There’s More Than One Way to Milk a Cow: 4 Kinds of Milking Parlors

Believe it or not, there’s more than one way to milk a cow.

You can milk by hand … by sucky-thingy … by robot. Yes, I said robot. If the Jetsons had a dairy farm in space, they would have Rosie out there milking the cows.

(I am aware that I’m dating myself with that reference. We could also talk about Lisa Frank notebooks and how emotional it was to watch Littlefoot lose his mother. But we’re not here to talk about adorable longnecks, we’re here to talk about milking parlors. Let this tide you over until our next foray into the 90s.)

I’m slowly developing proficiency with dairy lingo. My vernacular has been stretched, twisted, and traumatized more times than I can count. Thankfully, one area that doesn’t cause too much emotional distress is milking parlors. Especially when you compare them to companies that sell bull juice.

It’s hard to believe that there was a time when the word “parlor” conjured up mental images of Victorian wingbacks, lace doilies, and Jane Austen novels. After over 2.5 years in this dairy world, my version of  a “parlor” always has cows, milking units, and stainless steel.


I’ve only recently learned that there is more than one kind of milking parlor.

So how does a farmer decide which type is right for his or her dairy?

Several factors have to be weighed when picking out the perfect parlor, such as herd size, breed of cow, number of available employees, and existing space. Some dairies utilize robotic milking units and have only one fella running the show. Other dairies have 60 cows on each side of the parlor and six full-time milkers per shift.

For this post I tapped into my …ahem… notable artistic skill (just look at the scientific diagram in this post comparing blue whales to a silage pack) to explain the four main types of dairy milking parlors:

  1. Tandem
  2. Parallel
  3. Herringbone
  4. Rotary.

As you will quickly learn, I draw a very realistic aerial view of a cow.

1. Let’s start with a tandem (side opening) parlor.


Our north dairy was purchased in 2010 with a tandem parlor. In a tandem parlor, the cows stand horizontal to the milkers. A gate at the entrance of the parlor holds the cow until an empty stall is ready. One benefit of a tandem parlor is that it releases cows individually (versus all at once like in a parallel), so a slow-milking Bessie doesn’t impede the group.

The facility had previously been used to milk water buffalo and we quickly found out that there are some major differences between buffalo and cows. The existing parlor was not working for our bovine beauts. So in February of 2011, Dairy Man undertook a weeklong process to gut and renovate our parlor.

2. We changed to a parallel parlor.


During parlor-renovation week, my poor DM worked a total of 120 hours. No, that’s not a typo. 120 hours. Yes, that is out of a possible 168 hours IN an entire week. We’ll talk about that another time.

When all was said and done, we had a shiny new parallel parlor.


In a parallel parlor, cows stand on an elevated platform at a 90-degree angle with their posteriors pointed at the person milking them. This is the area I refer to as the “kill zone” and I avoid it at all costs. Once I got caught in some horrifying brown spray while visiting DM at work. No, I don’t want to talk about it. PTSD.

Our parlor is a “double 12,” which means that we have 12 milking units on each side of the parlor, allowing us to milk 24 cows at a time.

3. Our home/south dairy has a herringbone parlor.


This is the most common type of parlor in the U.S. for “small” parlors (less than a double 12). Cows hang out on an elevated platform on an angled, or herringbone, fashion. Like the parallel parlor, the milker is staring at a lot of bovine bums.

4. A rotary parlor is the stuff of Dairy Man’s dreams.


This drawing is not to scale. Most rotary parlors hold 60-80 cows at a time. But I didn’t want to draw that many cows. So you get 14.

In his dairy world, this type of parlor is the crème de la crème, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, an automated wonderland. In a rotary, or carousel, parlor, the ladies spin around slowly on what is essentially a fancy bovine merry-go-round. This type of parlor is expensive to build and is best-suited for herds of 1000+. Someday, DM, someday.

The fact that I even know what a milking parlor is, much less that I can identify more than one kind, is still shocking to me. DM is so proud.

Dying to know more about the process from MOO to YOU? Check out these posts:

My first explanation of a parlor
A look at milking shells
Milking 3x a day

Someday soon we’ll talk about what happens to the milk after it leaves the cow. Get ready for bulk tanks, milk trucks, and milk processing. Exciting stuff, people.

Ps: Did you know you can follow the MFW escapades on Facebook? If you’re into cute pictures of border collies and posts about thrilling subjects like manure management, I’m your girl. Like me! I dare you.

9 thoughts on “There’s More Than One Way to Milk a Cow: 4 Kinds of Milking Parlors

  1. The materials promotion groups put out about dairy education does the trick for new employees for the most part, but your blog is way more entertaining. I think I’m just going to makeup it blog part of our standard new employee orientation.

    Heather Schofield 330-310-6793

  2. I’ve grown up on a dairy farm and parlour terminology still avoids me… Technical stuff was never my forte. Love how excited dairy farmers get about rotary parlours though, they can spend so much time watching those on other farms x

  3. I just want to say that I’ve experienced a robot milker from the future. Lasers and teats…it was magical, overwhelming and slightly George Orwell Scary? But I liked it 🙂

      1. Hi,
        Nice story. I love your pictures. I am fortuned to work at a company where we develop milking robots already for some years (Fullwood Merlin), so it is not future any more but present. Maybe you could create a picture for a robot as well and add it to your list?

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