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Let’s talk about sex

Grazing with Steve Kenyon

Red velvet mites are one of a whole host of predator insects that protect our crops and cattle, if we protect them.

Our agriculture industry is based on reproduction. Livestock need to reproduce and plants need to reproduce. It’s what we do. It’s pretty simple, right? In livestock production, we spend a great deal of time and money on genetics. Which bull to buy, which heifers to keep, and which cows to cull. (The same is true for all types of livestock.) In the crop production side we are constantly concerned about which varieties are better. How can we get more reproduction for our efforts is a constant goal. We spend a lot of time and money on buying the latest and greatest varieties.

These are important. I don’t deny that but there is way more to reproduction on the farm that we need to be managing.

Our systems need to be managed as a whole. We can’t think that the parts of our farms can run independently. The whole system needs to be managed: the crops, the livestock, the soil, the bacteria, the insects, the water cycle. It’s a complete system.

So let’s look at some other breeding programs that we should be thinking about on our farm.

The dragon fly is an apex predator in the insect world. Their adult life span is about two weeks long. Their “teenage” aquatic nymph stage can be up to four years long. Both stages eat a lot of pests. That means we need four years of good riparian area management to get two weeks of pest control on our farms. Keep those water areas protected and healthy.

An added bonus to good riparian area management is tall grass along the edges of the water bodies. Spiders are another predator of a lot of pests in agriculture. The long grass allows for spider webs that can catch a high percentage of the flying insects coming off the water — a great tool to lower mosquito and fly populations. Almost all female spiders protect their eggs by making a silk egg sac. She hangs the sac someplace safe and guards it until the babies hatch. We need to protect this area in order to help her. Not allowing animals constant access to our riparian areas is a big start.

I won’t get into the details of the reproductive act of the red velvet mite as this is a PG-13 article but let’s just say that the males are very romantic. Reproduction will result in eggs to hatch into pre-larvae. They don’t do much until they develop into true larvae. Here they attach to host insects and slowly suck out their hemolymph (blood). A very slow death for the insect. They then enter the dormant protonymph stage. They grow here and transform into the deutonymph stage where they attack and eat everything in sight. Don’t forget, these guys are very tiny, but very tough. It’s not the size of the mite in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the mite that counts. They then go through one more dormant stage called tritonymph in order to become an adult and continue to feed on everything.

This is also when their romantic side comes out and they start the whole process all over again. That’s quite a process with a lot of predatory benefit for us as farmers. As an adult they need moisture. We need to keep our land moist and our water cycle healthy to help these predators remain viable. And, of course, be wary of our production practices that can be detrimental to our beneficial organisms.

How about crop reproduction? We all know we need pollinators to help our crops, right? But our monocultures only produce flowers at a certain time of the year. For the rest of the year, what do our bees eat? We need to have a variety of plants that flower at different times of the year to keep our pollinators in business. To a bee, monocultures are ugly. We could be adding pollinator strips to our fields or adding in other flowering species with our crops to add biodiversity.

Brendon Rocky is a potato farmer out of Colorado and his potato crop consists of six different types of plants all seeded to help the potato crop, a great example of a polyculture at work.

How about our bacteria and the fungus that live in our soil? Making sure that they have food, water and shelter is very important to their reproduction.

I could go on but I am running out of space. There are so many more creatures in our system that we need to manage. Reproduction is very important in our agricultural businesses. Some critters might reproduce too much and some not enough. Let’s just not forget that everyone in our system deserves the freedom to reproduce. It’s the balance that we need to manage, not the critter. Balance the system and your farm will prosper.

About the author


Steve Kenyon runs Greener Pastures Ranching Ltd. in Busby, Alta. You can email him at [email protected] or call 780-307-6500.

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