RumiNation | S05 : E12

Tools for Cow Handling at the Farm Level

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Tools for Cow Handling at the Farm Level

with Dr. Jennifer Van Os

Rumination 5.12

16.44 min

In this episode, Chris discusses the importance of active learning, the development of the Moving Cows educational video game for cow handling, and the need for ongoing training in dairy animal welfare with Dr. Jennifer Van Os of UW-Madison.

Our guest - Dr. Jennifer Van Os

Research in her lab at UW-Madison focuses on understanding, evaluating, and improving the welfare of dairy animals from biological- and social-science perspectives. The goal of Dr. Van Os’ extension program is to promote best practices in management and housing to help the dairy industry adapt as our scientific knowledge about animal welfare continues to grow.

[Learn more about Dr. Van Os


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Timestamps & Summary

Chris Gwyn (01:28)
Can you explain what brought you to the study of cow handling specifically?

Dr. Jennifer Van Os
I started here at UW Madison about five and a half years ago, and as you mentioned, I’m in an applied research and extension outreach role. And so, I think it’s really important that all the work that I do resonates with my dairy stakeholders. And so, when I was new, I went around and met with a number of Wisconsin dairy farmers and other people in the industry to ask them what are the challenges they face when it comes to animal welfare on their farms and what are their needs, how could my research and extension program help? So, one of the most popular requests that I got at the time was, could you please come to my farm and train my employees on the proper handling of dairy cows? And I found that a bit surprising that that was a need that kept coming up again and again, and unfortunately, it was not efficient for me to go around and fulfill this request. But it really got me thinking, how can I direct my research program to try to fill this need that people are asking for better training resources?


Chris Gwyn (02:33)
Recently in a presentation you did, you showed some older data from 2018 on what the status of training at the farm level for farm employees interacting with cows was. And you quoted 55% of US dairies providing training on moving or handling dairy cows. And I found this surprisingly low. So, I’m wondering in your work and extension, do you feel in 2023 that this number of 55% is still pretty relevant?

Dr. Jennifer Van Os
I agree with you, it’s surprising. So, those data were from the United States Department of Agriculture and they are now about at least five years out of date. […]

But to your question about whether this landscape has changed, I would say I hope so. […]

Now the Farm Animal Care Program, in which 99% of our US. Dairy farms participate, they have an explicit expectation that anyone who works on the farm in an animal touch role, whether they’re a milker or calf care staff, need to show annual continuing education in cow handling or calf handling. […]

I know that in the past years, this has been a significant area of noncompliance where people are still struggling to find the time or the right resources to be able to do this sort of education.


Chris Gwyn (05:04)
The concept of low-stress cow movement and working in flight zones […] is pretty well established, yet I understand from some of your work that applying this concept is a challenge. I’m wondering why this is and what can be done to improve this adoption.

Dr. Jennifer Van Os
I think that’s a great question. And that was part of why I was so surprised when I moved here that farmers were asking me for more resources and more training. Because you’re right, these principles about the flight zone and using the cow’s natural behavior to move them. It’s very well established, and we know that it works. […]

There was a way I learned in the classroom and in theory, and then there was a way I learned on the farm. And those things didn’t always match. […]

There has been a trend in the last few years towards what’s called active learning. […]

You might understand the concept of the flight zone, and be able to answer a quiz, but then when you are actually out there with the cows, these other real-life factors come into play. And so, I think that maybe we need resources that are more engaging, more active, and not just passive learning.


Chris Gwyn (07:18)
I believe you’re in the process of developing a tool for cow handling training, the Moving Cows educational video game. I’m wondering if you give the listening audience an overview and an update on this project.

Dr. Jennifer Van Os
Yeah, I’m so excited about this. So after dairy producers asked me for better training on cow handling, I kind of put this on the back burner and thought, I can’t be going out to every farm and training their staff how to do this because I need to run a research program. But then inspiration kind of struck out of the blue. I’m not much of a video gamer myself, but my father-in-law is a retired commercial airline pilot. And I think most people are familiar with the idea that before a pilot can fly a plane, even if they’re very experienced if they’re flying a new aircraft, they have to go through the flight simulator. It’s too expensive and too dangerous to put somebody in the cockpit of a plane unless they’ve had some kind of practice. So, this was the idea I had for cow handling, that we have these passive resources like books or videos that teach you the principles of the flight zone. But to be able to actually put those practices into action, maybe we need a simulator. […]

Moving Cows, version one was finished earlier this year, but we kept it private […] But in the meantime, we’ve compiled a lot of feedback from people who work on farms, dairy employees, dairy owners, consultants in the industry, veterinarians to get their input and make sure this game is relevant for them. And so, we’ve now compiled that feedback and we’re working on version two of the game. So that’s currently in process and we’re hoping to have a public release by early 2024. So, you can look for it in the Google Play Store as well as iTunes for Apple devices. […]


Chris Gwyn (14:25)
Some key take-home messages that producers, nutritionists, and veterinarians, and industry influencers you feel should have taken away from today’s podcast?

Dr. Jennifer Van Os
I think the first takeaway is something we didn’t explicitly discuss, but I want to make it explicit, which is a lot of people don’t realize that animal welfare is a science. […]

The second take-home message is about learning, which is there is definitely a place for traditional or passive learning. Those resources are very valuable. We’re producing some of those ourselves. But when we’re thinking about people being able to retain concepts and practice them and learn by doing, that’s where active learning comes into play. […]

And then the last one is: if you would like to test out the game, hopefully, that will become available soon, my door is always open. Please email me if you have any questions. And I really can’t wait to put this out there and hope that it can help the industry and help people feel more confident in their jobs.

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