London: Training cows to use a bovine toilet could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and save the planet, according to scientists behind a “MooLoo”.
Researchers from the Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology (FBN) in France attempted to have potty-train 16 calves using the toilet contraption of their own design, which is not too different from dog toilet mats.
They successfully trained 11 of them to regularly use a latrine which captures their waste and disposes of it before it turns into nitrous oxide, the third most important greenhouse gas after methane and carbon dioxide.
A calf enters an astroturf-covered pen nicknamed “MooLoo” to urinate in Germany.Credit:FAB/AP
Co-author Dr Jan Langbein, an animal psychologist at the Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology in Germany, said: “It’s usually assumed that cattle are not capable of controlling defecation or urination. 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 lavatory?”
Cows are notorious for their gassy stomachs and their flatulence is a major source of global methane emissions. The amount of land and energy needed to produce both cattle feed and land for grazing also creates huge amounts of carbon dioxide.
It has previously been estimated that cattle agriculture accounts for almost 15 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.
But while methane and carbon dioxide are the two most troublesome gases, cows are also indirectly responsible for producing the third most troublesome gas – nitrous oxide.
Faeces and urine produced by cows turn into ammonia, and when this seeps into the soil, specialist bacteria turn it into nitrous oxide.
To potty-train the calves, researchers started off by rewarding them when they urinated in a latrine, and then allowed them access to the latrine even when they were grazing outside.
Mimicking the process of putting a toddler on the potty until he or she has to go, put the cows in the fenced loo and waited until they urinated and then gave them a reward: a super sweet liquid of mostly molasses.
Langbein, said: “You have to try to include the animals in the process and train the animals to follow what they should learn.
“We guessed it should be possible to train the animals, but to what extent we didn’t know.”
To encourage latrine use, researchers wanted the animals to associate urination outside the latrine with an unpleasant experience.
Langbein explained: “As a punishment we first used in-ear headphones and we played a very nasty sound whenever they urinated outside.
“We thought this would punish the animals – not too aversively – but they didn’t care. Ultimately, a splash of water worked well as a gentle deterrent.”
Researchers said the calves showed a level of performance comparable to that of children and superior to that of very young children.
They hope that with more training the success rate can be improved. Langbein hopes that “in a few years all cows will go to a toilet” and published the findings in the journal Current Biology.
The Telegraph, London
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