How are Filth Flies Involved in Wasting Nitrogen?


Filth flies are species from the Diptera order associated with animal feces and decomposing waste. Beef cattle raised on open pastures are especially susceptible to two species of filth flies: Face flies (Musca autumnalis De Geer) and Horn flies (Haematobia irritans (L.))  because these flies develop exclusively in fresh cattle manure. Filth fly impact on cattle health is related not only to the loss of body weight but also to the transmission of diseases like pink eye and mastitis (Basiel, 2020; Campbell, 1976; Hall, 1984; Nickerson et al., 1995).

Nitrogen losses from cattle’s manure has been reported for domestic flies (Musca domestica) and bottle flies (Neomyia cornicina) (Iwasa et al., 2015; Macqueen & Beirne, 1975). Despite the regular presence of face fly and horn fly in pastures, their effect on the nutrient cycles is little known. The purpose of this study is to understand the relationship between filth fly’s presence in cattle manure with the nitrogen losses caused by an increase in ammonia and nitrous oxide emissions.

What Did We Do?

The study was conducted in four pastures in the Georgia Piedmont: two near Watkinsville and two near Eatonton during June, July, and August of 2021. Ammonia volatilization and nitrous oxide emissions were measured on days 1, 4, 8, and 15 following dung deposition. Manure samples were collected on days 1 and 15. A static chamber was sealed for 24 h on each sampling date to capture manure’s ammonia and nitrous oxide emissions. In each chamber, a glass jar with boric acid was used to trap ammonia, and gas samples were collected. The gas samples were analyzed for nitrous oxide with a Varian Star 3600 CX Gas Chromatograph using an electron capture detector.

The number of filth flies was determined using a net trap covered by a black cloth that was set after 1 min of manure deposition, allowing the flies to oviposit for 10 min. On the days in which ammonia was not measured, a net trap was set to avoid additional oviposits, and record the emergence of filth flies. On the 15th day, we collected the filth flies that emerged from the eggs deposited in the manure during the first day.

What Have We Learned?

We found that cattle’s manure nitrogen loss as nitrous oxide (N2O) and ammonia (NH3) emissions have a direct relationship with the number of horn flies and face flies in the dung, Figure 1. Eighty percent of the flies trapped were horn flies. Dung with less than 5 flies can emit as little as 0.11 mg of N/kg of manure per day, while cattle manure with more than 30 flies can increase this emission by more than 10 times.

Figure 1 Nitrogen emissions such as nitrous oxide and ammonia (mg/kg of manure) and number of filth flies.

Every extra filth fly in manure can increase N emissions by 0.03 mg per kg of manure per day. According to NRCS, 59.1 lbs. of fresh manure is produced by a cow (approx. 1 000 pounds animal) every day (NRCS, 1995). Considering an average of 85 % relative humidity, 4.03 kg of dry manure can be produced per cow day. The actual economic threshold for horn fly is 200 flies per animal (Hogsette et al., 1991; Schreiber et al., 1987), considering a 1 to 1 sex ratio during emergence (Macqueen & Doube, 1988) we are assuming 100 female flies. Since the capacity of horn flies is 8-13 eggs per day (Lysyk, 1999), 100 female horn flies can generate approximately 1,000 new flies every day.  Calculating the nitrogen emissions (4.03 kg of dry manure X 0.03 mg N kg manure x 1,000 flies per day) results in 121 mg of N loss per cow per day when assuming the number of flies is just at the economic threshold. In January of 2022, USDA released the Southern Region Cattle Inventory with a total of 91.9 million head, from which 30.1 million were beef cows (USDA, 2022). Considering the earlier numbers, the horn fly presence in the beef cattle of the Southern Region could be emitting 3,639 kg of Nitrogen to the atmosphere every day.

Future Plans

We will continue the study on ammonia and nitrous oxide emissions under the same conditions during another year to confirm the trends and accuracy of the results. Also, we will implement a study to analyze the effect of the introduction of a parasitic wasp Spalangia endius as a biological control on horn fly and face fly populations and therefore on the manure’s nitrogen losses.


Presenting author

Natalia B. Espinoza, Research Assistant, Department of Crop and Soil Science, University of Georgia

Corresponding author

Dr. Dorcas H. Franklin, Professor, Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, University of Georgia

Corresponding author email address or

Additional authors

Anish Subedi, Research Assistant, Department of Crop and Soil Science, University of Georgia

Dr. Miguel Cabrera, Professor, Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, University of Georgia

Dr. Nancy Hinkle, Professor, Department of Entomology, University of Georgia

Dr. S. Lawton Stewart, Professor, Department of Animal and Dairy Science, University of Georgia

Additional Information

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Hall, R. D. (1984). Relationship of the Face Fly (Diptera, Muscidae) to Pinkeye in Cattle – a Review and Synthesis of the Relevant Literature. Journal of Medical Entomology, 21(4), 361-365. 10.1093/jmedent/21.4.361

Hogsette, J. A., Prichard, D. L., & Ruff, J. P. (1991). Economic-Effects of Horn Fly (Diptera, Muscidae) Populations on Beef-Cattle Exposed to 3 Pesticide Treatment Regimes. Journal of Economic Entomology, 84(4), 1270-1274. 10.1093/jee/84.4.1270

Iwasa, M., Moki, Y., & Takahashi, J. (2015). Effects of the Activity of Coprophagous Insects on Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Cattle Dung Pats and Changes in Amounts of Nitrogen, Carbon, and Energy. Environmental Entomology, 44(1), 106-113.

Lysyk, T. J. (1999). Effect of temperature on time to eclosion and spring emergence of postdiapausing horn flies (Diptera : Muscidae). Environmental Entomology, 28(3), 387-397. 10.1093/ee/28.3.387

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Macqueen, A., & Doube, B. M. (1988). Emergence, Host-Finding and Longevity of Adult Haematobia-Irritans-Exigua Demeijere (Diptera, Muscidae). Journal of the Australian Entomological Society, 27, 167-174. <Go to ISI>://WOS:A1988P906100002

Nickerson, S. C., Owens, W. E., & Boddie, R. L. (1995). Symposium – Mastitis in Dairy Heifers – Mastitis in Dairy Heifers – Initial Studies on Prevalence and Control. Journal of Dairy Science, 78(7), 1607-1618. 10.3168/jds.S0022-0302(95)76785-6

NRCS, N. R. C. S. (1995). Animal Manure Management. RCA Publication Archive(7).

Schreiber, E. T., Campbell, J. B., Kunz, S. E., Clanton, D. C., & Hudson, D. B. (1987). Effects of Horn Fly (Diptera, Muscidae) Control on Cows and Gastrointestinal Worm (Nematode, Trichostrongylidae) Treatment for Calves on Cow and Calf Weight Gains. Journal of Economic Entomology, 80(2), 451-454. 10.1093/jee/80.2.451

USDA. (2022). Southern Region News Release Cattle Inventory.