Cows toilet-trained in MooLoo to slash their environmental impact
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.”
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.