Tag Archives: cows

Scientists potty-train cows to tackle climate change

calf in a latrine undergoing MooLoo training. Credit: FBN.

Cow farms produce a lot of waste that harms the environment by producing greenhouse gases and contaminating the local soil and waterways. Researchers in Germany want to minimize these impacts by proposing a seemingly wacky, but effective and novel way to manage cattle urine and feces: just potty-train the cows.

Just crazy enough to work

The beef and dairy industry is among the most environmentally damaging in the world for a myriad of reasons. Intensive livestock breeding requires a lot of feedstock, water, and land, and produces copious amounts of greenhouse gases that heat the planet’s atmosphere.

A report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that livestock accounts for nearly 15% of man-made greenhouse gas emissions. You may have heard that a lot of methane is produced by cattle burps and farts, but they produce another potent greenhouse gas that is often overlooked.

When a cow’s feces and urine combine, they produce ammonia due to the enzymatic hydrolysis of urea in the urine by urease in the feces. Further down the stream, when ammonia is leached into the soil, microbes eat it up, generating nitrous oxide as a byproduct, the third-most important greenhouse gas after methane and carbon dioxide.

“About 95% of ammonia emissions come from agriculture, and a considerable proportion comes from cattle farming, either directly from barn air or indirectly from slurry. Ammonia is an indirect greenhouse gas. Ammonia is responsible for a large amount of atmospheric N deposition which in turn leads to eutrophication of the soil and water, soil acidification, and direct plant damage. In accordance with the National Emission Reduction Commitment (NERC) from 2016, Germany has committed itself to reduce its emissions of ammonia by 29% compared to 2005. Ammonia is released when urine and feces meet. It is formed by the enzymatic hydrolysis of urea in the urine by urease in the feces,”  Jan Langbein,  an animal psychologist at the Research Institute for Farm Animal Biology (FBN) and co-author of the new study, told ZME Science.

If you thought cows are dumb, I have moos for you. Cows are actually quite intelligent animals that are known to interact in socially complex ways. For instance, they can develop friendships over time and, conversely, will sometimes hold grudges against other cows that treat them badly.

Far from being mere burger and milk machines, cows are sentient and well emotionally developed. Cognitively speaking, they have a level of performance comparable to that of children, with research showing they possess complex spatial memory, can discriminate between individual cows or humans, and display a full range of personality traits, such as shyness, boldness, sociability, and gregariousness.

Bearing all of this in mind, the researchers in Germany believed that cows were clever enough to be potty-trained — and they were right.

Writing in the journal Current Biology, they describe their process, dubbed MooLoo training, by which 16 calves were trained to urinate in latrines fitted inside their barn with a combination of reward and mild punishment.

Researchers carefully watch calves undergoing MooLoo potty training. Credit: FBN.

After they became accustomed to the experimental environment and learned how to enter and exit the gates to the latrine, the cows were taught how to use them. Every time they urinated into the designated area, they received a food reward consisting of a mixture of molasses and glucose or crushed barley. When they urinated outside the toilet, the researchers conditioned them against this behavior by inflicting a mild punishment. Initially, the negative stimulus consisted of playing an annoying sound through headphones placed inside the cow’s ears, however, the animals couldn’t seem to care less. Ultimately, a spray of water worked as a gentle deterrent, and the researchers stuck with that for the rest of the training.

In time, 11 out of the 16 calves learned to enter the latrine only when they needed to urinate and how to use the toilets properly, thereby avoiding ammonia production.

The researchers are confident they can refine their training method to improve their training conversion and scale it even for farms with thousands of individuals.

“We are preparing a follow-up project, in which we want to realize our results, which were worked out under experimental conditions, under practical conditions. For this purpose, the entire training procedure must be automated. Appropriate sensors should detect urination and trigger a reward output in case of urination in the latrine. For now, we are focusing on dairy cows that are kept indoors. In the pasture, the distances for the cow are significantly longer,” Langbein said.

Building designated latrines, fitting them with sensors and automation machines, and training calves sounds prohibitively expensive — and it might very well be. However, seeing how the livestock sector generates copious amounts of emissions, farmers may be incentivized to go down this route through government subsidies. Alternatively, a carbon tax may level the playing field in the market by rewarding farmers who produce less ammonia with carbon credits.

In the not-so-distant future, don’t be surprised to see cows queuing for the toilet like in a busy pub.

Organic meat has the same impact on the world’s climate as ‘normal’ meat

Organic meat, usually highlighted as friendlier to the environment, actually has a climate cost as high as conventionally farmed meat. According to a new study, which estimated the greenhouse gas emissions (GEI) resulting from different foods in Germany, the only eco-friendly meat is no meat at all.

