October 20, 2023
by Jim Massey
There’s more than one way to improve cattle handling skills on the dairy farm, a University of Wisconsin-Madison animal welfare researcher has found.
Jennifer Van Os, an assistant professor and Extension specialist in animal welfare in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences Animal and Dairy Sciences Department, has developed a serious video game that she believes could transform training in farm animal handling. The innovative learning tool allows people to practice appropriate cow handling skills in simulated dairy farm environments and get immediate feedback on how their actions affect cow behavior, stress and productivity.
The game, dubbed “Mooving Cows,” was developed with feedback from Wisconsin dairy farmers and Spanish- and English-speaking staff who work with cows daily. It is designed to provide an alternative to traditional animal handling training resources such as videos and lectures.
Van Os unveiled the new game during an educational seminar in October at World Dairy Expo.
“Farmers were asking me for better resources to train their staff members, and I got the idea that maybe we need something more hands-on, more interactive, more engaging, than things like videos,” Van Os says. “Literature has shown that serious games produce better learning and retention than other education methods, so I decided to give it a try.”
Van Os says research has shown that when cows are handled properly, the risk of injuries to cattle and people is reduced. That can, in turn, affect the efficiency of the milking operation as well as the cows’ productivity. Proper cow handling can also affect consumer perception of the dairy industry.
According to a USDA report, as of 2018, only 55% of dairy farmers provided training to their workforce specifically on moving and handling cows. Van Os says that leaves a lot of opportunity where farmers might need better resources or training in this area.
Van Os sought grants to move the project forward and then hired a local video game programming company to develop a prototype. From there, Wisconsin dairy industry representatives were asked for feedback, and changes were made to make the game more realistic.
The game includes eight levels, and at the end of each level, participants get a score. If their gaming actions cause too much stress on the simulated animals, they can stay at a level and try again until they pass. At the end of the game, after completing all eight levels, they receive a certificate of completion.
Completing the game can qualify to fulfill continuing education credits for those who work directly with animals.
“It’s a method of active rather than passive learning,” Van Os says. “Watching a video or listening to a lecture is passive. If you’re playing a game, you’re engaging, and it’s much more active. It can give you immediate feedback.”
The game also provides participants a safe environment where they can deliberately make mistakes and learn from them — which wouldn’t necessarily be a good idea in real life.
Because the Wisconsin dairy workforce has changed, with many more Spanish-speaking workers than in years past, the game is offered in both English and Spanish. It was developed for a wide variety of literacy levels and was carefully designed to be culturally appropriate.
Researchers surveyed users to determine if the game was effective in helping them learn proper animal handling skills, and the survey results were positive. “Mooving Cows” is currently available for Android devices but will soon be offered for Apple devices as well. The current version takes an average of 36 minutes to complete, but the research team is in the process of developing version 2.0 for public release with a target of less than 30 minutes.
“What we want people to take away is, when you use inappropriate animal handling practices with dairy cows, this can increase the cows’ fears and stress levels and result in a decrease in milk production,” Van Os says. “At the same time, the cows’ behavior can become more unpredictable and more dangerous, and this can reduce the safety of the workers.”
The concept of using video games to improve animal-handling skills could be adapted to other livestock species in the future, Van Os says.
Massey lives near Barneveld, Wis.
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