Farming cattle is known to be a big contributor to greenhouse gas emissions due to their methane-releasing belches and farts. On top of that, their urine and feces combine to produce ammonia, which is converted into nitrous oxide by microbes in the soil.
To mitigate some of the climate impacts of cows, a team of researchers in Germany has figured out how to toilet train young cattle so that their urine is out of the equation, stopping the natural production of nitrous oxide.
The researchers successfully trained almost a dozen calves to urinate in a makeshift latrine, fondly called the MooLoo. Their findings were recently published in Current Biology.
They did this by penning 16 calves into the latrine area, and when they urinated in the MooLoo, they were rewarded with food or sugar water. If the animals did pee in the pasture, the team sounded a loud and unpleasant noise as a negative stimulus, but when the team realized that the sound didn’t bother the calves very much, they switched it for spraying them with water.
After a period of time, the cows demonstrated the ability to hold it and go in the latrine with equivalent or even better success than the average young child.
“It’s usually assumed that cattle are not capable of controlling defecation or urination,” says Jan Langbein, an animal psychologist at the Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology (FBN) in Germany and co-author of the study. “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?”
The team behind the MooLoo hopes to implement the latrines to other sites and continue potty-training cows. “To do this, we must first automate the whole training procedure and adapt it to the conditions on the farm,” Langbein told Gizmodo.
On top of the benefits of reducing nitrous oxide in the air, the experiment proves how often we tend to underestimate the intellectual abilities of the animals we eat (and others).
Source Study: Current Biology—Learned control of urinary reflexes in cattle to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions