Dung beetles and Biochar can help increase farm production and help the environment

Greg Dalton and James Ryan (Creation Care), Mark Higgins (Chair of Fleurieu Beef Group), John Elferink (South Australia Dairy Farmers Association, Policy Officer), Melissa Rebbeck (Secretary of Fleurieu Beef Group and Director of Climate and Agricultural Support).
Greg Dalton and James Ryan (Creation Care), Mark Higgins (Chair of Fleurieu Beef Group), John Elferink (South Australia Dairy Farmers Association, Policy Officer), Melissa Rebbeck (Secretary of Fleurieu Beef Group and Director of Climate and Agricultural Support).

One cow can drop up to 7.2 tonnes of dung on pasture each year. By burying this dung in the soil, dung beetles have been shown to improve soil health and improve pasture dry matter production .

At the same time, they are burying tonnes of carbon and nitrogen that would otherwise have gone into the atmosphere and water bodies.

With the additional innovative method of feeding biochar to animals, diary, beef or sheep, the animals health and feed conversion is improved.

Biochar can improve soil fertility, which stimulates plant growth. Healthier plants are able to consume and convert more carbon dioxide (CO2), thus improving air quality. Due to its ability to retain soil nutrients for long periods of time,biochar reduces the need for chemical fertilizers.

Secretary of the Fleurieu Beef Group and Director of Climate and Agricultural Support Melissa Rebbeck showed how dairy cows milk yield improved by 1.3 litres per head per day while using less fodder.

"The exciting part is that the biochar is only fed at 200 grams per head per day and is not digested. It ends up in the manure and is also buried by the dung beetles," Ms Rebbeck said.

"This results in a further increase in soil carbon. For every one per cent we increase soil carbon, we gain up to 30 per cent increase in production, a 10-30 tonne improvement in soil water holding capacity and many more benefits."

The Fleurieu Beef group and other dairy farmers have been involved in region wide approach to increasing dung beetle numbers on the Fleurieu with Greg Dalton from Creation Care. In addition they have been involved in various biochar feeding trials.

"This is an exciting project as dung beetles will provide a regional benefit if spread," Ms Rebbeck said.

Ms Rebbeck is working also at establishing a biochar kiln on the Fleurieu, but in the mean time Compass Feeds is likely to stock biochar from interstate.

"Most of South Australia has dung beetles burying dung during winter and summer months, but there is a gap between September and December that we need to fill. Three new spring active dung beetle species have been tested in on-farm nurseries in a project jointly funded by South Australian Dairyfarmers Association, the Fleurieu Beef Group, the Adelaide and Mt Lofty Ranges Natural Resource Management Board and Creation Care Pty Ltd," she said.

More than 40 farmers gathered at Mt Compass on March 17, to hear the latest results of on-farm testing of these new species.

Greg Dalton, of Creation Care, said that the on-farm nurseries were designed to test the suitability of these new species under different site conditions and to work with farmers to develop methods to quickly establish dung beetles on their farms.

"The old method of establishing dung beetles was to put 1,000 beetles in a paddock and wait seven to ten years to find out whether they had survived, bred up and established on your farm. Using on-farm nurseries, starting with 100 beetles per nursery, we have achieved up to 1530 O Vacca beetles in five months. That's a 15.3-fold increase," Mr Dalton said.

"These beetles are now in diapause (hibernate mode) in the soil and will emerge in Spring 2020 to breed again. If we get another 15-fold increase for the next breeding season then that farmer will have over 23,000 beetles on their property. A very good start.

"We still have more assessments to do for long-term survival and for other species that have not finished their breeding cycle yet. But the results so far are very promising in terms of developing a reliable and rapid way to establish these new dung beetle species on farms."

Mr Dalton said if you want 1000 beetles on 500 farms there will be a need for 500,000 beetles.

But if use the on-farm nursery method with only 100 beetles per farm then only 50,000 beetles will be required for 500 farms.

"We will be able to breed up and supply 50,000 beetles years before we could supply 500,000 beetles so the on-farm nursery method will enable 10 times the number of farms to have these new spring active species years sooner than using the old 1000 beetle per farm method," he said.

"This means we can achieve the widespread soil health, production and environmental benefits much sooner than with the old method."

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