Dung Beetle Innovations

August 2016

Rearing and promoting the use of dung beetles in pastoral farming

The summer of 2015-16 was Dung Beetle Innovations Ltd’s first season of mass-rearing dung beetles for sale. The commercial company has transformed itself from a non-profit group which, through a Ministry for Primary Industries Sustainable Farming Fund Project, started importing and breeding dung beetles. The company has shifted to a more spacious building and is continually trialing new breeding methods. This includes experimenting with different bin sizes, temperatures, humidity, and material mixes.

The beetles are a tool to rapidly break down manure with benefits for farm production, soil quality and water quality.

Director of production, Dr Shaun Forgie, left Landcare Research to work on the project – to focus on beetles’ commercial release, ongoing imports and scientific study.

Packages of dung beetles are being sold to farmers from Northland to Southland and research continues into the benefits they offer. So far six species have been imported of the 11 approved for introduction to New Zealand in 2011.

The Mexican dung beetle was introduced to New Zealand in 1956 and spread through Northland and South Kaipara. Crown Research Institute Landcare Research applied to import more species in 1994 but the application was rejected and the idea shelved. In 2008 a group of motivated farmers and other interested parties formed the Dung Beetle Release Strategy Group which gathered more information on the beetle’s positive impact on pastoral ecosystems, especially in South Australia. In February, 2011 the Environmental Risk Management Authority (now Environmental Protection Authority) approved importation of 11 species of the 7000 found worldwide. Landcare Research held the first consignments in containment until the Ministry of Primary Industries gave disease clearance.

The first release was in September 2013 on a biodynamic farm in Gore with another the next month in the Wairarapa. The next phase was launching Dung Beetle Innovations Ltd, to rear the beetles on a commercial scale. Dung Beetle Innovations Ltd managing director and project manager, Andrew Barber, says the commercial launch was a large leap for what had been a four-year importation and research project with a just under $1 million in funding plus half a million in donated time and resources. The company’s second director is farmer John Pearce, owner of the land where the breeding facility is based who’s been involved from day one.

Andrew says the key to the company’s success was Dr Shaun Forgie’s decision to leave the comfort of a researcher’s position with Landcare Research and accept the director of production role. His knowledge, experience and enthusiasm gave seven diverse shareholders with a common passion for dung beetles the confidence to put money into a venture some years out from it being profitable.

Having shareholders’ money on the line required competent governance and new business structures to be in place, ensuring the successful evolution from a Government-funded project to a commercial company, said Andrew.

“Government and others’ significant investment in dung beetle importation and breeding could have been wasted, had the step to building a business on this knowledge not been taken. It would have been a completely wasted opportunity if it had evolved into a backyard hobby that a few people dabbled in”.

Every day in New Zealand around 745 hectares is covered in dung which accumulates and sits around for up to six months. The dung beetles keep paddocks clean by breaking dung down into a sawdust-like material. This improves soil fertility and structure while making pasture more attractive to grazing animals and reducing runoff into waterways.

The beetles are sold in packs from Northland to Southland, from 120-250 for those on small blocks to 1000 plus beetles of four species for farms. Prices range from $1200 to $6000 per pack, couriered or hand-delivered from January to April, the optimal time for release of the beetles. As new species are imported, the operation will expand to releases throughout the year.

By cleaning up excess faeces its thought dung beetles will:

Reduce nitrogen, phosphorus, faecal coliforms and pathogens entering water
Reduce surface runoff
Increase pasture production
Improve pasture utilisation by reducing fouling
Reduce the internal parasite burden in sheep and cattle and the need for drenching
Reduce greenhouse gas emissions
Reduce compaction
Tunneling beetles draw nutrients into the subsoil which:

Reduces the need for artificial fertiliser
Increases aeration, reduces compaction and brings subsoils to the soil surface
Increases organic matter in the soil, stimulating microbial activity and nutrient cycling
Provides a food source for soil organisms such as earthworms
Increases root biomass and growing depth
Improves soil water-holding capacity and pasture drought tolerance
Improves water uptake in soil which reduces ponding, and helps fertiliser uptake
It would be about nine years before dung beetles released in 2013 would breed up to millions and made a real impact, says Shaun. However, they are starting to reach good numbers and offer anticipated benefits. This has been confirmed by science projects funded by the Ministry for Primary Industries’ Sustainable Farming Fund with input from landowners, councils like Environment Southland and Greater Wellington Regional Council, Landcare Research and industry organisations including Beef and Lamb New Zealand.

One study has confirmed that under each of the around 11 cowpats dropped by a cow each day, nitrogen and phosphorus levels are elevated. Dung beetles recycle these nutrients, boosting pasture growth and reducing the need for artificial inputs like superphosphate and urea.

A trial which simulated intensive 1-in-30-year rainfall on 10-12 degree slopes with and without dung beetles, demonstrated the insects’ ability to reduce nutrient runoff. Solid fertilisers applied on top of soils were washed into waterways while nutrients taken into the pasture root zone by dung beetles stayed in place. “This is good for profits and good for the environment,” Shaun says. Timeframes were similar to riparian plantings to reduce runoff of nutrients and sediment.

Scientists have also discovered that dung beetle presence reduces survival of internal parasite larvae which infect New Zealand livestock, reducing performance and requiring expensive drenching. Shaun says this finding counters scare-mongering that by sequestering parasite eggs underground, dung beetles may create time-bombs of surviving larvae. Not only is pasture directly under dung unavailable for grazing, but an area five times that size is repugnant to livestock. To get around this, farmers use temporary electric fences to force sheep and cattle to feed on grass in this repugnant zone which significantly increases the risk of their ingesting internal parasites.

Dung Beetle Innovations has Environmental Protection Authority permission to import 11 dung beetle species, selected to suit a range of New Zealand climates and conditions.

Species imported so far consume only dung from herbivores but there is the potential to bring in species targeting human waste, requiring a separate application to the Environmental Protection Authority.

Two iwi have already contacted Shaun about the possibility of using dung beetles to help process human bio-solids, spread onto open areas of land.

To raise dung beetles’ profile and money for education, Dung Beetle Innovations promoted a package as a gift for the farmer with everything, on auction website TradeMe recently. The listing “went crazy”, fetching up to $1600 for 400 beetles. The money will be spent as part of an initiative by Chris Clay, an educationalist who won Microsoft’s Global Innovative Educator in 2011 ahead of over 200,000 other nominees. The money raised will be used to engage kids and communities in active learning about sustainable farming practices , says Shaun. The trial-scale project could be extended nationwide with his company mining budding scientists’ data.