Researchers train cows to the use a toilet in bid to tackle climate change

·2-min read

Researchers have managed to train cows to use a toilet in an attempt to reduce ammonia emissions caused by their waste.

In a new study, scientists found the animals can be potty-trained, allowing their waste to be collected and treated.

When cows freely relieve themselves as they graze, the accumulation and spread of waste can contaminate soil and waterways.

This can be controlled by confining the cows to barns - but in these conditions, their urine and faeces combine to create ammonia.

The ammonia, produced by cows, does not directly contribute to climate change, but when it is in soil, microbes convert it into nitrous oxide - which is the third-most important greenhouse gas after methane and carbon dioxide.

By training them to use a toilet, researchers believe it will lead to their barns being cleaner, a reduction in air pollution and the creation of more open, animal-friendly farms.

Researchers say agriculture is the largest source of ammonia emissions, with livestock farming making up over half of that contribution.

Co-author Jan Langbein, an animal psychologist at the Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology (FBN) in Germany, said: "It's usually assumed that cattle are not capable of controlling defecation or urination."

He added: "Cattle, like many other animals or farm animals, are quite clever and they can learn a lot."

In a process dubbed MooLoo training, the research team started off by rewarding calves when they urinated in the latrine.

They then allowed the calves to approach the latrine from outside whenever they needed to go.

To encourage the animals to use the toilet, researchers wanted the cows to associate urination outside with an unpleasant experience.

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To begin with, scientists used in-ear headphones and played a nasty sound whenever they urinated outside, but the cows "didn't care", and Dr Langbein said: "Ultimately a splash of water worked well as a gentle deterrent".

Over the course of a few weeks, 11 out of 16 calves in the experiment were successfully trained.

Dr Langbein hopes that "in a few years all cows will go to a toilet".

Researchers from FBN in Germany and the University of Auckland in New Zealand hope that with more training the success rate can be improved and their results can be transferred into real cattle housing and to outdoor systems.

The study has been published in the journal Current Biology.

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