Dung Beetles Rock!

You could call this an ode to the Scarab Beetle — a much more artistic and acceptable name for those little (and sometimes not so little) beetles that live to eat, drink and reproduce in poo! 

I have (quite by accident) a really beneficial ecosystem going on in my horse pastures, supported by dung beetles. That’s right, dung beetles! Little shiny scarab-like beetles that I’ve always known lived in the ground on my farm, but never fully appreciated – until now.
 Before you write me off as a complete crackpot, let me explain. First you have to realize that anyone who calls themselves a horse farmer is really a “grass farmer.”  Or for those of you who don’t have pasture or don’t grow your own, you’re dependent upon a “grass farmer” who provides your hay.   While it’s possible to raise horses without pastures, the very best way to keep the average horse sleek and healthy is to have plenty of well-managed grass pasture for the herd to graze on (I could write an e-book about pasture management; maybe I will someday!).Until recently, I never realized that my decision to use natural products and very limited quantities of chemical pesticides and herbicides has had some special benefits that I didn’t count on. Now, even though I temporarily have a few more horses than I really should on my pastures (overpopulation is a bad thing for growing grass), I’ve noticed that the individual manure piles dropped by my horses disappear very quickly – they sort of spread out, become desiccated and disappear! I always thought the birds must be digging in them for grain.  Maybe they are.  But as it turns out, it’s the dung beetles who are doing the lion’s share of that work.

Manure laying around in horse pastures is a bad thing – any “grass farmer” will tell you that. Manure harbors flies and fly larvae, which torment the horses and spread disease. More importantly, manure harbors parasites that can permanently harm and even kill horses. If left laying around in piles in the pasture, manure allows parasites to spread from horse to horse while they’re grazing. I have several horses tested each year to check for parasites, and the results are always really good. Turns out, the dung beetles have been helping to control the parasite population, which is complementing our regular de-worming program! I hear people talking about having to buy equipment to drag their pastures or pick up manure to keep their horses healthy and reduce parasites – I never have to do that – the manure piles just disappear within a couple of days. Pasture vacuum prices start at $3,000.   I’ll take free pasture manure management any day.  Dung beetles rock!

 

I always assumed that everyone with manure-making livestock has dung beetles just like I do (where there’s smoke, there’s fire, right?). Turns out, horse farms that are near large crop farms generally don’t have as many (or any) dung beetles. The pesticide/herbicide runoff from the crop fields kills or shortens the life cycles of the dung beetles.   Some local horse farmers in my area suffer from too much manure collecting in their pastures and too-high parasite loads in their horses.  If your pasture’s manure piles don’t disappear within one to two days, you probably are lacking dung beetles. 

Stay tuned for more dung beetle entomology — how to encourage them to thrive on your farm, what wormers to avoid at certain times of the year, and other benefits of beneficial bugs. 

 

 

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