Video game teaches proper cow-handling skills

For more information, contact Jennifer Van Os at, 608-262-8896 or visit

By Jim Massey, Freelance writer

There’s more than one way to improve cow-handling skills on the dairy farm, a UW–Madison animal welfare researcher has found.

UW–Madison animal welfare researcher Jennifer Van Os has developed a video game called “Mooving Cows” that is designed to help dairy farm personnel improve animal-handling skills. The free game is now available for download in both the Apple and Google Play app stores. 

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.

The game is now publicly available to download and play. It is available free with no ads in both the iOS (Apple) and Google Play (Android) app stores. Details about the game, including app store links, are available at

“As a new state Extension specialist in 2018 I met with many dairy owners during farm visits or at industry and producer meetings,” Van Os says. “When I asked about their needs relating to animal welfare, the most common request I received was to come onsite to train personnel such as milkers on appropriate cow-handling techniques.”

Van Os got the idea that a more hands-on, interactive approach might be more engaging and effective than traditional training methods.

“Literature has shown that serious games produce better learning and retention than other education methods, so I decided to give it a try,” she says.

Van Os says research has shown that when cows are handled properly, the risk of injuries to cattle and people are reduced. That can in turn affect the efficiency of the milking operation as well as the cow’s productivity. Proper cow handling can also affect consumer perception of the dairy industry.

A USDA report showed that as of 2018, only 55 percent of dairy farmers provided training to their workforce specifically on moving and handling cows. Van Os surmised 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 the first prototype. Filament Games specializes in educational as opposed to entertainment videos. From there, the game was refined to be more realistic with input from more than 60 people in the Wisconsin dairy community, including dairy farm owners, milkers, dairy consultants and veterinarians.  

The game includes eight levels. At the end of each level, participants get a score. Players take on the role of a dairy farm worker. They are tasked with moving cows through routine barn environments, guided by in-game tutorials. To become better prepared to handle real-world situations, players navigate simulated challenges, such as peer pressure and unpredictable or dangerous cow behavior. 

 If their gaming actions cause too much stress on the simulated animals, participants 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.

Improper animal handling is one of the top animal welfare issues facing today’s dairy industry, Van Os says. Approximately 99 percent of U.S. dairy farms are evaluated against standards established by the Farmers Assuring Responsible Management (FARM) Animal Care program. As of 2020, version 4.0 of this program has required all farm personnel with animal-handling roles to document annual continuing education in appropriate handling techniques. 

Completing the “Mooving Cows” game can qualify to fulfill continuing education requirements for those who work directly with animals. There is no explicit CE “credit system for the FARM program, so employees just need to document that they had some kind of annual training/refresher on the topic. 

“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, things that 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. User feedback was incorporated to refine the game to version 1.1, which now takes about 30 minutes to complete. 

“What we want people to take away is when you use inappropriate animal-handling practices with dairy cows this can increase the cow’s fears and stress levels and result in a decrease in milk production,” Van Os says. “At the same time, the cow’s 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 sectors in the future, Van Os says. Plans also call for the game to be expanded to tackle other challenging cow-handling activities, such as loading a hoof-trimming chute.