By Spencer Smith
I only recently became interested in dung beetles, largely because it has only been recently that we have had any to become interested in. As a rancher, I must create the conditions for dung beetles to thrive, and they will come.
The first time I saw dung beetles completely bury a manure pat in a number of hours, I was hooked. I wanted to learn all about them: what they do, how to help them establish in pastures, how they work, etc. My continued observations and research has led our family to develop a deep appreciation of these hard-working creatures. So much so that we created our updated business logo in honor of them.
Our daughter art directed the logo and our neighbor, Brian Taylor, created it. We get a lot of stares when people see our logo on the side of our truck, but we hope it piques their curiosity enough to learn more about dung beetles and the vital role they can play on a healthy farm or ranch.
Dung beetles in pastures is a sign of a healthy and productive land base. However, to the alarm of entomologists and ranchers worldwide there has been a decline in the population of dung beetles on industrially farmed land.
Recent studies of nature’s “pooper scoopers” have indicated that these amazing creatures are important to the health of the soil and to the farmer and rancher’s bottom line.
Types of Dung Beetles
There are three main types of dung beetle, identified by brooding or nesting behavior. The three types include: tunnelers (paracoprids), dwellers (endocoprids) and rollers (telecoprids).
The tunnelers are the most common vartiety on our ranch in Northern California. These amazing workers zip around looking for manure and dive right in. Once the dung beetle finds a fresh pat of manure it begins to eat and tunnel underneath the manure pat. It does this so that it can move the fresh, tiniest pieces of manure down into the soil, where it lays its eggs. The eggs then hatch into larvae that eat the buried manure until they metamorphize into adult beetles.
The dwellers find their ideal homes and set up residence there. These beetles occupy a manure pat, consume massive amounts of manure and lay their eggs in the aboveground manure pat. Some varieties of these dwellers’ larvae are known to eat fly eggs and larvae as well. Establishing a healthy population of dwellers on your farm or ranch will help deter the presence of horn and heel flies, which are livestock pests.
The rollers are the most famous of all the dung beetle varieties with much fanfare surrounding how they work and how they use the stars to locate their home using celestial cues. This type of dung beetle only makes up about 10 percent of all dung beetles, but they do amazing work. Scientists and farmers alike have noticed for decades that when there are dung beetles present there is a dramatic decrease in the fly population.
A recent article in Progressive Rancher reveals that the cost of flies to U.S. producers is more than $1.5 billion. Given this staggering cost of managing the impact of flies on livestock, dung beetles could really help producers who are losing livestock production to horn, heel and face flies.
Dung beetles affect the flies in a variety of ways. Dung beetles that roll their prized possessions, or “brood balls,” excrete a chemical on the ball of dung that will repel flies from trying to lay their own eggs on the piece of dung. Other varieties of the dweller beetle larva will prey on the larvae of the flies.
I think the main impact of dung beetles is the fact that they can consume and bury massive amounts of manure each day. In fact, it is estimated that a single dung beetle will bury 250 times its own weight in dung per day. Dung beetles move flies’ eggs and brooding sites below the soil, thus breaking the life cycle of the flies. Livestock producers in the United States could collectively save more than $1 billion, simply by putting dung beetles to work.
Improved Pasture Fertility
The next essential point in the conversation on these amazing creatures is their impact on pasture fertility. If you have ever taken the time to analyze the manure in your pastures you may notice a couple of different things, if you have dung beetles. The first thing you may see is that the manure in question looks like Swiss cheese, there are no big pieces of dry manure left, but only the high-fiber chaff that is broken into many small pieces.
What is happening here? The answer is quite impactful to pasture health. Dung beetles search for the best, most nutritious manure in the pile. This is what they ball up and roll away, or bury directly under the manure pat.
The manure that falls from behind your cattle (or other livestock) typically has a carbon to nitrogen ratio of about 24:1. The dung beetle’s ideal diet, and best material for their brooding sites, is around 5 or 7:1 carbon to nitrogen. The implications of this are significant because dung beetles search out and bury the highest nitrogen portions of the dung and move that manure to the rhizosphere (root zone) in the soil. This means less nitrogen is leaching back into the atmosphere. Furthermore, the beetle larvae only consume about 40 to 50 percent of the buried nitrogen-filled dung, leaving the rest to feed the roots of the plants in the pasture.
