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


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.

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  1. 1.

    In more large-scale operations this can be up to 30 cows, a situation which is common for instance in parts of the US. This introduction describes the common situation on dairy farms in the Netherlands.

  2. 2.

    Though for instance in the south of the Netherlands on many farms milking tends to be done according to a later rhythm, something that is sometimes ascribed to the region being Catholic rather than Protestant.

  3. 3.

    As of 2012 in the Netherlands, more than 2,500 farmers operate an AMS, which means over 10 % of the Dutch dairy farms, while over the past few years about a third of new milking installations were robotic (Stichting K.O.M. n.d). The use of AMS in North America is expected to rise as well, for instance, by the manufacturer Lely (Hoard’s Dairyman 2012).

  4. 4.

    Coevolution moreover is a common notion in understandings of agricultural innovation that consider the adoption of new technologies and the development of knowledge as intertwined with alternative ways of organizing agricultural practice. This is seen to include policy, legislation, infrastructure, funding, and market developments, involving competing worldviews and redistribution of costs and benefits (Klerkx et al. 2012).

  5. 5.

    This active process learning is also clear in the case of cows that are “dedomesticated” and made to live independently in nature reserves (Lorimer and Driessen 2013).

  6. 6.

    This means that in the Netherlands the milking robot, unlike other instances of agricultural automation, tends not to be considered as an alternative to migrant labor.

  7. 7.

    In terms of Akrich (1992) one could say the robot clearly came with a “script” that required certain behaviors of both human and nonhuman actors. This does not mean that thereby necessarily the robot everywhere produces the same behaviors and even discourses, irrespective of particularities of places and farmers. The potential differences in how AMS may be implemented and itself may be changed as part of regional “niches” of coevolution is an interesting theme for further research.

  8. 8.

    “Experience teaches however that this type of developments continue and that the results of it will be applied, even if it is not always economically warranted. Therefore also for the milking robot eventually there will be a future. All too high expectations however for its application in the short run do not seem warranted” (Mandersloot and Van Scheppingen 1991, p. 30).

  9. 9.

    See also Atkins (2010, p. 247) on the broader historical shift in defining milk quality in bacteriological terms.

  10. 10.

    “I am fond of a robot, but the cell count is a problem on many robot farms. I have seen dozens of them [but] I am not sure what causes it. Not treating [the cows] in time, or too little checking up, or [farmers] believing it will be OK anyway” (Prins 2006).

  11. 11.

    Several farmers and other commentators (implicitly) use the farming styles framework described by Van der Ploeg (2003) to explain the different farmer identities and their relations to milking robot practices.

  12. 12.

    In several countries initial attempts to create a working AMS failed, such as in Japan, the US, and Germany (De Koning interview 2008).

  13. 13.

    For the often-encountered promotion of technology in this Janus-faced rhetoric of the “future industry,” in which new technologies are described as both unavoidable and to be actively embraced, see De Wilde (2000).

  14. 14.

    “Next to that the cows have a free choice to walk indoors or outdoors. The pinnacle of animal welfare, don’t we want to choose freely ourselves” (Grasbaal 2009).

  15. 15.

    This could of course have been due to the discomfort caused by early versions of the robot, as was suggested by an anonymous reviewer. Then it would be interesting to explore whether current robots are attractive enough to motivate the cows to milk themselves without food reward.

  16. 16.

    Indeed, when all quarters of an udder are milked for the same length of time this is not natural. A calf would stop suckling a teat when there was no more milk—just as the AMS can do by detaching one teat at a time.

  17. 17.

    In 2010 a Dutch veterinarian started performing plastic surgery on cow udders to lift them so that they were connectable to the robot (Hofs 2010). In this way the cows were saved from slaughter, even though the veterinarian was breaking the law while performing invasive treatments on cows for which there is no explicit legal exemption.

  18. 18.

    For instance Booij (2004) describes a case in which up to 20 % of a herd refused to work the robot, which led to the farmer returning to a conventional milking parlor.

  19. 19.

    Which can also be taken as a signal that cows are unwilling to participate in the practice of dairy farming, or at least not without being rewarded.

  20. 20.

    For analogous worries around robotics leading to a diminishing quality of care relations in the sphere of health care, see Wynsberghe (2012).

  21. 21.

    This is what farmers using an AMS are often called, as for instance can be seen on web forums and in professional media, for instance Van Drie (2005).

  22. 22.

    The fact that cows can tell the difference between a robot and a human being can be considered an interesting contribution to the essentialist versus constructivist dilemma sketched by Risan (2005).

  23. 23.

    For example, according to an anonymous post on a dairy farmers’ web forum, an analysis of a farm revealed that: “a robot would generate absolutely no reduction of labor. To the contrary, it generated a stricter planning of activities as with a robot one needs to feed more (to make the cows more active […]) and you need to walk amidst the cows more often to get the lazy cows to the robot” (Anon. 2008).

  24. 24.

    Which limits the access to this technology, especially in countries where the average dairy herds are far smaller than about 60 lactating cows as is the optimum for robot use.


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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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Driessen, C., Heutinck, L.F.M. Cows desiring to be milked? Milking robots and the co-evolution of ethics and technology on Dutch dairy farms. Agric Hum Values 32, 3–20 (2015).

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