Getting Big Milk Out of Small Dairy: A Milking Parlor Construction Guide For Herdshares, Creameries and Those Bootstrapping on Rented Land

Progress report for FNC23-1379

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2023: $15,000.00
Projected End Date: 01/31/2025
Grant Recipient: North Sky Farm
Region: North Central
State: Illinois
Project Coordinator:
Travis Hurt
North Sky Farm
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Project Information

Description of operation:

North Sky Farm is a regenerative farm originally from central Virginia where we milked 20, 100% grassfed Dutch Belted cows seasonally, and operated a large egg layer flock on leased land. In the Spring of 2022 we purchased and moved our business to a 60 acre dairy farm in northern Illinois. Current farm infrastructure includes a 60 cow stanchion barn and attached milk house. We are in the process of building a cheese making facility on site and converting the row cropland to Certified Organic perennial forage for cattle.

-Travis Hurt, Project Coordinator:

Travis has been working in agriculture and livestock for 8 years and has an undergraduate degree in Appropriate Technology and Sustainable Development. He has raised and managed his own livestock since 2016. He has apprenticed and worked with multiple livestock farms during that time in Virginia, New Jersey, Wyoming and South Dakota and is a graduate of the Vermont Institute of Artisan Cheese. He is a skilled carpenter, mechanic and fence builder and able to safely and efficiently operate a wide range of tools and heavy machinery. He designed and built a state inspected dairy facility on a leased farm that milked 20 heritage cows daily in addition to managing a large layer flock. For the past 5 years he has also run his own agricultural fencing company and is currently transitioning the dairy to farmstead cheese making.

-Mariah Hurt, Project Bookkeeper and Analyst, Social Media Coordinator:

Mariah has an undergraduate degree in Biology as well as a Master’s degree in Data Science and has extensive scientific, analytics, and accounting experience. She is a certified Quickbooks Pro Advisor, and holds certificates in budgeting, modeling, and financial forecasting from the Corporate Finance Institute. She has co-managed a diversified livestock operation with Travis since 2016 including large animal livestock handling and management, poultry and egg management and sales, equipment operation and rotational grazing implementation management.

-Steven Weaver, Technical Advisor:

Mr. Weaver is a dairy farmer and milking parlor construction contractor specializing in low cost swing type parlors. He is a technical advisor on the project through phone conversations.

-Jay Soloman, Technical Advisor:

Mr. Soloman is an agricultural engineer and Illinois Extension agent who has extensive experience with grazing dairies and animal systems. He is a technical advisor on the project through phone conversations and email.


The combination of high costs of milking infrastructure, low availability of land with existing infrastructure, and prevalence of tenant farming create an insurmountable barrier to entry for small grass-based dairy farms. This project has three main objectives that as far as we can find are not fulfilled by any existing guides available: complete portability, low cost, and excellent cow comfort and safety for farmers. 

Complete portability: While pastureland may be available for rent, farmers need milking equipment that can be transported as their business and lease arrangements change. 

Low cost: While some plans exist for low cost milking systems, they're generally still very expensive. An example from Kansas State Extension lists a cost of $90,000. Our guide is aimed at farmers with a budget of $10,000 or less. 

Excellent cow comfort and safety for farmers: Many older dairy farms have stanchion milking systems. Stanchion milking systems pose a real risk to farmer safety. The physical strain required to work with these contraptions limit their use to farmers who are young, physically strong, and those willing to suffer tirelessly. Our system will be a parlor system which is superior both in terms of farmer safety and cow comfort. 

Project Objectives:

This project will focus on research to create a do-it-yourself construction guide to build a portable, low cost, safe and efficient milking parlor. Research will entail a meta-analysis of existing parlor designs and construction methods, conducting interviews with experts, and will draw on personal experience constructing the parlor. The project will conclude with education and outreach in collaboration with several agricultural organizations. 

Research (Spring 2023 - Spring 2024):

The construction guide will be created using photos of the actual construction of the low-cost parlor, and will provide farmers with the step-by-step process to build the parlor for themselves. The guide will include detailed layouts, part lists, and high-resolution photos of the process. Accompanying the photos will be specific instructions written with a novice builder in mind and explain the process in a way that someone with basic skill and hand tools can construct it in a reasonable amount of time.

Complete portability: In constructing the parlor we will document the time and cost required for each step, and these measurements will be documented in easy to understand tables in the guide. The result will be that the guide will allow the parlor to be assembled in a short time frame with a design that is completely portable. This allows the farmer to utilize rented land if needed.

Low cost: From preliminary interviews with experts, and analysis of existing portable parlor designs we have already identified several keys to keeping costs low. Continued research for this project will refine these findings. An example of our findings so far is that metal pipe and fittings should be utilized so that the parlor is strong enough to be used daily and contain cattle but will not require welding or special tools since these specialized tools would greatly increase the cost of the project.

Excellent cow comfort and safety for farmers: We will include an analysis based on our research of the pros and cons of different common milking systems. This will allow beginning farmers to not just understand the ‘how’ but also the ‘why’ behind decisions made in the guide.  For example, since the design is a parlor rather than a stanchion milking system it is much safer for the farmer greatly reducing the chances of being kicked or stepped on. It is more ergonomic and reduces the chances of occupational injury due to repeated bending, stooping, and reaching. 

Education and outreach (Spring - Fall 2024): The parlor will stand as an educational resource and case study on how to milk cows safely and effectively on a budget. Through field days, articles, and webinars the design and construction process will be distributed to several agricultural organizations.

Working in collaboration with McHenry College Center for Agrarian learning and the Illinois Agricultural Extension office, parlor construction outreach will include students and beginning farmers receiving hands-on building experience. 

The creation of the parlor and of the construction guide will demonstrate that grass-based sustainable dairy farming can be done profitably on a budget and on rented land. 

  1. Adapt an existing swing type milking parlor design to be low cost and attainable for a novice builder to assemble and in a reasonable amount of time. 
  2. Assemble the adapted design as proof of concept. 
  3. Document the assembly with high-quality, detailed pictures and thorough notes on assembly techniques and tools used. 
  4. Create a step-by-step instruction guide on how to build the parlor by compiling the photos, detailed instructions, tool recommendations and lessons learned from the build. 
  5. Host field days and webinars for organizations to promote and disseminate the design of the parlor and accompanying instructional guide. 

Construction Guide Cover Design


Materials and methods:

We have conducted some preliminary interviews and research on low cost milking parlors including their design and construction. 

Research results and discussion:

Plans are underway though no construction has taken place.

Participation Summary
1 Farmers participating in research

Educational & Outreach Activities

2 Consultations

Participation Summary:

1 Farmers participated
Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.