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Bovine and human becomings in histories of dairy technologies: robotic milking systems and remaking animal and human subjectivity


This paper positions the recent emergence of robotic or automatic milking systems (AMS) in relation to discourses surrounding the longer history of milking technologies in the UK and elsewhere. The mechanization of milking has been associated with sets of hopes and anxieties which permeated the transition from hand to increasingly automated forms of milking. This transition has affected the relationships between humans and cows on dairy farms, producing different modes of cow and human agency and subjectivity. In this paper, drawing on empirical evidence from a research project exploring AMS use in contemporary farms, we examine how ongoing debates about the benefits (or otherwise) of AMS relate to longer-term discursive currents surrounding the historical emergence of milking technologies and their implications for efficient farming and the human and bovine experience of milk production. We illustrate how technological change is in part based on understandings of people and cows, at the same time as bovine and human agency and subjectivity are entrained and reconfigured in relation to emerging milking technologies, so that what it is to be a cow or human becomes different as technologies change. We illustrate how this results from – and in – competing ways of understanding cows: as active agents, as contributing to technological design, as ‘free’, as ‘responsible’ and/or requiring surveillance and discipline, and as efficient co-producers, with milking technologies, of milk.

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1 Holloway Lewis, ‘Subjecting cows to robots: farming technologies and the making of animal subjects’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space (2007) 25, pp. 10411060 ; Holloway Lewis, Bear Christopher and Wilkinson Katy, ‘Re-capturing bovine life: robot–cow relationships, freedom and control in dairy farming’, Journal of Rural Studies (2014) 33, pp. 131140 ; Holloway Lewis, Wilkinson Katy and Bear Christopher, ‘Robotic milking technologies and renegotiating situated ethical relationships on UK dairy farms’, Agriculture and Human Values (2014) 31, pp. 185199 .

2 Latour Bruno, Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004 .

3 Edmund Russell, ‘The garden in the machine: toward an evolutionary history of technology’, in Susan Schrepfer and Philip Scranton (eds.), Industrialising Organisms: Introducing Evolutionary History, London: Routledge, pp. 1–16.

4 But see Woods Abigail, ‘Science, disease and dairy production in Britain, c.1927 to 1980’, Agricultural History Review (2014) 62, pp. 294314 .

5 Atkins Peter, Liquid Materialities: A History of Milk, Science and the Law, Farnham: Ashgate, 2010 ; Smith-Howard Kendra, Pure and Modern Milk: An Environmental History since 1900, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013 ; Valenze Deborah, Milk: A Local and Global History, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011 .

6 For an overview see Akam D.N., Technical Development of Milking Machines, Mechanisation and Automation of Cattle Production Occasional Publication No 2, Cambridge: British Society of Animal Production, 1980 .

7 Madison Goulart, ‘A history, description and comparison of different brands of dairy parlor equipment and which designs are the best fit for different sized dairy operations: a senior project presented to the Faculty of the Dairy Science Department, California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo’, March 2014; Oscar Erf, ‘Milking machines’, Kansas State Agricultural College, Agricultural Experiment Station, Bulletin 140, 1906.

8 Richard Van Vleck, ‘Early cow milking machines’, American Artifacts: Scientific, Medical and Mechanical Antiques, at, accessed 25 May 2016.

9 Erf, op. cit. (7).

10 Goulart, op. cit. (7).

11 Brassley Paul, ‘Output and technical change in twentieth-century British agriculture’, Agricultural History Review (2000) 48, pp. 6084 , 73.

12 Brassley, op. cit. (11).

13 Goulart, op. cit. (7); Van Vleck, op. cit. (8); Douglas J. Reinemann, Graeme A. Mein and Misty Davis-Johnson, ‘Milking machine research: past, present and future’, paper presented at the 42nd annual meeting of the National Mastitis Council, Fort Worth, Texas, USA, 26–29 January 2003.

14 Brassley, op. cit. (11).

15 Whetham Edith, ‘The mechanisation of British farming 1910–1945’, Journal of Agricultural Economics (1970) 21, pp. 317331 ; Hogveen Henk and Ouweltjes Wijbrand, ‘Sensors and management support in high-technology milking’, Journal of Animal Science (2003) 81, pp. 110 .

