The Dutch cows have been a long time celebrated for their abundance of milk, which does not surprise one in looking at the rich polders in which in summer they are fed, and where they are often seen covered with a cloth as a protection against both the dampness and the cold …. They are generally of a black-and-white color; in some cases they are milked three times a day … They remain in pasture all summer, where they are milked; but in winter they make a part of the family, and, in truth, live in the common eating-room of the family, it being a part of the main house. The cow stalls, while occupied by the cows, are frequently washed with water … Indeed, the neatness of all their arrangements is perfect.
– Henry Colman, as quoted in Chenery 1872
Hundreds of Dutch farmers have been protesting against calls to curtail nitrogen emissions from the farming sector. The government is being urged by MPs and NGOs to come up with a more radical plan for reducing emissions, including halving the country’s livestock population. WWF has previously called for a 40% cut in cow numbers in the Netherlands, saying the sector had outgrown its ability to safely dispose of its waste.
– Levitt 2019
Across millennia of cohabitation since domestication, our relationship with dairy cattle has always been asymmetric, of course, involving exploitation and cruelty. Cattle, etymologically, is derived, via Anglo-French, from medieval Latin capitale – property, capital – it was our value and value in exchange. Yet it is also a co-constitutive and complex affair, of »significant otherness« as Donna Haraway would say, full of interdependencies, entanglements, rituals, and more or less risky transfers of genes and microbial communities. I remember stories from my grandmother in rural Spain, in which cows and other farm animals were like family, providing not just sustenance but also passing their bodily warmth to the household in the cold winters. Worshipped in Hinduism as provider of the food of the Gods, a cow, if ill or living in unhygienic conditions, can be a vector of transmission of disease for humans, most notably zoonotic tuberculosis, via its raw milk.The giant leap from familial care to a call for mass slaughter portrayed in the quotes above suggest that, obviously, a lot must have gone totally wrong in the relationship between humans and cows in the course of the 147 years separating the texts.
What will follow is a far from exhaustive account to think about how we stopped caring about our cows as companions and how to move forward. By diving into a series of short more-than-human vignettes, I aim to show how the nondescript landscapes of dairy farming encapsulate the brutal efforts of the modern technoscientific world to create new nature-culture »hybrids,« their commodification and overproduction, and how these result in the rearrangement of multiple ecological networks, and of our position as humans within them. As a result, they are landscapes haunted by many traces of violences of modernity – what Elaine Gan, Anna Tsing, Heather Swanson, and Nils Bubandt call the »ghosts of the Anthropocene.«
»Instead of staying with the trouble, the country seems to be in the midst of a highly anthropocentric battle against its own ghosts and monsters, paradoxically to attain and maintain the pictorial pastoralism of an idealized pre-anthropocentric ur-landscape.«
The setting of our exploration will be for the most part the Dutch countryside, where slightly more than million hectares of grassland and green corn forage for dairy cattle were literally built and engineered for their intensive use until exhaustion. More importantly for this story, it is also the place of origin of both the milking robot and of the Holstein-Frisian breed: the iconic white and black cows, and world’s highest-production dairy animals. As such, those grasslands – for some a »magical empty center;«for others a thoroughly organized landscape lacking all »mystery« – are, I would argue, actually the setting of a horror story characterized by genetic engineering, artificial selection, forced pregnancy and surrogacy, robots, sensors, platforms, greed, and shit, lots of shit.
Blood and Milk
Van Tromp arrived in the womb of Texelaar at the port of Boston on November 6, 1861, thirty-six days after leaving North Holland. They belonged to a lineage of undoubted purity of blood, native of the Dutch municipalities of Beemster and Purmerend. All of that certified by multiple Dutch authorities. Together with three females and one male, this group of imported specimens, and its subsequent propagation in Belmont, Massachusetts, were part of a plan by Winthrop W. Chenery for the third and definitive attempt to introduce the Holstein cattle breed in the United States, previously hindered by »careless« crossbreeding and disease.
Known for its high milk yield, the result of centuries of selective reproduction of the largest and more productive stock, the Holstein breed thrived in the wet grasslands of northeastern Holland out of a huge European demand for butter and cheese. Once the Holstein went global, a breeding race began to increase their production and set new world records; from Segis Pietertje Prospect’s 37,361 annual pounds of milk in 1919, to the 72,168 annual pounds of the cow named Ever-Green-View My 1326-ET in 2010, the yield of a Holstein has almost quadrupled since the times of Texelaar.
Fueled by the industrialized production of dairy products after World War II, old breeding techniques have been replaced by artificial insemination technology as well as genetic and reproductive approaches, such as genetic evaluation, multiple ovulation, and embryo transfer to select animals that have high genetic potential. In the Netherlands, organizations like Veepro Holland facilitates the export of semen and embryos of Dutch cattle; companies like NIFA provides with all sort of services for artificial reproduction; and others like CVR provide high- quality sperm and embryos »from high-tech cows and bulls.« The latter includes in its offer listing of semen and embryos from top specimens, allowing farmers to choose the genetics of their future herd based on their productivity, feed efficiency, anatomical characteristics, or character. Somewhat not surprisingly, in 2015, researchers found that across almost all the Holstein bulls born out of artificial insemination worldwide, the number of Y chromosome lineages – genetic diversity – had dramatically decreased: all of them are descendants of two ancestors born in 1880.
Modern reproductive violence toward dairy cattle does not stop in artificial genetic selection. To meet planned outputs and make the most of each animal, cows need to be almost continuously pregnant and delivering calves. After receiving the first milk, or colostrum, the calf is separated from the cow so milk can be destined for human consumption. Eventually, six years after its birth, once the cow has »dried up,« and the value of its purebred blood and milk is exhausted, it is sent to the slaughterhouse to become LFTB, lean finely textured beef, also known as pink slime.