WHEN PASIPHAË—WITCH-QUEEN of Crete, daughter of Helios—was cursed by Poseidon to fall in love with a great white bull, she asked the inventor Daedalus to construct a hollow wooden cow. Daedalus engineered a machine for seduction: wrapped in hide; reproducing the movements, sounds, and smells of a heifer in heat; all with the queen concealed within. The mechanical cow was a success, but from the unnatural pairing arose the monstrous Minotaur.
In an industrialized world, the mechanization of cows has taken many forms. A mechanical cow can be a training device for horses that work with cattle. At the 1933–34 Chicago World’s Fair, a dairy exhibit included “a mechanical cow that moos, moves, breathes and continuously gives milk.” Similar models appear today in museums of science and industry to demonstrate digestion or the milking process. PETA promotes veganism to children with an animatronic cow named Clara, voiced by actress Alicia Silverstone.
Most mechanical cows are more metaphorical, but they still give milk. Machines that produce plant-based milks, reconstituted milk, and leaf protein concentrate have all been called mechanical cows, either derisively or affectionately. These technologies have long inspired hope of feeding the world and fighting climate change.
In modern dairy industry parlance, “robot cows” are flesh-and-blood cows that are well-suited to, or have simply learned to use, an automatic milking system (AMS), an apparatus that allows cows to “milk themselves.” AMSes have been touted as labor-saving and productivity-boosting, but also beneficial to animal welfare. Commercial AMSes have been available since 1992, and are an increasing share of dairy operations in many countries.
The mechanical cow can be a machine to supplant the cow, or a cow in concert with a machine; a perversion of nature or a triumph of science, and which is which depends on who you ask.
Cows or Machines
Automaker Henry Ford, not content with replacing the horse, was a vocal soy milk proponent. He considered cow’s milk an inefficient use of farmland and labor, and in 1921 dramatically declared, “The cow must go.” He served soy milk ice cream at the 1934 World’s Fair, whose theme was “A Century of Progress.” His “synthetic cows” were met with ridicule.
Even as alternative milks have caught on with the 21st century public, the time still hasn’t come for Ford’s language about cleanly and rationally mechanizing the dairy cow. Nathan Clay, a food researcher at Stockholm University, and co-author of an analysis of marketing of plant-based milks, or mylks, in the 2010s, said he hasn’t seen any variations on “mechanical cows” in his contemporary research. The closest thing was a plant-based milk factory tour that kept what the company director called “the cow” — the milk-producing machine — behind closed doors for proprietary reasons.
Instead of focusing on the cow, modern disputes over the terminology of plant-based milk have debated whether they should even legally be called milk. Labeling practices depend on jurisdiction. For example, in the EU, packaging that even compares plant-based products to traditional milk, yogurt, or cheese has been contested.
Branding materials for plant-based milk also steer clear of mechanical associations. “Consumers have a strong preference for connotations of ‘naturalness,’ of ‘wholesomeness,’” said Clay. Non-dairy milks are competing with “pastoral” imagery of dairy packaging and advertising, with cows lounging in sunny fields of grass, and many brands opt to emphasize their own natural qualities.
Even without robot-cow mascots on the cartons, futurism still figures prominently in the ways that people talk about plant-based milk—presenting it as a technological consumer solution to the climate crisis, a “post-milk future.” Clay said this sort of message may have to do with the Silicon Valley culture, and the desire to attract technical-minded investors.
But innovation isn’t only to be found in disruptive non-dairy milk products that are too complicated to make with a countertop machine at home. Food systems are complex webs of advanced engineering. A dairy cow is an ancient piece of biotech, artificially selected for particular traits over thousands of years, and now linked with newer genetic tools, veterinary medicine, and storage, transportation, and milking technologies.
Cows and Machines
Conventional milking parlors are a collection of stalls with pumps that send milk to a reservoir. A practiced farmhand attaches tubes to teats and cleans both cow and machine parts, among other duties.
