At first glance, training calves to urinate and defecate in a specific area might seem like a strange idea. But Alison Vaughan, a post-doctoral fellow from Scotland conducting research at the UBC Dairy Education & Research Centre, is set to prove that “potty training” dairy cattle can help make their lives better and make them active participants in their own care.
Clean calves equal healthy calves, so for hygienic reasons, keeping calves away from their waste is important. Given the amount of waste dairy cattle produce – up to 30 kilos of feces and 15 kilos of urine per cow, per day – it’s something dairy farmers are constantly having to deal with.
“If we can develop an automated toilet training system for calves and cows, we could focus more on designing buildings around animal comfort and hygiene,” said Vaughan.
Vaugan has already conducted a proof of concept with 12 calves. The calves were trained and tested over a 17 day period. Six calves were trained and rewarded with milk when they urinated in the designated area, while six were control animals; both sets of animals were subjected to the same tests. Of the six trained animals, five of them urinated more often than the controlled animals in the designated area.
Now that she’s proven that the animals can be trained, the next step is to create an inexpensive automated training system using infrared technology that farmers could easily incorporate into their existing barns. The training system, which Vaughn is working on with John Harvey, a student from UBC’s Engineering Physics program, could detect when a calf went to the bathroom and reward them for going in the right place.
Vaughan, who has a BSc in Applied Animal Behaviour (University of Lincoln), an MSc in Applied Animal Behaviour and Welfare (University of Edinburgh) and a PhD (University of Saskatchewan), is also looking at how cattle learn.
“By training calves to associate a certain colour with a certain behaviour, we could transfer their learning to a new location, so farmers wouldn’t need to retrain their animals when they’re moved to a new pen or barn.”
Vaughn’s research has attracted the attention of the media recently, including CBC and 24 Hours Vancouver. She credits the UBC Dairy Education and Research Centre for providing her with the kind of cutting edge facilities needed to complete her project.
“For scientists wanting to do animal behaviour and welfare research, the UBC Dairy Education and Research Centre is really the place to go. And being able to live on-site in the beautiful new student residence helps immensely in terms of staying close to my research.”