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Potty-trained cows? Teaching cattle where to urinate could help reduce greenhouse gases

Image courtesy of Rixster II

Image courtesy of Rixster II

  • Cows can learn to control where they urinate, scientists showed in a small study.
  • Urine from cattle ultimately produces nitrous oxide, a harmful greenhouse gas.
  • Scaling up this training method could reduce the environmental impacts of large farms.

Cows aren’t too bullheaded or dumb to learn new bathroom habits. Researchers showed this by toilet-training a small group of calves in a toilet they designed and dubbed the MooLoo. If they can scale up this approach to farms, the scientists believe it could help cut nitrous oxide emissions from cattle ranches—a major contributor to climate change, according to a recent report in Current Biology.

“We’ve trained probably the most difficult animal,” said senior author Lindsay Matthews, an animal behaviorist associated with the University of Auckland in New Zealand. “But that’s the reason we started with cattle, because it was a big challenge.”

When ammonia from cow urine and feces mixes with microbes in the soil, nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas, escapes into the air. Nitrous oxide has a greater warming power than carbon dioxide. Combined with the methane released by cow farts, excretions from cattle are harmful to the atmosphere.

According to a recent study, cows can be potty trained just as quickly, if not quicker, than most toddlers. Image courtesy of Leibniz Institute for Farm Animal Biology.

To train young cows to use the bathroom in 45-minute sessions, the scientists, led by Neele Dirksen and colleagues at the Leibniz Institute for Farm Animal Biology in Germany, staged three training phases. To initiate urination, the team gave the young cows a diuretic drug. Immediately after proper potty protocol, a researcher pushed a button to administer a sweet, tasty reward of molasses or barley. “A wee squirt” of water for a couple of seconds from a lawn sprinkler shooed them away from peeing in the wrong places, Matthews said.

In the first phase, if the calves oriented themselves toward the treat dispenser before or during urination in the MooLoo, the scientists moved them to phase two. Some cows honed in on the treat within a few urinations, but most did so within five to 10 urinations.

Then, during phase two, scientists directed the cows toward an area outside of the bathroom. When cows re-entered to urinate, scientists treated the cows. The scientists considered 11 of the 16 calves trained after this phase.

Outside of the bathroom, scientists continued to reward urinating cows until the diuretic wore off.

Matthews said the cows learned faster than most toddlers. “Parents would be over the moon if their kids learned within 10 to 30 urinations to use the toilet,” Matthews told Mongabay. “So many toddlers take many, many weeks and months to do that, sometimes years.”

Scaling up this training to include all cattle on large farms will require automation, the team stated. It’s not practical for researchers to watch behind a one-way mirror and click buttons to feed cows when they urinate. Rather, they envision many MooLoo layouts with automatic food reward systems to create incentive for the cows to hold their bladder and come inside from the field.

We should expect such training to work, said Temple Grandin, an animal science professor at Colorado State University who was not involved in the study. “After all, dairy cows learn when to come in to get milked,” Grandin said.

Researchers have trained calves to urinate in a bathroom stall. Scaling up this training could reduce greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere, according to scientists. Image courtesy of Leibniz Institute for Farm Animal Biology.

The same reward system could work for defecation, too, Matthews said. The muscular control link for defecation in the brain is similar in humans and in cows.

Next, the team hopes to train thousands of cattle with an automated system. The scientists will have to decide how many and where MooLoos are needed.

“We underestimate the ability of animals and even young children to learn,” Matthews said. “But from the moment they are in this world, they are learning, and they can learn a lot more than people give them credit for.”

Header image: Image courtesy of Rixster II


Emily Moskal (@emilymoskal_) is a graduate student in the Science Communication Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Other Mongabay stories produced by UCSC students can be found here.