Cow going to the toilet

Toilet-trained cows go to ‘MooLoo’ to lower waste emissions

Image credit: FBN

Researchers in Germany and New Zealand have demonstrated that cows can be taught to urinate and defaecate in a latrine, enabling waste to be collected and treated and lowering ammonia emissions.

On farms where cows relieve themselves as they graze, the accumulation and spread of cowpats and other waste can contaminate local soil and waterways. The alternative – confining cows in barns – does not only mean unhappier cows but also results in their urine and faeces combining to produce ammonia, an indirect greenhouse gas.

Although the ammonia produced in cow waste does not directly contribute to climate change, when it leaches into the soil, microbes convert it into nitrous oxide - the most significant greenhouse gas after methane and carbon dioxide. Agriculture is the largest source of ammonia emissions, with livestock farming making up over half of that contribution.

However, in uplifting bovine news this week, researchers have reported in Current Biology that cows can be toilet-trained. This enables waste to be collected and treated, thereby keeping barns clean, reducing air pollution and permitting the creation of more open, animal-friendly farms.

“It’s usually assumed that cattle are not capable of controlling defecation or urination,” said Dr Jan Langbein, an animal psychologist at the Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology in Germany. “[But] cattle, like many other animals or farm animals, are quite clever and they can learn a lot. Why shouldn’t they be able to learn how to use a toilet?”

The researchers began a training scheme for calves, which they named 'MooLoo' training. Together with partners from Friedrich-Loeffler-Institut and the University of Auckland, they worked backwards. They began by rewarding the calves when they urinated in the latrine, before allowing the calves to approach the latrines from outside when they needed to urinate.

To encourage latrine use, the researchers wanted the calves to associate urination outside the latrine with an unpleasant experience. “As a punishment, we first used in-ear headphones and we played a very nasty sound whenever they urinated outside,” continued Langbein. “We thought this would punish the animals, not too aversively, but they didn’t care. Ultimately, a splash of water worked well as a gentle deterrent.”

Over the course of a few weeks, the research team successfully trained 11 out of the 16 calves in the experiment. The calves’ performance was comparable to that of children and superior to that of very young children.

Langbein is optimistic that, with more training, this success rate can be improved on. “After 10, 15, 20 years of researching with cattle, we know that animals have a personality and they handle different things in a different way. They are not all the same.”

Now that the researchers have demonstrated it is possible to toilet-train cows, they hope to transfer their results into real cattle housing and pastures. Langbein is hopeful that “in a few years, all cows will go to a toilet”.

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