It's Not Easy Potty Training A Cow

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Cows poop. No kidding, right? It’s news to me, and probably to a lot of other city slickers out there, though, that they poop between 10 and 15 times a day. Plus, they pee around 10 times a day.

All that waste adds up pretty quickly (and piles up, too, if the cow doesn’t move around a lot), and causes some significant health and environmental problems on dairy farms. Ammonia and nitrogen get released and contribute to air pollution. Standing in their own filth can make the cows sick or give them hoof problems. Dirty, poop-crusted cows also mean that the farmer loses time cleaning them off before each milking. If he doesn’t at least keep the udders clean, then there’s the risk of milk contamination or lower milk quality.

Training the cows to go in a certain spot or at a certain time would go a long way towards controlling all that poop and curbing these problems. And that’s just what three Canadian scientists set out to do in a study published earlier this month. They knew that dairy farmers often had problems cleaning their cows’ feet because as soon as the animals stepped into the footbath, they’d go to the bathroom and contaminate the water. They also knew that some cows kept in barn stalls had been successfully conditioned, with mild electric jolts, to back up before pooping to keep the waste out of the stall. They combined these two ideas and wondered if water could be used as a stimulus to get cows kept in more open housing systems or in pastures to only do their business in specific places.

They ran four different tests with 12 Holstein dairy cows. In the first, the cows walked through either an empty or full footbath while their “eliminative behavior” was dutifully recorded. In the second, the cows stood still in either an empty footbath, a full one, or one with running water. In the third, the cows stood in an empty bath and either had water, air, or nothing sprayed at their feet. The fourth test was a repeat of the first.

Overall, none of the stimuli reliably got the cows to relieve themselves. More cows went in the full footbath (67 percent) than the empty one (42 percent) in the first test, but there was almost no difference between the two when the test was repeated at the end of the experiment. The researchers also noticed that defecation and urination generally decreased in each test as the days wore on. All this leads them to think that the cows pooped not so much because of the water itself but because the novel experience of getting in the footbath was frightening. The trick to getting cows to go on command, then, might be scaring the crap out of them.