- Cow’s waste produces ammonia that can be found in local soil
- Here, microbes convert this chemical into the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide.
- Researchers in Germany have developed a special toilet in which cows can walk
- They then trained 11 of the 16 calves to use it over the course of a few weeks.
- The so-called molu is able to hold urine so it can be treated
Scientists have prompted potty-training cows to urinate in a specially constructed toilet – in a move that could help curb greenhouse emissions.
When cattle are allowed to graze and free themselves, the release of their bodily waste can contaminate the local soil and surrounding waterways.
And while this problem can be controlled by confining cows to barns, accumulating urine and feces nearby can lead to ammonia production.
Leaching into the soil, ammonia can be converted by microbes into nitrous oxide – one of the top three greenhouse gases after carbon dioxide and methane.
In fact, agriculture is the largest source of ammonia emissions, with livestock farming accounting for more than half of this contribution.
In their study, experts from Germany’s Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology designed a toilet for cows that can collect ammonia so that it can be treated.
By teaching calves to use this ‘mulu’, the team says it would be possible to both reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create more open, animal-friendly farms.
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Scientists have succeeded in getting potty-training cows to urinate in a specially constructed toilet – a move that could help curb greenhouse emissions. Pictured: A calf enters MooLoo
What is ammonia and how does it become a greenhouse gas?
Ammonia is a colorless gas with a characteristic odor.
It is a building-block chemical and a key ingredient in the manufacturing of many products that people use every day.
It occurs naturally throughout the environment, in air, soil, and water, and in plants and animals, including humans.
The human body makes ammonia when the body breaks down protein-rich foods into amino acids and ammonia, then converts the ammonia into urea.
Ammonium hydroxide — commonly known as household ammonia — is an ingredient in many daily household cleaning products.
Ammonia is a basic building block for ammonium nitrate fertilizer, which releases nitrogen, which is an essential nutrient for growing plants, including agricultural crops and lawns.
But by leaching into the soil, ammonia can be converted by microbes into nitrous oxide – one of the top three greenhouse gases after carbon dioxide and methane.
“It is generally believed that cattle are not able to control defecation or urination,” said paper author Jan Langbein from the Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology in Dummerstorf, Germany.
However, he explained, his team challenged this thinking.
“Like many other animals, cattle are also very smart and they can learn a lot,” he said.
‘Why can’t they learn to use the toilet?’
To toilet train the calves, the researchers began by rewarding the animals with sugar each time they urinated in the special toilet.
The next step involves allowing the calves to enter the toilet enclosure from outside when they need to relieve themselves.
Dr Langbein explained, ‘You have to try to involve the animals in the process and train the animals to teach them what they need to learn.
Along with positive reinforcement, the team also set out to discourage the calves from urinating outside the mulu.
Dr Langbein said, ‘As a punishment, we used in-ear headphones before and whenever they pee outside we make a very bad sound.
‘We thought it would punish the animals – not too repulsive – but they didn’t care!’ she added.
‘After all, the water splash worked well as a gentle deterrent.’
Over the course of a few weeks, the team succeeded in training 11 of the 16 calves involved in the experiment to use the mooloo—along with small children performing alongside the animals—all learning to use the toilet. Huh. first time.
Dr Langbein said that, with further training, he is hopeful that this success rate can be further improved.
“After ten, fifteen, twenty years of research with cattle, we know that animals have a personality, and they handle different things differently,” he said.
‘They are not all the same.’
To toilet train the calves, the researchers began by rewarding the animals with a sugar treat (pictured) each time they urinated in the special toilet. The next step involves allowing the calves to enter the toilet enclosure from outside when they need to relieve themselves.
Over the course of a few weeks, the team succeeded in training 11 of the 16 calves involved in the experiment to use the mooloo—along with small children performing alongside the animals—all learning to use the toilet. Huh. first time. Image: Researchers monitor progress of mulu training for calves
With their initial study complete, the team is now eager to transfer what it has learned in their tests to real-world cattle habitat and outdoor systems.
Langbein predicted, ‘In a few years all the cows will go to the toilet.’
The full findings of the study were published in the journal current biology.
environmental impact of cow farming
Livestock are notorious for producing large amounts of methane, a major contributor to global warming.
Each farm animal produces the equivalent of three tons of carbon dioxide per year and the amount of animals is increasing with the increasing need to feed a growing population.
Methane is one of the most potent greenhouse gases, trapping 30 times more heat than the same amount of carbon dioxide.
Scientists are investigating how by feeding them different types of food, cattle can…