Toilet training cows may raise a few eyebrows, but researchers in Germany have proved that it's possible in a bid to reduce the effects of nitrogen-rich cow urine on the environment.
The research has been carried out by German and New Zealand researchers in a bid to reduce the affects of potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide and nitrate, which pollutes water and contributes to the excessive growth of weeds and algae.
University of Auckland honorary academic Lindsay Matthews is among the scientists behind the work, which saw the research team work with 16 Holstein calves at a farm operated by the Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology in Germany.
"People's reaction is, 'crazy scientists', but actually, the building blocks are there," Dr Matthews said.
"Cows have bigger urinations when they wake up in the morning, which demonstrates they have the ability to withhold urination.
"There's nothing in their neurophysiology that radically differentiates them from animals, such as horses, monkeys and cats, that show latrine behaviour."
In the process they dubbed MooLoo training, the research team first had to demonstrate that most of the calves were able to hold their urine by using vibrating collars to encourage the calves to walk to a latrine pen.
They then placed the cows in the latrine pen and rewarded them when they urinated with a food treat. From there they moved to allowing the calves to make their own way to the latrine pen.
When the calves urinated outside the latrine pen, a splash of water served as a deterrent from doing it again.
With just 15 days of toilet training, the research team managed to successfully toilet 11 out of the 16 calves, a result researchers say is comparable to potty training children.
Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology animal psychologist Jan Langbein said he was optimistic that with more training this success rate could be further improved.
"After 10, 15, 20 years of researching with cattle, we know that animals have a personality, and they handle different things in a different way," Dr Langbein said.
According to an article in Current Biology magazine detailing the findings, modelling exercises have calculated that capturing about 80 per cent of cattle urine in latrines could lead to a 56pc reduction in ammonia emissions.
Now researchers will face the challenge of translating their research to an outdoors context versus in the Northern Hemisphere where dairy cows spend more time in barns.
They will also need to scale up the training to make it economically feasible to do with larger numbers of animals.