Could controlling toilet habits of cows be the key to more environmentally friendly farming?
In Germany, one herd has been “potty-trained” in an experiment to teach calves to use a toilet area in their barn, meaning that urine could be collected and treated.
Scientists trained the cows via a system of rewards and mild punishments. When they urinated in the assigned area, they were given a sweet drink or some mashed barley, and when they relieved themselves elsewhere, they were surprised by a short blast of water from above.
Waste from cattle farms often contaminates soil and waterways and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and the acidification of soil.
For this reason, toilet-training cattle has long been viewed as desirable, but several previous attempts have been unsuccessful.
Within a few weeks, after about 15 training sessions, 11 out of the 16 calves in the experiment had been successfully toilet-trained, according to the study published in the journal Current Biology.
“Cattle, like many other animals, are quite clever and they can learn a lot,” said Jan Langbein, an animal psychologist at the Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology (FBN) in Germany. “Why shouldn’t they be able to learn how to use a toilet?”
Langbein said a future ambition would be to teach cows to also defecate in a toilet area.
The ammonia produced in cow urine doesn’t directly contribute to the climate crisis, but when it leaches into the soil, microbes convert it into nitrous oxide, which is the third most significant greenhouse gas after methane and carbon dioxide.