This strange animal experiment could solve climate change

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Can we educate the cattle to the toilets? Would we like?

The answer to these two questions is Yes – and it could help us solve the problems of water contamination and climate change. Cattle urine is rich in nitrogen, which contributes to a series of environmental problems.

When cows are raised primarily outdoors, as is the case in New Zealand and Australia, the nitrogen in their urine breaks down in the soil, producing two problematic substances: nitrate and protoxide. ‘nitrogen.

Nitrate from urine stains seeps into lakes, rivers and aquifers (ground pools of water contained in rock), polluting the water and contributing to the excessive growth of weeds and algae.

Nitrous oxide is a long-lasting greenhouse gas that is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. It accounts for about 12 percent of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions, and much of it comes from the agricultural sector.

When cows are primarily reared in barns, as in Europe and North America, another pollutant gas, ammonia, is produced when nitrogen in urine mixes with feces on the barn floor. .

However, if some of the urine produced by cattle could be captured and processed, the nitrogen it contains could be diverted and environmental impacts reduced. But how could urine capture be achieved?

We have worked on this problem with collaborators from the German Federal Institute for Animal Health Research and the Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology. Our research is published today in the journal Current biology. It is part of the doctorate of our colleague Neele Dirksen. thesis.

Potty training (but without diapers)

In our research project, funded by the Volkswagen Foundation, we applied the principles of behavioral psychology to train young cattle to urinate in a particular place, ie to use the “toilet”.

Calves had to walk down an alley to enter the latrine enclosure.Farm Animal Biology Research Institute

Behavioral psychology tells us that the behavior is likely to repeat itself if it is followed by a reward or “reinforcement.” This is how we train a dog to come when called.

So if we want to encourage a particular behavior, like urinating in a specific place, we have to reinforce that behavior. For our project, we applied this idea in much the same way as for potty training for children, using a procedure called “backward chaining”.

First, the calves were confined to the toilet area, a latrine pen, and reinforced with a favorite treat when they urinated. This established the cell as a great place to urinate.

Cow urine could be “captured” in the latrine enclosure.Farm Animal Biology Research Institute

The calves were then placed in an alley outside the pen and again reinforced to enter the cell and urinate there. If urination started in the way, it was discouraged by a slightly unpleasant spray of water.

After optimizing the training, seven of the eight calves we trained learned to urinate in the latrine pen – and they learned it as quickly as human children.

The calves only received 15 days of training, and the majority learned the full set of skills in 20-25 urination, which is faster than the toilet training time for children three and four years.

This showed us two things that were not known before.

  1. Cattle can learn to take care of their urination reflex because they have moved to the pen when they are ready to use it.
  2. Cattle will learn to withhold urination until they are in the right place if they are rewarded for doing so.

The calves received a delicious treat after using the latrine enclosure.Farm Animal Biology Research Institute

Potty training cattle: the next steps

Our research is a proof of concept. Cattle can be toilet trained without too much difficulty. But extending the method for practical application in agriculture involves two other challenges, which will focus on the next stage of our project.

First, we need a way to detect urination in the latrine enclosure and provide reinforcement – without human intervention.

The calves came out of the pen through a door.Farm Animal Biology Research Institute

It is probably nothing more than a technical problem. An electronic sensor for urination wouldn’t be difficult to develop, and small amounts of attractive rewards could be provided in a pen.

Apart from that, we will also have to determine the optimal location and the number of latrine huts needed. This is a particularly difficult problem in countries like New Zealand, where cattle spend most of their time in open pens rather than barns.

Part of our future research will require understanding how far cattle are willing to walk to use a pen. And there is still a lot to be done to understand how to best use this technique with animals in indoor and outdoor breeding contexts.

We know that nitrogen in cattle urine contributes to both water pollution and climate change, and toilet training in cattle can reduce these effects.

The more urine we can capture, the less we will need to reduce the number of cattle to meet emissions targets – and the less we will have to compromise on the availability of milk, butter, cheese and meat for cattle. .

This article was originally published on The Conversation by Douglas Elliffe and Lindsay Matthews at the University of Auckland. Read the original article here.


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