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Dung Beetles and Pasture Health

The word “Dung Beetle” does not have an attractive ring to it. This is probably not a topic you want to bring up at the dinner table, but whenever you think of your pasture’s health this little beetle should be first on your list. Dung beetles are an extraordinary insect that do a not so glamorous job in our pastures. The benefits the dung beetle brings to your pasture is worth its weight in gold. “Healthy soil is an extremely complex civilization of living organisms. We humans often ignore using soil organisms as a tool, because they are so small, so easily out of sight and out of mind. Yet, healthy soil is the corner stone of diversity and health for both plants and animals”. Dung Beetles (Scarab Beetle) promote nutrient cycling, water infiltration, and parasite and fly control.

When a Bison delivers a nice package of poop on our pasture, they are giving us a gift for the land. The last thing we want to do is waste the commodity of fertilizer and nutrients for our soil. “If left on the surface, 80% of manure nitrogen can be lost into the atmosphere. Dung beetles reduce that loss by quickly incorporating manure into the soil by rolling it up and hauling it underground, thus incorporating nitrogen into the soil” (https://onpasture.com/2015/11/30/the-poop-on-dung-beetles/) .

The Dung Beetle has a social structure a lot like Honey Bees with different types of workers. There are beetles that roll the fecal matter in balls, others tunnel through your soil and deliver the fecal matter, and there are “dwellers” they live in the piles. This is a key role in our pasture ecosystem because of the nutrient cycling.

While the Dung Beetles are tunneling in your soil, this not only serves as a highway for them, but it is making your soil porous. “Dung beetles in Oklahoma buried about 1 ton of wet manure per acre per day (2 metric tons/ha). This increased water infiltration an average of 129% on studied plots. Each extra inch (25 mm) of water absorbed adds 27,225 gallons/acre (254,530 l/ha) of water to the soil, reducing both flooding and drought” (https://managingwholes.com/dung-beetles.htm/). One of the most valuable resources we have is rain. “By improving water infiltration in pastures, the soil and plants become more resilient to short drought periods. With all of the benefits combined from dung beetles, studies have shown a total potential benefit of $2 billion annually to US farmers and ranchers” (https://www.greencoverseed.com/bring-back-dung-beetles/).

Sometimes rain can be few and far between. The most common time of the year when rain gets scarcer is in the warmer seasons. This is the season when the Dung Beetle is most active. This system of tunnels helps infiltration of your soil. The last thing we want when we get rain is half of it running off. We want to be able to be able to receive as much rain as possible in our soil. Thanks to the dung beetle they help make that possible.

The Dung Beetle also helps with control of parasite, horn flies, and face flies. “Studies have shown that a healthy population of dung beetles can reduce horn flies by 95 %, reduced populations of intestinal parasitic nematodes by 75 % to 93 % and subsequently reduce fly-transmitted diseases and intestinal parasitic nematode infections” (https://www.greencoverseed.com/bring-back-dung-beetles/) . “That’s a big deal when you consider that horn flies can cause a 15 to 50 pound reduction in calf weaning weights” (https://onpasture.com/2015/11/30/the-poop-on-dung-beetles/) . We battle face flies every summer. Face flies is worthy of another subject to talk about. I will say, anything that causes the stress levels of our Bison to escalate is on my bad list. The less flies I can keep off the bison, the less stress they have, and that results in a successful operation. The dung beetle is helping keep the fly population down by breaking down the manure piles and interrupting the lifecycle. The same goes for external and internal parasites.

What affects the dung beetle population? Studies have shown the types of wormers we use will have toxic effects on your beetle population. “While Ivermectin, Doramectin, and Eprinomectin aren’t the only products on the market that have shown toxicity to dung beetles, they are some of the most toxic…Whichever product you choose, approximately 32 to 64 parts per billion (ppb) of the active ingredient will be excreted in manure. Since active ingredients all react differently with dung beetles there are different tolerance levels. For example, a study has shown zero dung beetle larval survival with only 16 ppb of avermectins excreted in the manure. In the same study, moxidectin (Cydectin) showed no effect on dung beetle larvae until reaching 128 ppb. Moxidectin (Cydectin) was also found to be 64 times less toxic to the larvae of a common species of dung beetle than dewormers with abamectin as the active ingredient” (https://www.greencoverseed.com/bring-back-dung-beetles/).

It’s important to have a healthy herd and use every tool you must keep them healthy. Also, we need to be mindful of the impact our choices have on the brittle ecosystem around us. So the next time you see a pile of poop in your field, you can appreciate it a little more. Thanks to the hardworking Dung Beetle!