Scientists 'Potty-Training' Cows to Help Curb Greenhouse Gas Emissions

A new experiment poses an unusual solution for reducing pollutants partially responsible for climate change. By "potty-training" livestock cows, researchers believe that the animals' urine, which contains ammonia, can be collected before being released into the environment.

Cows are known for their detrimental environmental impact. As of September 2020, livestock was responsible for 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions—and of all livestock, cattle alone contributed to a whopping 65 percent of emissions. Aside from nitrates in their waste, cows release huge quantities of methane via their burps, and they require massive amounts of land to graze.

The new study, however, aims to address at least some of the negative effects caused by raising cattle. The findings, published Monday, suggested cattle can be trained to "use a latrine for urination."

Explained study co-author Jan Langbein in a statement: "It's usually assumed that cattle are not capable of controlling defecation or urination." He noted, however, that "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?" Langbein asked.

Researchers are attempting to "potty-train" livestock cows to cut down on greenhouse emissions associated with climate change. Cows grazing in a field in Oxfordshire Cotswolds, United Kingdom. Tim Graham/Getty Images

While not harmful to the environment on its own, the ammonia found in cows' urine quickly turns into the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide when mixed with soil and feces. As such, collecting the urine before these chemical reactions can take place could provide a significant emissions cut.

The experiment, conducted by scientists from the University of Auckland in New Zealand and Germany's Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology (FBN), consisted of teaching cattle to use what they coined the "MooLoo" method. In order to train the cows to urinate in a designated "toilet" area of their barn, they were given a sweet drink or crushed barley as a reward. If they urinated elsewhere, the cows were splashed with water as a gentle punishment.

"You have to try to include the animals in the process and train the animals to follow what they should learn," said Langbein. "We guessed it should be possible to train the animals, but to what extent we didn't know."

In just a few weeks, researchers were able to "potty-train" 11 out of 16 cows. And, with additional training, Langbein believes the less successful cows could learn the skill as well.

"After 10, 15, 20 years of researching with cattle, we know that animals have a personality, and they handle different things in a different way. They are not all the same," he said.

The researchers found that the animals' abilities were comparable to those of a young child—and even exceeded those of "very young children."

According to the Guardian, collecting 80 percent of cattle urine on a farm could result in at least halving their ammonia emissions. Langbein hoped the study's results will be translated into real-world agricultural systems and that "in a few years all cows will go to a toilet."