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Excited about Hornworms?

Manduca sexta is a moth whose larvae (caterpillar) is known as the Tomato Hornworm. This is one of the more destructive and dreaded pests for those who grow tomatoes, as the caterpillars can defoliate a plant seemingly overnight.

So why would I be excited to see this guy on our tomatoes this morning?

This pest has parasites!

This pest has parasites!

Take a closer look at the back of the caterpillar.

This Tomato Hornworm has been parasitized!

Just think of the movie Aliens as I explain the life cycle of the Braconid Wasps, a Tomato Hornworm parasite.

Braconid Wasps are a family of parasitic wasps, and Cotesia congregata is one species in this family that prefers Tomato Hornworms. It has a sharp ovipositor… a long, tube-like, egg-laying appendage. The adult wasp uses its ovipositor to pierce the skin of a caterpillar and deposits eggs inside the caterpillar’s body. The eggs hatch and the wasp larvae slowly eat the caterpillar from the inside. Initially, the caterpillar will act as if nothing is wrong, but as the parasitic larvae grow, and continue to eat, the caterpillar becomes progressively less active. The wasp larvae save the vital organs for last, so the infected caterpillar will stay alive for as long as possible. Eventually the wasp larvae break through the caterpillar’s skin and spin a cocoon. The larvae pupate into adult wasps, and the cycle repeats itself.

I was disappointed to see the Tomato Hornworm on our tomatoes, but then I saw the cocoons adorning the caterpillar like some macabre decoration. My disappointment quickly shifted into excitement. I went from almost grabbing the Hornworm from the plant and feeding it to the chickens, to gladly leaving the Hornworm right where I found it on the tomato plant.

The parasitized Hornworm in my garden is the exact reason we do not spray insecticides on our farm. We may have to put up with a little loss for a short time, but then Nature turns the tables on the pests. This poor Tomato Hornworm is now a barely living but very viable nursery for some highly beneficial parasitic wasps. I left things alone, and in a few days I’ll have a couple dozen more allies patrolling my garden for pest caterpillars.

And I don’t mind letting others do the dirty work for me.

 

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Salatin Style Chicken Tractor Hand Truck or Dolly

Hand Truck or Dolly… what you call this device really depends on where you come from. For us, this simple machine has been a huge time saver. We use this hand truck to move our chicken tractors each day. We raise a few hundred broiler (meat) chickens each year on our farm, and I gave a small overview of that endeavor in a previous article. Previously, we used a standard household or moving type hand truck; this did do the job, but it was harder and took two people to move the chicken tractor (one person to hold the hand truck and one to pull the tractor from the other side).

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The hand truck in action. The wheels are under the chicken tractor as we pull from the other side of the tractor.

With our new hand truck, based on the Salatin design, the chore of moving the chicken tractors now only takes one person. It is also easier to move the tractors; it is smoother and more steady. This hand truck is not sold anywhere. We found a local welder/fabricator who was able to create this with the photos and drawings we gave him.

Here are some photos of the hand truck:

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Our Salatin-style chicken tractor hand truck. Just to be clear, it is laying on it’s back right now. It’s important the handle bends forward (up in the image) so that when it slides, the handle doesn’t catch on anything.

 

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Here is a photo of the outside of the wheel. It’s important that the foot has an extension so that it can slip under the edge of the chicken tractor.

 

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Here is a photo of the inside of the wheel. It’s important that the axle sits away of the angled piece . The foot scoops under the chicken tractor, then as we pull the hand truck back and down, the wall of the chicken tractor slides down and rests behind the axle. Then the hand truck will not flip back up when we pull the chicken tractor.

 

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Note that we cut down the stop on the legs of the hand truck. These stops are important to prevent the tractor from sliding back, especially when the tractors are on hills. But in our original version, the stops stuck out too far and caught on the wire walls of the chicken tractor.

 

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Using Lawn Hay

For many in the world of Permaculture or Regenerative Agriculture or “Green Living”, having a lawn is a sin worthy of excommunication.

Five years ago, I wrote an article about how lawns cause a significant waste of time and resources. And I didn’t even dive into all the harmful chemicals used to maintain a lawn.Watch Full Movie Online Streaming Online and Download

But now, five years later, I have a lawn.

Don’t worry, I have not converted to the dark side. I still know there are significant issues with lawns, and I am still not a big fan of them. However, the property that we bought has a large lawn. I have spent the last year trying to determine what to do with that lawn.

I have also realized that there is something deeper that draws us to lawns. I think it may have to do with how we are wired as humans. It may be the same with our attraction to savannas. We prefer some open spaces where we can see potential threats from a distance …but lets not get too deep in this article.

