AgResearch scientists are exploring whether cows can be toilet trained - post-doctoral scientist, Dr. Luke Cooney answered the key questions over this unusual study:

1How did you come up with the idea of trying to toilet train cows?

We came up with the concept during the AgResearch Science conference last year. We were discussing ideas on how to mitigate the environmental impacts of dairy farming and we 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. So we’re now trying to answer the question: can we reduce N loss on farms by rewarding animals for urinating in a designated area?

Empty ‘potty’ stalls and reward dispenser. The feeder was built by Calfsmart and is operated by remote control.

2. Can you give a basic outline of the project?

Kiliana Bekelaar is also a Post-Doctoral Scientist in the Forage Science department at AgResearch. She and I are the co-leads on this research. We started by training eight calves. During our training sessions, the calves were moved to a ‘potty’ stall which had a remote-controlled feeding station at one end. The calves were then rewarded for urinating or defecating in front of the feeding station. After 6 weeks, approximately 60 training sessions, we permitted free access to the ‘potty’ stalls and tested whether the calves would enter to urinate or defecate. We have recently finished this testing so it is too early to know whether the training significantly increased urination events in the ‘potty’. We will need to analyse the data over the next few months.

A photo from our testing phase. The ‘potty’ stall are in the background with a couple of attendees while the rest of the herd graze.

3. Cats and dogs can be toilet trained. Are there any similarities between toilet training a pet to training a farm animal?

Like training a dog we used rewards to encourage the behaviour we wanted to see. Strategies you would normally use for potty-training pets, litter trays or crates etc. are not suitable for cattle as they show no natural latrine behaviour and their aversion to faecal contamination is less than cats or dogs. Also, it was key for us 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.

The ‘potty’ stalls getting some use

4. What are the implications for the NZ dairy industry if the study is successful?

If cattle can be potty-trained, we could improve hygiene in dairy sheds and give farmers greater control over effluent application on pasture. This would be a significant environmental benefit, reducing nitrogen loss on farms.

5. Once the study is completed, how would it be applied in an outdoor farming situation?

The training and testing was actually completed on pasture. We would need to develop a fully automated system that can detect urination and defecation events in a target zone and dispense rewards.

The ‘potty’ stalls getting some use

6. Have there been any other similar studies done on this by other scientists either in NZ or abroad that can provide insight whether this is possible?

Yes, a couple of international groups have attempted to potty train cattle. One group had some promising results and were able to encourage urination in young calves using a milk reward. The lead author from that study, Alison Vaughan, is actually a consultant on this project. Another group have recently invented a cattle toilet which stimulates urination by massaging a nerve by the udders. I haven’t seen a lot of their data but it is an interesting strategy.

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