The Milking Pit

Phillips Bros. Dairy barn exterior, outside Beaver Crossing Nebraska

Most of my friends know that I grew up on a dairy farm and I want to talk about one feature of that: the layout of our milking parlor.

Our Holstein cows got milked twice a day. Once in the early morning and again in the late afternoon. You start by herding all of the cows into the holding pen outside the barn. This isn’t particularly hard since cows want to be milked: there’s food in the barn and having a full udder is uncomfortable.

Floor plan of Phillips Bros. Dairy milking parlor

While this building is called a milking parlor, ours was always the milk pit due to its layout. When you walk into the barn, you take two steps down into the pit where we usually had two people working. About 4 feet above the pit is the concrete floor that the cows stand on in milking stalls running down either side of the pit. Aside: I’m working from memory here. It’s been years since I’ve been in the barn and I don’t remember how tall I was.

There are six milking stalls in the barn. The cows had three different doors they could enter through. They could be very particular about which door they used. I always found this really obnoxious since you could open the door to reveal a cow that doesn’t like that door blocking cows that do. I think we gave them too much autonomy. All the doors were either operated directly or via pulleys with counterweights assisting the opening and closing. The exit door was also auto closing to prevent cows from sneaking back into the club.

Each stall has a gravity fed grain bin that was filled via a chute from a large tank of ground corn stored on the second floor. This kept the cow preoccupied during the milking process. The stall is very constrained but the bin helps keep the cow from moving forward and back too much. The pneumatic milker hangs on an arm that gets swung under the cow. You can fine tune the height and slide the whole mount forward and back.

On the left side of the barn there are three linear stalls. The feed bin at the front of each stall is also a swing out door. When all cows on that side of the barn have finished milking, the doors are swung away and the cows all walk out single-file. The next three cows are let in and then the doors are swung back into place to divide them.

On the right side of the barn there are three stalls which each have an entry and an exit door (a “diagonal stall”). These cows can each be released and replaced as soon as they finish milking. It can require some coaxing to get the cow out of the stall since, unlike the other side, the feed doesn’t disappear when the exit door opens.

The left side stall cows actually walk across a drawbridge to get them to the other side of the moat like pit as they exit. Yes, it was very cool. It’s counterbalanced and raised whenever milking isn’t happening since it makes cleaning and movement through the pit much faster.

Once the cow is in position, you wash the teats using spray gun mounted to a water hose hanging from the ceiling. There are three of these mounted down the center of the pit. You then swing the milker into place and hook it up to the teats and make sure it’s in a good position for good flow (avoiding pinched lines). Each milker is connected to a stainless steel pipe running around waist height around the perimeter of the pit and into the next room where it dumps into the bulk storage tank. The milking process is driven by a pulsing vacuum pump connected to a vacuum manifold running around the ceiling of the parlor. After the cow has finished, the milker is swung away, and the teats are each dipped in disinfectant. This is to neutralize the milk film on the teat that bacteria would love.

After each full milking session, the collection pipe and the milkers are connected to a system that thoroughly flushes and cleans the system using a high volume of detergent water.

The pit is great because it puts the cow’s udder at working height so there’s no need to stoop. One of the downsides of having your head well below the level of a cow’s butt… anyway… cows crap wherever they please and often inside the milk barn. If they’re in a stall the strategy is usually to hit it with the sprayer hose to control where it ends up. You also scoop the majority of the mess up immediately and get rid of it. After each milking session you scoop, sweep, and wash down all of the surfaces.

1985 Head Start tour of Phillips Bros. Dairy

Pictured above is almost four year old me and my Head Start class in 1985. We’re standing in one of the stalls on the left side of the barn. My hands are on the controls that raise and lower the milker. You can see the milker hanging off the end of the swing away arm. The hose in the upper left is part of the cleaning system. Overhead is a black and white TV (it was in real life too) which usually had Jeopardy on, but most of the time the sounds of the barn, other than the rhythmic pumping, was evangelists or baseball coming from an AM radio.

In addition to the milking parlor, bulk tank room, and feed storage, the barn had maternity stalls for isolating cows that would soon give birth and on the second floor, our herdsman, my late great uncle Earl‘s apartment.

I haven’t been in many other milking parlors; they’re fairly fast paced and it’s easy to get in the way. Instead of a pit, one of my classmate’s barns had concrete stairs that the cows walked up to get into two linear aisles of stalls. I also saw a circular parlor with one entrance and one exit where the cows rode on a metal carousel around the room as they milked… which I’m just now learning is a Rotolactor.

I hope you enjoyed this tour of milking logistics and I’ll try to get some photos of the interior next time I’m home (although the equipment might be gone).


My cousin Jeramy provided some vintage photos and an interesting anecdote. My dad’s family moved to Nebraska in 1957 after being displaced by the construction of a dam by the Army Corps of Engineers. Jeramy says on the day of the move in June, they milked the herd in the morning, then cut the diagonal stalls out of the barn. They drove the herd and everything to Beaver Crossing, reinstalled the stalls in the new barn, and milked the cows again in them that night.

Curtis Phillips and Earl Phillips in the Phillips Bros Dairy milking parlor with Surge milking equipment and Holstein cows

Pictured above is my Grandpa Phillips in the back and Great Uncle Earl in the foreground. They’re standing next to the rear two diagonal stalls on the right hand side of the barn. You can see two parallel handles at the cow’s stomach height; these are the levers for opening the entry and exit doors for the stall. The glass bowl on the milker is an older style than the ones I remember. The rack and pinion hand crank to lower the milker was also replaced by a linear bearing and friction lever latch. You can see the the bottom of the milker connected to an overhead collection pipe, this would later be moved to down below the curb the cow is standing on. The stalls and milking equipment were manufactured by Surge.

Earl Phillips in the Phillips Bros Dairy milking parlor with Surge milking equipment and Holstein cows

This second photo shows the linear stalls on the left half of the barn. This photo was taken while standing on the drawbridge. My Uncle Robin, Jeramy’s dad, says the left side stalls were installed a few years later, in the mid 1960’s. The bowl on the milker is the cylindrical style I remember. You can see one of the water guns hanging in the center of the pit. There are three grain chutes coming from the ceiling down the left hand side. The little piece of rope hanging next to the first one is how you let more grain in. Below the chute on the left you can see a horizontal handle. The combo grain bin/door is shaped like a map pin and you pull on this handle to pivot it open.

What a great find these were!


3 thoughts on “The Milking Pit

  1. Dale Kunert says:

    Eliot, thanks for the trip down memory lane. It had to be the early 70’s and I spent the day on your farm, most of the day with your great Uncle Earl. The milking of the cows was the highlight of the day. You were spot on on all the quirks of the milking parlor , thanks again ! Come visit us in Des Moines. Cousin Dale Kunert


  2. Donna J Winston says:

    Also enjoyed the article. I too remember visiting your family and being a city kid of Omaha found it fasinating. Thanks for sharing.
    Cousin Donna Kunert Winston


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