Environment

Cows toilet-trained in MooLoo to slash their environmental impact

Cows toilet-trained in MooLoo ...
A calf enters the MooLoo, showing that cows can be toilet-trained
A calf enters the MooLoo, showing that cows can be toilet-trained
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A calf enters the MooLoo, showing that cows can be toilet-trained
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A calf enters the MooLoo, showing that cows can be toilet-trained
A calf receives a food reward for urinating in the MooLoo
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A calf receives a food reward for urinating in the MooLoo

Agriculture is a huge environmental issue in many ways, but one that’s often overlooked is livestock urination. Researchers from Germany and New Zealand have now demonstrated a potential way to reduce that problem – by toilet-training cows.

Cattle are particularly potent polluters in a few ways. They’re famously gassy creatures, belching out massive amounts of methane, which is far worse for the atmosphere than carbon dioxide. But their number two problem is their number ones – cow urine is high in nitrogen, leaking nitrate into the water supply and nitrous oxide into the air. Ammonia is also produced as urine and feces react and break down.

All of these problems come about when herds of cows are left to just relieve themselves wherever they happen to be in the field – but can they be toilet trained? Scientists and farmers have had limited success in the past, suggesting that cows just can’t be taught this kind of thing. But the new study shows that not only can they learn to hold it in and only go in a set spot, but can do so about as reliably as young children.

Researchers from the University of Auckland and the Federal Research Institute for Animal Health in Germany trained 16 calves to use a latrine they call the MooLoo. It’s essentially a bright green pen that gives the animals a food reward for urinating there.

“This is how some people train their children – they put them on the toilet, wait for them to pee, then reward them if they do it,” says Lindsay Matthews, lead author of the study. “Turns out it works with calves too. In very short order, five or 10 urinations for some animals, they demonstrated they understood the connection between the desired behavior and the reward by going to the feeder as soon as they started urinating.”

The animals were discouraged from peeing elsewhere with gentle deterrents like collar vibrations or splashes of cold water. And sure enough, after 15 days of training, most of them had gotten the hang of it, and would head to the MooLoo on their own when they felt nature calling.

“Very quickly, within 15 to 20 urinations on average, the cows would self-initiate entry to the toilet,” says Matthews. “This is very exciting because it means they were paying attention to their bladder getting fuller. By the end, three quarters of the animals were doing three-quarters of their urinations in the toilet.”

A calf receives a food reward for urinating in the MooLoo
A calf receives a food reward for urinating in the MooLoo

Once the urine is collected in the MooLoo, important nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus could be extracted and reused.

It’s an intriguing proof of concept that it’s at least possible to toilet-train cows, but is it feasible? The team says that collecting even just a fraction of their urinations could make a difference to the environment, so the occasional accident wouldn't matter too much.

Perhaps the bigger problem though is scaling up the process. Not every farm will have the capabilities or the time to dedicate to toilet-training their cows, but the team says that MooLoo systems could be used incidentally in barns, or when cows gather for milking or feeding. Larger scale training could potentially be automated using urine detectors and food dispensers.

The research was published in the journal Cell Biology.

Source: University of Auckland via Scimex

8 comments
8 comments
Ornery Johnson
Perhaps the "treat" the cows receive can be laced with an ounce of seaweed. Small amounts of seaweed were recently found to reduce bovine methane emissions by approximately 82% (Univ. of Cal., Davis, May 2021).
Spud Murphy
Or, we could stop doing same old, same old for human selfish wants, and recognise the animal agriculture industries for the destructive and cruel industries they are and get rid of them. But that won't happen, the bulk of humanity is still stuck in caveman mode...
ChairmanLMAO
Imagine how happy those cows will be when humans clean up their yards! And happy cows makes for happy steaks. Now, if we can just make the humans happy.
whisky19
LMAO. Did I just read a comment equating animal agriculture with caveman mode? Talk about having zero knowledge about the history of human civilization. Imagine not understanding that agriculture and the domestication of animals marked the beginning of human civilization and a move away from hunting and gathering aka "caveman mode". Or that humans evolved our larger brains because we started to cook and eat meat on a regular basis.
Karmudjun
Spud Murphy - what animal agriculture industries are you familiar with? PETA isn't a peer reviewed source, and making things out to be worse than nature's processes is ridiculous.
Your Caveman references are lost in translation as well.
Interesting article Michael. I was raised on a small farm and noticed that our animals had specific habits for elimination - they much preferred the natural scene to relief in a barn. I'm no longer farming but I'll ask my cousins who do whether they think a mooloo would work for them - capturing the nitrogenous waste might prove beneficial rather than just environmentally wise.
noteugene
Not to mention that the waste can more easily be gathered for compost/fertilizer material. I guess cows are not as stupid as we were all led to believe. Now if these engineers could carry this concept over to pig farms that would really be something.
Aross
So how come the prairies of North America weren't destroyed by the millions upon millions of farting, sh*tting and peeing bison until man almost wiped them out. It seems to me that the problem really is what we are feeding these herbivores. Could it be that feeding them corn and grains they did not evolve to eat and introducing super bacteria into their guts to help digest it is the actual problem? And then we put large quantities of them into small spaces so we don't have to work to feed and herd them. To me the problem is not the cow but the stupid human trying to maximize profit while expanding little effort and cost.
HoppyHopkins
Nothing new here "Mother Earth News" type ranchers and farmers have been doing that for decades in order to make bio-methane in home built dig esters and become energy independent. Built on an industrial scale on large feed lots and dairies would be even more useful