Milking the Digital Herd: The Impact of Robotics and Big Data on America's Dairy Heartland

James Babbitt

At the end of the barn sit a couple of grey and red boxes. The cows enter and leave the boxes through an automatic gate that reads their ID tags. Once inside a cow finds feed and the machine finds her with its 3-D camera.  A mechanical arm slips between her back legs. It moves on X, Y, and Z axes and is equipped with a spinning orange brush and four red and white fingers for collecting milk and health data. The anatomy of the cow’s udder is stored in the machine’s memory, its silicon cerebellum. The owner-operator of this farm, a Wisconsinite, is focused on the spreadsheets in front of him. He is nowhere near the barn. When he finishes working with his computer, he will get in his pickup and head off of the farm and out of town. There is an away game in the next county and his son is playing. During half-time, he will catch up with his cows in the cloud through his smart phone.  
James Babbitt’s research explores the role of automation, robotics, artificial intelligence, and algorithms in the dairy industry, with a particular focus on how these developments are affecting rural masculinity, family life, labour, expertise, and interspecies care. Focusing on the development and design of new technologies in the Netherlands and their application across the globe, James aims to trace how international agribusinesses are transforming what it means to work with animals and the soil in the 21st century.