Researchers Toilet-Trained Cows in Hopes of Reducing Their Greenhouse Gas Emissions

Researchers Toilet-Trained Cows in Hopes of Reducing Their Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Researchers watch the cows going about their toilet training. (Photo: Nordlicht/FBN)

Researchers in Germany recently demonstrated that cattle can be toilet trained to reduce some of their climate impact. By having the young cows pee in latrines made of turf, the team of experts in animal behaviour and agricultural science stopped the natural production of nitrous oxide from the cow’s urine.

Cows are notorious for their contributions to greenhouse gas emissions in large-scale farming; the animals belch (and to a lesser extent, fart) methane, and their urine and poop combine to produce ammonia, which isn’t a greenhouse gas itself but is converted into nitrous oxide by microbes in the soil. The team trained nearly a dozen calves to urinate in a makeshift latrine, nicknamed the MooLoo, thereby stopping the urine from becoming part of the problem. The research was published on Monday in Current Biology.

“It’s usually assumed that cattle are not capable of controlling defecation or urination,” said Jan Langbein, an animal psychologist at the Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology (FBN) in Germany and a co-author of the recent paper, in a press release. “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 toilet?”

Training the cows was a fairly simple process on paper. First, the scientists penned 16 of the animals into the latrine area. When the cows urinated, they were given food or sugar water, tacit endorsements of their decisions. The next step was teaching them not to pee in the pasture, which the team did by implementing an unpleasant stimulus whenever they did so. That stimulus was originally a loud noise, but when the researchers realised the animals didn’t mind it much, they swapped it out for spraying the cows with water, a relatively harmless message of “bad cow.” The team found that the cows’ ability to hold it and go in the latrine was equivalent to a child’s ability with the toilet — even superior to that of young children.

Besides any benefits in reducing the amount of nitrous oxide in the air, it’s a testament to bovine intelligence. Animals we eat are often intellectually underestimated (perhaps because we don’t want to think about it), but these toilet-trained cows are the only latest to showcase farm-animal intelligence. Other recent research found that pigs can play video games by operating a joystick with their snout.

Cows at a dairy farm in Wisconsin in 2020. (Photo: KEREM YUCEL/AFP, Getty Images) Cows at a dairy farm in Wisconsin in 2020. (Photo: KEREM YUCEL/AFP, Getty Images)

Langbein’s team hopes to bring the latrines to other sites and increase the number of potty-trained cows. “To do this, we must first automate the whole training procedure and adapt it to the conditions on the farm,” he told Gizmodo in an email. “We want to tackle this in a follow-up project.”

There are a couple of limitations here. First, not all of the cows could be potty-trained. Only 10 of the 16 calves quickly learned to pee in the proper place and could routinely reproduce that action. That’s trouble for anyone trying to scale up the practice (there are more than 1 billion cows on Earth).

Second, the experiment didn’t cover defecation, and cow poop also contains ammonia. There’s also still the major problem of methane, a greenhouse gas 80 times more potent than carbon dioxide, tied to cows burps and farts. Some researchers have honed in on feeding cows seaweed to reduce methane, but that, like the latrines, is not ready to scale up by any means yet.

Most importantly though, animal husbandry is a small piece of the climate puzzle. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report named methane a huge climate enemy, one that’s also tied to burning and extracting natural gas as well as the aforementioned cow behaviour. That said, nitrous oxide is still a problem, and the overwhelming majority of emissions are from agricultural sources — but it seems unlikely that large cattle farms will be implementing mass toilet training any time soon.

Alas, cow toilets will not save us.