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. 😉

Back to the Future

If you are like me – a child of the 70ies – you most likely remember the ‘Back to the Future’-trilogy with Michael J. Fox.  In fact, Part I (now a classic!) was the very first movie I watched at the movie theater, back when there were those cushy, deep old chairs; reel changes after the commercials; high ceilings; and heavy, dark-red curtains.  Awww, the good ol’ days – much has changed since – and sometimes I long to the movie-going experience from back then.

I was reminded about this over the recent cartoon ad from Chipotle titled “Back to the start”.  In short, a farmer’s couple confines their livestock and turns them into junkies.  The farmer regrets that, breaks down the confinements, and provides free-range for their livestock.  In the last segment, the farmer hands his goods (now natural again) to Chipotle.  The ad is supported by Willie Nelson’s version of Coldplay’s ‘The scientist’ – and includes the line “I’m going back to the start”.  Much has been written and said about the misleading implications of that ad (See here and here).  But, the ad is clever – it speaks directly to our sentiment for the good ol’ days and to our fears about the future.

The reality is that regardless of all the sentiments, we’ll never be able to go back to the start, wherever the start was.  I will never be able to go back and relive the experience of watching my first-ever movie.  And even if I tried, I will almost certainly end up rather disappointed.  I want to be blunt: There is no going back, not to 1955 and not to farming methods from decades ago.  We are at a certain point in time – the now – and there is only one way from here on: into the future.  We cannot make the recent past undone.  We may have the opportunity to visit an old-style movie theater and relive the past for a couple of hours. But once we leave the theater, we are back in the now, which we cannot escape long-term.  Similarly, we can e.g., buy products from a free-range farm or become a member of a communal farm.  In either case, we are still surrounded by the now.  We can slide back into the past, but only for a short while.  Even if we decided to revive certain things from the past, it will still be in the future – never back to the start.

Every generation has had its own fear about the future.  The 1955-version of Dr. Emmett Brown states that “in 1985 plutonium is available in every corner drugstore, but in 1955 it’s a little hard to come by” and (about the fact that his 1985 version is wearing a radiation suit) “Radiation suit? Of course, because of all the fallout from the atomic wars”.  These lines resembled the fears back in the 50ies of an atomic showdown.  Today’s generation seems to fear Armageddon from e.g., Frankenstein food.  It is rather natural to fear the unknown.  And I agree that much of today’s livestock production procedures are largely unknown (or not easily comprehensible) for many people.  In contrast, the majority of us understands the simplicity of growing fruits and vegetables in a garden, and animals in a pastoral setting.  If we fear today’s animal production methods, we can either try to discredit them; or – as I would suggest – attempt to understand why farmers are relying on those methods.  Seeking direct interaction with farmers may be helpful in that regard.  We may learn that our fears are unnecessary in some instances, while other practices may be improved, changed, or abandoned in other instances.

Dűrrenmatt wrote 50 years ago: “Those things which were thought can never be unthought.”  In other terms, we’ll have to live with the current technologies from now on until the end of time.  We can approach it two-ways: passively fear them, or actively try to manage and best utilize them.  My deep conviction is that we should not discuss how do raise all livestock free everything: range, of antibiotics or hormones, alternative feeds, etc; but instead seek ways of how to best implement, manage, monitor, and not overuse these technologies.  We have to live in the now and plan for the future.  The direction is back to the future, not back to the start.  Remember, as Dr. Brown said in Back to the Future:If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.