Saturday, April 20, 2024

An inordinate fondness for dung beetles

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In honour of Steve Wyn-Harris retiring his weekly From the Ridge column after decades wielding the pen, Farmers Weekly dips into the archives for another taste of ag New Zealand’s favourite scribe.
By incorporating the dung into the soil,  faecal runoff into waterways is greatly reduced and the soil benefits by aeration, mixing of nutrients and helping to feed other soil life like earthworms.
Reading Time: 3 minutes

I’ve just been joined by a whole bunch of workers on the farm. They should be great. There’re hundreds of them and they will toil day and night. All going well, they will get it on and then there will be thousands of them.

They are good for the environment and are going to make the world a better place. I don’t have to pay them wages. I don’t have to worry about accommodation, meals, personal grievances or annual leave. All I must do is make sure they have a plentiful supply of fresh cattle crap in front of them, which shouldn’t be too difficult with several hundred bulls out there.

They are dung beetles, of course, and I just liberated what looked like many hundreds of two different species out onto the ranch.

I first came across the little critters at a conference about seven years ago in Taumarunui. Dr Shaun Forgie gave an impassioned delivery about these insects and how they could help New Zealand agriculture improve its environmental game by assisting with the disposal of the 100 million tonnes of dung dropped onto our pastures each year.

By incorporating the dung into the soil,  faecal runoff into waterways is greatly reduced and the soil benefits by aeration, mixing of nutrients and helping to feed other soil life like earthworms.

The fellow was infatuated by dung beetles and his enthusiasm was infectious. We all wanted some but at that stage Landcare had gone through rigorous consultations and approvals and had got several species into the country and was conducting trials such as making sure they would have no negative impacts.

Since then the company Dung Beetle Innovation had been formed and was busy breeding up and – over the past year or two –  selling and distributing beetles around the country.

Last year our little valley set up the Upper Maharakeke Catchment group to work together to improve the waterways that contribute to this spring-fed stream which flows into the Tuki Tuki south of Waipukurau.

The fellows on a neighbouring farm had recently heard Shaun speak and were fizzed up about the benefits that the introduction of dung beetles to our valley could have on our waterways. They would certainly be one tool in the toolbox.

They have worked diligently on getting several of us to commit to buying farm packages of these little fellows and today mine arrived.

When dropped off by the mailman, they didn’t look too energetic in their plastic boxes. I took them directly out onto a central paddock on the farm that had bulls in it.

It must have warmed up or they sensed freedom and smelt fresh dung because they were now frantic to get on with business.

The trick was to drop them in large groups into a fresh cowpat and quickly cover them with a portion of the bucket load I’d scrapped up from around the paddock before they flew off.

However, it seemed if they didn’t fly off between when they were dropped out of the container and they hit the proverbial, then when they did fall onto the motherload, they knew what it was and weren’t going anywhere in a hurry.

These were my first two species as part of the package with another two to follow later. Apparently, a range of species are required to cover different seasons and day and night activity.

So, my job now is to make sure there are plenty of cattle in the vicinity as it is only the fresh stuff that attracts them by smell, otherwise they might fly off into oblivion.

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