Dung beetle FAQs: ask the expert
10 September 2021
Researcher on the Dung Beetle Ecosystem Engineers project Dr Russ Barrow from Charles Sturt University looks forward to the day when producers apply the principles from cattle or sheep production to their “mini” livestock.
He’s actually referring to the beetles who live underground going about their important work 365 days of the year and who could potentially be charged with much of the heavy lifting when it comes to industry goals such as sustainability and carbon neutrality.
“I’d love to see sheep and cattle farms where you can see livestock breeding taking place and then alongside will be a dung beetle nursery where the mini livestock are bred and reared – and considered just as important,” Russ said.
Here, Russ outlines some of the gains for livestock producers from supporting diverse dung beetle populations and explains how more producers can benefit.
Q: Are dung beetles capable of helping producers achieve carbon emission reductions?
A: We believe they may have capacity to be a major force in on-farm carbon neutrality programs. In side-by-side field experiments, we're seeing increased pasture growth when certain species of dung beetles are present compared to when they’re absent.
If you can keep a pasture actively growing for longer periods while your livestock are grazing, it’s possible that additional carbon is being temporarily locked up during pasture growth.
Q: How do dung beetles reduce the effects of intestinal worms?
A: Internal parasites (in this case roundworms/nematodes) breed in livestock and are typically deposited in the dung as eggs. After the nematode egg hatches, the parasite matures into a larval or juvenile stage. In their third stage, the larvae tear away from the dung piles and travel onto leaves of nearby pasture where they are eventually eaten by livestock. It’s the re-ingested larvae that eventually develop into adult roundworms.
Dung beetles can actually disrupt the breeding cycle of these parasites whilst they’re busy burying fresh dung. By burying segments of infected dung underground, the beetles are actually reducing contact between the worm larvae and the grazing animal and stopping them from re-entering into the digestive systems.
We're seeing a lot of producers who, with good dung beetle diversity and abundance on their properties, aren’t having to drench. These producers frequently monitor the situation, by performing egg counts in dung and are really starting to see some great results. I’m not suggesting that all producers or livestock managers stop drenching as there are a lot of compounding factors to consider. But if dung beetles are present in healthy numbers, it can have a really positive effect on animal health outcomes and it may be possible to reduce drenching programs over time.
Q: If a producer came to you asking “how do I increase the benefit from dung beetles in my livestock enterprise”, what would you suggest?
A: First, we need to see where they’re located and what dung beetle species are already prevalent in their area (both on and off the property). Then we get an idea of their livestock program, stock numbers and drenching regime and go from there.
Even if dung beetles are present, most properties could benefit from an increase in diversity or population. It's just a matter of getting on board with whatever farm management strategies a producer already has in place and looking for windows of opportunity to boost dung beetle activity. We already know most producers are very, very well versed in managing their livestock, but they sometimes overlook those little guys under the ground who are actually already doing some of the heavy lifting for them.
Q: What's the best practice grazing scenario for enhancing dung beetle populations?
A: That really depends on where you are. I'll use the NSW Riverina as an example. Some of the producers in this region employ strip grazing practices where they're moving their cattle all the time and what we see is a huge abundance of dung beetles. We're still trying to ascertain why this is the case, but every farm which has this strip-grazing practice, cell grazing or rotational grazing, we see a high abundance of beetles. The results are a little bit too consistent to say it's not a factor contributing to the increased abundance. We don't know why, but perhaps it’s because the beetles and their tunnelling activities aren’t being trampled and ground cover is better preserved.
Some of these strip grazing properties I've been on have only had cattle in these grazed paddocks for two days before being before moving them. Two days after, so four days from first introduction, the dung has nearly disappeared. It's quite phenomenal.
Q: Do you have any economic data on the impact of dung beetles, particularly on animal health costs?
A: The Dung Beetle Ecosystem Engineers (DBEE) project is now gathering economic data on the impact of beetles to predict the economic outcomes for producers that have healthy dung beetle populations.
Looking at the ecosystem services and the economic advantages of dung beetles is an entire theme within the DBEE project and is led by University of Western Australia with support from University of New England and Charles Sturt University researchers. The results of economic modelling and related research will be an important outcome of the project as it reaches its conclusion in 2023.
Q: How do producers know what species they may already have on their property?
A: We’re always working with producers to help us identify what beetles are in their area.
The project has designed a monitoring phone app called MyDungBeetle Reporter. It's easily downloaded from our website. Producers can record observations on their property on the app and we'll then be able to tell, hopefully, from the photographs they send in, which beetles are located on their properties. They can also collect the beetles and send them in directly to us, but we can often identify them from photographs they take.
Q: How do producers get hold of new species of dung beetles?
A: Beetles in quarantine now won't be available to be released for some time. But if you do want to acquire beetles, go to the project website, dungbeetles.com.au, where you’ll find a list of commercial suppliers. On some occasions, we also have beetles available for release in on-farm nurseries.
The on-farm nurseries are essentially made up of a box with a lid which stops the relocated beetles from escaping and prevents predators from getting in and disturbing them. The beetles can be bred up and then released onto the rest of the property. It's a strategy which I think will become more common in the future. Hopefully one day you'll see sheep or cattle grazing in the paddock, with a dozen boxes sitting beside them which are dung beetle nurseries.