Researchers potty-train cows to reduce ammonia emissions

Researchers are potty-training cows to go to the bathroom where their feces and urine can be collected and treated, reducing ammonia emissions.

When cattle are allowed to relieve themselves as they graze, their waste can collect in fields and contaminate local waterways. If confined to a barn, urine and feces can mix together and yield ammonia, an indirect greenhouse gas.

Both scenarios are problematic for human and environmental health.

To keep barns more sanitary, waterways clean and greenhouse gas emissions low, researchers have started training cow to urinate and defecate in designated areas.

Scientists described their efforts — a system they named MooLoo training — in a new paper, published Monday in the journal Current Biology.

“It’s usually assumed that cattle are not capable of controlling defecation or urination,” study co-author Jan Langbein said in a press release.

“Cattle, like many other animals or farm animals are quite clever and they can learn a lot. Why shouldn’t they be able to learn how to use a toilet?” said Langbein, an animal psychologist at the Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology in Germany.

To potty-train the young cows participating in the study, researchers in Germany and New Zealand offered food rewards to calves that urinated in the latrine. Afterwards, researchers allowed the cows to enter the latrine from the fields when they needed to go.

To discourage urination outside the latrines, researchers tried fitting the calves with headphones and playing unpleasant sounds whenever they peed in the barn. It didn’t take.

“We thought this would punish the animals — not too aversively — but they didn’t care,” Langbein said. “Ultimately, a splash of water worked well as a gentle deterrent.”

In just a few weeks, researchers trained 11 of 16 cows to regularly use the latrine to relieve themselves. According to the study’s authors, the cows’ potty-training performance was comparable to children and superior to very young children.

The ammonia produced when feces and urine mix doesn’t directly contribute to global warming, but when it is leached into the ground, it gets broken down by microbes that release nitrous oxide, the third-most significant greenhouse gas after methane and carbon dioxide.

Agriculture is the number one source of ammonia emissions, and livestock account for more than half of the industry’s output.

Now that cows can be cooperative partners in the quest to reduce ammonia emissions, researchers hope to adapt their MooLoo training for outdoor farms.

“In a few years, all cows will go to a toilet,” Langbein said.