2008 WI Dairy Modernization Survey: Introduction

In Wisconsin approximately 80% of the dairy herds are made up of less than 100 cows. The majority of these herds are still milked and housed in the traditional stall barns, many of which were built in the early 1900’s with stall dimensions for cows that were much smaller in size and produced about one-fifth of the milk that today’s cows produce. With stalls becoming worn out and lacking adequate space for cow comfort many smaller dairy producers are faced with the decision to either make an investment to modernize their dairy facilities or exit the industry.

Their options to continue in the dairy business usually include remodeling the present barn and adding more stalls; building a freestall barn and parlor at a new location or building a new freestall barn and some type of retrofit parlor inside their present stall barn. Most family dairies are seeking to reduce their labor requirements and also increase cow comfort. However, many of them don’t want to increase their herd size to the point of needing to rely heavily on off-farm labor. As a solution to this problem many smaller dairy farms have chosen to gradually modernize their facilities and to reduce milking center costs by constructing retrofit parlors on their dairies.

To get a measure on how modernization has worked on small to average sized dairy herds in Wisconsin, UW-Extension conducted a survey in 2008 on 99 dairies that had modernized their facilities within the past ten years. UW-Extension County agents assisted in collecting the data from 30 different counties. The survey was conducted to determine what the producers observed as being the major benefits to modernizing from both the cow’s and the producer’s standpoint; to compare the pre and post modernization labor requirements; the types of educational resources that farmers used and valued the most in the process; and the programs used to help finance their project. Producers were also asked to report the most challenging part of their modernization process, and what they would change if they could do it over again.

The average herd size in the survey was 82 milk cows prior to doing a modernization and was 203 cows after modernizing. The survey included 14 operations that utilized some grazing and 85 confinement operations. The average herd size increased by 148% after modernization; however, the full time equivalents (F.T.E.) for dairy labor only increased by 84.6%. Gains in labor efficiency after modernizing their dairy facilities were also observed by the increase from 35 to 50 milk cows per F.T.E.

Table 1. General Farm Information

General Farm InformationPre ModernizationPost Modernization

Herd size (Milk Cows)



Average Milk Production/Cow

20,245 lbs

21,684 lbs

Acres of Land Owned



Acres of Land Rented



Acres/Cow (owned & rented)



Dairy Full Time Labor Equivalents



Milk Cows per F.T.E.



The survey revealed that many dairy producers chose to rent additional land when expanding their herd and modernizing. The number of acres owned and rented per cow was reduced by 45.3% after modernization. This is not surprising given the high cost of land and limited capital available while undertaking a modernization project. The reduction in land base per cow after modernization was mainly offset by renting more acres vs. purchasing more land.

Ninety-three percent of the farms built some type of parlor to milk cows in. Sixty-two percent of the farms built retrofit parlors into existing facilities and 38% constructed their parlor in a new building. Parabone and parallel parlors was the most popular stall types used. Figure 1 contains a complete breakdown of parlor stall types included in the study.

Figure 1. Types of Parlor Stalls Represented on Surveyed Farms

Sixty percent of the producers reported using new stalls, 28% used home built stalls, and 12% used a combination of new and used stalls in their parlor. The average time it took for the dairies to convert from a stall barn to a parlor milking system (from the start of construction to completion) was 17 weeks, and ranged from 4-104 weeks. A graphic summary of all the conversion times is in Figure 2. Producers reported an average planning time of 23 months for their modernization project. When asked if they would still be in the dairy business if they had not modernized their facilities 46% said they would no longer be in the dairy business had they not modernized.

Figure 2. Parlor Construction Time

Producers reported the cost of building their parlors and the year they were built. These costs were converted to 2008 dollars to allow for an accurate cost comparison between parlor stall types. The average parlor costs per stall were compared for parlors constructed inside a new building with retrofit parlors that were built into existing buildings and are shown in Table 2. Parabone stalls were the most popular choice for retrofit applications and parallel parlors were constructed the most in new construction scenarios. Flat parlors built inside existing facilities had the lowest cost at $3,360 per stall, followed closely by parabone parlors having an average cost of $3,845 per stall. The highest average per stall cost for parlors in the survey was a parallel parlor built into new construction at an average cost of $22,361 per stall.

Table 2. Average Parlor Cost/Stall in 2008 Dollars

Parlour Stall Type

Retrofit Construction (n=55)

New Construction (n= 31)

Flat barn

 $3,360 (n=6)



 $3,845 (n=30)

 $6,016 (n= 10)


 $7,478 (n=11)

 $22,361 (n=18)


 $9,576 (n=8)

 $18,769 (n=3)

 Cost per stall for retrofit parlors averaged approximately half the cost of parlors built into new construction. The lower cost for retrofits results from lower building shell and milk equipment costs. Farmers also provided more of their own labor in building the retrofit parlors than those that built with new construction. Producers that built retrofit parlors reported providing an average of 44.8% of the labor towards building their parlor, while those that built with new construction contributed an average of 23.8%.


University of Wisconsin Extension

University of Wisconsin Extension