The lawn has provided a great, open place for our kids to run and play. This is obviously, and rightly, a great argument for having a lawn. Where else are you going to play soccer?!

We have also used our lawn to graze our sheep and pigs and ducks and geese and chickens. We don’t do much grazing on it now except for the free-range Guineas and chickens that occasionally make there way to the lawn.

We do not use any chemicals at all on the lawn. We don’t irrigate it either. We pretty much do nothing to it but mow it. But I am not one to waste a potential resource if I can help it, and grass clippings from a lawn are a great resource.

Here are some of our uses for the clippings:

1. We use it as supplemental feed for the animals. I routinely dump the fresh, clipped grass to our pigs and chickens and sheep. They love it. Fresh lawn hay!

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One way we use the lawn hay is as mulch (left side) for eroded areas (seen on the right side).

2. I also use the clippings as a mulch. My father puts it in his garden, and I use it to cover bare soil along our fence line. There were a number of Eastern Red Cedar saplings that had grown up along the fence line over the years before we bought this property. The cedar needles fall from the trees and eventually kill most grasses. This is a great way for nature to convert a field to a forest, but that’s not what I want in my pastures. After we cleared the fence line of the cedars, we were left with many spots of bare soil. This is where I pile grass clippings. In time, the soil will come back to life and grasses will be able to grow there again.

3. As you can see in the photo at the top of the article, I spread the clippings over the driveway to dry. After a few days in the sun with occasional turnings, the clippings are nice and dry. I then use this in the poultry brooders. It works way better than straw; it’s more absorbent. And because it has thin strands,  the little chicks or poults can easily navigate over it.

4. I have also used this dried lawn hay for supplemental feed for our animals as well.

I still plan on converting a large portion of our existing lawn to perennials (trees, shrubs, and wildflowers). But until then, we are going to treat the lawn as a resource.

 

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Mob Grazing with Sheep

I want to share one photo of our sheep paddocks, before and after. In the foreground is the previous paddock. The background is the current paddock (obviously). We aim to graze or trample at least 70% of the standing pasture plants. It is never perfect, but this grazing paddock was close to our goal. Much of the uneaten plants were trampled to the ground and will now act as a mulch layer. This trampled grass covers bare soil. It decomposes and adds organic matter. It is currently haying time around here, and many of my neighbors would see these trampled plants as wasted hay. I see it as a fantastic resource.

Rotational grazing works with large or small herds of animals. It is all about stocking density and timing of animal paddock rotation.

 

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Wild Onions!

We’ve got a lot of Wild Onions (Allium canadense) popping up in our pastures right now.

According to one source, there are over 100 Allium species in North America. Allium being the genus of species containing onion and garlic species. These are a number of similar appearing plants, but fortunately, any of these plants that smell like onions or garlic are edible. Some species are more tasty than others.  Note that there are many plants that resemble onions or garlic, but if they do not smell like onions or garlic then these may be toxic. Wild Garlic (Allium vineale) and Wild Onion (Allium canadense) are closely related and can be difficult to differentiate. The best way to tell them apart is to examine their leaves. Wild Onion has solid, flat leaves, while Wild Garlic has hollow leaves.download full film Ex Machina

It’s easiest to use just the green tops of Wild Onion or Wild Garlic as scallions/green onions. We can also use the bulbs if we want to dig them up. They are usually pretty small, but they still have a good flavor, somewhere between a mild onion and garlic clove or shallot.

Wild Onion and Wild Garlic will form spherical-shaped flower clusters, and often the flowers are replaced with bulblets  (as seen in the photo above).

 

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Book Review: The Bio-Integrated Farm

The Bio-Integrated Farm: A Revolutionary Permaculture-Based System Using Greenhouses, Ponds, Compost Piles, Aquaponics, Chickens, and More by Shawn Jadrnicek

Full Disclosure:
I was given a copy of this book by Chelsea Green Publishing in exchange for writing an honest review on my website.

Bottom Line Up Front:
I was really impressed with this book.

Shawn and

Shawn and Stephanie Jadrnicek

Full Review:
I’ll be honest. I went into evaluating this book with a pretty pessimistic attitude. I think my attitude was due to a few things. First, while I know there have been a number of very good Permaculture books published in the last few years, there have also been a number of redundant Permaculture books hitting the market at the same time… meaning, authors with little experience have tried to cash-in on the Permaculture wave and have written very basic books filled with information already found in other (better) books.  When I read the title, “The Bio-Integrated Farm”, I felt like this was just another repackage of the Permaculture basics in an attempt to sell another book.

