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B.C. cows being potty trained

By Michael Mui, 24 Hours Vancouver



Potty training for cows — the benefits are many, but with many farmers assuming dairy cows pee and poop where they stand with little thought to hygiene, the practice hasn’t really taken off.

University of B.C. postdoctoral researcher Alison Vaughan believes most people underestimate cows. Really, she said on Monday, they just haven’t given the bovines enough of a chance to value cleanliness in their living space.

By taking a selection of calves from UBC’s farm in Agassiz, she found success after introducing rewards and punishment depending on where they peed.

Test cows were given an injection whenever they stood in a stall — the intended bathroom — to make them pee faster, and were given a number of training days.

Each time they peed properly, they were given milk as a reward. When they didn’t, they got the time-out corner.

During the actual experiments, the injection was taken away — and won’t be used for commercial operations — and Vaughan found the vast majority of the trained calves continued to pee more often whenever they were in the stall.

“And now, we’re looking at automation, which is really exciting — that’s the step that will make it look feasible,” Vaughan said.

“It’s a process called shaping ... you’re beginning with calves, wherever they urinated or defecated initially, there should be a reward. Then what you do is gradually reduce the area, provide cues to where the area is.”

She plans to use an infrared camera system. The system would use software to detect heat signatures from pee or poop, identify which calf did it, and dish out rewards for the ones doing it in the right place.

Over time, Vaughan suspects, her system could replace the traditional method of having cows urinate and defecate next to their sleeping areas — giving more freedom to farmers on barn design.

“In dairy farms there’s a lot of automation ... the feeders can read these tags RFID tags, the feeder reads the tags and in the reward system they can tell who it was, and if they’ve earned a reward,” she said.

“If we can get cows to take care of themselves it’s better for the farmer and it’s better for the cow.”

Work on an automated system, Vaughan said, is about 50% complete, and is pending funding to finish the research.