Too Much Technology?

Growing up, I was fascinated by my dads hands. They were huge. A game we played as kids involved dropping a quarter through his wedding ring. I think dad wore a size 15 ring. Hands formed by milking cows by hand. Sometime in the 60’s they switched to a vacuum pump and bucket milkers. The time spent with each animal went down as the technology increased.

A recent run of events brought this topic to mind for me. But the topic, is one that we seem to running into headfirst.

If we make use of technology in caring for animals, does this diminish their quality of life?

The most recent catalyst for this discussion was a post that highlighted the Lely robotic milkers. Someone I respect a great deal, suggested that this would remove the basic tenets of animal husbandry. This also seems to be the charge leveled against any of today’s large farms.

Can any farm with hundreds to thousands of animals really take care of them?

What constitutes care?

This same friend offered that animals make our lives richer, and that we enrich their lives. I can’t argue that point, but does an animal need daily interaction with me to be fulfilled?

Is there a different level of interaction that each species would require? And lastly who gets to decide what that level is?

If some of the basic jobs can be done by others/machines, does that diminish what happens on the farm?

When I was growing up, one of the jobs I got, was cleaning the calf barn. With a pitchfork. You know, the manually operated kind. It took a couple of hours each week. Character building kind of work. Within two months of my taking an off the farm job, that barn was being cleaned with a skid loader. They replaced labor with capital. The trend continues today.

Today’s farmers are faced with the same issues that people everywhere face.Pay the mortgage, raise a family, and try to improve their quality of life. Growing up on a 40 cow dairy, we rarely took vacations. A week away from the farm was almost unheard of. If an opportunity came up for a day away, it could work, as long as it fit between morning and evening chores. Relief milkers were difficult to come by at best, and impossible to find at worst. The expansion of the dairy allowed for more hired help, more available labor, and more flexibility in time off.

But has animal care gone down? I’d argue that it has gotten better. The barn of yesteryear were dark dank old caves that lacked much of what we now know contributes greatly to animal welfare. People see animals in barns when on their summer vacations and wish they were out running in the pastures and meadows, but when they get out of their cars they head for the air-conditioned comfort of the motel. Today’s barns offer shade, and a great deal of animal comfort. Are they perfect? No, but producers are always on the lookout for cost effective ways to take better care of their animals.

Do farms today look like an updated version of Olde McDonald’s Farm? Nope, and most likely never will again. The robotic milkers from Lely aren’t for everyone, but may have their place. Does that automatically make us evil? Nope, it doesn’t. Although I have watched i-Robot, and they might be. 😉


3 comments on “Too Much Technology?

  1. This is a great post and thought. It makes sense – but still kind of sad to think about. Agriculture is constantly changing. I wonder what farms and agriculture will look like in the next 50 or 60 years.

  2. Katie says:

    I live on a 30 cow dairy and I agree with you. Whether you have 5 cows or 5,000 cows, there is a right way and a wrong way to care for animals. Technology and new systems of management have improved cow welfare by leaps and bounds. If only people could go back in time 75 years and see some of the conditions those poor cows had to endure, and that was the “standard of care” back then! It was nothing to have a 30% mortality rate for newborn calves. Today, anything above 5% is unacceptable.

  3. Great post. It reminds me of what John Phipps said this week on the TV show, U.S. Farm Report, April 14-15, 2012 (episode #2018). It was so well said that I started transcribing it, until I found the text under John’s World at
    “An old friend and neighbor passed away this week. He was a contemporary of my late father, and his passing prompted some reflections on what the slow loss of this generation means. My father’s cohort was the last to remember what purely muscle-powered agriculture was all about. Mechanization began early in his career and was eagerly welcomed, according to him. ‘Nobody cried when horses left the farm, ‘ he often told me. One mental legacy of that era is still with us. When human and animal effort was the only way to get anything done, the largest single determinant of success was how hard and long you worked. That value is still a controlling ethic for our industry. It is therefore unsettling for many to see capital and technology overwhelm hard work as the key to success. It still matters, of course, but labor is not even close to our largest input for much of agriculture. Worse still, the nature of hard work itself is constantly evolving. Is it hard work if you are not sweating? Sure feels like it to me. While dad didn’t do much desk work, I struggle to get outside, and Aaron pretty much carries his desk with him. I sometimes wonder if the growth of very large farms is a relic of this work ethic. Perhaps one reason we keep expanding is simply because we don’t feel like we’re working hard enough. Maybe our definition of hard work will eventually expand to more than muscle effort. I hope so. But it takes a long time to outgrow your father’s values.”

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