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Scientists teach cows to use ‘MooLoo’ – no bull

It turns out that cows can be toilet trained just as easily as toddlers. Maybe easier.

It is not a bull. Scientists put the task to the test and 11 out of 16 cows learned to use the “MooLoo” when they needed to go.

Much like some parents, the researchers used a treat to persuade the cows to cross a barrier and urinate in a special pen. And it only took 15 days to train the young calves. Some children take a little longer.

“Cows are at least as good as children, ages 2-4, at least as fast,” said lead study author Lindsay Matthews, animal behavior specialist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand who worked with colleagues on testing at an indoor animal research laboratory in Germany.

What began as a half-joking question on a New Zealand radio show about the very real problem of farm waste culminated in a serious study published Monday in the journal Current Biology. And it wasn’t just an academic “wow, that could be fun” question. Massive amounts of urine waste is a serious environmental problem, Matthews said.

Urine contains nitrogen, and when mixed with feces, it becomes ammonia, which is an environmental issue along with acid rain and other issues, Matthews said. It can also contaminate water with nitrates and create polluting nitrous oxide in the air, he said.

And the cows pee a lot. A single cow can produce about 8 gallons (30 liters) of urine per day, Matthews said. In 2019, nitrous oxide accounted for 7% of all greenhouse gases in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“I’m not surprised that they can train calves to urinate in defined places, but I’m surprised no one has demonstrated this before,” said Brian Hare, animal cognition scientist at Duke University, who was not part of the research. “The critical question is can and will it evolve?

If it could be done, potty training animals make waste management easier and reduce greenhouse gas emissions, said Donald Broom, professor of animal welfare at the University of Cambridge in England.

At the laboratory in Dummerstorf, Germany, researchers mimicked a toddler’s training, placing the cows in a special pen, waiting for them to urinate and then giving them a reward: a sugary liquid made mostly of molasses. Cows have a sweet tooth, Matthews said. If the cows urinated outside the MooLoo after the initial training, they would receive a squirt of cold water.

Then, in two sets of experiments, the researchers let the Holstein cows roam the indoor facility. When they had to urinate, 11 of them pushed in the pen, packed their things and got their sweet reward.

There are a few caveats to this experience.

No. 1, they gave the cattle diuretics to get them to urinate more because they had little time to conduct the experiments according to ethical guidelines.

And number 2, they didn’t do number 2. They only trained the cows to use the MooLoo to urinate, not to defecate.

Urine is a bigger problem, at least in Europe, Matthews said. But he predicted that they could also train the cows to poop in a certain location.

While dogs, cats and horses can be toilet trained, they are already showing a desire to go to special places, but cows do not, Matthews said.

The biggest environmental problem for livestock, however, is the methane gas they give off in belching and gas, a major source of global warming. Cows cannot be trained not to belch or fart, Matthews said: “They would explode.”

Follow Seth Borenstein on Twitter at @borenbears.

The Associated Press’s Department of Health and Science receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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