Dutch firm to test ‘cow toilets’ to cut farm ammonia emissions

It seems potty enough to be an early April Fool’s Day escapade, but a Dutch inventor has created an innovative ‘cow toilet’ with the aim of saving the environment – and he hopes that, someday, it will be on all commercial dairy farms.

Cows can voluntarily enter the fenced-off area to use the machine, allowing a bucket-style contraption to automatically swing into place while they urinate.

Dairy technology firm Hanskamp has been working on the invention – dubbed ‘CowToilet’ – for around two years. The equipment is currently being tested in conjunction with a university in the Netherlands.

Hanskamp UK and Ireland manager Lars van Gaalen explained the thinking behind the device.

“No, this is not a joke,” he said. “But because we are still researching this we have still a lot of questions which are unanswered.

“We are 90% there in terms of the design and what we want to achieve, but we realise that the last 10% will probably take 90% of the time.

“The idea is that we would like to get people thinking along with us. As a company, we are always looking for ways to make farming easier.

We see a lot of benefits for the farmers and the cows. For example, because the urine is taken away, the cow is not standing in it breathing it in, so there are benefits for the cow’s health too.

But it’s likely to be a while before you see cow toilets appearing on any UK or Irish farms. At this point, it’s hoped the first models will be released for sale by mid-2020.

The rationale is based on the fact that the cow’s urine is collected separately.

By ensuring that the urine does not end up with the solid manure, there is considerably less ammonia emission, addressing the problem right at the source.

Why is ammonia so damaging?

Ammonia (NH3) has become a major issue in the UK and Ireland. In Northern Ireland, the issue became so bad that planning applications for several major farm infrastructure projects have been stalled while the department and researchers come up with ways to lower emissions.

As a result, many farmers primed for expansion have found they are on the “wrong side” of an ammonia threshold they were completely oblivious to.

Also Read: Ammonia deadlock stalling farm planning applications but ‘no one thought to tell farmers’

The new rules have meant achieving agricultural planning permission in some areas has become almost impossible.

Farms within 7.5km of the marked ‘sensitive’ areas marked on the map below are subject to the new, tighter planning rules. As a small region, this means little of Northern Ireland is not impacted.

Image source: DAERA

But it’s not just planning issues – ammonia is known to be damaging to biodiversity, sensitive habitats, and ecosystem resilience, as well as to human health.

A department-commissioned published in 2018 stated that 12% of the UK’s ammonia emissions come from Northern Ireland – despite the region accounting for just 3% of the UK population and 6% of the UK’s land area.

Of that, a staggering 91% of all ammonia emissions in the region were found to have resulted from agriculture.

Ammonia levels peaked in the region 20 years ago and hit their lowest in 2010. The worry is renewed as levels have begun to increase again – rising by 9% since 2010.

Cattle are thought to be responsible for around 70% of ammonia emissions from agriculture in NI, with the more intensive pig and poultry sectors accounting for 20% of emissions.

How livestock are housed and how the manure they produce is handled are key factors in the production of ammonia, with the handling and storage of manure thought to be responsible for 44% of all emissions.

That’s why the Dutch solution – as crazy as it sounds – could be ideal for Northern Ireland’s dairy-heavy farming sector.

How the ‘cow toilet’ works

The cow toilet works by training cows to enter a gated feeding area.

While the cow is eating, a small bucket automatically swings into place at the back of the cow, moving gently upwards and downwards, massaging her escutcheon – a nerve which stretches between the cow’s vulva and udder.

Image source: Hanskamp

This nerve triggers the urine reflex, causing the cow to urinate. The urine is collected in the CowToilet reservoir and is then extracted and stored separately.

What happens to the urine afterwards?

The creators say that pure urine can be used as a high-quality raw material in, for example, precision fertilisation to provide urea.

There are developments in which urine can supposedly be used to generate ‘yellow’ electricity. Alternatively, urine can serve as a source of hydrogen.

And just so you can see it in action for yourself, here’s a video (although, you may need a translator to fully appreciate it!) At least the cows don’t have to remember to flush!

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