Student aims to make potty training cattle easy as pie

Treats and time outs | Researcher seeks to train cattle to urinate and defecate in a specific area to improve conditions in barns

Ali Vaughan says she was met with skepticism when she announced that she wanted to potty train cows. 


However, the University of Sask-atchewan PhD candidate said the early returns from her work are promising and could result in practical applications for dairy producers. 


“There was definitely a degree of skepticism because for whatever reason, people don’t think cows are that smart,” said Vaughan, who studies animal behaviour at the university.


In 2012, she conducted a simple experiment — “a proof of principle” — in which she tried to train six one- to two-month old dairy cows to urinate in a specific area. 


Her work could address environmental concerns in dairy barns by reducing ammonia emissions from urine and feces and improving animal health, creating cleaner environments and reducing the occurrences of lameness and mastitis. 


“Normally when you’re coming up with ideas for research, the scientists think it’s a good idea and the producers don’t even know why you want to do that,” said Vaughan, who splits time between Saskatchewan and British Columbia, where she conducts her research. 


“This time, the scientists are like, ‘well, this is silly,’ whereas the producers, the ones I’ve spoken to, seem quite interested.”


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In the initial experiment , Vaughan gave the calves a diuretic and put them in individual stalls. A gate opened when the animal urinated and it received reinforcements, including milk. The process was repeated several times.


In the following days, she conducted the same experiment without the diuretic and moved calves that didn’t urinate into a “time out” pen, where they spent short periods of time alone. 


Vaughan hopes to use consequences to modify an animal’s behaviour.


Performance varied within Vau-ghan’s small sample size, but one calf picked it up immediately and only one failed to get it at all.


With that encouragement, she said she will continue to pursue the idea with the ultimate goal of automating the training.


She’ll be retesting the cattle’s memory and refining the process, looking for the cues and conditions that cattle like best.


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“There’s some really exciting future applications of this,” said Vaughan. 


“I always try to rein myself back in, but if we can train them to urinate and defecate in a specific area, particularly in a stall, we could put this before the milking parlour. No more urine and feces in the milking parlour. No more contamination that way. Fantastic.”


She said the exercise is also beneficial for animals living in a high density environment. 


Cattle are calmer and easier to handle when they have more control, she added, referring to their response to robotic milkers. 


“These are thinking animals. We can make use of that to make our jobs a lot easier, to make their lives a lot better,” she said.


“I think initially, growing up, I was more inclined to be a bit of a Luddite, suspicious of technology, but I think it’s really the way forward to improving animal welfare. I think that’s something we all have a moral re-sponsibility to care about.”

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