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Monday, May 3, 2010

Everyone seems to be on Twitter these days, now even 12 Ontario cows

TORONTO - Twitter has been put out to pasture with the addition of 12 Ontario cows to the long list of people who are sharing their thoughts with the world.

What does a cow have to say, you might ask?

"I just squirted 20.4 kgs of milk out of my teats in 10:28 seconds. What did you do today?" offers Charge Gina, one of the bovine additions to the 140-character universe.

OK, maybe Gina didn't exactly write the message herself. The Teat Tweet Dairy Diary is an art project conceived by the critical media lab at the University of Waterloo, with the help of Brant, Ont., farmer Chris Vandenberg and his favourite cows, including Frosty Lace, Jerry J Lo and Kurt Appeal.

Vandenberg runs a high-tech farm where cows are robotically milked and end up tweeting about it to the world. The farm has been equipped to automatically send messages to Twitter after the cows are milked and fed.

The cows must gain access to a locked area via RFID (radio-frequency identification) tags attached to their ears. The tags use radio waves to let the cows in when it's the right time for another milking.

So here's another example of a recent tweet.

"Can't get in. My RFID transponder must be dirty. I'll give it a lick and see what happens," tweeted Montgomery Mae recently.

"Tried again. Wish I could read that robot's mind," wrote Morty Fy, after getting denied entry. "That robot still won't let me in there. What is it thinking? I'll explode!" she added five minutes later.

"10.1 kg of frothy deliciousness for the humans," Mae bragged. "Ever squirt out 11.0 kg of lactate in 3:23 seconds? I have."

Prof. Marcel O'Gorman, director of the university lab, said the project encourages people to think about the impact of technology on society in general and the connection we have with our food.

"We have this romantic view of this bucolic countryside and the farmer getting up with his pail and milking the cows by hand . . . but it's a really high-tech process that's going on," O'Gorman said.

The team also was interested to learn how automated milking has strained the farmer's relationship with livestock.

 "What they found was the robots liberated the cows and enslaved the farmers, it kind of upset their daily rhythms of life," O'Gorman said.

"The farmers were used to getting up, bringing the cows into the dairy parlour - which is not a low-tech thing to begin with - having them all milked in an hour or so and then doing the same thing in the afternoon. It was all under control.

"With a robotic system, the cows literally milk themselves."

Vandenberg has found reading the cows' tweets has helped reconnect them again, at least online.

"He thought it was hilarious that he had this new kind of relationship with his cows, because farmers using this (robotic) system are kind of encouraged not to interact with your cows at all anymore," O'Gorman said.

"Now he has them on his Blackberry . . . and he knows what they're doing, what they're up to."

O'Gorman said the project is expected to last a year and will eventually take at least one or two unfortunate turns.

"A couple of these cows, as Chris put it, will probably be sent off to McDonald's," he said.

"The idea was to capture that whole cycle and that would enable us to get into some of the realities of dairy farming. Someone who's following these tweets will know that their cow was sent off."

There seems to be one particular message the cows are hoping to impart before their time on the farm is up, given the frequency they keep retweeting it.

"Eat more chicken."



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