Second, before accepting the book, and the subsequent writing assignment, I clearly told the publisher that I would only agree if I could write whatever I wanted… no strings attached. They told me that I could write an entirely honest review, and they felt I would “find Shawn’s work, though perhaps not unassailable, at least accessible and very innovative.” I know this was not meant as a challenge to find something wrong with the book, but I think I took it as such.

So, in all honesty, I started reading this book with a bad attitude and some pretty harsh pre-conceived ideas.

I did a quick skim of this book, and I begrudgingly thought I may have to change my mind. Then I read every page, cover to cover, and indeed, Shawn Jadrnicek won me over.

This book is not a rehash of basic Permaculture.
This book is not written by an inexperienced author.
This book is not written just to sell another book.

Shawn Jadrnicek has worked, according to the publisher’s website, “as an organic farmer, nursery grower, extension agent, arborist, and landscaper, and now as the manager of Clemson University’s Student Organic Farm.” He is not new to the world of Permaculture or sustainable agriculture.

Shawn states in the introduction, “I continuously run into an underlying rule or directive that, if done properly, accomplishes most of the other Permaculture principles. I believe it’s a unifying principle that underlies the heart of Permaculture and all good ecological designs. In the Permaculture community it’s known as stacking functions.”

This strongly resonated with my own thoughts and findings. Permaculture co-founder David Holmgren stated it as “Integrate rather than segregate.” And Permaculture’s other co-founder, Bill Mollison, stated it in two parts “Each element performs many functions” and “Each important function is supported by many elements.” Shawn Jadrnicek’s goal is to have each design to have at least seven useful functions. He states, “Once the magic odd number of seven is breached, the design takes on a life of its own. For a component to perform seven functions it must be so connected with the surrounding environment that it takes on a new autonomous, lifelike quality. I refer to this quality as bio-integration.”

Now, this is the point where most books would give a few examples of “stacking functions” and then move on, but not Shawn Jadrnicek.

Shawn's construction of a new greenhouse with a reflecting pond in the foreground.

Shawn’s construction of a new greenhouse with a reflecting pond in the foreground.

The Bio-Integrated Farm really surpasses many Permaculture books by not just sharing a lot of theory and ideas, but it actually provides tested example after tested example of those ideas put into practice. And not only did it have a lot of examples, but it had a lot of details as well. I have been frustrated many times in the past with numerous books and authors who share a brilliant idea, but then fail to explain it fully so that it can be reproduced. Shawn not only gives you the great idea (one that has been tested, redesigned, and perfected), but then he gives the details (sometimes a lot of them), so that anyone can reproduce what he has done.

Let me give you two examples:

In the chapter titled A Pool of Resources, The Bio-Integrated Pond, there is 1 table, 5 formulas, 9 diagrams, and 32 photographs. Shawn dives into pond construction covering functions, determining the best location based on distance to buildings and sun angles, evaporation, construction, size, shape, elevation in the landscape, excavation, proper slope angles and berm size, drainage and overflow (including installation of drainpipes), pumps, siphons, the use of pond liners, filling the pond, pond covers, stocking with fish, using and harvesting minnows, tadpoles, pond predators, details on 13 aquatic/wetland plants, floating transplant trays, and more.

One of the many photos giving details for rainwater collection.

One of the many photos giving details for rainwater collection.

In the chapter titled The Big Flush, Bio-Integrated Rainwater Harvesting, there is 1 diagram, 10 formulas, 11 photographs, and 15 tables/charts. Shawn goes through dry and wet systems, roof collection, sizing gutters and downspouts, filtration, storage ponds, storage tanks, tank foundation, burying tanks, installing the fittings on the tank, pond and tank safety, calculating and harvesting rainwater, water pressure and flow, gravity-flow toilets, using drip irrigation, installing and using pumps, calculating water usage, and planning for multiyear water storage.

Seriously, this is not a superficial read!

This book is a how-to guide for taking Permaculture principles and concepts and implementing them with practical and useful applications.
This book is written by a seasoned veteran of trials and failures and trials and successes.
This book truly offers something new to the Permaculture library.

I highly recommend this book!

 

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Plasson Bell Waterer Installation Instructions

After running broilers in our Salatin-style chicken tractors for one season, we decided to upgrade watering systems. Last year (our first year raising broiler chickens), we used Salatin’s book, Pastured Poultry Profits, as our guide. Our watering system last year was awful. We used the 5 gallon galvanized waterers suspended on a chain. This was heavy and awkward. It was time consuming. We will never do this again!

