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Cows Are Potty Trained To Reduce Ammonia Emissions

Cows Are Potty Trained To Reduce Ammonia Emissions  content piece image
This photo shows a calf in a latrine undergoing MooLoo training. Credit: FBN.
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The problem with cow poop

A cow's excretory habits can prove problematic for the planet. On farms where cows are able to roam, they are also able to excrete at their own leisure. While this may have a positive effect on cow welfare – they have open space and freedom – it comes at a smelly cost. Cow manure can gather in large quantities, creating a cascade of contamination. Rainfall can lead to excrete running off fields and entering local waterways, where chemicals found in manure such as phosphorous and nitrogen can trigger algal blooms. In turn, algal blooms are capable of producing toxins that are harmful for drinking water.

An alternative solution is to contain cows – and their feces – in shelters such as barns. However, this could be detrimental to their wellbeing and, as they are gassy creatures, confining cows into small areas may lead to a concentrated production of ammonia.

So how do farmers strike a balance between ensuring their cows are happy and healthy, while also protecting the environment and human health? Researchers from the Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology (FBN) in Germany and the University of Auckland in New Zealand may have found a solution: potty training.

Potty training cows

In a new study published in the journal Current Biology, a group of scientists have demonstrated that, like baby humans, cows can indeed be trained to control their excretory habits in a process they have dubbed "MooLoo".

“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?” Dr. Jan Langbein, animal psychologist at the FBN said in a press release.

What is MooLoo?

The MooLoo process adopted a backward chaining reward-based approach that comprised three steps. In phase one, (known as in-latrine training) calves were contained in a latrine, and each time that they urinated in this region they were rewarded with food. "Increasing frequency of orientation to the reward as training progressed would demonstrate success in bringing micturition under control of the rewards," the authors write in the paper. This phase was also used to emphasize to the calves that the latrine was the correct place to urinate, in a similar fashion to how a child is pointed towards a potty.

The next phase of "MooLoo" was toilet training, which was used to evaluate how well the calves had established that the latrine was the correct place to void. In this phase, the calves were able to access the latrine from an outside area through a gate, before exiting the latrine after voiding. "Urinations initiated in the latrine were rewarded, as for in-latrine training, but urinations initiated in the alley were followed immediately by an unpleasant stimulus," the authors write. The stimulus was three splashes of water. “As a punishment we first used in-ear headphones and we played a very nasty sound whenever they urinated outside,” Langbein said. “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 final stage of MooLoo training involved an increase in the size of the area outside of the latrine by extending the alley that led to it. In the new study, 16 calves were trained for several weeks, from which 11 calves were successfully potty or "MooLoo" trained. Langbein and colleagues believe that the success of this process is due to establishing a reward-based control over the voiding reflex right at the start of training, and the use of the unpleasant stimulus following voids that were made in the alley. They also believe that the rate of successful training could be increased and may be dependent on the nature of the cow. “After 10, 15 or 20 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," Langbein said.

What's next for MooLoo? This proof-of-principle study paves the way for research that explores the utility of the training method in real-life cattle housing and outdoor farm environments. The team hope that "in a few years, all cows will go to a toilet," Langbein concluded.

Reference: Dirksen N, Langhein J, Puppe B, et al. Learned control of urinary reflexes in cattle to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Current Biology. 2021. doi: 10.1016/j.cub.2021.07.011.