Image credit: Flickr / Oli

A team of German researchers wanted to explore the “invisible” environmental costs of food production, from land use and fertilizers to methane emissions and transportation. They focused on meat products, dairy, and plant-based food and compared organic and conventional production in each case.

The results are striking. Compared to conventional farming, organic methods improve the emissions profile of dairy and plant-based products, reducing their impact on the planet, because organic farming bans the use of mineral nitrogen fertilizers, which brings down the emissions costs of this production method.

But meat was the big exception.

Conventional and organic methods of meat accounted for similar high emissions costs, the study showed. For the researchers, this might be because organic livestock needs more land to satisfy the welfare standard and because of its lower productivity, making it less efficient than conventional methods.

Emissions from conventional livestock come from their manure and, for cows and sheep, by burping methane. The grain can also lead to emissions if it’s linked to deforestation. While organic cows don’t eat imported fodder and are grass-fed, they grow more slowly and release more emissions before slaughter.

“We expected organic farming to score better for animal-based products but, for greenhouse gas emissions, it actually doesn’t make much difference,” Maximilian Pieper, lead researcher, told The Guardian. “But in certain other aspects, organic is certainly better than conventional farming.”

But that was only one part of the study. Pieper wanted to make the environmental cost more tangible for consumers, to put a clear environmental “price tag” on different meat products.

According to the team’s calculations, conventionally-produced meat would have to be 150% more expensive than now to account for the environmental impact. By comparison, organically-produced and plant-based foods would have to cost just 6% more. In other words, organic meat is priced to reflect its environmental impact, while conventional meat is cheap because no one is paying for the environmental damage it causes.

The research is based on the “polluter pays” principle, which suggests that those whose actions cause harm to the environment should bear the responsibility of paying for it. This would be represented perfectly in the choice to eat a meatier diet over one with more plant-based foods — but only if the price of meat actually reflected the true environmental cost.

A very cheap piece of meat is actually hiding the true impact on the planet and providing no incentive to make better food (and environment) choices. But if the “polluter pays” principle is applied, the higher cost of meat would encourage a shift away from more environmentally-harmful diets based on meat towards greener ones richer in plants.

Of course, it isn’t that simple. Increases in the price of vegetables and fruits would make healthier food unaffordable for many. And essential food, which for many people includes beef and dairy for nutritional purposes, shouldn’t become unaffordable. To prevent this, the researchers suggested using government subsidies and social compensation measures as alternatives to an extra environmental tax.

If changes are applied sensitively, there would also be trickle-down benefits, the researchers argue. Meat consumption would be reduced by driving more sustainable choices with the cost. This would free up land from livestock that could be returned to nature, which would help for the recovery of ecosystems around the world.

Marco Springmann from the University of Oxford, not part of the study, told The Guardian. “The policy implications are clear: applying an emissions price across all sectors of the economy, including agriculture, would provide a consistent and much-needed incentive to change towards healthier and more sustainable diets that are predominantly plant-based.”

The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.

Painting eyes on cow butts can prevent predator attacks, study finds

Farmers in Botswana have long been used to lions and other predators attacking their cows every once in a while. But there might be a simple solution, according to a new study. It’s a bit weird, but it can work. Hear me out.

Credit Ben Yexley UNSW

No butt of a joke

The researchers described a new method in which they paint eyes on the back of cows — on their butts, basically. This works as a humane alternative to using lethal control and is also cheaper and more eco-friendly than using fencing to separate the cows from the predators.

It’s simple, it’s cheap, painless, and it can be surprisingly effective, the researchers note.

“Lions are ambush predators that rely on stalking, and therefore the element of surprise, so being seen by their prey can lead to them abandoning the hunt,” said researcher Neil Jordan in a press release. “We tested whether we could hack into this response to reduce livestock losses, potentially protecting lions and livelihoods.”

Jordan partnered up with the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust (BPCT) and did a ten-week pilot study with a local farmer. They painted eyes on one-third of the 62 cows and counted the cattle every night to see how many had survived. Surprisingly, only three were killed during that period, none of which had painted eyes. The lions seemed to avoid the eye-butt cows.

The results encouraged Jordan to expand his research, carrying out a four-year study. He and his team worked with farmers from the Okavango delta region, taking a sample of over 2,000 animals from 14 herds.

They used acrylic paint, black and white or yellow, and applied it with foam stencils in the shape of an eye, clearly visible to the predator.

The researchers painted the eye patterns in one-third of the cattle, while another third only got cross-marks and another third wasn’t unmarked. The cattle painted with the eyespots were much likely to survive than unpainted or cross-painted in the same herd. In fact, no cows that had been painted with eyes were killed during the four-year study, which is a remarkable achievement in itself.

“Cattle marked with simple crosses were significantly more likely to survive than were un-marked cattle from the same herd. Although eye-marked cattle were more likely to survive than the other groups, this general ‘conspicuousness’ effect suggests that novel cross-marks were better than no marks at all, which was unexpected,” Jordan said.

Helping both farmers and lions

As well as publishing a paper with their findings, the researchers have also done practical guides to the ‘eye-cow’ technique in both English and Setswana. They hope farmers will take up this simple tool but they stress that it is important to understand the potential limitations in its use, and choose for themselves. Essentially, the method is not perfect, but it can indeed help.

There are still some unknowns. Jordan explained that in the experimental design there were always unmarked cows in the heard, which means it’s unclear whether the painting would still be effective if those cows weren’t there.

Another thing to consider is habituation, as predators might get used to the deterrent and eventually ignore it — just because it works no, it’s not a guarantee that it will work 10 years from now..

The African lion population has in fact dropped from 100,000 in the 1990s to between 23,000 and 39,000 in 2016, with farmer retaliation playing an important role with that. Understandably, local farmers want their animals safe, but conservationists have been looking for ways to reduce conflicts for a long time. Now, they finally have a tool they can at least trial in these dicey situations.

The study was published in the journal Communications Biology.

The dairy industry today is much cleaner and more efficient than 60 years ago

Producing dairy today is cleaner than it was 50 years ago, a study finds.

Image credits Ulrike Leone.

Each liter of California milk requires less land, water, and releases fewer emissions than in 1964 to produce, reports a new study from the University of California, Davis. The study takes into account inputs as producing feed for the animals, the animals themselves, as well as the machinery and transportation needed to produce milk.

California is the top dairy-producing state, and milk production is the third-largest agricultural industry in the US.

Udder progress

“We compared 1964 through 2014 and found a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gases to produce the same quantity and quality of milk,” said senior author Ermias Kebreab, professor and Sesnon Endowed Chair in the Department of Animal Science at UC Davis. “The magnitude of change is surprising.”

A life cycle environmental assessment of California cows, from the time they’re born until they leave the farm, suggests that modern agricultural advancements really do help slash emissions and the environmental footprint of our food. The study included an analysis of inputs such as the feed, machinery, and transportation required to produce milk. The figures were then compared to their equivalents from 1964.

The largest cut to methane emissions seen in the study came from a decline in enteric methane — basically, cow belches. Reductions in emissions from manure were also recorded, but they were less dramatic than enteric ones.

“Reductions in enteric methane intensity (i.e., methane emissions per gallon of milk) are primarily a result of better genetics and breeding and better nutrition for the animals,” said Kebreab.

Overall, water use in the industry overall dropped by 88% compared to 1964 levels, the team explains, primarily through more efficient water use in feed crops and the use of by-products such as almond hulls for feed. Water use in housing and milking also dropped by 55%. Land use per liter of milk has also decreased, mostly through the introduction of better crops and agricultural practices.

While per liter efficiency has definitely increased, total greenhouse gas emissions from cows in California has increased, as more animals are being reared today. The team notes, though, that a cow in the 1960s could produce about 4,850 kilograms of milk per year, while one today can produce over 10,000 kg annually.

“There is a lot of discussion about how cows have a huge environmental footprint, but no one is talking about how the dairy industry has changed,” said Kebreab. “Dairy farmers are doing a lot to help reduce the industry’s environmental footprint.”

On the one hand, I definitely find the results encouraging, and I applaud the farmers that are doing their part to clean up the industry. But at the end of the day, there’s only so much they can clean. In the context of climate change, the most effective choice is simply to not breed any more cows. But I do love cheese, and I’m quite a fan of meat, so I secretly hope that we’ll be able to still put these on the table and safeguard the health of ecosystems around the world. In a previous study, Kebreab found that feeding dairy cows a small amount of Asparagopsis armata seaweed along with their feed, reduced methane emissions by up to 60% — so maybe there is still hope.

The paper “Greenhouse gas, water, and land footprint per unit of production of the California dairy industry over 50 years” has been published in the Journal of Dairy Science.

Wild cows swept away by Hurricane Dorian found miles away on an island

The three castaways were found grazing peacefully on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, where they apparently washed up.

The skittish cows swam for miles and miles.

