Scientists potty train cows to help save the planet

    21 Sep 2021

    New Zealand and German researchers have successfully toilet-trained cows, hoping this can help reduce water contamination and greenhouse gas emissions.

    University of Auckland researchers Lindsay Matthews and Douglas Elliffe worked with 16 calves at a farm operated by the Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology in Germany.

    Alongside their German colleagues, the pair demonstrated that most calves could be trained to “hold it,” they said in a statement.

    Cow urine is high in nitrogen, so if cows could be trained to urinate in a “toilet” at least some of the time, nitrogen could be captured and dealt with before it polluted water or turned into nitrous oxide gas, BNA reports according to Deutsche press agency (dpa).

    If the cows began to urinate in the wrong place, scientists would make their collars vibrate. Calves were rewarded with food if they urinated in the latrine pen, also known as the MooLoo, which was bright green to differentiate it from other pens.

    “This is how some people train their children – they put them on the toilet, wait for them to pee, then reward them if they do it,” said Matthews.

    “Turns out it works with calves too.”

    By the end of 15 days of training, three-quarters of the animals were doing three-quarters of their urinations in the toilet.

    “If we could collect 10% or 20% of urinations, it would be sufficient to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and nitrate leaching significantly,” said Elliffe.

    “People’s reaction is, ‘crazy scientists,’ but actually, the building blocks are there,” said Matthews.

    The ammonia from cows’ urine turns into the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide when it’s mixed with soil.

    Worldwide, about 10% of all greenhouse gas emissions from human activities come from cattle.

    Researchers attempted to teach 16 cows to use the toilet, dubbed the “MooLoo,” at a farm owned by the Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology.

    The animals were placed in the MooLoo pen and were rewarded with food for urinating. After this, they were then placed in an area next to the MooLoo and rewarded for walking into the pen and urinating.

    Those who urinated outside of the MooLoo were sprayed with water for three seconds.

    As part of the third stage of training, the distance from the toilet was extended, and the rewards and punishments continued.

    By the end of the ten training sessions, researchers found that 11 of the animals were successfully toilet trained.

    “Very quickly, within 15 to 20 urinations on average, the cows would self-initiate entry to the toilet,” Lindsay Matthews, a researcher involved in the study, told Radio New Zealand.

    “By the end, three-quarters of the animals were doing three-quarters of their urinations in the toilet,” he said.

    “The calves showed a level of performance comparable to that of children and superior to that of very young children,” the study said.

    Researchers say that capturing 80% of cattle urine in a model like the MooLoo could lead to a 56% reduction in ammonia emissions.

    They also say that reducing urine levels in the animals’ living areas will improve their hygiene and welfare.


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