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Is 3X Milking For You?

Craig V. Thomas
Extension Dairy Educator, Eastern Michigan

Due to plummeting milk prices and rising production costs dairy producers across the state are struggling to make ends meet. Producers are desperate to cut costs, increase income, and shore up shrinking margins.

In the April, 2009 issue of Michigan Dairy Review (https://www.msu.edu/user/mdr/vol14no2/vol14no2index.html) this situation was addressed in the article entitled, “Weathering the Storm.” One strategy cited was switching from 2X to 3X milking. Milking 3X has its pro’s and con’s, but is worthy of evaluation in the current economic climate.


1. A summary of 19 research studies indicates that, regardless of milk yield for 2X, 3X milked cows will increase daily milk production 6.8 to 8.6 lbs/cow per day with a 95% confidence range.

2. Even though percentage of components (butterfat and protein) usually declined slightly on 3X, overall production of components increased (butterfat +0.2 lbs/cow per day; protein +0.18 lbs/cow per day).

3. Anecdotal reports also suggest improvements in udder health based on lower SCC’s, increased overall health, and sometimes even improved reproductive performance.

4. Hence, 3X offers an opportunity for increased milk revenue via increased milk volume, increased solids production, and potentially lower SCC’s.

5. Three times a day milking also offers an opportunity to more effectively and efficiently utilize milking facilities if extra capacity is available.

1. Milking three times a day requires adequate milking facility capacity and may not be feasible if any factors are present that may limit the ability of cows to respond with higher milk production (e.g., poor feed quality, limited feed bunk space, environmental stress, excessive wait time in holding pens, long travel distances to and from milking facility).

2. Milking 3X requires an adequate supply of well-trained and motivated labor willing to milk cows at often undesirable times of the day.

3. Milking 3X requires an increased level of management to insure cows are fed properly and any less than favorable health issues (e.g., lameness, mastitis) are not exacerbated by the increased intensity of production and handling.

4. Cows milked 3X will require more intensive management to insure adequate feed intake and maintenance of proper body condition.

5. Milking 3X requires a commitment of at least 6 months and a monitoring program to determine if it is successful.

Reminder: Marginal Costs versus Returns
When making the decision whether or not to switch to 3X milking, be sure to consider more than just the potential increase in milk revenue.  Three times per day milking will also produce increased costs. Milking 3X obviously increases labor and feed costs, but other costs also will rise such as electricity (to run parlor and cool extra milk produced) and livestock marketing (e.g., milk hauling, promotion fees, coop dues). One also should consider other less tangible cost increases, for example, increased management time and intensity.

When one considers all the relevant factors, switching from 3X to 2X is not a trivial and easy decision. All the aforementioned factors, plus the milk price, need to be considered. I have developed a simple Excel® spreadsheet decision aid for this purpose. 

The spreadsheet allows you to specify changes in the cost and usage of purchased and homegrown feeds, livestock marketing expenses, hired labor expenses, utility expenses, and other expenses (Table 1). It also allows you to adjust feed costs for shrink (Table 2). This is quite important. We tend to only think in terms of actual cow feed intake rather than the total feed used (including shrink) to get that intake. 

The model then produces two tables based on milk price ($9-$15/cwt) and daily 3X production response (2-9 lbs/cow). One table shows the gain/loss in daily marginal revenue (per 100 milking cows)(Table 3) and the other the same information on an annual basis (Table 4).

Given the default inputs, 3X milking does not produce a profit at any level of production response until milk prices exceed $10/cwt. From a practical perspective, switching to 3X is probably not worth the trouble unless milk price exceeds $12/cwt at lower production responses or production response exceeds 5 or 6 lbs/cow per day at $11/cwt milk price.

The most important thing is to plug your numbers into the model and then determine if and when 3X is feasible on your operation. If you would like a copy of the spreadsheet model send me an e-mail (thomasc@msu.edu).

Erdman, R.A. and M. Varner.  1995.  Fixed yield responses to increased milking frequency.  J. Dairy Sci. 78(5):1199-1203.

Thomas, C. V.  2009.  Weathering the Storm.  Michigan Dairy Review, Vol. 14, No. 2; p. 1.



Oct Issue

Cow Comfort
Gauging cow comfort at the new KBS Dairy.

Maximizing Intake of Corn Silage Pt2
Part 2 of how corn silage affect energy intake and animal performance.

Management "Tips"
Continuing with the series of tips aimed at assisting dairy producers especially in the current harsh economic climate.

High-fertility, High-producing Cows
There is more to milk production and reproductive performance than just genetics.

2009 Income Tax Planning
Challenges in planning to achieve 2009 tax goals.

Spread Winter Manure with Great Caution
Inherent risks of variable winter weather conditions.

Feed Inventory Management
The importance of managing farm inventories of feeds.

Is 3X Milking for You?
Pros and cons of 3X milking.

Farm Visitors' Policy
Curbing potential routes disease can enter farm operations.