Researchers create a MooLoo to toilet train cows

Anyone taking a trip to a ranch where cattle are raised knows that cows go to the bathroom a lot. Cows are also a large source of ammonia and other emissions that are considered to be indirect greenhouse gases. One of the challenges with ranching is that the accumulation of fecal matter and urine from cattle contaminates the soil and can contaminate local waterways.

One of the ways to help mitigate contamination of the soil and waterways is to confine cattle in a small area such as a barn to limit the exposure of their waste materials. Researchers have published an article showing that cattle can be trained to go to the bathroom in a small confined area, much like puppies can. By training cattle to go to the bathroom and a small area, the waste material can be collected and treated, reducing air pollution.

Paper co-author Jan Langbein is an animal psychologist at the Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology (FBN) in Germany, and he and his team have proven that contrary to the assumption that cattle aren't capable of controlling urination and defecation, the creatures can learn a lot. In the paper, researchers trained cattle to use what they call a MooLoo to go to the bathroom.

The study involved a research team comprised of scientists from FBN, FLI in Germany, and the University of Auckland in New Zealand. They rewarded calves when they urinated in the latrine and allowed them to approach the latrine when they needed to urinate. The team recognizes that ammonia from cow urine isn't a direct contributor to climate change. However, microbes in the soil convert cow urine into nitrous oxide, a major greenhouse gas behind methane and carbon dioxide.

The team says agriculture is the largest source of emissions, and over half of emissions from agriculture are directly attributed to livestock farming. During the research, the team encouraged the cattle to use the latrine by making urinating outside of the latrine unpleasant. They punished cows who urinated outside the latrine at first using in-ear headphones by playing a nasty sound.

However, the cattle didn't care about the sound, but splashing them with water worked as a deterrent. Over a few weeks, the team trained 11 out of 16 calves in the experiment, finding that the cattle had a level of performance comparable to children and superior to that of very young children. Next, the team hopes to expand their experiment to an actual indoor cattle barn and larger outdoor systems.