three cheers for the dung beetle


this photo was taken last year in the garden... sorry it's not very crisp

this photo was taken last year in the garden… sorry it’s not very crisp

Bugtussle, Kentucky… the place I call home, not even a tiny little dot on most maps. Bugtussle is the name of our community but there really isn’t anything here anymore except for the fine rural folks that inhabit this place. The Bugtussle General Store sits empty. The Bugtussle Bar-B-Q has not emitted the smell of sweet hickory smoke in years.

From the stories we have heard, Bugtussle was named after the dung beetle “tussling” a ball of dung around. We have also heard that, “back in the day”, fine summer evenings were spent relaxing, maybe drinking a beer or two, and watching the dung beetles actively doing their good work. Sounds like fine family entertainment, if you ask me!!!

notice the tubes of soil the beetle removed in creating it's tunnel...

notice the tubes of soil the beetle removed in creating it’s tunnel…

Nowadays, with each passing year, the pastoral landscape is being replaced with large-scale industrial annual agriculture. We see more and more annual agriculture creeping into this community with each growing season. Most perennial grasslands have been turned. The ruminants have been replaced with corn, soybeans, and lots of tobacco. And let me just say here, the world isn’t going to be saved by industrial annual agriculture. It just isn’t possible. Growing more food to feed the increasing numbers of humans on this planet by turning and working the soil on the big scale, whether using conventional or organic farming practices, is very depleting and not at all sustainable. As soon as that soil gets turned and exposed to the elements, carbon goes into the atmosphere and soil organic matter is lost. Simple as that. Mulching is an excellent way to protect these precious soils, but for those of us that use lots of mulch (and I don’t mean black plastic sheeting, to me that doesn’t qualify as mulch), we know just how labor intensive and just how much mulch it takes to keep the soil adequately protected. Lots. I don’t ever expect to see large-scale permaculture farms come into vogue, even though it sure would be lovely. 

Something else is vanishing with all of the annual agriculture and use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides: the dung beetle. IMGP0849

When Eric and I moved to this farm, nearly fifteen years ago now, we adopted the mighty dung beetle as our farm mascot and thus began calling our farm “Bugtussle Farm”. (We were actually “Bugtussle Organic Farm” at first, but when the government took over the certifying process, we stopped getting certified and therefore had to stop using the term “organic”. It didn’t really matter, though. We knew our customers personally. They were our certifiers!) So with our mascot as our guide, we set to our work of increasing the fertility of a very depleted farm. At first we started with a handful of chickens and a small portable coop. Then one coop became three and the chicken numbers increased as well. Then a few goats entered the picture. Then some sheep and a milk cow. Then more sheep. And more sheep. And more cattle. As all of those critters multiplied and proliferated, so did the amount of fertility on our little farm. All the while, we have been rotating those animals on our pastures. We rarely saw dung beetles, but on the occasion that we did, it was a fascinating sight to see. One time, when Ira was a wee thing, we were working up in the garden and he was seized with the urge to poop. I took him out into the pasture to do his business and before he even finished two tiny flying dung beetles landed and set to work. We were thrilled.

In 2008, we bought the adjacent farm… adding a second mortgage and a whole new project of turning yet another depleted farm into a place of fertility. For the first few years of this endeavor, I certainly questioned our sanity…

But years pass. Gradually, gradually change happens. And something good is happening on our farm now. We have been feeling it for awhile, but now we are beginning to see it with our very own eyes. It is as if our cup, slowly filling up from all of our hard work and sweat and blood and tears, is finally reaching fullness and is just starting to overflow the edges…IMGP0854

What we have been seeing is an insane amount of dung beetle action in our pastures! One day, within twelve hours after the animals being in a paddock, Eric and I were walking around and saw every single cow pie showed the signs of tunneling dung beetles. Within twenty-four hours some of the smaller sheep deposits were completely gone… all that poop was completely relocated down under the soil to feed the dung beetle larvae when it hatched! Something else so fabulous happens when the dung beetle clean-up crew moves in so quickly: the fly-cycle is disrupted. Flies need something like three days for their eggs to hatch, feed on the poop, and then bury themselves to pupate into the next generation of nuisance. I like to think that this year, with the dung beetles so very active, we will see a decrease in the fly population. I sure do hope so because I can’t stand flies!

The dung beetles are doing us a wonderful service. All of that rich organic matter is being recycled down into the soil, not only increasing the fertility of our soils but also allowing more moisture to be held in the soil and not just washing away downstream. That quick turnover of the nutrient cycle is the quickest way to creating a rich and fertile farm. And it’s happening here in Bugtussle. 

there's a very shy dung beetle down in that hole. It wasn't feeling very photogenic...

there’s a very shy dung beetle down in that hole. It wasn’t feeling very photogenic…

So three cheers for the dung beetles that work so tirelessly and ceaselessly to help make this farm a fertile place. Time to get out the lawn chair, crack open a cold one, and settle in for some good old-fashioned family entertainment.IMG_7539

a fine line

IMG_8179It’s very wet here. Oddly wet for October. September was oddly dry. I think there have been more thunderstorms so far this month than we had during our typical thunderstorm-laden July. For at least the last five out of six days, it has been raining while I am milking the cow. Like clockwork. Milking time=rainstorm. Most sane folks milk their cows in a snug barn where the reality of rain is a mere pitter-patter on a tin roof. And maybe a little extra mud on the wellies. Well. That’s not quite the way it works around here. Several months ago now, when I realized a new family cow was headed our way as a gift from some sweet friends, I had this funny little notion that the milking should occur in a portable stanchion that could be integrated into our herd’s pasture rotation. We certainly didn’t need another isolated chore to be added to our already colorful palatte, and I didn’t want our family milk cow to be separate from the big herd, as cows love company you know, so the portable stanchion it was. And is… This crazy thing that we are doing is working. Mind you, we have had plenty of wrinkles to iron out along the way, and the old shade-shack-turned-milking parlor is small and has no walls. There is a roof (tarp), but when the wind blows like it was this morning, I get pretty much soaked. Maybe a little bit cold, too. I suppose that is one way to become a faster milker.

But my fleeting discomfort gets swallowed by the beauty of the bigger picture.

I know there is a warm house and dry clothes waiting for me when I finish my chore. Comfort zones are meant to be challenged, right? When we stretch just beyond our comfort zone, don’t we more greatly appreciate the comfort we stretched beyond?

When you tread that fine line, it really boils down to the attitude that you carry with you. This morning, by most people’s standards, I had every right to grumble. I was sopping wet, rain absolutely dripping from my face, the occasional wet cow tail smacked across my head, and a stiff breeze blowing on my backside. But I didn’t grumble. I put my cold hands on that warm milk pail, and said thank you.IMG_8182

right now :: flock flock goose

IMG_7257A few days ago, the young flock of pullets and their guardian geese were integrated into the adult flock of laying hens. They had outgrown their chicken tractor/brooder and were ready for more space. And I was ready for two separate chores to become one. So with a little fence manipulation and chicken herding, (and maybe some sweat and curse words) the task was complete. We are still keeping the pullets in their own paddock within the bigger hen paddock, as the two flocks are still eating different feed rations, and so the big hens don’t take to bullying the young birds. But all’s well so far and I’m sighing a big sigh of relief as chore-time gets more refined…IMG_7263 IMG_7264 IMG_7265 IMG_7270