We run Salatin-style chicken tractors.

We run Salatin-style chicken tractors.

After doing a bit more research we learned that Salatin uses the Plasson Bell Waterer. This may have been in the book, but I don’t think it was. Either way, the Plasson Bell Waterer is a massive step forward for us. This gravity-fed system can be attached to a 5-gallon bucket as a reservoir. It doesn’t need to be removed each watering. We can just tip it to clean it out. To replenish the water, we only have to refill the 5-gallon bucket, which sits on the top of the chicken tractor. The entire process is so much easier. If you are running the Salatin-style chicken tractors, I highly recommend this product.

There is not a great “how to” with this waterer, so I thought I would provide a step-by-step for anyone who may need one.

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All the parts from the box.

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The hanger rod screws onto the ballast bottle. This photo shows the parts from two waterers just to show the parts assembled and unassembled. The ballast bottle is filled with water to keep the waterer properly positioned.

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The waterer mechanism attaches to the bell; just insert and spin to click/lock in place on the bell.

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The ballast bottle (with attached hanger rod) and the red bell (with attached waterer mechanism).

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Just put the bell over the ballast. The hanger rod top extends up past the bell.

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Attach the handle hook to the hanger rod.

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To attach a 5-gallon bucket to the waterer system, we need to perform some DIY work. Drill a hole in the 5-gallon bucket just a bit smaller than the diameter of the hose.

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Use a pair of needle-nosed pliers as needed to pull the hose through the hole about 2 inches.

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On the waterer side of the hose, attach the union unit; just push it into the hose.

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Here is the union attached to the hose.

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Attach the union to the watering mechanism by screwing it on.

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Then attach the hose to the hose lock (the center clip on the handle hook.

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Tie the string to the cord adjuster.

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Wrap the string TWICE around the hook end of the cord adjustor. This lets you adjust the waterer down and up (right and left photo).

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I tied a loop into the string. Then the cord adjustor lets me raise or lower the height of the waterer.

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The whole unit assembled and attached to the 5-gallon bucket.

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We have water! As the water fills the bell, the bell drops (due to gravity and the weight of the water), and the water flow is shut off. This is a simple and effective design!

 

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Spiders Is Good!

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Spiderweb

I don’t quote movies often, but I occasionally will repeat a random quote from a random movie, Fletch Lives. One character, Calculus Entropy (an undercover FBI agent) meets Chevy Chase in a run down house infested with insects. He sagely states, “Spiders is good. They eats the cockroaches.”

I have use that line many times, first because it’s kind of funny, but second because it is so true.

We have been at our farm for just over a year, and I am so excited to see the pastures coming back to life. I went out the other morning, and the pastures looked as if they were decorated with jewels as the sunrise shimmered in the dew on hundreds of spiderwebs.

When we consider the pasture’s food web, we know that there needs to be exponentially more insects (i.e. spider food) than spiders to support these predatory creatures. So when I see hundreds of spiderwebs, I know that there are thousands upon thousands of other insects. This means our pastures are filled with life instead of dead due to chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. And this is a really good thing!

(see my related article: We Have Dung Beetles!)

 

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Don’t Wash Your Hands!

Almost 1 year ago, Tasha Sturm, a microbiology lab technician at Cabrillo College, posted the photo above. It is a bacterial culture of her 8-year-old son’s handprint. She had her son place his hand on a large petri-dish after he was playing outside, and this is what grew! Amazing!

This image has made the rounds on the internet over the last year. The reason I am writing about it today is that it has unfortunately (and almost unanimously) prompted the opposite of the correct response from the people who see it. This is entirely due to lack of information and understanding.

The average person’s reaction is some combination of the following: “Ewww! Gross! I need to wash my hands! I need to wash my kids’ hands! I need some more anti-bacterial soap! I’ll never let my kid outside!”

Now, let’s deal with reality. There are bacteria everywhere. EVERYWHERE! In the dirt. In the air. On our food. In our water. On our skin. In our body! In fact, we need bacteria to survive. Our intestines are filled with bacteria, and hopefully most of it is good bacteria. But you know what? Some of those bacteria on or in us, are bad bacteria… bacteria that could kill us. But do you know why it doesn’t? Because of the good bacteria. The good bacteria entirely outnumber our bad bacteria; they overwhelm them and out-compete them. They give our immune system a fighting chance to beat the bad bacteria. If we didn’t have the good bacteria, we would be dead.

Close-up of some of the bacteria colonies.

