'It was an awful place to be - really soul-destroying. If someone told you to milk on your head you'd try it.'
Published 03/06/2015 | 02:30
High somatic cell counts were costing Conor Molony over €25,000 a year in 2005. It was a tough time for the Centenary supplier.
"We were getting fined, even though we were trying everything - getting the parlour tested, using homeopathic remedies, pre-dipping clusters. It was an awful place to be - really soul-destroying. If somebody told you to milk on your head, you'd try it," recalled Conor sitting in his kitchen.
The turning point was the day that Glanbia sent out a British vet called Peter Edmondson to Molony's farm.
"He arrived and went through absolutely everything, from the records to the vacuum levels and the way we were milking.
"At the end of the day, he stood at the top of the yard and pointed to a new tractor I had parked outside the shed. 'Do you know that you'll make the price of that tractor many times over if you invest in a decent parlour?' he said to me.
"He said that the vacuum pump that we installed in the first four unit parlour was totally inadequate for the 12 units that we were running on it. The vacuum levels were dropping so much that the teat ends on many of the 70 cows were severely damaged, to the extent that the sphincter muscle was being exposed in some cases," said Conor.
So Conor undertook a major investment programme, including the installation of a 20 unit milking parlour. But even this did not immediately solve all the problems. "We found that we didn't have enough current from the 15KVA transformer, so we had to get on to the ESB to upgrade to a 33KVA.
"But we also implemented a number of management changes that really help. For example, we hold back any problem cows to the end - that removes the possibility of missing those cows if you get distracted during milking. But it also minimises the amount of cross-contamination that can happen because we're not putting the cluster back on to a healthy cow afterwards.
"We also religiously pre-strip the cows teats before putting on the cups. That took a while to fit into the routine and get really fast at it, but I reckon it only takes about 4-5 seconds per cow now, which only adds up to about 10 minutes extra per milking.
"We also painted a 2ft-wide gloss strip on the floor where the cows are standing - it's just that bit easier to see if there are any clots in the milk," he said.
In the space of a few years, Conor went from being penalised on his milk to finishing in the top six in the national milk quality awards, with an SCC of little over 100,000.
However, he encountered a bit of speed wobble this spring, when his SCC was back up at 326,000 for the first milk collection.
"There were a couple of factors that feed into that result. I was away for a couple of days, and a cow had just been picked up with mastitis that morning. But the real issue was that we hadn't gotten around to changing the milk liners, so it was probably the wake-up call that I needed just to get on-top of everything again," he said.