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With A Little Sweet Encouragement, Calves Prove Cows Can Quickly Be Potty-Trained

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Many of us might recall the joy of potty training, a lot of a pep talk and celebration. Look at that. You did that. What a good job. Now, how about potty training a cow?

(SOUNDBITE OF MOOING)

SIMON: Lindsay Matthews has done it. He's an honorary academic at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. He's figured out how to get the ones that go moo to use the loo.

LINDSAY MATTHEWS: So I'm a behavioral scientist. And I use psychology, behavioral training techniques in my research and mainly with dairy cattle - or a lot of my work's been with dairy cattle.

SIMON: Mr. Matthews says that cows are often blamed for the damage their waste does to the environment.

MATTHEWS: It doesn't matter whether they're in the barn or an indoor situation or outdoors. Urine mixes with the feces on the barn floor and forms ammonia. And this is not good for the animals, not good for the people working there and not good for the environment. If they're outdoors when they pee onto pasture, it's just this great gush of nutrient-rich juice that goes on a wee spot. And it gets washed away into the waterways and pollutes the water and also gets converted in the soil into nitrous oxide. And that is also a very potent greenhouse gas.

SIMON: Hey. How are you enjoying your cereal this morning?

Lindsay Matthews thought there might be a way to channel nature's bounty of nutritious odoriferousness.

MATTHEWS: Well, if we could capture this urine at source, so to speak (laughter), we could deal with it, extract the nutrients, utilize the nutrients even as a fertilizer and make sure that there was less going into the environment and polluting it.

SIMON: Lindsay Matthews and his team got to work and modeled their methods in how toddlers are potty trained.

MATTHEWS: One of the ways to do that is to have the toddler sit on a potty, say, maybe in the bathroom and then that - they're rewarded for doing their business.

SIMON: Board books, M&M, Skittles and a throne to call their own. The calves got a special spot, too.

MATTHEWS: So add green walls and a nice green AstroTurf on the floor and a green sign on the door (laughter) - and we waited for them to urinate in there. And when we saw that, we gave them a tasty treat of a sweet solution with molasses in it, which cows love a lot.

SIMON: They like it so much, to Lindsay Matthews' surprise and to the envy of many parents, the calves learned quickly.

MATTHEWS: Within a few urinations, five to 10 for most animals, they had got this strong connection between urinating and the reward. And we could tell that because as soon as they started urinating, they started spinning around and orientating towards where the food would come from and waiting for it to be delivered. And so this was just - you know, (laughter) we couldn't believe this was so wonderful.

SIMON: Lindsay Matthews says there are billions of cows in the world, each producing an average of 14 gallons of urine a day. So any solution that can roll that tide back and thus cut back on pollution should be milked for all it's worth. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.