In a few years all cows will go to a toilet, is surely the best thing you can hope to hear on a Monday. They are the words of Jan Langbein, an animal psychologist at the Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology (FBN) in Germany, and he is not joking.
Cow farts and faeces are, of course, a bit of stain on the climate. The methane everyone knows about is more burps than bums but nitrous oxide, one of the big three impactful greenhouse gasses, is the toxic end result of a number two. When relieving themselves in fields the waste can contaminate soils and waterways, and in barns a cocktail of pee and poo creates ammonia, an ‘indirect greenhouse gas’. Agriculture generates the largest chunk of ammonia emissions and livestock accounts for over half of these. If cows could be potty-trained though, waste could be ‘collected and treated’, cutting air pollutions and creating more ‘animal-friendly’ farms.
“It’s usually assumed that cattle are not capable of controlling defecation or urination,” said Langbein, 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?”
Any innovation in this field deserves a good name and MooLoo, as the training is known, does just the job. The scientists working on it, from FBN, FLI, in Germany, and the University of Auckland, have been refining a system that started from the back end. They began by rewarding calves after they urinated in a toilet and then allowed them to move towards the latrines from outside when they needed to go.
“You have to try to include the animals in the process and train the animals to follow what they should learn,” said Langbein. “We guessed it should be possible to train the animals, but to what extent we didn’t know.”
To stop cows taking a tinkle outside the researchers made it unappealing.
“As a punishment we first used in-ear headphones and we played a very nasty sound whenever they urinated outside,” added 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 experiment went well, with 11 of the 16 calves successfully trained, and Langbein is confident things will get even better.
“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.”
Next the innovative researchers plan to apply the learning ‘into real cattle housing and outdoor systems’ so that ‘in a few years all cows will go to a toilet’.