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Cows produce greenhouse gases with their urine and feces, so we potty trained them

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Can we educate the cattle to the toilets? Would we like?

The answer to both of these questions is yes – and it could help us solve the problems of water contamination and climate change. Cattle urine is rich in nitrogen, which contributes to a series of environmental problems.

When cows are raised primarily outdoors, the nitrogen in their urine breaks down in the soil. This produces two problematic substances: nitrate and nitrous oxide.

Nitrate from urine stains seeps into lakes, rivers and aquifers (ground pools of water contained in rock) where it pollutes the water and contributes to the excessive growth of weeds and algae. Nitrous oxide is a long-lasting greenhouse gas that is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. This account for about 12% of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions, much of which comes from the agricultural sector.

When cows are raised primarily in barns, as is the case in Europe and North America, another pollutant gas, ammonia, is produced when nitrogen from the urine mixes with the faeces on the bed. stable floor.

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

We have worked on this problem with collaborators from the German Federal Institute for Animal Health Research and the Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology. Our research is published in the journal Current biology. It is part of the doctoral thesis of our colleague Neele Dirksen.

Potty training

In our research project, funded by the Volkswagen Foundation, we applied the principles of behavioral psychology to train young cattle to urinate in a particular place, ie to use the “toilet”.

Calves had to walk down an alley to enter the latrine enclosure. Photo credit: Farm Animal Biology Research Institute, author provided

Behavioral psychology tells us that a behavior is likely to be repeated if it is followed by a reward or “reinforcement.” This is how we train a dog to come when called.

So if we want to encourage a particular behavior, like urinating in a particular place, we have to reinforce that behavior. For our project, we applied this idea in much the same way as for potty training for children, using a procedure called “backward chaining”.

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

Cow urine could be “captured” in the latrine enclosure. Photo credit: Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology, author provided

The calves were then placed in an alley outside the pen, and again reinforced to enter and urinate into the pen. If the urination started in the alley, it was discouraged by a slightly unpleasant spray of water.

After optimizing the training, seven of the eight calves we trained learned to urinate in the latrine pen – and they learned it as quickly as human children.

Calves only received 15 days of training and the majority learned the skill set in 20-25 urination, which is faster than the toilet training time for three and four year olds .

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

  1. cattle can learn to deal with their own urination reflex, as they have moved to the pen when they are ready to use it
  2. cattle will learn to withhold urination until they are in the right place, if they are rewarded for doing so.
The calves received a delicious treat after using the latrine enclosure. Photo credit: Farm Animal Biology Research Institute, author provided

Next steps

Our research is a proof of concept. Cattle can be toilet trained without too much difficulty. But extending the method for practical application in agriculture involves two other challenges, which will be the focus of the next stage of our project.

First, we need a way to both detect urination in the latrine enclosure and provide reinforcement automatically – without human intervention.

The calves came out of the pen through a door. Photo credit: Farm Animal Biology Research Institute, author provided

It is probably nothing more than a technical problem. An electronic sensor for urination would not be difficult to develop, and small amounts of attractive rewards could be provided in the pen.

Apart from that, we will also have to determine the optimal location and the number of latrine huts needed. This is a particularly difficult problem in countries like New Zealand, where cattle spend most of their time in open pens rather than barns.

Part of our future research will require understanding how far cattle are willing to walk to use a pen. And there is still a lot to be done to understand how to best use this technique with animals in indoor and outdoor breeding contexts.

What we do know is that nitrogen from cattle urine contributes to both water pollution and climate change, and these effects can be reduced by toilet training in cattle. .

The more urine we can capture, the less we will need to reduce the number of cattle to meet emissions targets – and the less we will have to compromise on the availability of milk, butter, cheese and meat for cattle. .

Douglas elliffe is professor of psychology and Lindsay Matthews is a Honorary scholar, Department of Psychology at the University of Auckland.

This article first appeared on The conversation.


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