Using Video to Virtually Teach Animal Handling

October 1st, 2020

By Amber Friedrichsen

While many classes this semester have moved online, one class in particular has moved to the farm. Virtually, that is.

Anna Johnson, Iowa State University professor of animal behavior and welfare, has focused on video production to give her students a high quality education through their computer screens.

Students in Animal Science 336 would typically meet three times per week: two days for lecture and one for lab. However, delivery this semester is completely online due to COVID-19. 

As the course instructor, Johnson dedicated much of her summer to creating virtual labs and other online content. With help from the Iowa State Brenton Center for Agricultural Instruction and Technology Transfer, she has been able to provide a transparent and thorough virtual learning experience for her students. 

The first lab is called “Designing the Environment,” which allows students to see a farm through the eyes of cattle. Filming at a cow’s-eye-view, Johnson instructed her class to watch the videos with an animal’s perspective and identify unfamiliar objects.

“They walk through and find things that may cause [cattle] not to move forward or flow as smoothly as we may like,” Johnson said. “I would place a coat or a handling tool or some boots out there and I wanted them to find it. I want them to be the animal.” 

When students put themselves in the animal’s shoes – or hooves – it helps them understand the animal’s behavior. Johnson explained that humans can prevent handling accidents if they are aware of what animals are experiencing. 

Another example of one of Johnson’s virtual labs took place at ISU's Beef Teaching Farm. The lab’s objectives focused on professional, correct handling of cattle. 

“We worked on point of balance, blind spots, flight zones and how to work cattle using your body only,” Johnson said.

A third lab demonstrated a complete welfare assessment on a sow, and the fourth took place at the ISU Dairy Farm where students learned about scoring cattle for lameness. Each lab includes an introduction and background on the topic, as well as learning outcomes, assignments, quizzes and exams.

Outside of the classroom, Johnson is conducting research on swine mortality and piglets’ transition to the nursery. She also works in extension for the university and has received the Outstanding Achievement in Extension and Outreach Award for her work.

“I go on the farm to meet producers, talk to caretakers, see animals and figure out why they are struggling, which shapes my research,” Johnson said. “Results from there go back to extension and back to the classroom. It’s like a beautiful cycle - if done correctly.”

Johnson’s career in animal behavior and welfare began well before her employment at Iowa State. Growing up in Suffolk, England, she worked for a local sheep producer where her main job was to feed lambs that had been neglected by their mothers.

At the University of Reading, Johnson took an elective course regarding animal behavior and welfare and discovered her passion for the topic. This led to further education at the University of Edinburgh where she received a master’s in applied animal behavior and animal welfare, and at Texas Tech University where she received a doctorate in animal science. 

Johnson has worked with many different species like sheep and dairy cattle, but her major focus of study has been with swine. She made her debut into the swine industry with a position on the National Pork Board in 2002. Her approach to swine welfare has produced cutting edge research and results.

“It was an area that was getting more and more questions asked by consumers who had concerns with practices on the swine farm,” Johnson said. “I was able to work with my committee to fund research related to topics such as swine housing, pain mitigation, exportation and more.”

Johnson and her committee created the Swine Welfare Assessment Program, or SWAP. This program included swine care handbooks, fact sheets and training for producers. 

Prior to Johnson’s work with the National Pork Board, animal welfare hadn’t been addressed in ways specific to the U.S. For example, swine are often transported across the country at a young age to be fed and finished in different states.

"Weaned pigs in, say, North Carolina are being transported over to the Midwest to be finished,” Johnson explained. “That’s a long distance to travel with a lot of geographical changes and temperature swings.”

Observations like these in the U.S. swine industry allowed Johnson and her colleagues to make improvements to animal well-being and provide producers with up-to-date information on best handling practices.

Today, Johnson remains committed to advancing animal welfare. Her interests lie in proper euthanasia practices, human-animal interaction and even understanding the emotional component on the caretaker’s end. 

“We are always trying to balance the production systems we have with animal needs,” Johnson said. “It’s a fine-tuning balance. I think enrichment across the species is going to be more of an ask among consumers over the next several years.”