n 1985, cows were equipped with pedometers for the first time in history (Martinez, 2011; The Unstoppable Advance of Heat Detection Systems, 2010). Cows had largely steered clear of the emergent human-led fitness craze and subsequent fads of the 1980s — jazzercise, aerobics, and racquetball were all bullocks to them — and had different reasons for wearing the devices. The ‘afimilk’ pedometers provided individualised biophysical data related to fertility indicators, in the process increasing reproductive rates and altering the relationality between farmer and animal (“afimilk®”, 2013; Belg et. al, 2017; Burger, 2019; Hartung et. al, 2017). The pedometers represented a new paradigm — an applied example from the world of agriculture — of the emerging coalescence between humans, animals, and technology. Only a year earlier Donna Haraway (1984) published the prescient ‘Cyborg Manifesto’, in which she argued that new cyborg subjectivities were being created as the lines between humans, non-humans, and technology were becoming increasingly indecipherable. Of course, the pedometer was not the first instance of animals equipped with technology — for example, pigeons in the early 20th century were equipped with automated cameras while delivering pharmaceuticals across Berlin (Degioris & Salomon, 2018) and many species of animals wore ear tags from the 1950s onwards — yet the emergence and timing of the pedometer technology marked one of the earliest instances of mass-produced digital technology (a central component of ‘Precision Livestock Farming’, hereafter PLF) among industrial livestock operations (Aquilani et. al, 2022; Banhazi & Black, 2009; Electronic Cow Tag. n.d.).

Only 40 years later, industrial bovine operations now employ a wide range of technologies with millions of new devices added each year. The two other prolific industrial livestock species globally — chickens, followed by pigs — each exist in concert with a myriad of technologies that have altered their subjectivities and their respective agricultural industries (Aquilani et. al, 2022; Banhazi & Black, 2009; Dennis, 2022; Engormix, 2021; Hartung et. al, 2017). For an increasing number of animals ensnared in the modern industrial livestock complex, there is not a single moment where their lives are not engaged with technology. In particular, these technologies: 1) represent more direct interventions that co-create new subjectivities for animals; 2) facilitate increased forms of surveillance in relation to production for all actors; and, 3) enable new and distinct forms of connectivity that are less geographically bound and allow for more easily transplanted forms of industrial livestock production. All stages of animal existence — conception, life, death, and post-death can be read, more accurately understood, and contested by the use of the technology at play (Godley et. al, 2011; meindertsma, 2007; Michie et. al, 2020). If Haraway was largely concerned with what it meant for humans to become cyborgs, I bend the concept and ask: what does it mean for animals? 

The technology in question

There are particular geographies and sites where this technology is implemented most intensely — it closely, but not always, corresponds to high levels of industrialization and capital, agricultural labour challenges, and high levels of animal protein consumption. I follow Larkin (2013, 328-329) in understanding infrastructures as “things and also the relation between things,” as well as “matter that enables the movement of other matter.” It follows that infrastructures provide an “architecture for circulation” comprising “the undergirding of modern societies” (ibid). Salamanca (2016, 65) details infrastructures as “processes through which power asymmetries are articulated and enacted”, a particularly important way of understanding these technologies and the power asymmetries that define much of the modern industrial livestock industry. 

In order to understand the technological infrastructures that comprise PLF, it is helpful to define PLF and detail the current forms of technology. Banhazi and Black (2009, 1) describe PLF as:

“technologies that encompass methods for measuring electronically the critical components of the system that indicate efficiency of resource use, software technologies aimed at interpreting the information captured, and controlling processes to ensure optimum efficiency of resource use and animal productivity.”

