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Taking a closer look
As part of her ongoing research, Ph.D. candidate Katy Overstreet, center, tags along with John Binversie, an animal nutritionist with Landmark Services Cooperative, on a visit out to Truttman Dairy LLC in Blanchardville Wednesday. (Times photo: Anthony Wahl)
BELLEVILLE - Rather than treating their cows like numbers, a cultural anthropologist has found that Wisconsin farmers behave towards their cows differently than pigs or chickens.

"At hog or chicken farms they tend to treat them just as numbers, while in dairy they have a lot more invested in their animals," Katy Overstreet said.

Overstreet, of Belleville, has been gathering research to write a dissertation and earn her Ph.D., work that initially started out as a food study on corn production but later shifted to studying farmers raising dairy cows.

Overstreet began her graduate work in 2009 under two schools, University of California-Santa Cruz and Aarhus University in Denmark. She is originally from California but wanted to broaden her research to include a larger scale.

"It's a very local project, but it has global impacts including tech and cultural influences used in dairy and consumption," Overstreet said.

She has been tagging along with veterinarians and interviewing farmers in Dane and Green counties to write an expansive dissertation she said will hopefully shed light on local farming practices impacting a global scale.

"I really fell in love with dairy ... farmers have interesting relationships to their cows and their genealogies," she said.

Overstreet is almost finished gathering her research and will move back to Denmark in December to begin writing a dissertation she said could take her about a year to finish since she will be teaching at the same time. She said there has been a lot of interest in her study at Aarhus, and she hopes to enlighten others to the way Wisconsin farms. She said dairy farming in Denmark is less personal, and the use of robots for milking and cleaning is widespread.

Overstreet chose not to limit her study to any one breed of dairy cow or to any certain size of farm. Most of her research was culled from smaller farms but has ranged hobby farms of a few cattle to large farms with 500 or more head. She analyzed the different processes small and large farms utilize, like growing their own feed versus buying feed, or hand-milking opposed to having a robot milk. She said she has seen larger farms adopting robotics for milking and cleanup sooner, and smaller farmers adopting new technology later, leading to inequality between small and large farms in technology.

She has a focus in mind for her dissertation concerning the cultural side to dairy production and farmers' relationship to their cows, one that relies less on hard science.

"It's tricky that I have an anthropological dissertation; I don't want to call it hard science or physical science, though I will use some scientific techniques. I think part of the study will pay attention to the everyday workings of dairy farming," she said.

Overstreet said when she first began interviewing farmers and joining veterinarians on trips to farms, many assumed she was from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

"That is not the focus here, but some did treat me as a little bit of a weirdo," she said.

She said people warmed up to her quickly, and she has felt very welcomed by the local communities. She has witnessed many other activities beyond just dairy farming, like watching a nutritionist screen cows' fecal matter to determine their diet and what adjustments could be made to advance cattle's diet. John Binversie is one such nutritionist for Landmark Services Co-op, and he said he works with farmers to build a management plan for their cattle after screening their fecal matter.

"We will build a nutrition management plan with health goals," Binversie said. "I can actually get into cropping acres to plant for specific crops and when to chop and how to store it."

Joining veterinarians or nutritionists on trips has helped build easy trust with people quickly, Overstreet said.

"It works a lot better than just cold-calling and they think I'm selling something," she said.

Being a cultural anthropologist attuned to the way different people act towards one another, she said she has noticed marked differences in the way Wisconsinites interact with people compared to her native Californians.

"It took me a while to catch on to the level of sarcasm here as modes of joking," she said. "I really had to learn that when they are making fun of you, it means they really care about you."

Overstreet has been living with an elderly couple married for 70 years in Belleville whom she calls her "adoptive grandparents," and have helped her join an already tight-knit community.

Overstreet has been performing her study with help from the National Science Foundation, UC-Santa Cruz Department of Anthropology, the Center for Science and Justice, Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene funded by the Danish Research Council and the Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems.