In New Zealand, AgResearch scientists are exploring whether cows can be toilet trained as a way to mitigate the environmental impacts of dairy farming, according to AgResearch post-doctoral scientist Dr. Luke Cooney.
Cooney said the researchers came up with the concept during the AgResearch Science conference last year. They were discussing ideas on how to mitigate the environmental impacts of dairy farming and tossed this potty training idea back and forth. "It obviously has a humorous side, but the underlying idea is sound, and we decided it had merit and could be of real use to farmers if it worked," he said in a question-and-answer section posted on the AgResearch website.
The researchers are now trying to answer the question: "Can nitrogen loss be reduced on farms by rewarding animals for urinating in a designated area?"
Cooney is working with Kiliana Bekelaar with the AgResearch forage science department as co-leads on this research. He said they started by training eight calves. During training sessions, the calves were moved to a "potty" stall that had a remote-controlled feeding station at one end. The calves were then rewarded for urinating or defecating in front of the feeding station, Cooney said. After six weeks and approximately 60 training sessions, Cooney and Bekelaar permitted free access to the potty stalls and tested whether the calves would enter to urinate or defecate.
Cooney said they recently finished this testing, so it is too early to know whether the training significantly increased urination events in the potty stalls.
According to Cooney, strategies normally used for potty training pets, such as litter trays or crates, are not suitable for cattle since cattle show no natural latrine behavior and cattle have less aversion to fecal contamination than cats or dogs. He added that a key goal was to develop "a system that was scalable and could be automated if successful. For that reason, one-on-one training was out of the question."
Cooney noted that if cattle can be potty trained, the hygiene of dairy barns could be better controlled, and farmers could have greater control over effluent application on pasture. "This would be a significant environmental benefit, reducing nitrogen loss on farms," he said.
Cooney and Bekelaar are not the only researchers to have attempted to potty train cattle, he said, noting that one group led by Alison Vaughan had some promising results and was able to encourage urination in young calves using a milk reward. Also, Cooney said another group recently invented a cattle toilet that stimulates urination by massaging a nerve by the udders, and although he hasn't seen a lot of the data, he said it is an "interesting strategy."