Dung Beetles are an Indicator of a Healthy Pasture Ecosystem

Triple Creek Journal, July 2021

I continue to enjoy being at Triple Creek Ranch, my family’s cattle farm near Virgilina, VA, nearly every day.  Recently, I finally took a short trip to see my Mom and some old friends in my home town of Flagstaff, Arizona.  It felt strange to leave the farm in the care of my new helper, Barry, after being there virtually every day for 16 months.  Barry grew up as a traditional tobacco farmer, and actually has worked on our farm and other farms in the neighborhood his whole life.  He came back to work for us about a year ago.  Many of the things I do and think about are foreign to him, especially the idea of moving the cattle to fresh pasture every day and spending time thinking about the health of our pasture ecosystem.  He is learning about temporary electric fence and the “Power of One Wire”, and successfully kept the cows moving while I was gone!

When I came back from my trip he was proud of what he had accomplished.  We were walking the pasture he had moved the herd across, talking about how the cows had eaten everything but the tall fescue which they obviously were reluctant to eat.  We talked about the endophyte and how that was what made them look so rough the last few months, and how  they were looking a lot better now that toxin levels are decreasing. Again, so many new things for Barry to learn in these pastures he has been around his whole life.

As we continued to walk, I was kicking a few cow pies looking for dung beetle activity.  I was seeing some Onthophagus taurus (a medium sized tunneler) and Aphodius pseudolividus (a tiny dweller) which are our most common species this time of year, but there were other species too.  Barry asked “what are you doing now?”, and he was surprised when I showed him a cow pie with several hundred Onthophagus taurus at work.  When I told him that each one would dig down a foot below the cowpie and leave a channel the size of a pencil where the rain could get in the soil, he grinned at me and I could see a light starting to come on. He said he never even knew they existed.  I reinforced the idea by saying “that is how we were able to soak up all three inches of rain we got from our recent tropical storm.”  Then the light really went on!

There are a lot of really interesting things going on in pastures that most of us were never taught about.  When you start to get interested, you might find it is easy to get motivated to put in the effort to use adaptive grazing management to improve your system.

One thing I have noticed this spring is that there are a lot more dung beetles in our ryegrass and novel endophyte pastures than in our KY31 pastures.  They really seem to be attracted to the non-toxic forages.  Recent research has confirmed that dung beetles prefer novel endophyte tall fescue over toxic KY31, and that the toxins in KY31 hurt dung beetle reproduction. 

As we all strive for healthy pastures we need to be doing everything we can to encourage health in the ecosystem, including the important dung beetles.  The impact of KY31 on dung beetles is just another example of how this toxic forage damages our pasture ecosystems.  The impact on our cows is bad enough, but there is growing evidence that there are broad negative impacts on the pasture ecosystem that hold us back from developing truly healthy pastures.

As you walk your pastures, look for dung beetles.  Fresh cow pies with holes in the top is a likely place to look. Slide a flat shovel under the pie, wait 10 seconds and then turn it over. You don’t always find them, but if you do, study them to see what species they are and how much impact they seem to be having. If you don’t find them  in mid-summer you might ask yourself “What is wrong with my pasture ecosystem?”

~ Matt Poore, NCSU

The Alliance for Grassland Renewal is a national organization focused on enhancing the appropriate adoption of novel endophyte tall fescue technology through education, incentives, self-regulation and promotion.  For more resources or to learn more about the Alliance for Grassland Renewal, go to www.grasslandrenewal.org

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