Excrement consumption might not seem the most obvious choice for federal government funding.
But the latest round of the Agriculture Department’s Rural Research and Development for Profit Program is doing just that, flushing $9.2 million into a five year dung beetle research project lead by CSIRO.
Australia problems with poo started as soon as livestock landed on our shores.
Dung beetles co-evolved in tandem with large, plant eating mammals all across the world, including Australia.
But the natives species aren’t suited to breaking down the dung of livestock. Native dung beetles evolved to break down native marsupials’ hard, fibrous dung pellets, and thrive in forested areas.
With no beetles on the job in pastures, cow pats were left to clog paddocks. Each year cattle and sheep produce 42 million tonnes of dry dung and 39mt, respectively.
Nutrients and carbon went to waste, pasture growth was stunted, waterways suffered from polluting runoff. And as the now depleted black swarms testified, dung-breeding bush flies had a bonanza.
All of which is why research got underway in the 1960’s, culminating in CSIRO’s introduction of dung beetles in 1968, with the first instance in North Queensland.
Beetle research digs deep
Dung beetle research and initiatives largely wound up in the 1990’s. The new project, drawing on decades of CSIRO research, will be lead by Meat and Livestock Australia.
The new work will identify a suitable sheep dung-eating beetle and other species to introduce for cattle dung consumption across all seasons (see below), particularly in Western Australia, Victoria, Tasmania and NSW.
About a dozen species of beetle have established in tropical and sub-tropical cattle grazing areas, while southern pastures have fewer than five.
Most southern species are active in summer, which leaves a three months a year for bush flies to breed and dung-related problems for pastures.
Between then and 1984 about 1.7 million beetles were released across Australia, seeding populations across the country.
Of the 43 exotic species released by CSIRO, 23 have established sustainable populations.
Profit in poo
CSIRO research director Andy Sheppard, who leads a team who won funding for a program into new beetle research, said their “multitude” of benefits makes them “the ultimate ecosystem engineer”.
The beetles tunnel which aerates, allows rain to percolate and boost soil moisture. Nutirents are recycled and carbon is sequestered in the soil. Microbes and invertebrates are encouraged to grow. Dung is broken down and polluting runoff is averted from waterways. Nematodes worms are deprived of breeding grounds, improving livestock health and reducing resistance to control chemicals.
The beetles also provided welcome social engineering, from breaking-down dung in summer, which cut down on flies’ spring breeding grounds.
But hordes of bushflies are reduced and so too the popularity of the once famous ‘Aussie salute’, as well as the impact of buffalo flies on livestock.
“Bushfly control was serendipitous,” Dr Sheppard admitted. Beetle research was initially directed at pasture and livestock.
Future flush with opportunity
The new research will focus on applying cutting edge evaluation techniques to document the ecological services of the beetles; developing new resources to help farmers to tap their benefits; and the introduction of new species to tackle colder southern pastures and sheep dung.
“We want to build a comprehensive, farmer-accessible database of when, where and what dung beetles are,” Dr Sheppard said.
“Currently, we have a lot of information on paper and in the heads of a few specialists.
“This is a golden opportunity to groundtruth the information and translate it into an online resource.”
The research initiative will establish monitoring sites at 120 farms across the country and also develop a smartphone app for farmers to both upload observations and access advice.
Dr Shepppard said the introduction of new dung beetle species is carefully considered before release.
Happily, 50 years of field experience shows introduced and native beetles do not compete for habitat or food sources.
The project has 12 research partners, including University of Western Australia.