These technologies include: cow pedometers and collars, radio and electronic tags, software and applications to translate, publish, and share data, Closed Circuit Television (CCTV), track-led cameras that monitor entire barns, automated milking parlours, cleaning robots, digital sensors, technologies used in selection of sex and other physical characteristics, artificial insemination, digitised tools for feed and water, sensors to gauge temperature and CO2 levels, directional and stationary microphones, ankle bracelets on chickens, blockchains for particular farms or animals, automated gates, thermal imaging cameras, as well as the associated technologies that allow for ocean and land based shipping (“afimilk®”, 2013; “David Speller”, 2018; Kayicki et. al, 2022; Kevany, 2020; King, 2017; Wang, 2020). Many of these technologies draw heavily from military research and application; some predate the internet though most now connect through the medium (“David Speller”, 2018; Electronic Cow Tag, n.d.; Godley & Williams, 2009; Michie et. al, 2020). Much of the technological infrastructure is described as impacting the efficiency and productivity of farming operations; the reduction of human labour, and the improvement of animal welfare conditions (Aquilani et. al, 2022; Dijkhuizen et. al,1998; Gelb et. al, 2017; Hartung et. al, 2017).

Direct interventions, new temporalities and subjectivities

Industrial animal life is now increasingly mediated through the implementation and use of these technologies and their related infrastructures (Aquilani, 2022; Blanchette, 2020; Pachirat, 2011). In particular, these technologies often have direct impacts on how and how long animals continue to live. The concept of animal subjectivities relates to animals’ temporality, relations to space, and the tension between existence and existence in relation to production. Each of these three distinct aspects is impacted by technology and its related infrastructures. These new machines, so ‘clean and light’, indicate productivity at an individual level, often nearly in real time, and can be used in decisions about culling animals in a more immediate manner (“afimilk®”, 2013; “David Speller”, 2018). Farmers can now track production from individual cows daily, as opposed to monthly, and can compare these data against a range of different production numbers, both individual and collective (Bramley et. al, 1992). Technology such as automated milk parlour infrastructure represents far more than material infrastructure and related gains in productivity — it has established new, distinct, and globalised ideas that flatten regional differences and demand more of farms, farmers, and their respective animal populations (“afimilk®”, 2013). Earlier iterations of farming operations were unable to comprehend individual or collective production at these levels, giving animals more potential time outside of the realm of production. These systems have also changed the total time and schedule of farmers; hours are fewer and more predictable (“afimilk®”, 2013). Technologies are distinct across different animal operations: chickens and pigs are less likely to be monitored on an individual level and the statistics generated are more likely to be read collectively across the whole site of production (Blanchette, 2020; “David Speller”, 2018). 

Conversations across animal husbandry operations are often unnervingly granular in terms of shaping the existence of these animals; they are meant to be disturbed as infrequently as possible to avoid caloric loss and maintain consistent production and reproduction metrics, many will never leave indoor confinement, surveillance is conducted through a range of devices, and natural behaviours (mating rituals, rooting, relaxation, sex) are interrupted through material and technological means (“afimilk®”, 2013; Blanchette, 2020; “David Speller”, 2018). These technological infrastructures also directly impact the way that animals perceive and exist in time. Some chickens now experience multiple days across a single 24-hour timespan through compressed lighting cycles, a reordering of temporality increasingly common across modern barns, and one of the many emerging technologies since the first broiler chicken operation began in America in the early 1930s (Van der Ploeg, 2013; Williams,1998). While chickens now experience time differently through lighting cycles that imitate multiple days in a 24-hour stretch, lifetimes of animals across all three systems have been increasingly standardised as animal life contorts to the timelines and interventions of human-led industrial production and consumption.

Surveillance for some is surveillance for all

The technological infrastructures emerging offer new opportunities for surveillance — for both animals and humans alike — and facilitate an environment wherein little goes unnoticed. Both parties have little or no opportunity to escape or refuse, with the most likely prospects being death or dismissal. Across the hundreds of millions of non-human actors enmeshed in these new technologies is borne a consciousness further embedded within the singular notions of productivity and output. There is much that an animal might wish to do that falls outside of activities that would contribute to their productivity — communication, exploration, play, fighting, bonding, or mating — and consistent surveillance allows for these activities to be monitored and in some cases, curtailed entirely (Blanchette, 2020; “David Speller”, 2018). More concerning is the way that surveillance pushes animals further into a productivist realm; this system delimits both human understandings of non-human life and the parameters (and acceptability) of interventions meant to serve human ends. Put differently: constant surveillance allows humans to further modify and restrict animal behaviour, and to increasingly accept these restrictions as valid in order to create a cheaper and more abundant flesh-food system. 

