Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Since hearing about Diatomaceous Earth (DE) a couple years ago, it seems to come up repeatedly in things I’m reading. I find it interesting that people are so enthused about it and that it’s recommended for many diverse functions. Now that I’ve begun to research and use it, I can see that many of its suggested uses apply to our homestead.
Just briefly, DE comes from fossilized diatoms (algae) that have calcified and layered as sedimentary rock. In the United States, it is now mined from old lake beds which are mainly in Colorado and Nevada. It feels like a very light powder because each diatom is so porous, but they each have jagged edges. These properties are key to its functions.
Unless you’re buying filters for a swimming pool, the DE you want must be “food grade.” This won’t be contaminated with anything toxic and won’t be dangerous to breathe or handle. You can buy the food grade DE at your local feed store, some nurseries and online. One brand for smaller quantities is called “Pure-Earth.” Our 50# bags are called, “Perma-Guard.” Now let’s talk about why you might want some.
Worming medicine: This is our first year of having our Red Wattle hogs, and unlike the other animals, there is a strong recommendation to worm them. My husband bought a standard worming medicine at the local feed store and read the contents out-loud to me when he returned home. It’s not that we knew what most of the ingredients were, but when he got to the part that said “Any remaining medicine should be buried at least 18 inches deep in the ground,” we knew it wasn’t for our small farm. How could something considered that toxic be recommended for our animals or what could potentially be people’s food?
After returning the unopened bag, we did an online search and DE was repeatedly recommended as a worming medicine. In the case of hogs, two tablespoons are given once-a-day, though we now have it mixed in the bulk feed. Additionally, intermittent rosemary and garlic are given—a combination we love to mix in our own meals! Using DE for a worming medicine certainly feels saner than serving the pigs poison.
Fly Control: I’ve been purchasing “predator wasps” as an organic method of reducing the number of flies around our farm. Our Dutch Belted cows seem especially tormented by flies in the summertime. Putting DE in all our critters’ (horses, miniature donkeys, pigs, turkeys, chickens and cows) food means that DE comes out in their poop. As flies lay their eggs in the manure and their eggs develop into maggots, the DE is there to kill the maggots. It is thought to do this by scratching the maggots and causing them to dehydrate. Death occurs over about 48 hours and can make a big difference in reducing the number of flies. This is definitely going to be less expensive then purchasing predator wasps.
Insecticide: DE is consistently listed as an organic means of controlling pests in the garden. Farmers have also used it for years in grain storage. It is a “mechanical” insecticide and so resistance to it can never develop. It is felt to work externally on crawling insects by scratching the exoskeleton, absorbing protective lipids and causing them to dehydrate. It perhaps works internally by causing bleeding in the gut. It is not to be harmful to bees, other flying insects or earthworms. If it truly causes harm to the gut, I don’t know if I believe the safety to earthworms. One writer swears he put it in his worm composter with no adverse effects, but I will go slowly with it in the garden where I can use other methods to deal with snails and slugs.
I do like the idea of using it inside the house where I don’t have to be concerned about beneficial insects. It’s recommended for fleas, cockroaches, ants and bedbugs. I really appreciate the option of using DE instead of the toxic chemical alternatives. Additionally, resistance is growing to these chemicals, and DE may now be more effective.
The one outside area that I am grateful to use DE as an insecticide is for our Dorking chickens. The chemicals available for lice are as nasty as the pig worming chemicals. DE works great, and I’ve set up boxes in both sides of the hen house so they can dust themselves. While I was at it, I gave the garage cat and dog a good dusting with DE to help with flea control. Amazingly, the cat has been repeatedly to the vet for allergic symptoms, and this solved it. To be on the safe side, I also dusted their beds.
Hydroponic: DE is like perlite or vermiculite and retains water and nutrients in the soil. Its porosity means that the soil will also drain well. This makes it great for potted plants. This same affinity for liquids makes it a good absorbent and it has been used to clean up toxic spills. I can think of a few not-so-toxic spills that it would also be helpful with on the farm. Incidentally, I imagine this characteristic is why DE is used in cat litter.
Mild Abrasive: Now you’re going to think I’m stretching things, but DE is commercially used as a mild abrasive both in toothpaste and as metal polish. We’ve been mixing our own toothpaste for a few years to avoid both the extra chemicals and the packaging of commercial brands. It was therefore only a small step to add DE to the baking soda and sea salt that we already use. It is nice to have only food grade DE around the farm so we can feel free to improvise.
Thermal Insulator: I haven’t devised a means yet to take advantage of DE’s insulation properties. Perhaps by next summer I will pack bags of DE around the milk to maintain temperature as I am making cheese or yogurt!
Filter: The porosity of DE means it’s used to make filters, including filters for our milk from the barn. I mention it here, however, just to be inclusive.
That’s about all I know about Diatomaceous Earth. I would appreciate hearing from you what experience you’ve had with it.
Photos by Mary Lou Shaw