A Plantation inside the Cow: Capitalist Indigestions and the Rumen Microbial Universe

Editorial Note: This post is part of our series highlighting the work of the Anthropology and Environment Society’s 2018 Roy A. Rappaport Prize Finalists. We asked them to outline the argument they made in their submission and to situate their work in relation to the field of environmental anthropology.

By Katy Overstreet, University of California at Santa Cruz §

The author examining manure with a dairy nutritionist. Photo by Jessica Partington.

ABSTRACT: In Wisconsin, America’s Dairyland, high-producing dairy cows produce unprecedented amounts of milk per lactation. These feats of production contribute to the figuring of these cows as athletes. It is commonly held among dairy farmers and dairy nutritionists that cows bred for these enhanced capacities would starve on pasture-based diets. Cow-athletes instead require energy-dense diets that farmers and nutritionists carefully “balance”, meaning that the requirements of the cow are equivalent to the nutrition provided. In working to find this balance, farmers and nutritionists seek to attune to the mysterious workings of the rumen microbial universe. The rumen, one of four chambers in a cow’s stomach, is a capacious fermentation vat that enables cows to digest fibrous plant materials through symbiotic interaction with a responsive ecology of microbial symbionts. While the ecological diversity within cow rumens is only partially understood, nutritional science discourses come to bear on these mysterious workings with visions of fine-tuning the digestion of the athlete-cow. As nutritionists attempt to push this microbial universe toward speedier conversion of feed into the metabolic acids necessary for increased milk production and to meet the energy needs of cows, they must engage what I call dietary prostheses. These prostheses, in the form of antibiotics and buffering agents, attempt to make production diets that would otherwise be toxic for cows digestible. Despite this fine-tuning, I argue that capitalist dreams of speedy digestion entail keeping cows in a state of indigestion. Further, this indigestion is not contained within the cow. The indigestion of speedy diets is implicated in the appearance of the industrial organism, Escherichia coli O157:H7, which can cause severe illness and death in humans. In this paper, I examine cascades of indigestion through attention to matters of scale that confound the divisions of body/environment and micro/macro.


My paper, “A Plantation inside the Cow: Capitalist Indigestions and the Rumen Microbial Universe,” is based on long-term dissertation fieldwork in the dairy worlds of Wisconsin. I examine how farmers and dairy nutritionists work to speed up dairy cow digestion through diet design and energy-dense feeds. The treatment of ruminant digestion as a plantation—an agricultural system built to enable the rapid extraction of value with little or no regard for the interconnected relations that make up the larger ecology—leads to cascading forms of harm, or what I call capitalist indigestions. Capitalist indigestions are characterized not by the inability to produce, but rather by increased production through debilitating methods of biotechnical optimization. My paper engages the stakes of production-diets through an examination of the technical practices of diet design and the routine forms of repair that capitalist indigestions require.

High-energy diets are not purely designed to push for production; they are also a form of care. Dairy farmers and experts consider contemporary dairy cows to be different from the figure of the primordial cow living in harmony with grasslands. Instead, Wisconsin dairy farmers and nutritionists engage cows as “athletes” capable of feats of unprecedented milk production. These athlete-cows would, it is commonly held, starve on a diet of grass and hay. Thus, a high-energy diet becomes both a means to make cows more productive but also a means to care for and support athlete-cows.

This investigation of dairy diet design and human-cow-microbe interactions is based on a chapter from my recently completed dissertation. My 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. While Wisconsin dairy is frequently described as showing “latent industrialization,” my research shows that industrialization is happening at the scale of dairy cow bodies. I trace this bioindustrialization through historical trajectories of agricultural species improvement and the amplification of these trends through the biotechnology boom of the last 40 years. Organized around key bodily systems—palates, rumens, genes, hormones, and udders—my dissertation unfolds the implications of making cows more (re)productive. Through this unfolding, the multiple spatiotemporalities of production and the pursuit of efficiency become visible as material ways that cow bodies are optimized. 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 and repair in order to hold cow bodies together as efficient producers.

Indigestion shows up in unlikely places. Here is a cow receiving routine hoof care for a diet-related ailment. Photo by the author.

This project contributes to contemporary conversations in environmental anthropology regarding the implications of industrial capitalism and production for human-nonhuman lifeways. In a recent conversation on the Anthropocene, Donna Haraway proposed the term “Plantationocene” to signal how techniques for forced fertility, labor exploitation, ecosystem simplification, and extraction undergird the troubles of the current times (Haraway et al 2016). Furthermore, anthropologists have shown how the development of plantation systems fueled European settler-colonialism and shaped early industrial practices in Europe (Mintz 1986, Tsing 2012).

My paper argues that the simplification of ecosystems, or a “plantation approach” to agricultural production, operates not only on the scale of global world systems or crop fields but also within the gut of dairy cows. And yet, the capitalist indigestions—debilitating effects of industrial and plantation-style approaches to production—spread out from the bodies of cows. For example, manure has a habit of being unruly. It shows up in spinach, ground beef, and drinking wells. Thus, the transformation of cow digestion means the transformation of land- and water-scapes that are sometimes well-removed from the farms themselves. For example, manure contributes not only to frequent “fish kills” in Wisconsin lakes and rivers, but also to the dead zone in the Gulf of New Mexico. So connected are the dairy landscapes of Wisconsin and the Gulf of Mexico, that when Wisconsin has dry weather—leading to less nutrient-rich runoff from manure-covered fields—the dead zone shrinks. Meanwhile on farms, emerging biotechnologies co-produce (Jasanoff 2004) cow-human relations. As farmers and agricultural experts seek to change the bodies of their cows and the productive capacities of living organisms, they also must grapple with the shifts that these technological changes imply for their everyday work, their farms, and their communities.


Works Cited

Haraway, Donna, et al. 2016. “Anthropologists are Talking: About the Anthropocene.” Ethnos 81(3):535-564.

Jasanoff, Sheila. 2004. States of Knowledge: The Co-Production of Science and the Social Order. New York: Routledge.

Mintz, Sidney Wilfred. 1986. Sweetness and Power: The Place of Sugar in Modern History. New York: Penguin.

Tsing, Anna. 2012. “Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companion Species: for Donna Haraway.” Environmental Humanities 1(1):141-154.


Katy Overstreet holds a PhD in Cultural Anthropology from the University of California Santa Cruz. In addition, she earned a PhD in Anthropology from Aarhus University as a fellow with the Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene (AURA) project. Her work is situated at the nexus of multispecies ethnography, social studies of agriculture, STS, and Anthropocene studies.


This post is part of our series, 2018 Roy A. Rappaport Prize Finalists.