A virtual reality (VR) program is helping students at the University of Adelaide develop livestock handling skills and confidence, without setting foot in a cattle yard. 

Key points:

  • The University of Adelaide has developed a world-first virtual reality cattle handling experience
  • The program is designed to make courses that involve live animals safer for the students and the animals
  • Virtual reality is being used in many areas of the university’s teaching to assist learning

VR is a three-dimensional environment generated by computers or cameras, which people can explore using special headsets or mobile devices.

In the cattle handling experience at the university, the students have to move the cattle between yards using the animal handling techniques they have learnt in class.

Animal science student Bobby Lewis Baida explained how she approached moving three virtual head of cattle from one yard into another using their flight zone and point of balance.

“So [the way is] walking in on their shoulder, not walking behind them in their blind spot, or getting too close,” Ms Lewis Baida said.

In 2019 Dr Mandi Carr, Lecturer in the Department of Animal Health and Production at the University of Adelaide came up with the idea and began working Think Digital — an Adelaide company that specialises in virtual reality production in agriculture. 

A woman wearing a white wide-brimmed hat kneeling on concrete smiles at the camera while patting a dark brown cow.

Dr Mandi Carr has more than 20 years experience working with cattle across Australia.(

Supplied: Dr Mandi Carr

)

Last year the program was rolled out as the four animal degrees at the university — Bachelor of Science (Animal Behaviour) or (Animal Science), Bachelor of Veterinary Technology and Bachelor of Science (Veterinary Bioscience). 

While it doesn’t replace working with live animals, Dr Carr believed given a lot of students come into the University programs without any livestock knowledge, the program has improved the student’s confidence and safety.

“You don’t want them to them to get hurt in the yards and you don’t want the animal’s welfare at risk whatsoever,” Dr Carr said. 

“So,to be able to utilise a virtual world and immerse themselves in some sort of technology to start with allows us to actually use the live animals better. It’s more effective teaching, the learning outcomes are achieved much better, and the students enjoy it,” Dr Carr said.

The University has expanded the VR program to also teach students how to do clinical exams and learn surgical techniques. 

“We have the Haptic Cow program which allows us to teach virtual pregnancy testing. We can do post-mortems. There are lots of things we can do that allow us to save animals usage and make sure we are looking after their welfare,” Dr Carr said. 

Agriculture embracing virtual reality

The University spent $100,000 on the project and Think Digital CEO Cat Bidstrup said it was exciting to develop the first program of its kind.

“When you’re creating a spreadsheet of cattle behaviour that you then need to program into virtual reality it certainly does feel like new ground,” Ms Bidstrup said. 

The cattle handling experience is virtual reality, but the company is also working on augmented reality (AR). 

Augmented reality is when you bring digital objects into the real world and Ms Bidstrup said the company wanted to use the AR technology to help a farmer improve productivity.

“You can use it for things like task allocation and training information,” she said.

“If you’ve got new staff and they’re out on the property and they don’t know how to use a piece of equipment you could have that information available (in AR form visible through AR glasses for example).

“All of a sudden they’ve got their hands free, and they can actually start that cranky pump down by the dam.”

VR keeps students safe while learning livestock skills
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