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Local researcher dives deep into the humble cow pie

Posted on July 20, 2023 by Vauxhall Advance

By Heather Cameron
Vauxhall Advance
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Dr. Kevin Floate, Senior Research Scientist at the Lethbridge Research and Development Centre, recently published a book titled Cow Patty Critters: An Introduction to the Ecology, Biology and Identification of Insects in Cattle Dung on Canadian Pastures.

“For folks that have cattle on their property, they may have questions about what’s in their cattle dung?” Dr. Floate said. “And I’ve talked to a lot of farmers and ranchers over the years. I’ve also talked with school children or university students, and naturalists. And they’ve all asked me questions about ‘What’s in cattle dung and why should we care?’ And that’s the first two sections of the book. So I think by understanding what is in cattle dung, people will have a greater appreciation for the many beneficial species breeding in cattle dung, as well as a greater appreciation for the, in my mind, beautiful and diverse insects that we find in a cow pie.”

The book, Dr. Floate, says, is approximately 250 pages long and is written specifically for the layperson, so readers do not need to know fancy, scientific language in order to read or understand the book. Dr. Floate says the first part of the book talks about how cattle dung is mainly water and nutrients and plant fibre and also talks about the many types of insects that are attracted to fresh cattle dung. 

“I describe why these insects are beneficial and provide additional information to help people identify what those insects are, if they have a deeper interest,” Dr. Floate said. “So I have photographs of all these different types of insects and I explain a little bit about their life histories and how to identify them.”

His interest in insects, Dr. Floate says, began when he was a kid, as he had supportive parents who never discouraged him from flipping over a rock and looking for beetles and growth. Dr. Floate says that when he first went to university, however, he thought he might go to vet school, but the standards to become a vet are very high and he quickly realized he wasn’t able to meet the expectation required to get into vet school. Thus, Dr. Floate said, he went into agriculture because he mainly grew up in Saskatchewan, on the prairie and thought agriculture would be a good career choice. Dr. Floate says that he went to the University of Saskatchewan for his undergraduate degree in agriculture and then remained there for his Master’s Degree, choosing to study Orange Wheat Floss. For his PhD, Dr. Floate attended the University of Arizona and studied insects that affect trees.

Dr. Floate said that when he finished school in Arizona, he returned to Canada and since then, he has been mostly studying insects associated with livestock that have been breeding in cattle dung, but he has also done projects looking at insects that affect crops like the cutworms. 

“Cutworms are caterpillars that will feed on different types of crops, and there’s many different species of cutworms,” Dr. Floate said. “So we wrote a book about different species of cutworms that are pests on the prairies and provided information to help farmers identify what those species were. And each species has a different life cycle. Some cutworms will overwinter as caterpillars in the wintertime. Other cutworms, the caterpillars are only present in the summertime, so farmers really need to know what species they have in order to know when to spray for them.”

Dr. Floate says his book was released in 2017 and is called Cutworm Pests of Crops on the Canadian Prairies, is available for viewing at: https://prairiepest.ca/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Cutworm-booklet-Final-EN-May1-2017.pdf. Floate says he also contributed to a third book, which describes the pest and beneficial insects that affect crops on the Canadian prairies.

Just like his previous two books, Floate says that those who search Cow Patty Critters on Google will find that it is completely free to download and read. Floate says that on one of the sites where the book is available to read, he is able to track how many downloads the book is getting. In the last couple of weeks, Floate says, the book has been downloaded at least 5,000 times. In addition to being available online, Floate says that there are a limited number of copies available, and those copies were made available to those who would get value out of them including the Canadian Cattle Commission and the BBC Cattle Association.

“Every time we send out the book or I send an email announcing the book, I always encourage people who read the book that if they find something they disagree with or they find the book is missing something to let me know,” Floate said. “And depending on the feedback I get, we’ll work towards a second edition. I’m thinking of expanding it a little bit.”

Cow Patty Critters, Floate says, kind of targets what insects that are found in Canada, but many of the insect species found in Canada also occur further south into the U.S., so he admits he’s thought about expanding the book in a second edition to have a guide that’s relevant to both Canada and the US. 

“I’ve actually reached out to some of my European colleagues and even some of the contacts that I have in South America,” Dr. Floate said. “The community of organisms, you know, how the cow pie develops in terms of the bugs that come in, generally applies anywhere there’s fresh cow dung. It doesn’t matter if it’s Canada, the U.S., Mexico, or Australia; the general process is that these insects come in to break up the cow pies; that’s common globally, but the species involved will differ. But in Canada, most of the species in Canada actually came over during the European settlement. So probably 50 per cent or more of the species that I’ve seen in Canada originated from Europe. And they’ve come into North America probably since the late 1600s or 1700s. And now they’re very common in Canada and throughout much of the U.S.” 

Dr. Floate encourages those interested in pursuing agricultural, or agrifood research as a career for themselves to talk to people who already have jobs in agriculture or to go to college for an undergraduate degree and get exposure to agriculture courses. Doing that, Dr. Floate says, will provide a better idea whether or not it is the best path for them.

“The more training you get, you open up more options to a point,” Dr. Floate said. “In my case, because I’m so specialized in my research, I actually have a few more options. I had to do an undergraduate degree, and a master’s degree. I did a PhD degree and had a post-doc degree. After high school, I stayed in university in those various positions for probably another 10 or 11 years before I got my job as a researcher, but not everyone has to do that. They can still have very good jobs in agriculture without going to school for that many years.”

“But for people coming out of a university with an undergraduate degree or maybe a master’s degree, I think there’s a lot of opportunities. And then if they really love it and they really want to do research, specifically research, then they might want to go back in university for a PhD degree, which is what most researchers require. Now, when I say research, what I mean is I actually run a research lab, so I’m charged (with) bringing in funding and hiring people and coming up with projects. But many of the people that I hire, they would have an undergraduate degree or a master’s degree. So they also do research, but they’re not directing the research, if that makes sense.”

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