Menu Menu

Potty training cows could put a dent in nitrous oxide emissions

In a bid to finally address the massive environmental toll of livestock emissions, scientists have decided to potty train cows. Yes, you read that right. Early signs are positive.

If you can potty train a child, you can potty train a cow.

At least that was the theory posited by a group of environmental scientists, not to sate their famed German sense of humour, but to cut back on huge emissions from the agriculture industry.

Specifically, their project looked at ways of limiting the impact of nitrous oxide – the third most significant polluter after methane and carbon dioxide – associated with the rearing livestock.

While ammonia from cow waste doesn’t directly contribute to climate change, when left to be absorbed by the ground its microbes contaminate soil and nearby waterways. This is also precisely how nitrous oxide is formed.

With the ultimate aim of collecting and neutralising the ammonia within this urine, biologists and environmental scientists have long searched for ways to potty train cattle. But it turns out they’re real stubborn about where they do the business when nature calls.

In a recent study however, German scientists finally managed to make the almighty breakthrough. Congrats everyone, milkshakes all round.

Training young calves through a psychological method known as classical conditioning, they learned to associate urinating in the confines of the ‘MooLoo’ with a tasty reward – like sugar water or crushed barley.

The rebel mammals among the crop who decided to relieve themselves elsewhere were surprised by a shot blast of water from above. It sounds cruel, but it’s more a gentle squirt of water than an ice bucket challenge.

Within a few short weeks and around 15 training sessions, 11 of the 16 calves in the study had been successfully toilet trained (when it comes to going number one anyway). The study’s chief animal psychologist Jan Langbein suggested those who didn’t make the grade probably needed more time to master the skill.

Ultimately, the success rate of calves in the potty training test was similar to that of young children, and the results have encouraged Langbein to consider upping the ante. With a view to eventually neutralising methane quantities from dung, he hopes to get cows defecating within a separate MooLoo in the future.

With each cow offloading around 65lbs worth of manure a day, mind, such a task would be a serious undertaking of its own.

In the more immediate future, all hands are on deck to create an autonomous system to take humans out of the potty training process completely.

‘We want to develop some kind of sensor technology which is all-inclusive,’ said Langbein. ‘In a few years all cows will go to a toilet,’ she proudly proclaimed.

You’re probably questioning whether pouring significant funds and resources into training cows to ultimately gather pee is worth it, let alone the 15 or 20 years of research needed to even get to this point.

If that’s the case (and fair enough), consider current estimates that collecting 80% of urine from domesticated cows would cut global ammonia emissions by more than half.

Besides that, being fully aware of the environmental impact of cow urine provides us with a little extra motivation to cut our meat and dairy consumption back – a serious requirement if we’re to reach our approaching climate goals.

Besides, provided Langbein and co get their wish, the more cows reared for livestock means more MooLoos to accommodate them.


Thred Newsletter!

Sign up to our planet-positive newsletter