For the humans employed in these systems, these technologies are also used to monitor staff and assess performance — think digitally monitored water feeders that expose staff entrances and exits (“David Speller”, 2018), or automated milking parlours that note the speed of milking intervals and periods of rest (Gelb et. al, 2017). Across multiple industry presentations and interviews, different technologies were described both in their relation to animal production and to report on staff productivity and absenteeism (“afimilk®”, 2013). The concept of consent was almost never raised for animals in relation to their use of technology, with industry presentations imagining a similar situation for humans. One prominent agricultural technologist expressed a potential for the future wherein employees themselves would also be equipped with similar wearable technology to track performance. He noted that these businesses would eventually be able to implement such regulations as mandatory, despite the obvious ethical concerns, with employment being contingent on constant monitoring (“David Speller”, 2018). At the very least, animal surveillance systems will continue to be used to passively monitor human staff.

Connectivity and replication

Sites of intensive animal production increasingly utilize technological infrastructures, now employed alongside logistics and transportation infrastructure, which allow for increasingly longer, further industrialised, and more complex supply chains. Thinking with Cowen (2018) and in understanding the emergence of technology, it is helpful to view farms in terms of production across space as opposed to production occurring on a single site. These technological infrastructures create new networks; monitoring systems share farm-specific data across time and space, in the process bringing different farms into new modes of relation and existence. These new technologies shift the reality of farming ever-further from red barns nestled among idyllic pastures (Burger, 2019; King, 2017; Van Asseldonk et. al, 1998). If we think of logistics and transportation infrastructure as impacting what is grown and how it is moved — increasing prevalence of monocultures, globalized and financialized commodity networks, increasing use of precision logistics and transport systems — then we can understand these technological infrastructures as having impacts on the conditions of production and the prevalence and importance of digital connections across these sites of production. These technologies, and their associated infrastructures, increasingly bring the production of individual farms into a worldwide ledger and system of distribution. They have also generated a model that is more modular and more easily transportable worldwide — PLF allows individuals and investment companies to initiate farming operations without ever visiting the farms or to enter into local partnerships in locations with far different farming traditions and histories. 


These PLF technologies are an increasing part of the industrial meat production industry: they will be more alluring as the price of particular technologies decline and farmers seek other avenues to remain competitive; they can be employed to further consolidate the industry and expand into new territories and markets; and, they increase profit margins through the devaluing of human and non-human life. The total number of animals killed in 2020 demonstrates the impact of these technologies: chickens: 68,785,221,000; pigs: 1,484,492,840; cows: 302,128,113 (Sanders, 2020). Understanding technological infrastructure expands and enriches discussions of welfare for these animals, which is particularly important as multiple Canadian provinces have now passed “ag-gag” laws that restrict access to and recording of farm sites with the prospect of steep fines (Bille, 2021). Whereas much of the advocacy work for animal welfare is focused on the spatial dimensions of the industry — density of animal populations, issues of confinement and transport, separation of parent and child, practices of killing — reading these sites through their technological infrastructure allows us to understand the ways that animal subjectivities are being remade outside of the typical boundaries of animal welfare, as understood through popular knowledge and governed by legal requirements. It also allows us to consider the impacts of these technologies on human populations more carefully — a crucial point given the prevalence of marginalized populations that comprise much of the workforce throughout industrial livestock operations. Most importantly, these conversations challenge us to continue to examine what the emergence of technologies and their related infrastructures mean for animals, for our broader food systems, and for our collective shared future.



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Mike's research interests include street food vending, urban space, and informality, diaspora foodways, institutional food provisioning, matters of food sovereignty and community engagement, as well as the transmission of culinary knowledge between generations and across space. Outside of school, he has managed multiple farmers’ markets throughout Toronto, led international experiential education programs based on food and agriculture, cooked professionally, led historical food tours, and been involved with a range of NGOs and community organizations.