What Has Milking Cows Become?

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As of late, hardly a product has come under fire more than milk. Good old milk. I was wondering how milking cows had changed, so I traveled to a mountain pasture. The light went on at 4:30 AM in the stall, where I was sleeping, and we made our way to the alpine meadows to retrieve the cows. As it was still dark, they were more audible than visible. Ultimately they all found their way to the stall, bleary like us. When Sepp brought out the mechanical milkers, I must have looked at him like James Bond when Miss Moneypenny merely hands him a revolver, not an exploding pen. I had prepared myself for infinite tubes, pipes, noise and blinking, like the catch phrase of the BioFace Trade Fair for Organic Food in March: “Bye-bye organic romanticism, hello efficiency.”

Sepp grabbed three devices the size of walkie-talkies with two tubes each. One was attached to the intricate piping systems over the feed troughs, and the other was attached to the udder via four elegant suction arms. The operation was clean, fast and quiet. Once a cow had given all her milk, the suction arms detached automatically from her udder and, pulled by an invisible rubber band, flew back to the walkie-talkie. It was then hung next to the following cow without much blinking or noise.

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I couldn’t decide what kind of understatement the devices exhibited – that of a pen which causes buildings to unexpectedly collapse, or that of a revolver programmed exclusively for the palm of one agent. In any case, these things have a lot more to offer than you can infer at first glance. They can milk cows for one. And there are loads of other features to boot. They recognize the cows and can access data collected for each cow to monitor individual developments and fluctuations. This ensures the continuous health of the cows. What’s more, the devices instantaneously analyze the milk’s composition and draw conclusions about feeding. Farmers attempting to perfect their milk know with certainty which cows need more concentrated feed if at all. With their readings of the milk, the little milking machines help with breeding strategies as well.

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As I stood in the stall the sun rose, and fog settled on the farmyard. The cows were munching away, and their bells jingled intermittently. Sepp and the other Sepp (these Alpine herdsmen share the same name) grumbled their way around the cows, cleaning udders before attaching the suction arms. They were wearing the same milking overalls as their grandfathers and used traditional one-legged milking stools. Nothing, nothing at all, definitely not harmless walkie-talkies, could rain on my organic romanticism. The ladies’ data were currently being transmitted to the farmer’s office for evaluation.

That’s what milking cows is like these days – romantic and efficient. As with everything else, technology has passed the critical point where you actually perceive it in its complexity. Computer nerds no longer have to hole themselves up in the basement with seven monitors. They can rather sit in the park among the grass and flowers and blow up the building behind them with a single keystroke on their laptops.

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By the way, cow’s milk, as a number of studies have shown, is in fact not the healthiest food for humans. Cats have demonstrated that cow’s milk is downright harmful. The issue is how technology reacts to this, and if the milking pipeline will soon be on display in a museum. It is well worth seeing at any rate.

Pictures: Theresa Patzschke

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