With hardworking students at home and exhibitors holding their breath to see if they will be able to show their animals at their county fair this year, the Wisconsin Youth Livestock Program, UW-Madison Animal Sciences and the Division of Extension have teamed up to host a series of virtual farm tours of their agricultural research stations in Arlington and Lancaster as an educational piece, as well as something to keep youth engaged during a strange time in history.

“The virtual tours have been something I’ve always had in the back of mind because I enjoy webinar activities, especially for the youth,” said Bernie O’Rourke, Youth Livestock Specialist in UW-Madison’s Department of Animal Sciences. “And with COVID-19, the idea became reality because of that.”

Held on Zoom each Friday beginning April 17 and ending May 8, the tours have been well attended by youth and families of all grade levels. Lots of good questions have been asked, O’Rourke said, and there has even been some interest in careers in agriculture from listeners after visiting each unit.

“The career aspect has been a fun part of the tours,” O’Rourke said. “The objective of the virtual tours is to show off the units and to show the people of Wisconsin what we do there and how we help educate. We want the future youth to stay viable and through these ways, they get exposed to what a career in agriculture might look like.”

The virtual farm tours are each led by staff at the UW agricultural research stations, sharing facts and information on their jobs and the tasks they complete each day while working on the farm. It’s a great way to give kids something to do related to animals, O’Rourke said, while also engaging urban and suburban groups in agriculture.

“There’s usually lots going on in each unit this time of year and lots of ways to teach about animal care,” she added.

Staff at each agriculture research station were on board with the idea of the virtual farm tour, O’Rourke said. When she called them together to share her idea, everyone was 100% in and some even had other ideas to help make the virtual tours better.

They’ve been meeting weekly to finalize the week’s tour and discuss data collected from the previous tour to see how they can make the experience better for those tuning in. It’s been a neat working group, O’Rourke said, who have come together to promote something positive during a stressful time.

“Animals help destress us,” she said. “We’ve been getting great feedback and many are just appreciative of the opportunity to learn.”

While O’Rourke intended the virtual farm tours to serve as something students could watch and learn from, she has also found that agriculture teachers at high schools across Wisconsin have also expressed an interest in the videos. Ag teachers felt fortunate to have a tool like the farm tour video available to show their students while schools are closed at the moment.

“It was an audience that I didn’t anticipate,” O’Rourke said.

Fair exhibitors can also watch the videos and receive educational credits before fair season begins. She said a form is available online to fill out if an exhibitor watched for credit; it can be found by visiting https://fyi.extension.wisc.edu/youthlivestock/2020/04/15/virtualfarmtours.

Other resources are also available on the Wisconsin Youth Livestock Program website, including brochures on each unit, fact sheets, puzzles and coloring book pages to help connect with the tour.

The first tour featured the sheep unit at Arlington Ag Research Station, under the direction of Todd Taylor. Because of sheep unit’s national recognition, people from 16 different states tuned in live to that virtual tour.

Also at Arlington, the second tour featured the swine unit, with swine unit manager Kadi Walsh explaining to listeners how swine at this farm are part of a closed herd. Walsh also explored biosecurity, and listeners were able to take a peek at the surgery suite at that unit.

The swine tour was an especially neat opportunity as most swine operations are kept inside buildings, with not many provided the opportunity to see what goes on inside those operations, O’Rourke said. People tuned into that live tour from Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa, with listeners as far north as Polk and Barron counties to the counties in the southern part of the state.

Last week’s tour focused on the beef units at Arlington and Lancaster, with O’Rourke hopeful those watching were able to see a newborn baby calf. Listeners learned about baby calves at the Lancaster station with Arin Crooks, while Caleb Karls shared information about nutrition and feeding of calves and cows at the Arlington station.

The final virtual farm tour will be held on Friday, May 8, at 1 p.m. and feature the Farm Center, feed mill, test plots and headquarters at Arlington Ag Research Station. This tour will have an “agronomy twist,” O’Rourke said. She is hopeful the weather will cooperate and staff will be able to get into those test plots and do a little planting for those watching the tour.

This tour will also feature tractors and other implements.

Registration for the virtual farm tour is available at https://tinyurl.com/y72pbljb.

The Zoom meeting can accommodate up to 300 listeners, and with the first two tours, O’Rourke said they were toeing the line. She was a little nervous as the numbers continued to grow but grateful that people were tuning in. All virtual farm tour videos have also been recorded and added to the Wisconsin Youth Livestock Program YouTube channel, so anyone can watch them again at any time.

From data collected from the surveys following the tours, O’Rourke has been able to determine about 60% of the listeners are from a rural area while 40% are from towns/cities/central cities, she said. There are a lot of 4-H and FFA kids, but about 15% of those listening aren’t part of an ag organization, which leaves room for them to spark an interest to join after watching the farm tour.

“It’s neat to see the tours are attracting rural kids and hitting a lot of urban and suburban audiences too,” O’Rourke said. “There are opportunities to do more of this in the future. And as we see how COVID-19 evolves, we will do more of these things.”