The Dirt On Diatomaceous Earth

Use DE smartly to combat a number of problems with your flock.

by Kristina Mercedes Urquhart
PHOTO: Julie Falk/Flickr

As chicken keepers, we’re all searching for a natural, low-cost and effective method of pest control. Most of us want something that will be as easy on the earth as it is on our wallets, because, of course, our flock’s health and safety translates to our own health and safety. And who doesn’t love saving a little money? We also want something that does it all: a dewormer, an antiparasitic and a preventative tool, as well as a medication for use when our birds fall ill. Diatomaceous earth would seem to be the perfect solution for any chicken keeper.

What Is Diatomaceous Earth?

Pronounced die-uh-tuh-MEY-shuhs and frequently shortened to DE, diatomaceous earth is a mineral-based substance made from the fossilized remains of diatoms, or algae-like water plants. Its uses have been widespread since its discovery in 1839, from an absorbent and stabilizer in dynamite to use in swimming pool filtration systems.

Many chicken keepers have employed diatomaceous earth as a natural insecticide in the chicken coop. The common understanding is that the jagged edges of the DE particles pierce the waxy exoskeletons of common pests that come into contact with it, killing the insect through dehydration. It also has the potential to work as an effective, nonchemical pest repellent as the bugs learn to stay away from the treated area.

DE looks and feels like powdered sugar. While it’s rather deadly to insects, it’s soft to the human hand. DE, however, can be very irritating if it comes into contact with the eyes and can be a very abrasive respiratory irritant, due in large part to its high silica content.

The Downside to DE

It’s important to consider DE’s impact on your backyard environment once in use in your home. While it may be a nonchemical pesticide, diatomaceous earth does not discriminate between bad bugs and good bugs. In other words, DE has the potential to harm beneficial insects and pollinators, such as honeybees and native bees, in addition to the mites and lice you are trying to manage in your coop.

DE In The Coop

I have used DE in my coop with good results, and I continue to keep some on hand. I also employ preventative management with my flock and they rarely require the use of DE or conventional medication: My chickens are fed high-quality feed and have fresh water daily, and their coop, run and surrounding environment is kept clean. They spend the majority of their days on grass, pasturing, and I occasionally boost their health with supplements and herbs.

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My recommendation would be to exercise stringent biosecurity measures and practice the management techniques listed previously. If you do choose to use DE, purchase only 100-percent food-grade, which is often found at feed-supply stores or homesteading shops. Contact the manufacturer if you are unsure about anything regarding the product. Completely avoid DE products made for swimming pools, which contain harmful additives, for use on or around your flock.

Caution with application is paramount for both you and your birds. Use eye protection, a mask that covers the nose and mouth, and gloves when handling DE. Knowing that the chicken’s respiratory system is very sensitive, it would be prudent to exercise caution when using DE inside the coop. Remove all of the birds before applying, or wait until they are out of the coop for the day. Use a small amount when first starting with DE, and work up over time to the amount that you feel is effective for the size of your coop and your flock.

If you choose to use DE in an outdoor area, such as a fenced run or open-air coop, apply it on a day when the wind gust is low, to help prevent it from spreading far and wide or from getting it into unwanted places, such as your garden.

There is no easy answer when it comes to using diatomaceous earth with your flock, especially for those of us who want to tend to chickens as naturally as possible. But I believe that responsible flock management practices and basic education about the processes and industries we support, will lead to a more informed and responsible decision, for both you and the health of your birds.

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