Toilet training cows

If you ever decided to sidle up to Alison Vaughn at the UBC Dairy Education and Research Centre in Agassiz and ask her, "What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?" you'd probably be surprised by her answer. She's here to toilet train cows, and she intends to earn her PhD doing it.

Surprisingly, that's not as flaky as it sounds.

"People initially think it's something kind of frivolous," Vaughn told the Times, "but they couldn't be more wrong. This is really motivated by something practical that would be good for cows and for farmers."

How exactly? Well, your average cow produces 30 kilograms of feces and15 kilograms of urine per day, according to Vaughn, a University of Saskatchewan doctoral student who hails from the Isle of Skye in Scotland.

That's a lot of waste, especially if it's spread all over the barn willy-nilly.

"Imagine you either have to clean a whole barn or there's one specific area which is designed to be self cleaning."

Having such an arrangement would save farmers a lot of money on labour and bedding, she said, and it would also help them with the daily challenge of keeping the milk supply safe.

"It's very important we keep the milking parlour clean and hygienic," Vaughn said, "and that's what all dairy farmers do, but it would be very advantageous if we could get cows to urinate and defecate before they come into the milking parlour."

Her project would benefit cows too, she said.

Until now, their uncivilized toileting habits have forced farmers to design barns around waste management and collection, with cows in modern facilities usually confined to stalls so their urine and feces can drop into a laboursaving scraper alley.

In a utopian bovine future, Vaughn envisions toilet-trained cows who know where to go to go and therefore wouldn't need stalls.

"That's definitely part of what motivates me," she said.

Vaughn's research is being supervised by University of Saskatchewan researcher Joe Stookey and Agri-Food Canada Agassiz researchers Jeffrey Rushen and Anne Marie De Passille, who originally put out a call for a PhD student willing to take on a thesis broadly titled "Practical Applications of the Learning Abilities of Cattle."

"It was like my dream PhD," said Vaughn, without a hint of irony.

Together Vaughn and her supervisors cooked up the idea of toilet training cows.

So far the results have been promising.

During the first phase of her research Vaughn taught five out of six calves to pee in a designated potty pen more often than a set of untrained control calves.

The work started with the calves getting used to the stall and learning that if they left it by an exit to the right, a bell would sound and they would get a milk reward, but if they exited to the left, they would be held in a drab and featureless pen for a five-minute "time out."

"They're young and they get bored very easy, so five minutes is a lot of time for them," Vaughn said. "We didn't want to give them anything too aversive, but they didn't like waiting around."

In stage two, the calves were led into the potty pen and given a diuretic (salix) that would make them pee within about five minutes. As soon as they did, Vaughn sounded the familiar bell and they were allowed to exit stage right to enjoy their reward.

After giving test calves a few training sessions to connect the dots, she tested all the calves in stage three by giving each of them 15 minutes in the potty pen without a diuretic to see if the trained ones would pee more often than the untrained ones.

Five out of six did.

Quirkily, the official pedigree name of the brightest bovine of the bunch-who peed on command within two minutes for 15 days in a row after only a single halfhour training session-was UBC Cage Star (UBC for the farm, Cage for her dam and Star for her sire).

The name of the only calf who didn't learn was UBC Cage Idiot.

The first phase of Vaughn's research has generated encouraging results. But proving calves can be toilet trained is only the beginning.

To make her work useful to farmers, she is now looking to see how exactly calves learn and whether they have the ability to remember and transfer their toileting knowhow

to new situations. Ultimately Vaughn's goal is to distil all of her findings into the design of an automated system that would both train cows and collect their waste.

"We don't expect farmers to train every one of their 300-odd cows," she said. "So if we could automate the process of training and the collection of urine and feces, it wouldn't take the farmer any extra time and it would allow cows to learn at their own pace."

Such a system may be a ways off but she believes her research results so far indicate it's not farfetched.

"It's not rocket science." She admits her efforts have raised a few eyebrows and elicited some chuckles among research colleagues, but farmers seem to think the idea has potential, and that's good enough for her.

"Normally, when you're coming up with research ideas, the farmers are like, 'I don't even know why you're doing this,' and the scientists are like, 'Oh, that's a neat idea,'" Vaughn said. "In this case, it's the other way around. The scientists are laughing at me, and the farmers are like, 'That would be great.' I've had a few farmers already give me their email address and say, 'When you figure this out, please come to my farm and toilet train my cows.'"

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