Agriculture and Human Values

, Volume 32, Issue 1, pp 3–20 | Cite as

Cows desiring to be milked? Milking robots and the co-evolution of ethics and technology on Dutch dairy farms

  • Clemens Driessen
  • Leonie F. M. Heutinck


Ethical concerns regarding agricultural practices can be found to co-evolve with technological developments. This paper aims to create an understanding of ethics that is helpful in debating technological innovation by studying such a co-evolution process in detail: the development and adoption of the milking robot. Over the last decade an increasing number of milking robots, or automatic milking systems (AMS), has been adopted, especially in the Netherlands and a few other Western European countries. The appraisal of this new technology in ethical terms has appeared to be a complicated matter. Compared to using a conventional milking parlor, the use of an AMS entails in several respects a different practice of dairy farming, the ethical implications and evaluation of which are not self-evident but are themselves part of a dynamic process. It has become clear that with its use, the entire practice of dairy farming has been reorganized around this new device. With a robot, cows must voluntarily present themselves to be milked, whereby an ethical norm of (individual) freedom for cows can be seen to emerge together with this new technology. But adopting a robot also implies changes in what is considered to be a good farmer and an appropriate relation between farmer and cow. Through interviews, attending “farmers’ network” meetings in the Netherlands, and studying professional literature and dedicated dairy farming web forums, this paper traces the way that ethical concerns are a dynamic part of this process of rearranging a variety of elements of the practice of dairy farming.


Milking robots Dairy farming Animal welfare Labor quality Co-evolution of ethics and technology Human animal relations Technology assessment Automatic milking systems (AMS) 



This paper presents results of the project “Ethical room for manoeuvre in livestock farming” that was funded by The Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) project # 253-20-013. The authors in researching and writing this paper owe special thanks to: Michiel Korthals, Volkert Beekman, Marc Bracke, Hans Spoolder, Jan Bloemert, Kees de Koning, Kees van Reenen, Frank Lenssinck, Bert Philipsen, Carolien Ketelaar-de Lauwere, Zwier van der Vegte, members of the Oost-Overijsselse melkrobot netwerk and the Mobiele melkrobot netwerk, de Melkveeacademie; Teachers and farmers at PTC+ Oenskerk, De Boerengroep, Lars Keizerwaard, Douwe Kappers, Maarten Kea, editors Jeffrey Cole and Harvey James and four anonymous reviewers for their critical and encouraging comments.


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© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Cultural Geography GroupWageningen UniversityWageningenThe Netherlands
  2. 2.Livestock ResearchWageningen UniversityLelystad, WageningenThe Netherlands

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