How could cows milked by robots be better off?

By Fellow Sally Guy

On a crisp November morn, we pulled up to Ferme Roystein, one of the most technologically advanced dairy farms in Quebec. We’d read quotes from the owners about increased efficiency and freedom and welfare for the cows but were still skeptical. We’d seen ‘technologically advanced farming’ in person.

Some of the Fellows are vegans or vegetarians, with deeply held beliefs that make visiting any kind of meat or dairy farm emotionally difficult. How could cows milked by robots be better off?

There was no keening. There was no prodding. Far from it, in fact. Guy Roy and his son, Michael, who helps operate the farm, knew them by name. The cows stretched their noses out to be scratched and were calmly lining up *on their own accord, on their own timeline* to be milked. The robotic milker was gentle, quiet—and they really seemed to enjoy the process.

Now I’m not saying it’s a utopia: calves still get separated from their mothers pretty early and the males get sent to slaughter. There’s also the issue of climate change and the resources that go into producing milk. But what I am saying is that these were calm, content cows, owned by a family that clearly loves them. They told us about how much friendlier the cows are now that the robots milked them: they used to have to be roped and separated from their herd to be milked. Now, they are much less stressed.

After the tour and breakfast with the whole Roy clan, Fellow Julien Valmary got up to formally thank our hosts. He eloquently celebrated the marriage of evidence and values, a sub-theme of Action Canada this year, on their farm. These folks had taken a risk on the latest evidence and technology with the promise that it would increase efficiency and competitiveness, but also that it would increase their cows’ welfare — something they value so highly. And it’s working.


This most recent study tour took place Oct. 31 to Nov. 4, 2018 in Montreal and Montérégie, and I’d be remiss not to offer thanks.

Thank you also to the amazing mentors and advisors: Brian Topp, André Juneau, Guillaume Lavoie, Elaine Feldman and Don Buckingham who are all so giving of their time and expertise.

And thank you most of all to the incredible invite(é)s who made time for us during this tour:

Guillaume Lavoie, who did double duty as mentor and speaker on this tour, gave us Anglophones from ‘ROC’ a breakdown of Quebec politics in an invaluable session called Quebec 101. He also had us all into his home (while his two young kids just really wanted to watch a Disney movie and go to bed) for drinks and conversation.

Chantal Hébert, who spent nearly two hours with us (almost making herself late for a TV appearance) answering our questions about populism, history and how to overcome our insecurities in the pursuit of truth-telling. And I’m not going to lie, we were pretty star-struck.

Morris Rosenberg, a man with more policy and leadership experience than many organizations’ staff have combined, talked to us about the critical importance of connecting most authentically with those with whom we have differences in values or opinions.

Jean-François Harel, of La Coop fédérée, who gave us rich insights into the the strengths of the co-op model, and talked about the lessons it could teach us, and how certain of its tenets could benefit government policy. Like Morris Rosenberg, he also reminded us that “il faut se parler, surtout si on ne s’entend pas” (we have to talk, especially if we can’t hear each other).

Charles-Félix Ross, Executive Director of l’Union des producteurs agricoles, delivered an in-depth presentation on the UPA’s roles, advocacy work and hopes for a vibrant agricultural sector in Quebec. His team also connected us with the Roy family for our farm visit for which we owe a great debt!

Suzanne Nault was also doing double-duty this time, again guiding the Fellows through a peer-coaching process that let us bring our most pressing and often very sensitive professional roadblocks to a space of trust and honesty, where we can get feedback from our colleagues. She also took us through a session on conversational intelligence, challenging us think about what makes us defensive and why, and how we can ask better questions. And, of course, we know good questions are at the heart of any good policy design process.

Jonathan Plamondon, Nathalie Chapdelaine and Emilie Nicolas, three Action Canada alumni, who spoke beautifully on the theme of finding your place. Jonathan reflected on the power of reciprocal relationships — how you will burn out if you aren’t getting something back from your work — while Nathalie talked about the great importance of challenging those that our society has sanctioned, or normalized, as power holders. Emilie had many (or me, at least), moved to tears, speaking about how the personal is the political — and how while we are very privileged to be part of a group designing policy, it’s actually a function of privilege to have the ability to disengage from policy: for so many, activism and involvement is a form of survival.

To all those who attended our dialogue dinner (and a huge thank you to the wonderful students at the Institut de tourisme et d’hôtellerie du Québec, who served us an incredible meal), thank you for setting a place for us at the proverbial Action Canada table. Just due to proximity, I had the chance to speak most with Annie Sabourin — who shared a reminder about seeking the magic in the everyday — and Katherine Pineault — who I spoke to about the incredible importance of finding a balance and setting limits — so I owe them a special thanks for making me feel so warmly welcomed.

Diana Bronson, Executive Director of Food Secure Canada, who looked over each of our Task Forces’ work and offered up individual feedback to help refine our messages, all during the heaviest period of preparation for FSC’s 10th assembly, Resetting the Table. Us Fellows were actually lucky enough to have time to attend the opening plenary and a few other sessions: The Assembly brought together folks from so many different sectors, with many different viewpoints, but who all share a vision of a healthy, sustainable and fair food system for Canada.

I was lucky, in particular, to attend a session hosted by Anelyse Weiler, PhD Candidate and Trudeau Scholar whose research focuses on migrant agricultural workers, with two former workers from Jamaica who had been injured on the job. She facilitated an incredibly thoughtful dialogue between these two men and the audience, who was made up of union representatives, students, farmers, researchers, advocacy organizations, and, of course, us Fellows. If this session was any indication, Resetting the Table was a dynamic assembly indeed.

The Honourable Jean Charest, who invited the 16 of us up to his office and spent a good chunk of his day talking about his trajectory, the unexpected power of failure and the differences between being a ‘peace time’ and a ‘war time’ general. He challenged us to think big picture while never letting go of the everyday things that drive us: people, values, family.

Kate Heartfield, author and op-ed expert, who guided us through a wonderfully practical session on how to write effectively — and how to tailor to different audiences. As someone from the advocacy sector, she had me thinking about the danger of the ‘soft thesis’ (her term!): this general call-to-action, ‘you should care more because it’s the right thing to do’ trap that we can fall into when we work so closely on, and care so deeply about, a certain topic. I will carry this lesson forward in my work at the Canadian Association of Social Workers.

And thank you, of course, to the Roy family for taking the time to tour our noisy, unwieldy group through your farm, patiently answering our (often very *urban*) questions about the process and about the cows. At one point, while watching the robotic milker, I commented, “we’re in the future!” With a mix of pride and a tiny bit of mischief, Guy replied “no, we’re in the present.” It was an experience we won’t forget.

Thank you to Action Canada and Public Policy Forum Staff for another amazing tour. Anna Jahn, Jonathan Perron-Clow and Komlanvi Dodjro kept us organized and on-time, which you’ll know is a great feat if you’ve ever experienced the strange phenomenon of ‘toddlering’ (that is, the state of getting lost, bumping into one another, being suddenly unable to read a map) that afflicts any group of more than 10 adults who are transported together on a bus.

And to the other Fellows, like the opposite of that Shania Twain song, you impress me so much (I realize that it should actually be ‘That Do Impress Me Much,’ but, oh well). I think that will have to be a blog all on its own at some point.

Publié parPosted by Jonathan Perron-Clow
Nov 27th, 2018
27 Nov 2018
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