Teats and tweets

A unique project brings daily activities of milking cows to new media tool Twitter.

This article appears in this month’s Ontario Dairy Farmer magazine and is the full length version of shorter blog article I posted here a couple of weeks ago.

They’re an unlikely team – a new media researcher in Waterloo, an English professor from Georgia, a Brant County dairy farmer and 12 Holstein cows.

But they’ve come together in a unique social media project that looks at the way humans interact with animals and has the cows posting their daily activities on Twitter. Twitter is a popular social media website that allows users to connect with each other and share information through short posts of up to 140 characters.

Marcel O’Gorman, director of the Critical Media Lab at the University of Waterloo, and Ron Broglio, an English professor at Georgia Gwinnett College, launched the project last December to link farmers and technology in the minds of consumers by putting a spotlight on the highly technological nature of farming through social media.

“Most of us think of technology only in fast-paced city life but it’s also on the farms,” says Broglio. “Most people don’t realize how embedded technology is in farming and how we need it in order to feed people.”

When Broglio came to Waterloo Region through the University of Waterloo’s Scholar-in-Residence program, he found a high tech community surrounded by agriculture but very little interaction between city and country. He saw a real need to bridge the gap between these communities and felt that new technology would help get new generations interested in farming and food production.

“To me, the region’s real digital entrepreneurs are its farmers, who are using GPS technology in their equipment and robots to milk their cows,” says O’Gorman. “Many people still have an image of farms as quaint, bucolic places where a farmer milks cows with a bucket, so we decided to launch this project involving cows and technology to shatter many misconceptions out there about what farmers are doing.”

For Broglio, it was a natural extension of his interest in farm animal care and work he’d done previously on the history of meat production in 18th and early 19th century, veterinary medicine, livestock and ethics. And the University of Waterloo was an ideal partner; its newly launched Critical Media Lab uses new media and new technology to investigate the impact of technology on society.

Actually taking their project to the farm level proved to be a bit more challenging than they anticipated. According to Broglio, it was difficult knowing where to start and there was very little trust for outsiders. The two researchers visited Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show in Woodstock and it was through the technicians at the robotic milking display and others in the industry that they finally began to make connections with farmers. But even then, it wasn’t easy.

“A few farmers we talked to initially were rather hesitant about getting involved in the project,” says Broglio. “Many didn’t understand the technology and weren’t sure that they wanted their cows exposed to the world through Twitter.”

“Part of our process was gaining the trust of farmers for this ‘crazy project’,” adds O’Gorman. “Farmers are very proud of what they do. Many already carry wireless devices that allow them to see milking data, so linking the cows’ activities to Twitter lets them keep more intimate contact with the animals.”

But eventually, they found Chris Vandenberg (left), a young, tech savvy dairy farmer who milks 70 cows with a robotic milker on his farm near Cathcart in Brant County.

“I’ve always liked technology and although I don’t really use Twitter, I do use Facebook,” says Vandenberg. “Putting the cows on the Internet is an ideal way to teach people about dairy farming and where their food comes from.”

So how do Vandenberg’s bovines actually get their Tweets – a popular term used to describe the short information updates users post to Twitter – out to the world? It’s the robotic milker and its electronic data tags worn by the cows to track their activities that are the key link during this year-long experiment. Vandenberg began by selecting 12 cows to participate in the project, based on their age, lactation stage, activity level, and yes, personality.

“We wanted to make it as interesting as possible for people following the cows’ tweets so I made sure to pick ones that would calve or go dry at different points during the year, and also pick some of the more interesting and active ones,” he explained.

O’Gorman and Broglio then created different comments for the cows linked to certain activities – like milking and feeding – and loaded those into the robot’s database. When the system reads a cow’s electronic tag and determines whether or not she’ll be let into the milker, a Tweet is generated and posted to Twitter. Each of the 12 animals has her own Twitter profile but all the tweets are also posted on a single website so the public can follow the animals as a small herd. And in order to make it seem more realistic and keep followers interested, the two researchers had to create many different sayings for the same cow activities.

“The cows are always trying to get into the stall but the robot won’t always let them in so we had to come up with many different ways for the cows to react to the refusal,” says Broglio. “The cows speak in the first person as well, which opened up the possibility for us to be a bit more playful and accessible.”

The cows’ Tweets provide comment on many different activities, including feeding, their environment how much milk each cow gave in a milking and how long the milking took. For example, here’s what “Attention Please”, the most popular bovine Tweeter with 19 followers, had to say on her Twitter feed over several hours recently:

“9.2 kg of frothy deliciousness for the humans.” (5:38 pm)

“I said “please” but the robot just doesn’t go for manners. All business all the time.” (8:40 pm)

“Tried to get into the pen. No such luck.” (8:48 pm)

“Tried again. Wish I could read that robot’s mind.” (10:32 pm)

“It took me 5:35 secs, to give 11.4 kgs. Feel good.” (1:41 am)

According to Vandenberg, not too many of his neighbours know about his cows’ online activities yet, although word is starting to spread about their Twitter presence. He’s told his local dairy committee and the dairy educator from Dairy Farmers of Ontario is scheduled to come out for a visit to learn more about the project in hopes of being able to use it as part of regular classroom programs.

When the project was officially launched in December 2009, the City of Kitchener provided support for a video installation at city hall that projected images of cows and farms onto its buildings downtown. As the project continues through 2010, Broglio says they would like to do some follow up to add additional information to give a more complete picture of farming and a day in the life of a dairy cow.

“We’d like to make the system more robust so we can have the cows tweet about the weather or what times they eat and how much they eat,” says Broglio. “The idea is that when people get tweets from the cows late at night, it makes them look at their milk a little differently. The cows are working in the heat of summer and the cold of winter to produce milk.”

Vandenberg himself isn’t opposed to having his cows share more information either. At the moment, the cows’ website and Twitter profiles are pretty generic, but Vandenberg would even consider letting the researchers introduce him as the farmer and making the site a little more personal.

“Putting a face to the farmer could be a logical next step and would make the project more real for people,” he says.

Funding for this project was provided in part through the Canada Foundation for Innovation and grants the University of Waterloo received from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

The tweeting cows can be seen at teattweet.net or you can follow them on Twitter: @AttnPlease, @ChargeCindy, @ChargeGina, @ChargeMabel, @ContrastAmanda, @FreerideSpeedy, @FrostyLace, @GoldwynWindy, @Jerry_J_Lo, @KurtAppeal, @MontgomeryMae, @MortyFy.

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