Science & technology
Farming and the climate
How to toilet train your cow
Another way to fight climate change
Puppies can be taught. So can human children, though not for the first couple of years.
Now, in the hope of fighting climate change, Dr Jan Langbein, of the Fredrich-Loweffler-Institut in Germany, and his colleagues hope they can train cows to use the toilet, too.
Cow urine contains urea, a nitrogen-rich compound that, when broken down by enzymes in cow faeces, is converted into ammonia.
Bacteria in the soil, in turn, convert that ammonia into nitrous oxide.
Best known as a dental anaesthetic, the stuff is also a potent greenhouse gas.
And agriculture is a big source of it.
In the European Union, livestock farming accounts for around 70% of ammonia emissions.
Collecting and treating cow pee before the ammonia can be produced might, therefore, seem like a good idea.
But it has proved difficult in the past without confining the cows to small areas, which is bad for their welfare.
As Dr Langbein describes in Current Biology, this conundrum could be solved if free-roaming cows could be persuaded to voluntarily relieve themselves in a latrine.
But going to the loo is a tricky business, says Dr Langbein.
It requires awareness of bladder fullness, self-control to override excretory reflexes, selection of a latrine, and intentional relaxation of the muscles which control the flow of urine.
Nevertheless, he has developed a three-stage process to help cows master toilet training.