The country toilet training cows to combat climate change

·3-min read

Can we toilet train cattle? Would we want to?

The answer to both of these questions is yes — and doing so could help us address issues of water contamination and climate change

Cattle urine is high in nitrogen, and this contributes to a range of environmental problems.

When cows are kept mainly outdoors, as they are in Australia and New Zealand, the nitrogen from their urine breaks down in the soil. This produces two problematic substances: nitrate and nitrous oxide.

Nitrate from urine patches leaches into lakes, rivers and aquifers (underground pools of water contained by rock) where it pollutes the water and contributes to the excessive growth of weeds and algae.

The calves were required to walk down an alley to enter the latrine pen. Source: Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology
The calves were required to walk down an alley to enter the latrine pen. Source: Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology

Cow urine contributes to 12 per cent of NZ's greenhouse emissions

Nitrous oxide is a long-lasting greenhouse gas which is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. For instance, it accounts for about 12 per cent of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions, and much of this comes from the agricultural sector.

When cows are kept mainly in barns, as is the case in Europe and North America, another polluting gas — ammonia — is produced when the nitrogen from urine mixes with faeces on the barn floor.

However, if some of the urine produced by cattle could be captured and treated, the nitrogen it contains could be diverted, and the environmental impacts reduced. But how might urine capture be achieved?

Kiwi researchers worked on this problem with collaborators from Germany’s Federal Research Institute for Animal Health and Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology. The research is published this week in the journal Current Biology

The cow urine could be ‘captured’ in the latrine pen. Source: Provided
The cow urine could be ‘captured’ in the latrine pen. Source: Provided

Toilet training cows (but without the nappies)

In the research, funded by the Volkswagen Foundation, the scientists applied principles from behavioural psychology to train young cattle to urinate in a particular place — that is, to use the “toilet”.

Behavioural psychology tells us a behaviour is likely to be repeated if followed by a reward, or “reinforcer”. That’s how we train a dog to come when called.

So if we want to encourage a particular behaviour, such as urinating in a particular place, we should reinforce that behaviour. Researchers applied this idea in much the same way as for toilet training children, using a procedure called “backward chaining”.

Calves were given a tasty treat after using the latrine pen. Source: Provided
Calves were given a tasty treat after using the latrine pen. Source: Provided

First, the calves were confined to the toilet area, a latrine pen, and reinforced with a preferred treat when they urinated. This established the pen as an ideal place to urinate.

The calves were then placed in an alley outside the pen, and once again reinforced for entering the pen and urinating there. If urination began in the alley, it was discouraged by a mildly unpleasant spray of water.

After optimising the training, seven out of the eight calves we trained learned to urinate in the latrine pen — and they learned about as quickly as human children do.

The calves received only 15 days of training and the majority learned the full set of skills within 20 to 25 urinations, which is quicker than the toilet-training time for three- and four-year-old children.

This showed us two things that weren’t known before.

  1. cattle can learn to attend to their own urination reflex, because they moved to the pen when ready to use it

  2. cattle will learn to withhold urination until they’re in the right place, if they’re rewarded for doing so.

The research is a proof of concept. Cattle can be toilet trained, and without much difficulty. But scaling up the method for practical application in agriculture involves two further challenges, which will be the focus in the next stage of the project.

The authors of this article are Douglas Elliffe, Professor of Psychology at the University of Auckland and Lindsay Matthews, from the university's Psychology Department.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence. Read We managed to toilet train cows at The Conversation.

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