The ethics and politics of robotic milking

 Last Wednesday the environmental politics group welcomed Dr Chris Bear from the Geography department. Chris spoke on the ethical relationship between humans, animals and robots as illuminated through his research on robotic milking systems. These technologies, which are currently employed on small herds predominantly in the Netherlands and the UK, mean the farmer is no longer tied to the herd twice a day seven days a week. Robotic milking is between the cow and the robot, and in theory the cow can come to the robot any time she is ready or wants to be milked. At the same time, the robot is able to collect and collate large amounts of data on the physical condition of the cow and the overall productivity of the herd, which enable the farmer to improve management of the animals and the companies to further develop the robotic technology.

Interestingly, in the course of researching and developing these technologies it transpired that cows don’t necessarily want to be milked and will not automatically take themselves to the robot. Food is placed inside the robot to coax the cows in and once they have been milked the cow is encouraged back out into the barn. What became apparent during the talk, as reflected in a number of questions from group members, was this system challenged the way we understand cows natural way of being and behaving, as the cows (and farmers) undergo a period of training and acclimatisation in adapting to this new way of practicing milk production. Yet some cows and some farmers don’t appear able or willing to adopt this new way of doing things, for the farmers there is the choice to revert back to the old way, but the place for the ‘lazy’ cow in robotically milked herds seems less certain. As you listen to this you begin to realise that what we recognise as a cow and cow-like behaviour has developed over centuries and is the result of a relationship between the farmer, farming practices and the cow. A relationship—and the cow it produces—now being transformed by these new milking technologies.

This is all very interesting you may be thinking, but why should we care about robotic milking and what does it have to do with politics? I suppose it depends on what you think politics is all about. For me the political content of the subject lies in the relationship between the farmer, the cow and the land. The daily routine of farmers is changing, which may be a good thing for the farmer, but what other changes are being induced? Robotically milked herds are kept in barns, meaning that what we see when we look out of the window or walk down a country lane may change. This is not about preserving a romantic image, but a question about what happens to the land not being grazed by the cow and the cow not grazing the land. Will the land be transformed for and by food production (to feed the cows)? And what will be added to the soil to make it more productive and where will the run off go and how will this change the landscape, the human and animal life that inhabit it, and the quality of the air and water? And what about the cow, are they to be confined to life in a barn? Will their existence come to resemble that of the battery-hen? If I buy and consume milk and thereby support its production these questions surely matter.

So, our thanks to Chris for a stimulating talk, and if anyone has further comments or questions they would like to add please feel free to join the discussion below…

The next meeting is December the 14th, when we will be continuing our exploration of knowledge and technologies in environmental politics by taking up the subject of geo-engineering:

A. Corner, & N. Pidgeon (2009) ‘Geoengineering the climate: the social and ethical implications’, Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, 52:1, 24-37

Scientists criticise handling of pilot project to ‘geoengineer’ climate, available at:


About Hannah Hughes

I am a lecturer in the School of Law and Politics. My research interests stem from my concern with environmental degradation and include: Climate change; knowledge and power; global environmental politics; environmental security
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2 Responses to The ethics and politics of robotic milking

  1. katharinahone says:

    Great post, Hannah. More on geo-engineering: about framing the debate:

  2. When I sent Chris the blog he mentioned that work is currently being done to keep cows in the field. However, the problem is: “how to attract the cows to the robot when they’re outside. But I saw some photos last week of a ‘shepbot’ (I think!) which is a sort of robotic sheepdog for cows – if they don’t go to get milked for a while, the robotic dog trundles off across the field and makes lots of noise at that cow. And if she still doesn’t go, the robotic dog will start nudging!! Only a prototype… The mind boggles!!”

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