16 Hogveen and Ouweltjes, op. cit. (15).

17 Woods, op. cit. (4).

18 Woods, op. cit. (4), p. 313.

19 John Seymour, Rural Life, Devizes: Collins and Brown Limited, 1991.

20 Seymour, op. cit. (19), p. 76.

21 John Seymour and Sally Seymour, Self-Sufficiency, London: Faber and Faber, 1973, p. 43.

22 John Seymour, The Fat of the Land, London: Faber and Faber, 1961, p. 42.

23 John Stewart Collis, The Worm Forgives the Plough, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975.

24 Heidegger Martin, ‘The question concerning technology’, in Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays (tr. Lovitt William), New York: Harper & Row, 1977, pp. 335 .

25 Collis, op. cit. (23), p. 87.

26 Fishwick Victor, Good Farming, London: The English Universities Press Limited, 1944, p. 58 .

27 W.S. Mansfield, A.B. Fowler and C. Higgs, ‘How does the dairy cow earn her keep?’, in Cattle at the Crossroads, Broadcast Discussions in the Home Service of the BBC on Cattle Breeding from the series ‘Farming Today’, Worcester: Littlebury and Company Ltd, 1944, pp. 35–42.

28 W.S. Mansfield, N. Barron and F. Russell Wood, ‘How shall we keep her fit?’, in Cattle at the Crossroads, op. cit. (27), pp. 43–51, 44.

29 Mansfield, Barron and Russell Wood, op. cit. (28), p. 47.

30 Franklin Engelmann, The Other Man's Farm, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1962.

31 Engelmann, op. cit. (30), p. 61.

32 Holloway, op. cit. (1).

33 Valenze Deborah, ‘The art of women and the business of men: women's work and the dairy industry c.1740–1840’, Past and Present (1991) 130, pp. 142169 , 160.

34 Butler Deborah and Holloway Lewis, ‘Technology and restructuring the social field of dairy farming: hybrid capitals, “stockmanship” and automatic milking systems’, Sociologia Ruralis (2015) 56, pp. 513530 .

35 Hogveen and Ouweltjes, op. cit. (15).

36 Toby Mottram, ‘Robotic milking: opportunities for improved dairy cow management’, paper presented at the Dairy Cow Management and Welfare: What Difference Does Robotic Milking Make? seminar, Stoneleigh Park, Warwickshire, 17 November 2012.

37 Mottram, op. cit. (36).

38 Throughout, interviewee and organization names are withheld in order to protect confidentiality.

39 Meijering Albert, Hogeveen Henk and de Koning Kees (eds.), Automatic Milking: A Better Understanding, Wageningen: Wageningen Academic Publishers, 2004 .

40 Hogeveen Henk and Meijering Albert (eds.), Robotic Milking: Proceedings of the International Symposium held in Lelystad, the Netherlands, 17–19 August 2000, Wageningen: Wageningen Academic Publishers, 2000 .

41 Jacobs Jacylyn and Seigford Janice, ‘The impact of automatic milking systems on dairy cow management, behaviour, health and welfare’, Journal of Dairy Science (2012) 95, pp. 22272247 .

43 Bear Christopher, Wilkinson Katy and Holloway Lewis, ‘Visualizing human–animal–technology relations: field notes, still photography, and digital video on the robotic dairy farm’, Society and Animals (2016), doi 10.1163/15685306-12341405 .

44 Holloway, Bear and Wilkinson, op. cit. (1).

45 Holloway, Wilkinson and Bear, op. cit. (1).

46 Butler and Holloway, op. cit. (34).

47 Farmer names are withheld in order to protect confidentiality.

48 Milk's electrical conductivity is automatically measured by the AMS and indicates the presence of mastitis.

49 Foucault Michel, The History of Sexuality, vol. 1: An Introduction, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990 .

50 Foucault Michel, Security, Territory, Population, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007 .

51 English Peter, Burgess Gethyn, Segundo Ricardo and Dunne John, Stockmanship: Improving the Care of the Pig and Other Livestock, Ipswich: Farming Press Books, 1992 ; Wilkie Rhoda, Livestock/Deadstock: Working with Farm Animals from Birth to Slaughter, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010, pp. 3435 .

52 See, for example, Tsouvalis Judith, Seymour Susanne and Watkins Charles, ‘Exploring knowledge-cultures: precision farming, yield mapping, and the expert–farmer interface’, Environment and Planning A (2000) 32, pp. 909924 .

53 Woods, op. cit. (4).

54 Joanne Pugh, ‘End for the herringbone?’, Farmers Guardian, 8 July 2011, at, accessed 25 July 2011.

Some of the research for this paper was conducted as part of an ESRC research project called Robotic and Information Technologies in Livestock Agriculture: New Relationships between Humans, Cows and Machines, RES-062-23-2086.

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