Scientists Toilet-Trained 16 Cows in 15 Days to Curb Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Holy cow!
Derya Ozdemir
A peeing cow.catolia/iStock

Can potty-training cows pave the way for more ecologically friendly farms? These scientists appear to believe so. 

While much of the conversation about environmental issues stemming from the agriculture business focuses on methane emissions from cattle due to them being notoriously gassy creatures, cow urine is another issue for both air and land health that is frequently disregarded.

Cow urine contains a high percentage of nitrate, a chemical that, when comes into touch with soil, causes land contamination and pollution of neighboring rivers if not adequately managed. It also emits nitrous oxide, which is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, but the trouble doesn't stop there. As urine and feces react and break down, this process produces ammonia, further contributing to greenhouse gas emissions. These problems are worsened by the fact that millions of cows are allowed to relieve themselves anytime they are on the field. In a recently published study in the journal Cell Biology, researchers from the University of Auckland and the Federal Research Institute for Animal Health in Germany have recently presented a possible solution to this issue.

While earlier experiments had little success and suggested that cows couldn't be potty trained, this new study demonstrates that they can in fact learn to hold it in and only relieve themselves in a certain location. Moreover, they can do so about as reliably as young children, per Scimex

Experiment MooLoo

The researchers were able to educate 16 calves to utilize the MooLoo, which is simply a bright green enclosure that rewards the animals for peeing there with food.

“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,” explains Lindsay Matthews, lead author of the study. “Turns out it works with calves too. In very short order, five or 10 urinations for some animals, they demonstrated they understood the connection between the desired behavior and the reward by going to the feeder as soon as they started urinating.”

Gentle deterrents such as collar vibrations or cold water splashes were used to keep the animals from urinating elsewhere, and after 15 days of training, the majority of the calves would go to the MooLoo on their own whenever they felt the need to use it.

The scientists say that nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus may be removed and reused after the urine is collected in the MooLoo and that collecting even a small fraction could make a substantial difference to the environment. Scaling up the process is definitely a challenge since potty training each cow can be too laborious for farms; however, the team says the process could potentially be automated with urine detectors and food dispensers.

“If we could collect 10% or 20% of urinations, it would be sufficient to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and nitrate leaching significantly,” says Douglas Elliffe, a professor of psychology at the University of Auckland who was involved in the program's development. “We’ve shown proof of concept that we can train cows and train them easily.”

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