Potty-trained cattle could help reduce pollution

 These cows utilize restroom cubicles when nature calls.

This cow is a natural when it comes to potty training. When this and other calves needed to pee, researchers taught them to utilize a restroom stall (seen).  FBN is a television network that broadcasts in (CC BY-SA)
This cow is natural when it comes to potty training. When this and other calves needed to pee, researchers taught them to utilize a restroom stall (seen).  FBN is a television network that broadcasts in (CC BY-SA)

You can get a cow to go to the bathroom, but can you get it to pee there? Yes, you can, it turns out.

Cows were successfully trained to utilize a tiny, fenced-in space with artificial turf flooring as a restroom cubicle by German researchers. Researchers report in Current Biology on September 13 that this could make it easier for farms to gather and clean cow pee, which pollutes the air, land, and water. The nitrogen and phosphorus in the pee could be used to build fertilizer (SN: 4/6/21).

The ordinary cow may pee tens of liters every day, and the world's cattle population is estimated to be around 1 billion. Cow pee mixes with dung on the floor in barns to form a slurry that produces the air pollutant ammonia (SN: 1/4/19). Cow pee can drain into neighboring streams and release nitrous oxide, a strong greenhouse gas (SN: 6/9/14).

Lindsay Matthews, a self-described cow psychologist who researches bovine behavior at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, says, "I'm always of the mind, how can we persuade animals to help us in their management?" Matthews and his colleagues set out to toilet train 16 calves that had the opportunity to master a new skill due to their leisure time. He explains, "They're not as connected with milking and other processes." "Basically, they're just hanging out, eating some food, socializing, and sleeping."

Matthews was hopeful about the cows' chances of potty training. He says, "I was convinced that we could do it." "Cows are far, far smarter than people give them credit for," says one expert. Every day, each calf received 45 minutes of "MooLoo training," as the team refers to it. Initially, the researchers kept the calves confined to the makeshift bathroom cubicle and gave them a prize every time they peed.

The scientists placed the calves in a hallway leading to the stall once they made the link between using the bathroom stall and obtaining a treat. Animals were given treats anytime they visited the small cows' chamber, and when calves peed in the hallway, the team spritzed them with water. "Within approximately 10 days, we had 11 of the 16 calves [potty trained]," Matthews recalls. He adds that the remaining cows "are probably trainable as well." "It's only that we didn't have enough time," says the narrator.

"The results are not surprising," says Lindsay Whistance, a cattle researcher at the Organic Research Centre in Cirencester, England. "I fully expected calves to be able to master this activity with sufficient training and motivation," adds Whistance, who was not involved in the study. Potty training cows on a massive scale, however, is a different story, according to her.

"It has to be automated," Matthews says, for MooLoo training to become a common practice. "We want to create automated training and reward systems," says the researcher. Those systems are still a long way off, but Matthews and colleagues believe they will have a significant influence. Previous research indicated that collecting 80 percent of cow pee in latrines could reduce associated ammonia emissions by half.

"Those ammonia emissions are critical to the genuine environmental impact, as well as the possibility for reducing water contamination," says Jason Hill, a biosystems engineer at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul who was not involved in the research. He claims that ammonia from livestock is a key contributor to poor human health (SN: 1/16/09). Potty training cattle could thus contribute to better air, as well as a cleaner, more comfortable living environment for cows.

N. Dirksen et alLearned control of urinary reflexes in cattle to help reduce greenhouse gas emissionsCurrent Biology. Published online September 13, 2021. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2021.07.011.

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