Dung beetle

A dung beetle prepares to move dung.

Little beetle has dirty job with many benefits

Pasture management goes with managing livestock, and it all starts with promoting soil health, biodiversity and forage quality.

One overlooked aspects of caring for rangelands comes in the form of a tiny critter that is often the butt of jokes — the dung beetle.

Without dung beetles, cattle would leave many pastures unusable, according to Marc Campbell, a veterinarian and liaison for Bayer. Dung beetles work with earthworms to complete the cycle of removing cow pies from the field.

“They work together and it doesn’t sound that important but if those dung pats are left above the ground, cattle won’t graze around them,” Campbell said.

On average, Campbell said just one cow can take 2.5 acres of production pasture out each year. The average thousand-pound cow makes 60 pounds of manure a day. That’s where the dung beetle comes in.

Dung beetles, along with a variety of other critters, move the manure and bury it. Larvae inside the buried dung basically “eat themselves out of the house” to restart the cycle, as Campbell described it. Because of their burying prowess, dung beetles, along with earthworms, naturally loosen the soil to promote soil health in the process.

By letting dung beetles do their thing with manure in the pasture, producers can save up to 180 pounds of fertilizer each year, according to Campbell.

“And (fertilizer is) expensive if you have to pay for that (yourself),” he said.

Dung beetles have been estimated to benefit the economy by roughly $380 million a year — simply by being left to their own devices.

To save dung beetles on your operation, start by checking which dewormer you’ve used on your cattle. Many dewormers are toxic to dung beetles. Chemicals mix with cattle manure and kill the dung beetle before the larvae have a chance to hatch.

If a pasture is void of dung beetles, Campbell said it’s up to Mother Nature to reintroduce the insect.

“Dung beetles will fly 10 miles a day and travel all around,” he said. “Dung beetles aren’t (specifically) your dung beetles.”

Earthworms, on the other hand, tend to stay with one pasture. Leaving the pasture undisturbed is the best way to help earthworm populations take off.

“Your earthworms are your earthworms,” he said.

Overgrazing typically is the culprit when earthworms disappear from a pasture. Overgrazing limits root health and, in turn, limits earthworm’s ability to reproduce.

Campbell, who was a private practice veterinarian for 15 years in Oklahoma, said that he discovered the dung beetle in the early 2010s during severe drought. Many producers in his area had to sell out because there was no water available for their cattle. Those with good soil health, dung beetles and earthworms were able to survive due to pasture quality.

There are only three types of earthworms but more than 15 types of dung beetles, Campbell said. While some dung beetles work more efficiently than others, some types have been known to remove up to 90% of dung in just a couple of weeks.

Removing dung, while important for soil health and cattle grazing, also has the benefit of reducing flies and parasites.

“They have to have that dung to complete their life cycle,” he said. “By burying that dung, you decrease those populations by 90-95%.”

Reach Reporter Jager Robinson at 605-335-7300, email jager.robinson@lee.net or follow on Twitter @Jager_Robinson.