Potty training cows to use a bovine lavatory could help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and save the planet, scientists claimed.
Researchers from the Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology attempted to potty train 16 calves using a “MooLoo” contraption of their own design.
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 behind methane and carbon dioxide.
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 toilet?”
Cows are notorious for their gassy stomachs and their flatulence is a major source of global methane emissions.
However, the environmental impact of cattle farming goes beyond potent burps, as the amount of land and energy needed to produce both cattle feed and land for grazing 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 mix together and 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.
Dr 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.
Dr 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, and they want to transfer their results into real cattle housing and to outdoor systems.
Dr Langbein hopes that “in a few years, all cows will go to a toilet” and published the findings in the journal Current Biology.
This is not the first time scientists have tried to curb the gaseous production of cows, with previous studies focusing on their methane-filled flatulence.
A team of academics from the University of Kiel in Germany strapped methane harnesses to cows to monitor just how much methane they produced on a day-to-day basis; feeding cows seaweed to cut the amount of methane they make; and a tablet to curb methane emissions.
However, no novel methane-control methods have yet to crack the farming industry, and the best way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from cattle is to cut down on our reliance on them for meat and cattle.
A study published on Monday in the journal Nature Food found animal-based foods produce twice as many greenhouse gases every year as plant-based food.
Global food production makes about 17 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide per year and 57 per cent comes from animal-based foods and 29 per cent from plant-based food.
Beef alone accounted for more than four billion tons, and cow milk more than 1.5 billion tons. Cow milk and beef combined make more greenhouse gas emissions than all plant-based food.