We extend social theory to farm animals in an attempt to illustrate how non-human animals embedded in social systems can be examined using sociological concepts. Inspired by efforts to include the freedom to express natural behaviour in farm animal welfare standards, we apply Marx's conception of alienation to dairy cows.
We first examine industrial dairy farm conditions and find that these systems result in the distortion of life and the suppression of physical and social needs. We then explore alienation in an alternative production system where cows graze on pasture and choose when to be milked by robotic milking machines.
Based on farm visits and interviews with farmers, we find that this alternative system addresses several aspects of alienation found in industrial dairy farms. However, despite the benefits associated with alternative production systems, forms of alienation will persist in all systems where maximising profits remains prioritised over life and wellbeing.