Cow excretions can be almost as much of a problem as their metaphorical counterpart, with free-living cows' waste contaminating soil and waterways while waste from cows cooped up in barns can combine to create ammonia, which contributes to greenhouse gases. However, some animal psychologists think they can limit the harm with a little toilet training.
The secret lies in a creation called MooLoo, and teaching calves to use it. In Current Biology a team reports the partial success of a small trial, getting enough cattle potty-trained to offer hope for endangered waterways everywhere.
In moderation, ruminant excretions are good for the soil, but too many cows in the one place leads to unmanageable amounts of run-off into nearby creeks and rivers. Cattle urine and feces in enclosed spaces can combine to produce ammonia. Essential as ammonia is for industry and the production of fertilizers, its uncontrolled release feeds soil microbes that turn it into the powerful greenhouse gas nitrous oxide.
For some, this is just another reason why “the cow must go”. Others, however, see a problem they can solve.
“It’s usually assumed that cattle are not capable of controlling defecation or urination,” said Dr Jan Langbein of Germany’s Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology in a statement. However, Langbein and colleagues were not convinced. “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?”
Toilet training may seem easy to those of us who mastered it before we can remember, but the paper notes: “For urination, toileting requires self-control and coordination of a complex chain of behaviors including conscious awareness of bladder fullness, overriding of excretory reflexes, selection of a latrine, and intentional relaxation of the external urethral sphincter.”
The researchers gave 16 female Holstein calves diuretics and confined them in a toilet covered with artificial turf that reduced splashing. They were rewarded with molasses/glucose or barley treats every time they peed. In search of a deterrent that wouldn’t be considered animal cruelty the team put headphones on the cattle once released and played them loud noises when they urinated in places they were not supposed to. “We thought this would punish the animals—not too aversively—but they didn’t care,” Langbein said. “Ultimately, a splash of water worked well as a gentle deterrent.”
Five of the cows never got the message, or were too rebellious to respond, possibly indicating the core of a future bovine uprising. However, within 15 days 11 calves reached the point where they were going in the latrine 77 percent of the time, performing as well or better than young children learning the same life lesson. Most maintained this after the reward and punishment ceased.
Reducing cow waste by two-thirds would make an immense difference to aquatic ecosystems, and put a noticeable dent in greenhouse gas emissions. However, Langbein hopes to do better, believing the team just hasn’t found the right motivator for the renegades. “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,” he said. “They are not all the same.”
The cows could also benefit. Farms that allow livestock to roam more widely currently produce more greenhouse emissions, creating pressure to restrict them for the benefit of the planet, but to the detriment of the cows.