Ask any parent — teaching a child when and how to use the bathroom can be a frustrating push and pull as the concept finally becomes clear, thanks to patient training and normal brain development.
Now, imagine that same struggle, but with cows!
A German team of scientists decided to tackle the issue in a bid to solve what is widely referred to as a “climate killer conundrum.”
Basically, while giving cows larger fields to graze in is much better for their health, it also increases the greenhouse gasses and negative environmental effects experienced in the surrounding area. A large field to graze in is also a large field to eliminate waste in.
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But the German team (Neele Dirksen, Jan Langbein, Lars Schrader, Birger Puppe, Douglas Elliffe, Katrin Siebert, Volker Röttgen, and Lindsay Matthews) believes that “potty-training” cows when they’re young could solve this issue. By teaching cows to use a designated spot to eliminate waste, cleanup would be easier, and the waste could be more effectively treated to neutralize its effects.
Ambitious, I know. Not an idea I’d feel confident pitching in a meeting. Still, there was some evidence to support the notion: Studies have found that the brains of cows are much more similar to domesticated animals like dogs and cats, who are somewhat more trainable than we previously believed. So, the team went for it.
“Remarkably,” they wrote in the paper, published in Current Biology, “the calves showed a level of performance comparable to that of children and superior to that of very young children.” In their small study group of 16 calves, they were able to train them to use a designated spot 77% of the time after only a short period.
Rewards like barley and “electrolyte mixture” (yum!) were used to encourage the calves, and a gentle splash of water kept them away from eliminating waste anywhere else.
If 80% of cattle can successfully use a designated toilet, the team estimates that ammonia emissions from their waste could be cut in half, a win for the environment and the surrounding soil!
“by reducing contamination of the living areas, the cleanliness, hygiene and welfare of livestock can be improved whilst simultaneously reducing environmental pollution,” the team concluded. “Hence, clever cattle can help in resolving the climate killer conundrum.” Who knew?
The team hopes this successful, albeit small, first study will be used as a model for larger farms in the future. Of course, people could also eat less meat as an easier alternative solution to comabt climate change.
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