On a farm where cows relieve themselves freely while grazing, the accumulation and dispersal of waste often pollutes the soil and local waterways. This can be controlled by confining the cows in stables, but in these tight spaces their urine and feces combine to create ammonia, an indirect greenhouse gas. In an article published on September 13 in the magazine Current biology, researchers show that cows can learn to go to the toilet, allowing waste to be collected and treated, thus cleaning the barn, reducing air pollution and creating more open and animal-friendly farms.
“It is generally assumed that cattle are not able to control defecation or urination,” says co-author Jan Langbein, an animal psychologist at the Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology (FBN) in Germany, but he and his team questioned this idea. “Cattle, like many other animals or farm animals, are quite intelligent and can learn a lot. Why shouldn’t they learn to use the bathroom? “
To potty train calves, a process they called MooLoo training, the research team with scientists from FBN, FLI (Germany) and the University of Auckland (New Zealand) worked in reverse. They began by rewarding the calves when they urinated in the latrine, and then they allowed the calves to approach the latrines from outside when they needed to urinate.
Ammonia produced in cow waste does not contribute directly to climate change, but when it leaches into the soil, microbes convert it into nitrous oxide, the third most important greenhouse gas after methane and carbon dioxide. Agriculture is the largest source of ammonia emissions, with livestock accounting for more than half of that contribution.
“You have to try to include the animals in the process and train the animals to follow what they have to learn,” says Langbein. “We assumed that it should be possible to train the animals, but we did not know to what extent.”
To encourage latrine use, the researchers wanted the calves to associate urination outside the latrine with an unpleasant experience. “As punishment, we used in-ear headphones for the first time and played a very unpleasant sound every time they urinated outside,” says Langbein. “We thought this would punish the animals, without too much aversion, but they didn’t care. In the end, a splash of water worked well as a mild deterrent. “
Over the course of a few weeks, the research team successfully trained 11 of the 16 calves in the experiment, which has been published in Current biology.
Surprisingly, the calves showed a level of performance comparable to that of children and higher than that of very young children.
Langbein is optimistic that with more training this success rate can be further improved.
“After ten, fifteen, twenty years of research with livestock, we know that animals have personalities and handle different things in a different way. They are not all the same. “
Now that the researchers know how to potty train cows, they want to transfer their results to real cattle barns and outdoor systems. Langbein hopes that “in a few years all the cows will go to the bathroom,” he says.
Source: Cell press
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