Lindsey Matthews and his team had been working on the idea of reducing emissions from the livestock industry by using waste management on cows. It was a topic that had not been previously explored, and there was no certainty of success when it came to training the animals. But, inspired by methods used to potty train a human toddler, Matthews and his team came up with the idea of using a reward system based on treats.
“I was just jumping up and down because these cows, we gave them the vibration and they walked down the alleyway and into the toilet in response to this vibration,” he said. “This was an absolute eureka moment that we were so excited [about].”
Matthews, a behavioral and animal welfare researcher at the University of Auckland, grew up on a dairy farm, so livestock has always been a point of interest for the New Zealand scientist.
“All my research career, I’ve been training and investigating, learning about cattle. It didn’t seem that far-fetched to me, this suggestion. And so it got me thinking anyway.”
According to Matthews, livestock contributes to 50 per cent of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions. This is partly because cattle urine, when mixed with soil, can produce nitrate and nitrous oxide that is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Matthews calculated that because of its “potency and abundance,” nitrous oxide from cattle contributes to two per cent of global greenhouse emissions worldwide.
Livestock is not the only agricultural culprit, though. Synthetic nitrogen fertilizer can produce the same effect. These fertilizers are a necessity for farming crops and are quite a large expense for the farmers.
Matthew’s research could remedy both situations by reusing the waste captured from the animals and having the nitrogen in the urine be repurposed into fertilizer. Cow urine on its own is too concentrated to be used for crops.
“I mean, there’s other nutrients in it. But essentially, if we can capture the urine, you’re just reducing the nitrous oxide from the urine,” said Matthews.
Training cattle to respond to stimuli was not as hard as Matthews initially thought. He and his team trained the animals using non-harmful vibration collars and a food reward system.
“We couldn’t tell the cow, obviously, to go there. So this was our equivalent of pay.”
If an animal urinated in the wrong area, the collar would deliver a vibration. The cows were kept in the collection area and rewarded with food once they used the facility properly. Within 15 to 20 tries, the cattle would start to use the facility automatically to receive a treat.
Once they knew it could be done, the question became how this training could be done efficiently and autonomically. It would need to be a process that was fairly easy for cattle farmers to implement — that is what Matthew’s team is currently developing. Ideas like having the collection infrastructure being portable have been thrown around, but there could be even easier solutions.
“The halfway house, perhaps, is to use existing infrastructure. So the cows come in for milking from the pastures twice a day. And cattle have been urinating in the morning, and in the evening, or late afternoon. So the idea is, maybe we can actually get them to do a big urination a couple or three times a day in these facilities that already exist.”
Matthews and his team have learned that calves save up twice the amount of urine than adults do during the day. So the cows are more than capable of making the idea a success. It’s just a matter of how to train them to do it on command.
Matthews’ idea of potty training cows has become more well known through media reporting, even being mentioned by United Kingdom’s Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, at the COP26 summit in Glasgow.
Now that the research team has successfully gathered all the pieces, all that remains is to put them together into a solution that could significantly lessen cattle farming’s contribution to climate change.