Diatomaceous Earth: Should you use it?
Diatomaceous earth (DE) is a popular, all-natural choice for many backyard flock keepers. It’s effective for controlling pests in the coop, and many people say it helps reduce odors and keeps internal parasites at bay.
Though many people love this product, it comes with risks. A good flock owner will carefully consider what products to use, and monitor their flock for health issues.
What is Diatomaceous Earth?
DE is the fossilized remains of diatoms. That explains everything, right? It’s a soft rock in its naturally occurring state, and is mined from the earth. It crumbles easily into the soft powder that we are familiar with. It has a huge number of uses, and may make appearances in your toothpaste as a mild abrasive, as an absorbent material for spills, and as a component of dynamite. Not the explosive component though – if your coop explodes, it’s more likely related to using unsafe heat lamps – but more on that another time!
DE particles come in a variety of sizes, almost all of them extremely small. Food grade DE has a size that is less than 1/100th of a millimeter – a microscope is needed to see what it looks like.
How does DE work?
DE is porous and very absorbent, which is directly related to its use as an insecticide. The tiny, abrasive particles rub against insects and absorb the lipids on their exoskeleton which act as a moisture regulating barrier. This leads to dehydration and death of the pest. In a high moisture environment, DE will absorb ambient moisture and be less effective. High moisture environments include damp earth, fecal matter, and areas with high humidity and rainy weather.
This absorbency is the same reason it can be added to animal feed to prevent clumping. It’s quick to absorb excess moisture in the feed bag, keeping the food dry and preventing it from sticking together – this is why you can find it on the ingredients list of many feed bags. It’s not included to help treat or prevent internal parasites.
Does it work?
In a nutshell – or a diatom shell – yes. DE will work for pest control, especially in a clean, dry coop. In a damp, dirty, poop-filled coop, DE will readily absorb moisture from the environment, making it much less effective. If you choose to use DE, remember, you need to keep your coop clean for it to be helpful!
Does it work when taken internally? Many people believe it does, however, studies indicate it is not effective – at least in studies done on cattle. As most people do not have the ability to test how effective DE really is internally, I prefer to trust studies by professionals. With an understanding that DE works best in dry environments, it makes sense that it’s not able to control pests and parasites in the very wet internal environment of a body.
However, even though it is effective externally in a coop, there is potential risk. Read on to understand why!
DE and Safety
DE is primarily made up of amorphous silica, which is generally recognized as safe. There is also crystalline silica, which is a known health risk and respiratory irritant. Long-term exposure significantly increases risks of disease like lung cancer. The amount of crystalline silica in DE is regulated based on our current understanding of safe levels for humans. People who work with silica regularly are required to wear protective masks.
OSHA has set a permissible exposure limit for diatomaceous earth as 20 mppcf (80 mg/m3/%SiO2). At levels of 3000 mg/m3, diatomaceous earth is immediately dangerous to life and health.
“CDC – NIOSH Pocket Guide to Chemical Hazards – Silica, amorphous”. www.cdc.gov. Retrieved November 21, 2015
I don’t have the ability and tools to measure the amount of DE in my coop – but I know that I wouldn’t sprinkle it around my house and roll around in it!
It’s sharp, abrasive, tiny edges are dangerous for a human’s respiratory system – and we know our poultry is even more prone to respiratory issues than we are! It’s safe to say that inhalation of silica and DE should be avoided.
Safety for Poultry
With an understanding of what DE is and how it works, we can better think about how (and if) we want to use it with poultry. There are three main ways that I’ve seen suggested to use DE – in the coop for pest control, internally for health and internal parasites, and externally on birds with infestations (like lice) through dusting or dust baths.
Used in the coop for pest control
Though shown to be effective in managing pests, there’s another risk of sprinkling it around the coop. If conditions are good for DE to be effective, it also means that chickens scratching, pecking, and bathing is likely to throw DE into the air! When thrown in the air, the birds are very likely to inhale it, creating a risk for respiratory irritation and damage over time.
If your coop is damp or unclean, DE is much less likely to be thrown into the air as dust – but is also relatively ineffective at stopping pests.
I’ve chosen to stop using DE for pest control due to the risk of damaging their respiratory systems. I free range my flock fully time, so they have plenty of areas to bathe outside the coop. I also have moved to using the deep litter method in my coop, which DE would actively harm. I welcome the microorganisms that help break down organic matter into soil – and I don’t think my chickens mind a few snacks on the floor of the coop either!
There does not seem to be much risk from DE being in the digestive system, but there is also little evidence to support it performing a useful role. When included mashed in to feed pellets, it prevents clumping, but I would be concerned about the dry dust particles being inhaled while feeding.
External for Infestations / Dust Baths
Imagine taking a bath in dust that can severely irritate your lungs. This seems like an unsafe use of DE. If you throw dust the bird, or allow it to roll around in DE, they most certainly will inhale relatively large amounts of particles into their relatively small and sensitive respiratory systems. I’m not going to say it will not be effective at stopping infestations – however, I don’t want to put my flock’s long term respiratory health at risk!
There are alternatives to DE when it comes to dealing with pests – and the best solutions are preventative. Most importantly, keep your coop clean and sanitary. Use a deep litter system or good bedding, and change it regularly. Avoid straw and hay – they quickly grow moldy, and can damage a bird’s crop if it tries to eat sharp pieces of straw.
I use a deep litter method, where I periodically (every two weeks) layer wood shavings over the floor of the coop and allow things to naturally compost. Once a year I perform a deeper clean and remove layers of accumulated compost – great to use in the garden!
Good Living Conditions
What if your birds have a pest infestation on their body? At that point, it’s important to assess the overall health of the bird and their living situation. Chickens tend to groom themselves meticulously and take dirt baths to stay clean. Make sure they have access to clean, dry dirt to keep themselves clean.
Think about what you’re using for bedding, and do a little research. Many wood shavings and pellet bedding may be suitable. As mentioned, steer clear of straw and hay based bedding, as well as anything that quickly develops mold. Clean out your coop as often as necessary based on your coop style, number of birds, and what bedding you use.
Dealing with Infestations
If there’s an infestation to treat, proven solutions include ElectorPSP and permethrin.
ElectorPSP is expensive, but a bottle will last you a long time, as you mix a small amount at a time with water. If you have a smaller flock or tighter budget, you can get a pre-mixed permethrin (permethrin comes in a variety of brand names) spray from your local farm store. You can also buy it in bulk, usually with a higher concentration, and follow the instructions to mix it with water for poultry. Spray
ElectorPSP and permethrin are proven ways to combat pests and parasites, and are highly effective – much more so than diatomaceous earth. A single treatment is often enough to knock out the infestation. Chemicals and medicine come with their own risks, so be sure to follow instructions of your chosen treatment!
There are also poultry dusts that are available that contain permethrin – however, as dust is more easily able to spread, and is extremely toxic to bees, I choose to spray my birds and keep them in an isolated area to dry. Keep in mind permethrin is also toxic to cats!
It’s ultimately up to you to make choices that are healthy for your flock! Make decisions that are best for their long term health and happiness!