New interactive video game teaches employees proper cow handling skills
When I started at UW-Madison as an extension specialist a few years ago, I asked Wisconsin dairy producers how I could help with their challenges around animal welfare. The most common request I got was to train milkers and other staff members on proper cow handling.
On dairy farms, routine handling of cows is necessary for milking or to provide animal care. Improper animal handling creates risks. People can become injured, sometimes severely. Also, rough treatment of cows causes them stress and even pain. This reduces animal welfare and productivity. Rough handling also increases the risk of negative consumer perception.
The FARM Animal Care program now requires that everyone with animal handling roles on dairy farms have annual continuing education on proper handling. To interact with cows safely and appropriately, people need to understand cow behavior. For example, you can take advantage of a cow’s flight zone to move her without force. Such concepts are well established, but people sometimes struggle to understand how to use them.
Dairy producers have indicated that lack of time, language barriers, or lack of training resources have stood in the way of providing training. There are many free video or text resources on animal handling. Since many farmers think resources are lacking, this suggests there are shortcomings in what is currently available.
One limitation of videos and articles is that these resources are passive. With passive learning, the person passively takes in information while they watch or read. In contrast, active learning, or learning-by-doing, is becoming a trend in classrooms because it is more effective. This can include activities like discussing a concept with others or practicing a skill hands-on. Applying a concept actively helps it stick better in your memory. In-person training on animal handling can include active learning. However, people may still not have the opportunity to practice dealing with some challenging but common situations.
In response to dairy producers’ requests for better training on animal handling, I led a project to develop a tool for active learning. Mooving Cows™ is a video game played on touchscreen tablets. Much like a flight simulator for pilots, Mooving Cows allows people to practice handling cows. In a digital game setting, we can remove the risks of causing stress or injury to real cows or people.
In addition, the game allows for unique features that are hard to achieve even with in-person training. For example, we can visualize a cow’s flight zone using animation. We can also simulate an encounter with a cow in heat, who acts unpredictably and can be dangerous.
Furthermore, the game overcomes some language barriers since it is available in both English and Spanish. We limited the amount of written text in the game, and there is voiceover narration in both languages.
While developing Mooving Cows, we collaborated with 30 people in the Wisconsin dairy community. They were dairy farm owners, milkers or other staff in cow handling roles, bilingual consultants and trainers, or veterinarians. We held focus groups in English and Spanish to get their feedback on a prototype of the game. Their input helped us make sure the game is relevant and appropriate for people to practice cow handling in a dairy farm setting.
In Version 1.0 of Mooving Cows, players focus on practicing routine cow movement for milking. There are simulated milking parlor and freestall pen environments. Players learn how their actions affect cow behavior, stress, and milk production. When they successfully complete all of the levels in the game, they earn a certificate. The certificate can be used as documentation for the FARM program.
The game is not yet publicly available. We are doing research to test how well people learn about appropriate cow handling by playing the game. We will incorporate additional feedback to improve Version 2.0 of the game. We are also collecting ideas to expand the game to more challenging animal handling situations.
If you are interested in learning more about Mooving Cows or have ideas for future game scenarios, please contact me by email (email@example.com).
Van Os is an Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist in Animal Welfare in the Department of Animal & Dairy Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison