The MooLoo: How Potty Trained Cows Save Our Planet

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Issue 9, Volume 112

By Jovanna Wu 

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As more than one million species are at risk of extinction due to the worsening climate change, countless efforts are being made to reverse the damage. Countries are increasing financial funding for green companies, accelerating their Zero-Emission Vehicles policies, and creating goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Though humans are the main source of the global crisis, there are many other contributing forces lurking in the shadows. One of the least susceptible is cows.

Cows spend most of their days eating and roaming on grass fields—overall harmless activities. Their consistent consumption increases the number of secretions, with the average cow producing more than five gallons of urine and 65 pounds of manure a day. Unbeknownst to the public, cow urine and feces contain substances harmful to the environment, such as nitrate, a toxin that pollutes water once it reaches an excessive amount, as well as methane and nitrous oxide, which pollute the air as a greenhouse gas. When urine is mixed with feces, ammonia—a major nitrogen pollutant—is created. Its release impacts biodiversity, such as soil acidification, and negatively interferes with humans’ bodies. Cows are used to peeing on the fields, resulting in the urine leaking into waterways and mixing with feces. With one billion cows around the world, it seems nearly impossible to prevent the increasing pollution.

However, an animal behavioral scientist at the University of Auckland in New Zealand, Lindsay Matthews, seems to have found a solution: potty training. Matthews and his colleagues took 16 calves because their less developed body results in minimal involvement in milking processes and less likelihood of slaughter. For 45 minutes a day, each calf was put into a MooLoo, an improvised latrine. Every time a calf peed into the MooLoo, they would be handed a treat. In the beginning, the calves went to the MooLoo for treats, but soon learned that they had to pee there to be granted one. If the calves peed in the hallways instead, they would get lightly sprayed with water. Eventually, the calves connected the MooLoo to treats if they peed there, and the hallways to be spritzed with water.

Based on the current progress, Matthews deduced that “cows are at least as quick to learn as two- to four-year-old children.” 11 out of the 16 subjects were potty trained within 10 days. Though this progress is shocking to many, Lindsay Whistance, a livestock researcher in Cirencester, England, was not surprised. She had expected the cows to be able to get potty trained and was instead more concerned with training one billion cows.

Training a billion cows is a large task. For it to happen, scientists will need to overcome numerous hurdles, such as obtaining enough funding. Firstly, the MooLoo training must be an automated system that gives the calves a treat when they pee in the MooLoo. This is important as it makes the MooLoo process more efficient and practical. They might put urine sensors in the latrine for the automatic treat dispensing to occur. After creating the system, there must be planning of the quantity and location of the MooLoos on the farms. To make MooLoo part of our reality, scientists will need to solve each of these obstacles.

However, there might not be a need to successfully potty train all the cows around the globe. Researcher Douglas Elliffe mentioned that collecting 10 to 20 percent of urinations would be enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and nitrate leaching significantly, improving both our environment and health. As ammonia is one of the more significant emissions greatly reducing the quality of the air, collecting 80 percent of the cows’ urine will cut ammonia associations in half.

Additionally, cattle’s urine and feces could be turned into fertilizers for crops, as it contains nitrogen and phosphorus—key nutrients for plants. Using the collected urine from the MooLoo, scientists can make more fertilizer to promote plant growth, leading to a healthier environment. Cows’ feces contain lower levels of nitrogen, which are beneficial for more fragile plants.

With the rapid increase in air pollution, scientists are working hard to reverse the chaos that humans have caused. The MooLoo is one of the many solutions created. With such a promising solution made, the MooLoo has a high chance of being a widespread practice amongst animal and dairy farms. The cows’ high intelligence and fast learning speed make it easier to be done. Slowly and surely, MooLoos will spread, healing our planet one cow at a time.