Accepted Paper:

Remaking agricultural collectives: robotic milking and the co-constitution of humans, dairy cows and technologies  


Lewis Holloway (University of Hull)
Christopher Bear (Aberystwyth University)
Katy Wilkinson (University of Hull)

Paper short abstract:

This paper explores the co-constitutive practices associated with robotic milking technologies. It draws on research with dairy farmers to examine emergent and contested human-animal-technology relations associated with technological interventions in agriculture.

Paper long abstract:

This paper explores the co-constitutive practices associated with robotic milking technologies. Introduced commercially in 1992, robotic milkers are sold with the promise of improved dairy cow welfare and productivity, reduced labour costs and the liberation of farmers from the routines of conventional milking: the machines milk cows individually, at any time of a cow's choosing, without direct human involvement or presence. Drawing on semi-structured interviews with UK dairy farmers and observational research on farms using robotic milking, in this paper we examine the effects of introducing robots on human-cow relationships. Frictions may develop when cows behave in unanticipated ways, robots find some cows more appropriate for their technologies than others, and farmers are confronted by new forms of information that challenge their understandings of animal welfare and productivity and by technologies which reconstitute the identity and subjectivity of 'the dairy farmer'. The supposed benefits of robotic technology are contested, as unanticipated consequences become evident alongside requirements to discipline and subjectify both humans and cows in order to make robotic dairy farming work. We critique the tendency of social scientists to focus on relationships between humans and animals, or humans and technologies, foregrounding instead the complex assemblages that involve not only farmers, cows and robots, but politics and affects of care, productivity and disciplinary tactics. We highlight the different enactments of 'cow' and 'farmer' that emerge and consider the implications of these new relationships for understandings of farm animal welfare.

Panel P13
Encountering living things through technology