In a strange triumph of science, researchers have now successfully potty trained 11 cows. The study, done by research groups in Germany and New Zealand, included 16 calves, which they trained by giving the calves a reward when they urinated in a latrine and later by adding an unpleasant stimulus (three-second water spray) when they began urinating outside of the designated area. The calves' potty training performances are equivalent to those of children and better than very young children.
But why is this important?
First, because cattle waste is a substantial contributor to greenhouse gas emissions and soil and water contamination. Being able to collect cow waste in one place would enable us to treat and dispose of it properly. One way of doing it is by keeping the animals confined in barns, but that lowers their welfare conditions.
Second, it shows that cows are able to react to and control their reflexes, indicating that their behavior — like shown with many other animal species before — is subject to modification by using rewards. This demonstrates that cows have more awareness than previously thought, which is important to better understand their wellbeing and welfare needs. Having cattle keep their own living areas a bit cleaner would also increase their welfare.
Potty training cows in farm settings is time consuming and logistically challenging, but it would help significantly decrease gas emissions without compromising animal welfare. Model calculations predict that capturing 80 percent of cattle waste could lead to a 56 percent reduction in ammonia emissions, which would lead to cleaner air for all of us.