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.

4 Milking Shells

On the fourth day of Christmas, the Dairy Man gave to me
4: Four milking shells

photo (6)

3: Three shifts of milking
2: Two orange tractors
1: And a twinkly-light-laden faux tree

The Dairy Man and I struggled to find a way to phrase this one. I wanted to call them “the four thingys that suck the milk of out the cow,” but DM didn’t appreciate my lack of technical phraseology. So, when I say “four milking shells,” I’m talking about the four “arms” of the milking cluster/claw that go to the four teats of a cow. Got that? Warning, if you are offended by the word “teat,” you’ll want to stop reading now. It’s frightening how accustomed I have become to the word. It may even be used at the dinner table. What has become of me?

Anyway. In the past, milking a cow required a stool, a bucket, and a good aim. Modern milking is faster, more efficient, and utilizes a lot of fancy “thingys” …er… machines. Get ready for a quick and dirty explanation of the milking machine. Our parlor has a total of 24 milking units (clusters, claws, thingys, etc). Each of the four “arms” on the unit has a shell with a liner inside.

photo (7)

The milker (human) starts the milking process by cleaning each cow’s teats with a teat dip to kill any microorganisms. It’s all about clean milk. Duh. After the milker (human) wipes off the dip, he/she attaches the milker (machine) to the four quarters of the cow. Pushing a button turns on a vacuum that opens and closes a rubber liner inside each of the four shells. This pulsating movement makes the milking process very relaxing for our ladies.

photo (3)

The milker (machine) automatically detaches when the meters sense that the flow rate has decreased. Before the cow heads back to the barn, she gets a post-milking iodine teat treatment that includes a skin conditioner. It’s basically lotion. Yes, some might say that a trip to the milking parlor is a little bit like a trip to the spa for those udders.

After the ladies leave the parlor, they feel as light as a feather and bound back to the barn to eat, nap, eat, poop, eat, socialize, and eat.

3 Shifts of Milking

On the third day of Christmas, the Dairy Man gave to me
3: Three shifts of milking


2: Two orange tractors
1: And a twinkly-light-laden faux tree

On our dairy, we milk the bovine ladies three times a day: 8 a.m., 4 p.m., and 12 midnight. Each shift runs for approximately 3-4 hours and each cow spends an average of 15 minutes in the parlor.

While the cows are hanging out in the parlor, we are fluffing up their sand beds, cleaning their stalls, and piling up some food for a post-milking snack. The Dairy Man milks three times a day–or 3X as the experts say–because it increases overall milk production and keeps our cows more comfortable (less milk to carry around in those udders).

And did I mention that occasionally they even get to wear Christmas hats in the parlor?

Moo-ry Christmas!


Family on the farm.

My family derives a great deal of joy of out my placement in this farming wilderness. The Jess of old would have never set one delicate high-heeled foot into such a place. But this Jess is different. This is the Jess that fell sway to the charms of a sweet dairy man and had to make some big changes. This Jess is different but happy.

That being said, they still get a kick out of seeing me in boots.

They giggle when they think of me stepping in cow pies.

They remember a Jess who was afraid of dirt but not of rush hour traffic. A Jess who would eat any type of sushi but wouldn’t touch a rare steak. A Jess who had big dreams of big cities and was getting out of Michigan as soon as possible.

The tales of my new life provoke delighted laughter. Ironic guffaws. Incredulous snickers. A whole lot of, “I never thought I would see the day …”s. But deep at their cores, my family is happy for me.

And now they also have a farm to play on.

Two weekends ago my parents and sister came up to tour the dairy. It was a beautiful March day and my dairy man was in his element as tour guide. (Though I did have to keep reminding him to give the “kindergarten tour;” not everyone can be as passionate about the details as he!) We saw the parlor, the barns, the steers (young males), the horses, the tractor, the barn cat. For my suburban family, it was a treat. My dad let the cows lick his hands and my mom got her shoes dirty.

Understandably the cows were very curious about these city slickers:

The Dairy Man and I had a great time showing my family around our farm. I may have fabricated some of the details in my portion of the tour, but at least I now have the vernacular to SEEM knowledgeable.

Those city folk didn’t know the difference.

Step into my parlor.

An introduction to the life of a dairy farm wife wouldn’t be complete without getting to know the parlor.

No, I’m not talking about a sitting room with Victorian wingbacks and frilly curtains. I’m talking about a parlor with swinging gates, long rubber tubes, and occasional plops of warm manure on the concrete floor.

As you may have surmised, a large part of this whole dairy operation is milking the cows. This takes place in a milking parlor. A city slicker like me had little idea how dairy farming actually works. My image of a straw-hatted farmer on a three-legged stool milking each cow by hand is vastly outdated. Between two facilities, my Dairy Man and his father milk over 800 cows. The idea of milking by hand is laughable.

So, let’s step into the parlor.

Our bovine ladies are herded into the milking parlor twice a day. My Dairy Man and his employees coax the cows into their places and hook them up to robotic, spider-like machines that act as vacuums, pulling the milk into several large tanks in another room. After they have been milked, the large animals independently tramp back into the barn to spend the rest of their day eating and making more manure.

And there you have it. That’s where milk comes from. I have shared a little piece of my knowledge that didn’t exist in any form before I met the Dairy Man.

Sometimes it’s alarming how much space in my brain is occupied by all things cow. And how unfazed I now am by the smell of manure.