The "MooLoo": Cows potty-trained in bid to tackle climate change

Dummerstorf, Germany - Moo-ve over toddlers! Cows can be potty-trained as easily as children, researchers say, and hope in the next few years, all cattle will use the bathroom!

Cows have been trained to use a latrine in hopes of combating climate change (stock image).
Cows have been trained to use a latrine in hopes of combating climate change (stock image).  © 123RF/mihtiander

Researchers have potty-trained cows in a bid to reduce ammonia emissions caused by their waste.

On a farm where cows freely relieve themselves as they graze, the accumulation and spread of waste can contaminate soil and waterways.

While this can be controlled by confining the cows in barns, in these conditions their urine and faeces combine to create ammonia – an indirect greenhouse gas.

In a new study, researchers found that the animals can be potty-trained, allowing waste to be collected and treated, thereby cleaning up the barn, reducing air pollution, and creating more open, animal-friendly farms.

Co-author Dr. 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."

"Cattle, like many other animals or farm animals, are quite clever, and they can learn a lot," he added. "Why shouldn't they be able to learn how to use a toilet?"

To potty-train the calves, a process they dubbed "MooLoo training," the research team with scientists from FBN, FLI in Germany, and the University of Auckland in New Zealand worked backwards.

They started off by rewarding the calves when they urinated in the latrine, and then they allowed the calves to approach the latrines from outside when they needed to urinate.

"You have to try to include the animals in the process and train the animals to follow what they should learn," Dr. Langbein said. "We guessed it should be possible to train the animals, but to what extent we didn't know."

Researchers used small punishments to train the cows

Researches say that cows can be potty-trained at a level superior to young toddlers (stock image).
Researches say that cows can be potty-trained at a level superior to young toddlers (stock image).  © 123RF/kryzhov

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

"As a punishment, we first used in-ear headphones and we played a very nasty sound whenever they urinated outside," Dr. Langbein explained. "We thought this would punish the animals - not too aversively - but they didn't care. Ultimately, a splash of water worked well as a gentle deterrent."

Over the course of a few weeks, 11 out of the 16 calves in the experiment were successfully trained, according to research published in the journal Current Biology.

Researchers said the calves showed a level of performance comparable to that of children and superior to that of very young children.

They hope that with more training the success rate can be improved, and they want to transfer their results into real cattle housing and to outdoor systems.

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

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

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

Cover photo: 123RF/mihtiander

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