A calf enters the latrine.
© FBN
A calf enters the latrine.
Cows contribute massively to global emissions because of the greenhouse gases they produce. We're not talking hot air here. It's the No. 1s and No. 2s. Which is why potty training can be part of the solution.

On farms, cows graze freely, but that also means they poo and pee freely too. Unfortunately, this waste often contaminates the soil and waterways.

On the other hand, keeping cows in barns causes their urine and faeces to combine. This releases ammonia, which leaches into the soil where microbes convert it to nitrous oxide - the third most impactful greenhouse gas after methane and carbon dioxide.

To get around this, researchers from the Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology (FBN), Germany, and the University of Auckland, came up with a novel solution: a potty-training program for cows.

"It's usually assumed that cattle are not capable of controlling defecation or urination," says co-author Jan Langbein from FBN.

"[But] cattle, like many other animals or farm animals, are quite clever and they can learn a lot. So why shouldn't they be able to learn how to use a toilet?"

"People's reaction is, 'crazy scientists,' but actually, the building blocks are there," says Lindsay Matthews of the University of Auckland.

"Cows have bigger urinations when they wake up in the morning, which demonstrates they have the ability to withhold urination. There's nothing in their neurophysiology that radically differentiates them from animals, such as horses, monkeys and cats, that show latrine behaviour."


Potty-training cows requires rewards

In the study, published in Current Biology, the team came up with the concept of MooLoo training to teach calves to do their business in a special latrine. They started by rewarding the calves that urinated in the lavatory by offering them a sweet treat to train them into seeking out the toilet willfully.

"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 Matthews.

"Turns out it works with calves too. In very short order, five or ten urinations for some animals, they demonstrated they understood the connection between the desired behaviour and the reward by going to the feeder as soon as they started urinating.

"Very quickly, within 15 to 20 urinations on average, the cows would self-initiate entry to the toilet. This is very exciting because it means they were paying attention to their bladder getting fuller.

They further tried to discourage the calves from urinating outside of the toilet. Except that, like human potty training, nothing seems to go to plan.
Scientists in the observation room.
© FBN
Scientists in the observation room.
"As a punishment, we first used in-ear headphones, and we played a very nasty sound whenever they urinated outside," says Langbein. "We thought this would punish the animals — not too aversively — but they didn't care. Ultimately, a splash of water worked well as a gentle deterrent."

The system holds excellent pootential because the team trained 11 out of 16 calves to use the MooLoo when in the barn. They noted that this was a level of performance similar to children and, surprisingly, actually better than very young children.

"By the end, three-quarters of the animals were doing three-quarters of their urinations in the toilet."

Cow loos could be wide-spread

Langbein is optimistic that, with more training, the training success will improve even further.

"After ten, fifteen, twenty years of researching with cattle, we know that animals have a personality, and they handle different things in a different way. They are not all the same."

Now that the MooLoo training was successful, the authors believe they can transfer the results to real cattle housing - or even an outhouse.

"We've shown proof of concept that we can train cows and train them easily. Cattle urine is a major cause of our nitrogen problem. Any reduction in that would make a difference," says Douglas Elliffe of the University of Auckland.

"If we could collect 10 or 20 per cent of urinations, it would be sufficient to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and nitrate leaching significantly,"

To Langbein, the ultimate dream is that "in a few years, all cows will go to a toilet."