Soil Aeration & Water Management
What is the effect of dung beetles on the water cycle in fields? We refer to the dung beetles on our ranch in Northern California as the hardest workers on our team. Not only are they working non-stop to add fertility and break fly and parasite cycles, they are also tunneling loads of holes into the rhizosphere (root zone of the soil). This tunneling aerates the soil, which increases how quickly water can infiltrate the soil. A healthy water cycle means healthier plants and more photosynthesis, which means more feed for livestock.
One of the biggest issues facing agriculture today is water. Water-related issues dominate the news (at least in California): chemical runoff from farms, droughts, floods. Luckily for farmers and ranchers everywhere, the mighty dung beetles can help out (for free!), when it comes to dealing with symptoms of a broken water cycle.
As farmers, our primary objective must be to ensure effective rainfall and irrigation management. Whether we live in the foothills of California where it is common to get up to 60 inches of rain per year, or if we live in the Great Basin and only receive 6 inches, farmers typically have the same complaints. Either it is too dry or too wet, oftentimes this happens in the same year!
Flood and drought cycles are a part of business for farmers everywhere. We must get better at dealing with them if we are going to stay competitive in the face of future erratic weather patterns, spurred on by climate change.
Effective water cycle refers to not how much rain or irrigation is added to a given acre, but how much of that water will actually enter the soil for plant use. Dung beetles are keenly equipped to assist in improving our water cycle as the brooding burrows that they create, either under the dung pat or rolled to the root zone, improve water infiltration. Not only can the water infiltrate better, but as it mixes with residual manure left over from the larvae, the water will lock into the rhizosphere like a sponge. This gives plants perfect access to water right where they need it most — at their roots.
With this aeration, the soil can clean the water and improve water quality for downstream users. Healthy soil means clean water, and a big part of healthy soil is a robust dung beetle population.
Managing for Dung Beetles
Our family’s ranch, Springs Ranch, became certified organic about seven years ago. With this transition to becoming certified, we no longer dewormed our own cattle or any of the pasture cattle we graze on the ranch.
After a few years of being certified organic, we noticed that we did not have the fly or parasite issues in our livestock that we once did.
After careful observation of many piles of poop, we observed that the dung piles where decomposing quite quickly. We noticed that we had some dung beetles moving in to assist in our pasture cleanup. Over the last few years our population has increased dramatically. We are at a point now that a dung pile can be completely dismantled in as little as a couple of hours.
If you are interested in these amazing critters moving into your fields all you have to do is stop killing them with livestock wormers.
It has been shown that if you worm your livestock you will negatively impact dung beetle populations for up to a month. This is a function of some residue of the medication in the manure where the dung beetles lay their eggs. As the eggs hatch and the larvae eat the poisoned manure, the larvae are killed and never make it to adulthood. Thus, they are not around to do the job you need them to do.
This does not mean that you have to stop worming your livestock altogether if you want to increase beetle populations. Dung beetles become active in the late spring and hot summer. If you are in a situation where you need to worm your livestock, research the beetle life cycle in your environment, and then worm your cattle when the beetles are dormant. For us in California, this would be in the late fall or winter.
Recent research examines which grazing techniques are best for luring dung beetles into your pastures. It turns out that utilizing a higher stock density, short duration grazing strategy works best.
This leaves ample food for the beetles in a relatively small area; making food, as well as members of the opposite sex, easy to find. This means that food and reproduction opportunity are abundant, and thus the conditions are right for significant population growth.
With face, horn and heel flies costing ranchers between $30 and $50 dollars per head of cattle, the impact of parasites on livestock is clearly significant. In a paper by Adam Byk and Jacek Pietka, “Dung Beetles and Their Role in the Nature,” it was discovered that dung beetles have the potential to reduce fly populations by 95 percent.
Dung beetles reduce flies and parasites, increase fertility in pastures and allow for more effective water cycling. Managing for these hard little workers is a no-brainer (at least for our family).
Ask yourself: What would your farm financials look like if you could increase production through better fertility and water management with less pressure from flies and parasites?
I believe every farmer is seeking increased soil fertility, effective use of rainfall and fewer parasites. This is true wealth! Dung beetles will do the work to create this for you. The job of the farmer or rancher is simply to create the conditions for dung beetles to thrive
Spencer Smith is a Savory Field Professional and a huge fan of dung beetles. Savory Global Network hubs provide accredited Holistic Management and regenerative agriculture training and support across the world. Abbey and Spencer Smith manage the Jefferson Center for Holistic Management, the Savory Global Network hub serving Northern California and Nevada. Learn more and contact the Smiths with your grazing and dung beetle-related questions. This article appeared in the November 2018 issue of Acres U.S.A.magazine.