Environmental scientists have announced that they have succeeded in “potty training” cows to urinate in a designated toilet as part of a program aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The New Zealand and German team of researchers acknowledged that the idea started as a joke, but said that dealing with nitrogen-rich effluents could have real long-term climate benefits.
“If we could collect 10 or 20 percent of cow urine, that would be enough to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and leaching of nitrates,” said Douglas Ellef of the University of Auckland. “The nitrogen in cow urine breaks down into two substances that form over time: nitrous oxide, which is a potent greenhouse gas, and nitrate, which collects in the soil and then seeps into rivers and streams,” Elif said.
Nitrous oxide accounts for about 5% of global greenhouse gas emissions and just under 10% of New Zealand’s total emissions, according to official data, showing that more than half of these gaseous emissions are associated with livestock.
Researcher Lindsey Matthews noted that the idea of training cows to use the toilet so their urine could be collected and processed first came to her when a radio host interviewed her in 2007 and joked about the issue. “I’m sure people’s reaction to this theory will be strange, but in fact the basic rules are there,” she added.
Working with colleagues in Germany, the scientists used food rewards to train 16 calves to urinate in a special toilet, saying the results are similar to those you’d expect from a three-year-old. Elif emphasized that the scientific research, which was published this week in the journal Current Biology, provided evidence that toilet training cows is very feasible.
The challenge, he added, is to advance the concept to train large herds of cows in environments such as New Zealand, where the animals live outdoors rather than spending most of their time in barns.
Agriculture produces about half of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions, mostly in the form of methane and nitrous oxide.
Unusually for a developed country, the country’s predominantly agricultural economy emits high methane, accounting for about 43.5 percent of New Zealand’s emissions, roughly equal to the amount of carbon dioxide produced by other sources such as fossil fuels.