An automatic or robotic milking system works directly with the cow, automating those hands-on tasks in a single pen to handle, for example, around 60 milkings of 20 cows within a 24-hour period. Farmers often report a learning curve with milking labor replaced by maintenance, programming, or other requirements.
“In my experience dairy farmers have complex but caring relationships with their cows, who are not viewed as machines whether they are milked by AMS or by people,” said Lewis Holloway, a geographer at the University of Hull, who studies farming and has written extensively about AMS.
While there are potentially important changes to how a dairy operates under AMS, adopting it is often a practical, financial decision. Holloway has seen AMS presented as both a revolutionary technology and simply another piece of equipment that can quietly complete a routine, laborious task.
With AMS, all of the following are true in some sense: the cows milk themselves, the robot does the milking, and the cows are milked with machines by passive farmers. Cows may have more freedom in their milking schedule with AMS, but are also controlled in ways they never were before.
Using electronic tags, such as RFID, AMS can track metrics such as how frequently each cow visits the milking station, for how long, and how much milk they give. “There’s a sense of a change in how groups of cows are managed, from being managed as a herd to being able to be managed as individuals based on data collected about each cow,” said Holloway. The age of the quantified self is also the age of the quantified cow.
In an AMS paradigm, some cows are deemed unfit because they don’t interact with the machines productively. Others might have odd proportions for the pen, or difficult udder geometry. The traits of an ideal automatic milking system cow and whether those are all that different from a conventionally-milked animal are still a matter of debate, but that hasn’t stopped commercial interests from offering “robot bull” semen from “robot ready” sires. (For the curious, the most common method of bull semen collection involves introducing the bull to a live “mount animal,” then having a person guide its penis into an artificial vagina, rather than using some sort of Daedalean hollow cow.)
Technology and Tyranny
As with many popular myths, the details of the Pasiphaë story vary from telling to telling or in the interpretation. Perhaps it was Zeus who cursed the queen, as punishment for a hex she cast on her husband Minos. And while at least one scholar has inferred otherwise, Adrienne Mayor, a historian of ancient science at Stanford University, does not think that the hollow cow was mechanical or capable of movement.
But it is still a story of biotechne — life through craft — technology imitating or attempting to improve upon nature. Mayor is the author of “Gods and Robots,” a collection and analysis of such myths, many from ancient Greece, which include the “practical problems and ethical dilemmas” that they inevitably posed. “The attitudes have always been complicated and ambivalent,” she said.
Rather than themes of progress or purity, Mayor emphasizes tyranny as a common thread in tales of biotechne. “It is crucial to ask who commissions and deploys such innovations, who really benefits, and at what cost to the makers and the users,” she said.
A labyrinthine tale plays out in the supermarket dairy aisle, stocked by mechanical cows, where consumer choice is easily moralized and conflated with individual liberty. The judgmental vegan is a common trope. Simply liking the taste of soy milk with breakfast cereal may be justification enough for a purchase, and yet an aggressively anti-soy contingent takes it to be a political statement. Cheese-lovers might lament the mere existence of cashew cheese without ever trying it.
Plant-based milks have a long history, are the choice of many in the present, and may literally be the future. AMS has costs and benefits relevant to some milk drinkers, but a more meaningful personal decision for the climate or animal welfare is how much beef and dairy to consume, if any.
Some will consider this equivocation: we find good enough answers, but none of them are clear. At one time, drinking soy milk could have implicitly aligned one with Ford’s vision for the future: his business success and philanthropy, as well as his increasingly public anti-Semitism. Today picking a milk is complicated by uncertain health claims, incomplete pictures of climate impact, or murky corporate track records with environmentalism and labor relations.
Perhaps it is helpful to consider mechanical cows as a window to a worldview. Plant-based milks or automatic milking systems might play a significant role in the agriculture and food policies we’d like to see in the world. A mechanical cow can be a starting point to examine identity, climate anxiety, or animal welfare, and an opportunity to exercise skepticism towards promising food technologies and the people who control them.
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