anderle, show that farmers who switched to OAD had lower costs for just about everything (except electricity, the cost of which has increased hugely over the last couple of years). Savings on farm working expenses include major categories like animal health, dairy running costs, wages etc.

Many farmers have also improved production per hectare after the initial season or two. Generally, says Ryan, the first one or two seasons are not as productive as anticipated but by the second or third season the advantages of OAD have kicked in, empty rates are dropping and the financial side is looking healthy. Farmers who cant cope in the first season are the ones who go back to twice a day milking.

Ryan has found that there are two distinct groups of farmers who succeed with OAD.

There are people who have done it because they think Im getting older, Im an owner operator and I no longer want to milk cows all the time so irrespective of whether I make more money or not I'm going to go onto once-a-day because then I get more time at my disposal, he says.

Then there is the other group that says Perhaps we can push the boundaries a bit here, and perhaps we can make some serious gains by milking these cows once-a-day.

The study has focused on costs, and many farmers are finding that they can produce a kgMS quite a lot cheaper than before. However, Anderle cautions that OAD is not a pill that fixes everything.

Once-a-day farming is like any other farming system, it will suit certain farms and certain farmers but it is definitely not something that would suit everybody. People who make informed choices and make the right move for the right reasons will get the economic benefit of it, he says.

In general, production decreases, but that is more than offset by the decrease in running costs, so the bottom line is generally positive.

With the continuing trend to larger farm and herd size, shortages of farm labour and fewer owner/operator farmers who are prepared to work long hours seven days a week, it is likely that OAD milking will increase in popularity. The lifestyle advantages are compelling, and it appears that any financial disadvantages are overcome in time.