Hurricane Dorian was the most intense tropical cyclone on record to strike the Bahamas, and it also viciously struck mainland US. The National Centers for Environmental Information estimated total damage in the United States to be in excess of $1.2 billion. Houses were destroyed, towns were flooded, and there were a few fatalities. Among all this mayhem, animals are often unsung victims.

This is the case of a a wild herd of cows affectionately known as the “Sea Cows.” The 20 or so animals part of the Sea Cows normally live on private land, where they normally graze and mind their own business. Unfortunately for them, they were swept by the powerful hurricane, and only three appear to have survived. These three, however, appear unscathed — and they must have swum for miles to safely get to the island.

It’s a wild adventure and no doubt, if these cows could speak, they’d have a hell of a story to tell.


Cape Lookout National Seashore officials think the stranded cows swam up to 5 miles (8 kilometers) during the September storm. Cows can swim, but they’re not particularly good at it. It’s tremendous that they made it, and it shows that cows can be surprisingly resilient if given the chance.

It wasn’t easy to get them back home. National Park Service officials said the cows are “very wild and very skittish” and apt to run if approached by humans. In the end, however, they were returned to their home — which as you can imagine, made them really happy.

“That they were happy to be home was evident as they kicked up their heels and ran down the beach once they were released on their former range on Cedar Island,” Cape Lookout National Seashore said on Facebook.

“It took a lot of folks coming together to make this happen, and we are happy the cows made it home to Cedar Island,” Cape Lookout National Seashore Superintendent Jeff West said in the park’s announcement. “I am pretty sure they are too!”

It’s a bittersweet story, a reminder that animals are also victims of extreme weather — and that sometimes, they can survive even in the toughest of conditions.

US cattle farmers have been feeding cows candy for years, spilled Skittles reveal

A trucking accident on the Dodge County highway revealed the US livestock industry’s sweetest secret — farmers have been feeding cows defective Skittles on the down low to avoid paying for corn.

Image credits Dodge County Sheriff’s Office / Facebook.

Wisconsin cattle farmers are in a sticky situation with customers after a truck spilled thousands of Skittles on County Highway S intended as animal feed. The candy, all colored in pink and carrying the brand’s distinctive white ‘S’, didn’t meet quality standards and was actually cheaper than corn.

The Sheriff’s department reported that the Skittles were boxed up in the back of a flatbed truck. Due to rain, the crates got wet and slipped onto the road and broke apart, spewing candy everywhere. Highway maintenance teams were deployed to dispose of the sweets.

In wake of the finding, public voices raised concern that this practice would negatively impact the quality of meat. Experts, however say that there’s no cause for alarm — as the practice has been going on for a few years now. The candy is not only cheaper than traditional feed (especially the defective ones) but they may actually provide a host of other benefits.

“Cows need carbohydrates, as well. They need sugar. It provides energy and calories for them,” said Liz Binversie, Brown County UW-Extension Agriculture Educator. “Your body doesn’t really distinguish candy vs syrup vs corn vs whatever,” she added.

“It actually has a higher ratio of fat (than) actually feeding them straight corn,” said Joseph Watson, owner of United Livestock Commodities, who swapped for candy during the 2012 drought when corn prices skyrocketed.

And some argue that the practice may also be more environmentally friendly than using traditional feed and throwing these candies out. John Waller, a professor of animal nutrition at the University of Tennessee, said for NBC:

“I think it’s a viable (diet).”

“It keeps fat material from going out in the landfill, and it’s a good way to get nutrients in these cattle. The alternative would be to put (the candy) in a landfill somewhere.”

I do see his argument — waste is nobody’s friend. But how can Skittles be ‘defective’? It’s candy. It’s supposed to be sweet, and that’s all it has to be. If you look at the big enough picture, producing a pound of the stuff has a higher impact than producing a pound of corn. It makes sense to feed it to cows rather than dumping them, sure, but I’d rather not have to make the choice in the first place.

Still, with corn prices at an all time high, it’s unlikely that the farmers will wean off candy any time soon.  At the end of the day the cows get to chow on some sweets and I guess that’s nice.

Another upside to the whole story is that the Dodge County Sheriff’s posts about the incident are pure gold:

They later said that the crash actually helped, since the roads had been icy for days and the candy provided “extra traction”.

Never change, Dodge County department.

Video: the hidden environmental cost of hamburgers

Americans love hamburgers – probably too much. The average American eats 3 hamburgers a week – do the math, and that’s over 48 billion hamburgers per year – in the US alone! Furthermore, even though hamburgers are cheap, what you don’t pay at the counter is charged in other ways: on your body, your health, and even more globally significant: on the environment. Here’s a short video thoroughly explaining what you most likely don’t know about hamburger mass production, and how much we really pay for a hamburger.