It’s said that if you don’t have water, you don’t have a farm. Let me add to that: If your milking system doesn’t work, you don’t have a dairy farm.
Last Monday, Lisa and I were at a funeral when the kids texted that the milking system stopped working. Naturally. The one day that neither of us is available is when there’s an emergency. That’s how the universe rolls. We tried trouble-shooting via text, but no go. The cows did not get milked.
Contrary to kids’ imaginations, cows won’t explode if they are not milked. However, stopping milking suddenly is not healthy for them either -especially for recently lactating animals, of which we have a few. (Naturally).
When we got back late afternoon, I grabbed the portable milking unit Lisa and I used when we had our first cow (Sophie) in the garage at the house. I’d bolted it up on the wall to get it out of the way. I apparently was afraid it might fall down because I had used several, very long screws to hold it up. It took forever to get the thing down. (Naturally, only when you’re in a hurry).
I got it to work after having last used it 7 years ago, but I’d forgotten how loud this thing is. We all had to wear ear protection while milking. OMG. We didn't like it. The cows didn't like it. It wouldn't roll, the extension cord was in the way. What a pain. The good news is that we were able to milk the cows Tuesday morning. On the other hand, it took five hours to milk 14 cows. (It normally takes a couple hours).
I kept fiddling with the main system, overrode the regulator (“throttle”) and finally got it to power one milker -barely, with fingers crossed. All milking systems run on a vacuum whether it’s our cutting-edge bucket milkers from the 1950s or a modern robotic milker. The system turned on, but just didn’t have the vacuum pressure it needed to work. I first thought the problem was the electric motor (getting only 110 instead of 220v?), but the electrician said it was running fine. Then I focused on the vacuum pump, another ancient piece of cast iron. I found a lot of oily gunk almost blocking the exit port much like a clogged artery. But that didn’t fix the problem. While cleaning the pump I discovered that the belt-driven pulley was almost off the shaft. I fixed that too, but again it didn’t solve the problem.
I really didn’t want to take apart the vacuum pump. It’s so old you cannot get parts for it. Besides, have you ever taken apart a vacuum pump? Me neither.
My mind kept wandering back to the little portable unit which loudly chugged away powering one milker and I finally realized what was bothering me. All dairy vacuum systems have a tank to hold “extra” vacuum so that the pressure doesn’t fluctuate when connecting or disconnecting a milker. The barn system doesn’t have a vacuum tank, which is odd. All other farms that I’ve been on have a tank, but this one doesn’t. So the question becomes: even when this system worked, how did it work? The only possible explanation is that the vacuum line itself, which goes around the entire interior of the barn, contains enough volume to act as a tank would.
Aha. This means the problem is likely a blockage somewhere in the line. Possibly ice buildup -which I now recall happened all the time with the portable milker on cold winter mornings -and we are a couple weeks into a cold spell. After poking a piece of fence wire in all the access ports along the pipeline I found the likely blockage. A heat gun took care of the of ice in the line and after four days we again have a fully working milking system! No more ear protectors!
Life is good when the milking system sucks.
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Randy Robar, co-owner of Kiss the Cow Farm