It may seem absurd to educate cattle where to go potty—image a black and white Holstein sitting in a toilet chair—but there’s a definite purpose for it, and it’s not simply to keep your pasture clean. The nitrogen content of cow pee is high, and it breaks down into nitrate and nitrous oxide. Nitrate pollutes surrounding bodies of water, and nitrous oxide is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide as a long-lived greenhouse gas.
So a team of researchers from the University of Auckland’s Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology set out to educate calves to only urinate in one place, where their urine could be treated and cleansed before causing any difficulties.
It’s not quite a toilet. The name “MooLoo” is being used instead, and this isn’t an army latrine; rather, it’s a fenced-off space surrounded with fake grass that researchers have called the “MooLoo.” However, within weeks, 11 of the 16 calves in the program had learned to utilize the toilet area.
The researchers had to figure out a way to get the cows to utilize the MooLoo. They first used vibrating collars to train the cows to go a short distance to the bright green toilet area, where they were rewarded with treats (molasses) if they peed. The distance to the latrine was then extended. When a cow began to pee in an inappropriate location, scientists employed the same approach that many pet owners use to keep their dogs and cats off the couch: squirting the animals with cold water when they begin to urinate in an inappropriate location. The water does not damage the calves but irritates them, precisely like Socks the cat at home.
It’s not a load of nonsense. When scientists put the assignment to the test, 11 out of 16 cows learned to use the “MooLoo” to relieve themselves.
The researchers utilized a delicious reward to entice the cows to push through a fence and pee in a specific enclosure, just like some parents do. The newborn calves were trained in only 15 days. Most children take a lot longer than that.
“The cows are at least as good as children, age 2 to 4 years, at least as quick,” said senior study author Lindsay Matthews, an animal behavioral scientist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, who worked on the tests with colleagues at a German indoor animal research facility.
What began as a half-joking inquiry on a New Zealand radio talk show about the very real problem of cattle manure has now turned into serious research. According to Matthews, massive volumes of urine waste are a major environmental concern.
According to Matthews, urine includes nitrogen, which, when combined with excrement, forms ammonia, which is a concern in the ecosystem, causing acid rain and other issues. It may also contaminate water with nitrates and produce pollutant nitrous oxide in the air.
Cows also pee a lot. According to Matthews, a single cow may generate around 8 gallons (30 liters) of pee each day. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, nitrous oxide accounted for 7% of all greenhouse emissions in the United States in 2019.
“I am not surprised they can train calves to urinate in set locations, but I am surprised no one has demonstrated this before,” said Brian Hare, an animal cognition expert at Duke University who wasn’t involved with the study. “The critical question is can it and will it scale?” is the crucial question.
Toilet training animals, if possible, makes it simpler to manage waste products and minimize greenhouse gas emissions, according to Donald Broom, an animal welfare expert at the University of Cambridge in England.
The researchers in Dummerstorf, Germany, imitated toddler training by putting the cows in a specific cage, waiting until they urinated, and rewarding them with a sweet liquid mainly made of molasses. According to Matthews, cows do have a likeness for sweet. After the first training, if the cows urinated outside the MooLoo, they were given cold water spray.
The researchers then allowed the Holstein cows to wander throughout the indoor facility in two separate tests. Eleven of them pushed into the pen when they needed to urinate, did their thing, and received their delicious treat.
This experiment comes with a few limitations.
No. 1, they gave the cattle diuretics to make them urinate more since they only had a limited amount of time to do the tests in accordance with ethical requirements.
They didn’t do No. 2 either. Cows were only taught to use the MooLoo to urinate, not to defecate.
Urine is a more significant issue, at least in Europe, according to Matthews. However, he projected that they could also train cows to defecate in a particular location.
While dogs, cats, and horses can be potty trained, they already have a need to go to specific areas, according to Matthews. Cows, on the other hand, do not.
The heat-trapping gas methane, which cattle emits through belches and farts and is a substantial driver of global warming, is the most significant environmental concern for livestock. “They would blow up,” Matthews warned if the cows were trained not to belch or fart.