Close-up of some of the bacteria colonies.

Now, let’s take a closer look at the photo above. Do you know what kind of bacteria are present in this handprint? These likely include Bacillus species, Serratia species, Micrococcus species, Staphylococcus species, and yeast species. All of these microorganisms are normally found in the soil and/or in the water and/or on the skin.

Tasha Sturm stated in an interview, “We have a large number of bacteria that live ‘with us’ that are beneficial. Some aide in digestion, make vitamin K, etc. People who are healthy come in contact with millions of bacteria every day without adverse effect. Coming in contact with bacteria actually strengthens our immune system.”

She added, “Unless your kids have a health condition that requires you to be more vigilant let them have fun and get dirty; it’s what they need to develop a healthy immune system.”

So, how do we strike a balance between good hygiene and developing a healthy immune system? If you touch or may touch something that is known to contain unhealthy bacteria, then wash your hands. If you touch or may touch something that could spread disease or cause infections, then wash your hands. This includes washing your hands after using the bathroom, after touching a dead animal, and before eating. And teach your children to do the same. But seriously, let’s be wise in this and don’t go overboard. Touching an animal that has been dead for a week is different than touching a dead animal you butchered yourself (yes, this is a Permaculture/Homesteading website!).

Also, please use antibacterial soap very sparingly. We don’t want to kill all bacteria in our environment or on our bodies. As a physician, I need to use antibacterial soap on a regular basis in the Emergency Room, but at home, I just use regular soap. Again, I recommend balance.

Tasha Sturm concluded by saying, “As microbiologists, our job, especially in education, is to make the invisible world visible so it’s easier to understand. I think the image of the handprint was a graphic way to show others what’s out there and the beauty of microbiology. I think this image did just that.”

I agree!

 

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We Have Dung Beetles!

Yes, I am excited to see Dung Beetles in our pastures.

Yes, I know that many people may think this is an odd thing to get excited about… but it’s because they don’t understand what it means.

To me, this says our pastures are turning a corner from dying to living. From degenerating to regenerating. It means we are moving in the right direction!

Let me briefly explain. Many farms across the world are dead or dying. Farmers, with good intention but poor knowledge, spray synthetic fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides. This kills the creatures that live in and off the soil. This ultimately kills the soil, and this ultimately kills the farm. Yes, it is that simple, and it is that vital! As we stop killing the biodiversity on our farms, our soils can come back to life. The pastures become more healthy and more resilient… and the farm follows.

 

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I love seeing Dung Beetles on the farm!

The Dung Beetle life cycle is relatively straightforward. They lay eggs into dung (i.e. manure). The eggs hatch, and the larvae consume the nutrients found in the manure. The larvae pupate into adult beetles, and the cycle repeats itself. Some Dung Beetles directly bury the manure; this means the adult beetles dig a hole straight through the manure pile into the soil. They take the manure with them into either shallow holes or deep holes depending on the species. We can identify the presence of direct burrowers by seeing manure piles with a bunch of holes in it. Other Dung Beetles are rollers. They make a dung ball and roll it to another location. Once at their desired location, they dig a hole and bury the ball.

Dung Beetles perform multiple beneficial functions on a farm. They bury massive amounts of nutrient rich manure into the soil. This alone make them hugely beneficial. Also, since Dung Beetles can make a manure pile disappear within a few hours to a few days (depending on numbers and size of the pile), this reduces the ability of other insects, like annoying and disease spreading flies, to use the manure for their reproduction cycle. Dispersing the manure also helps break animal pest and parasite cycles. From an aesthetic viewpoint, when manure piles are quickly dispersed, smells are also quickly dispersed. And walking through pastures with large numbers of Dung Beetles, means guests and kids are less likely to get manure all over their shoes.

 

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Specifically, I think these beetles are Canthon pilularius, known as the “Common Tumblebug”. This is a dung-rolling Dung Beetle in the Scarabaeidae (or Scarab) Family.

Dung Beetles are a fantastic marker of pasture health, and therefore, soil health. They are very sensitive to chemicals sprayed into pastures and used on animals (cattle, sheep, etc.). These chemicals directly kill the adults or indirectly reduce Dung Beetle numbers by destroying eggs and beetle larvae. All the benefits listed above are lost. I can’t tell you how many conventional farms I have been on where there are dried piles of cow manure that have been sitting on the surface of the soil for years. These big, concrete-like frisbees are glaring markers of poor soil health. This is what covered our pastures when we moved to our farm just over a year ago.

Maybe now you can see why I am so excited to see Dung Beetles on our farm!

 

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