Can you toilet train a cow? It’s a question most of us probably have never thought of, and the more pertinent question may seem to be why would we want to? But a new study from University of Auckland researchers has demonstrated how this practice may provide an unusual means of cutting agricultural emissions and targeting water contamination – a matter that has become particularly pressing as public awareness of cattle’s high contribution to emissions is leading some to call for a change to our current methods of farming.
Here, we spoke to study lead Professor Douglas Elliffe about how we can toilet train cattle, and the difference it could make in our emissions landscape.
Why is this a good idea?
Cattle are the leading agricultural source of greenhouse gases worldwide. While the primary problem people look to is their methane production (with each cow producing around 220 pounds of this gas every year), the livestock also produce copious amounts of nitrous oxide, nitrate, and ammonia which, if left unchanged, will continue to leach into the surrounding ecosystems and atmosphere. The long-lasting nature of nitrous oxide means it is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide, and is a major contributor to our planet’s rising temperatures. Efforts to curb these emissions has therefore been a priority for the agricultural industry for some time now.
“The two main problems are nitrate pollution in groundwater and streams, and nitrous oxide as a greenhouse gas,” says Elliffe. “ Ammonia is also a significant problem with indoor farming methods. As far as how significant they are, it’s been reported that nitrous oxide accounts for about 12% of New Zealand’s greenhouse-gas emissions, so that sounds major enough to want to do something about.”
In the university’s study, 16 calves underwent individual toilet training, receiving rewards in the form of food when urinating in a latrine pen, or a deterrent in the form of a spray of water when urinating outside. Successful and rapid results demonstrated that changes in urination behaviour can be achieved through the reward system – and evidencing more effective collection and treating of waste than any current technical solution. Over 15 days of training, the majority of calves had learned the full set of skills within 20 to 25 urinations, which the team says is a faster toilet-training time than three- and four-year-old children.
According to estimates from the team, capturing around 80% of cattle urine would allow for a reduction in ammonia emissions by as much as 56%.
With awareness of agricultural emissions on the rise, there is a push to reduce cattle to cut emissions. But would toilet training en-masse cut emissions by enough to allow current farming methods to continue? Elliffe thinks it can certainly be a step in this direction.
“Politically there certainly is a push to reduce herd numbers in New Zealand, and I’m sure in Australia as well,” he says. “Our hope is that this will become another tool in the kit – if we can reduce the nitrate and nitrous oxide per cow, then there’s less need to reduce the number of cows. I doubt if it’s a complete solution on its own, but there’s other important work going on with, for example, different varieties of pasture that reduce emissions. Probably it’ll be some combination of all these methods that eventually does the trick.”
Indeed, there has been a plethora of research over the years into how the diets of livestock can be adapted to reduce greenhouse gases, as well as if certain manure additives can mitigate the gases, with studies underway to test the efficacy of such preventative methods. As Elliffe says, it’s unlikely that one such solution alone will make the difference, however every project is another arrow in the quiver to curbing emissions from the industry.
The team is looking at scaling up the project, and while the initial results were promising, obstacles remain in considering whether this method can be expanded to industrial levels. The first problem is whether the reward system can be implemented without humans – given the mass scale of many farming operations. The second is considering how to enforce the system with cattle that graze outside – a situation that is preferable to cattle kept in barns for ethical reasons. As such, the team needs to discern how far cattle will go to use the bathroom, and what the best technique for wide scale, outdoor livestock would be.
“What we’ve done so far is proof of concept – it wasn’t widely believed that cattle had voluntary control of urination, or even that they could perceive bladder fullness, let alone that it could be trained,” Elliffe says. “So there’s a lot to do to make it a practicable possibility in actual farming, particularly en masse. We have some ideas that we want to explore to help do that.”
Differences in farming styles from country to country will also pose a challenge in tailoring the solution depending on context.
“Cattle are mainly kept outside on pasture in New Zealand and Australia, with the barn-style indoor housing being much less common here than in Europe or the US,” Elliffe says. “Practically, the idea would be closer to being able to be implemented in barns, but of course what we want to do is to find ways of applying it to outdoor farming now that we’ve shown proof of concept. There are obvious animal welfare advantages in outdoor pastoral farming, so we’re not advocating moving away from that. Remember that even capturing some proportion of the urine could reduce both nitrate pollution and nitrous oxide emission substantially – you don’t have to capture all of it.”
Such a project not only works for the benefit of our environment, but is also thought to have the potential to increase livestock productivity and resilience by reducing contamination in the herd’s living areas. As such, while we await an industrial-scale iteration of the project, it showcases how projects can marry the need for emissions reduction and animal welfare – and shows solutions can be found even in the most unlikely of places.