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““A Well-Cared For Cow Produces More Milk”: The Biotechnics Of (Dis)Assembling Cow Bodies In Wisconsin Dairy Worlds

  • Author(s): Overstreet, Katy Kelsey
  • Advisor(s): Caldwell, Melissa L.
  • et al.
Creative Commons 'BY-NC-ND' version 4.0 license

This dissertation examines intersections of care and production on commercial dairy farms in southern Wisconsin where farmers and their cows must produce ever more milk to keep farms in business. The maxim, “a well-cared for cow produces more milk,” is common sense in the dairy worlds of Wisconsin. It invokes the notion that putting time and money into caring for cows makes financial sense, but it obfuscates how optimizing cows toward milk production goals can instead create suffering. Amidst the moral knotting of this care-production logic expressed in a plethora of technical and scientific interventions into the dairy production system, humans and cows negotiate the everyday work of making milk. This thesis traces these forms of intervention and negotiation.

Farms, I argue, are patches, crosscut by multiple discourses that shape what it means to be a farmer and what it means to be a cow. Productivist discourse, which places pounds of milk at the heart of industry goals, justifies biotechnological interventions that seek to turn cows into machines of optimal milk and calf (re)production. These interventions target particular parts of cow bodies, as mechanistic components, in order to fine-tune them toward high milk production.

This dissertation performs a figurative (dis)assembly of human and bovine lives by unfolding the worlds and discourses that emerge through partitioning and tinkering with bodily parts: rumens, genes, ovaries, udders, and senses of taste. Through this unfolding, the multiple spatiotemporalities of production and the pursuit of efficiency become visible as material ways that cow bodies are optimized. A chapter on rumens demonstrates how cows are figured as cow-athletes that must have specialized diets, geared toward speeding up metabolism and thus the production of milk. A chapter on genes evokes the speculative futures where the imaginary Supercow and its yet unrealized production capacities await. A chapter on ovaries traces the hormonal manipulation of cow bodies toward synchronous reproduction and hides the toll of high-milk production. Taste, too, is partitioned, as a sensory capacity of the palate. A chapter on taste demonstrates how cows are made into subjects of nutritional discourse through caring practice that brings cow and human senses into recursive and mutual attunement.

By following the partitioning of cows, a key discursive move in the cow-as-machine paradigm, this dissertation follows how biotechnological interventions geared toward maximizing milk (re)production contribute to reimagining life and work on Wisconsin dairy farms in the midst of significant farm restructuring toward larger herds on fewer farms. This (dis)assembly, however violent, requires practices of care in order to hold cow bodies together as efficient producers. In following the discourses and practices that unfold around bodily (dis)assembly it is also possible to excavate the forms of resistance however small and the recuperative possibilities therein.

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