Research to toilet train cows aims for positive environmental impact

This research may seem like a joke at first, but read the whole thing and there may be some application down the road. It also reminded me (Ray) of how trainable cattle are. If NZ cattle can be trained to urinate in one spot, then I’m sure KY cattle can be trained for intensive rotational grazing (as many of you have already done).

Calf self-initiating entry into toilet pen. Image courtesy Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology.

Cow urine is high in nitrogen which is helpful for growing grass, but as it breaks down in the soil, it can result in two problematic substances – nitrate and nitrous oxide. Nitrate from urine patches can leach into lakes, rivers and aquifers, where it pollutes water and contributes to the excessive growth of weeds and algae. Nitrous oxide is a long-lived greenhouse gas. 

If cows could be trained to urinate in a “toilet” at least some of the time, nitrogen could be captured and dealt with before it pollutes water or turns into nitrous oxide gas. “We’ve shown proof of concept that we can train cows and train them easily,” said Dr. Elliffe, a University of Auckland NZ professor of psychology. “Cattle urine is a major cause of our nitrogen problem. Any reduction in that would make a difference.”

“People’s reaction is, ‘crazy scientists,’ but actually, the building blocks are there,” said Dr. Matthews, a University of Auckland honorary academic and director of an independent research company. “Cows have bigger urinations when they wake up in the morning, which demonstrates they have the ability to withhold urination. There’s nothing in their neurophysiology that radically differentiates them from animals, such as horses, monkeys and cats, that show latrine behaviour.” 

Matthews has been around cows for a long time – he grew up on a dairy farm and did his PhD research on learning and preference in cows. In 2007, during a radio interview about the environmental impact of cattle excretion, the host suggested Matthews should toilet train them. It was a joke – but it got Matthews thinking. 

In 2015, Matthews was working with Professor Lars Schrader at the Federal Research Institute for Animal Health in Germany when Schrader suggested toilet training to deal with ammonia emissions, which result from contact between faeces and urine. Previous international attempts to toilet train cows had seen little success, but Matthews thought that with his expertise, he might be able to do better. He brought in Elliffe, who has complementary skills in behavioral analysis, to help.

With their German colleagues, Matthews and Elliffe worked with 16 calves at a farm operated by the Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology in Germany. First, they demonstrated that most calves could be trained to “hold it.” If they began to urinate in the wrong place, the scientists would make their collars vibrate. While the vibration didn’t hurt them, most of the calves soon learned to walk a short distance to a latrine pen.

Next, Matthews and Elliffe put the calves in the latrine pen, which was bright green to differentiate it from other pens, and rewarded them with a favoured food treat if they urinated there.

“This is how some people train their children – they put them on the toilet, wait for them to pee, then reward them if they do it,” said Matthews. “Turns out it works with calves too. In very short order, five or ten urinations for some animals, they demonstrated they understood the connection between the desired behaviour and the reward by going to the feeder as soon as they started urinating.” The next progression was to increase the distance cows had to walk to the latrine. If “accidents” occurred in another part of the barn, scientists would squirt a little cold water at them. Most of the calves soon learned the ultimate toilet-training skill.

“Very quickly, within 15 to 20 urinations on average, the cows would self-initiate entry to the toilet. This is very exciting because it means they were paying attention to their bladder getting fuller,” said Matthews. “By the end, three-quarters of the animals were doing three-quarters of their urinations in the toilet.” The calves received only 15 days of training and the majority learned the full set of skills within 20 to 25 urinations, which compares favourably to toilet-training time for three- and four-year-old children.

The next step for Matthews and Elliffe is to bring their research to the New Zealand context. In the Northern Hemisphere, cows spend much of their time in barns. In New Zealand, they spend most of their time outdoors. This makes toilet training more of a challenge. However, cows do gather for milking and receiving supplements, so it may be possible for them to use a latrine at those times. Installing latrines outdoors may be another possibility. Even if these changes result in a lower success rate, reducing urine patches would have significant environmental benefits.

“If we could collect 10 or 20 percent of urinations, it would be sufficient to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and nitrate leaching significantly,” said Elliffe. Another challenge will be to scale up so it’s economically feasible to train millions of animals. This could be accomplished by using urination-detecting sensors and automatic reward systems. Trained cows could be transitioned into not expecting a food reward after every urination, the researchers say.

With help from UniServices, Matthews and Elliffe have met with representatives of the New Zealand dairy industry, who are interested in the research as a potential way of avoiding the herd reductions that may otherwise be necessary to meet emissions targets. A further application of the research may be to extract and reuse nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, from the collected cow urine. ~ Lindsay Matthews, Uniservices and the University of Auckland. Full article with photos here.