Yes, I Use Diatomaceous Earth (and my chickens aren’t dead)

Chicks Before Clicks

I know, I know, such a provocative title. The fact is, provocative titles get clicks. Even more click-baity are captions that illicit fear, indignation, or at worst, rage. Alas, such has become the nature of journalism, social media, and the blogosphere. I make an effort to temper the urge to participate in such behavior but I’m part of the game and thus have to work to stay relevant. Even so, I try to remain true to who I am: someone who brings people together, not pits them against each other. I also truly care about the health of our chickens and our planet. I hope I never forget that there are real humans and chickens behind the “likes” and “follows”.

Here I am making a dust bath for my chickens that includes DE.

So, what does all this have to do with Diatomaceous Earth, you ask? Well, basically, DE (as it’s referred to in chicken circles) has gotten a tremendously bad rap. The vitriol against it and sometimes against people who use it can get more intense than a broody hen. I confess that I’ve felt annoyed and defensive toward those who have challenged my use of DE. But then I take a step back from the madness and remember: they just care about chickens, and when you care a lot about something it can get emotional.

Jessica Lange taking a very messy dust bath in dirt, wood ash, and DE.

So, I want to take some of the emotion out of it and look at the cold, hard facts. Or at least the facts that we have access to. First off, I want to acknowledge that natural products used in chicken keeping have less science surrounding them. There’s just not as much of an incentive (translation: there’s not enough money to be made) to perform studies that aren’t geared toward large-scale agriculture. That being said, we do know a thing or two about DE, where it comes from, and the different types there are. We also know enough to make an educated guess about its safety. Is it 100% benign? No. Is it as dangerous as it’s been presented to be? No.

Let’s Break it Down

Microalgae microalgae-ing.

Diatomaceous earth is made from the million-year-old remains of diatoms. The skeletons of these microscopic sea creatures are composed almost entirely of silica, aka silicon dioxide, which is an essential nutrient naturally present in our environment. The type of diatomaceous earth that should be used in chicken care is made from amorphous silica. But there are actually two kinds of diatomaceous earth: amorphous and crystalline. Amorphous DE is considered generally safe by the Food and Drug Administration. Crystalline DE is not.

This silica-rich rock off the coast of Greece would make a great dust bath!

Amorphous DE can be found in numerous products we use every day, including makeup, toothpaste, medicine, and even the food we eat. Its effectiveness as an insecticide comes from its ability to dry bugs out and damage their exoskeletons with its abrasiveness edges. Once amorphous DE gets wet, however, its insecticidal power disappears. This is why I generally don’t recommend it alone as an internal anti-parasitic, although I know many who swear by it for this purpose and there is this positive study on it.

Crystalline DE is treated at high temperatures and is often referred to as “pool grade” due to its use in filtration. It’s not useful as an insecticide and is known to cause lung damage in humans and animals with prolonged exposure. When using DE for chickens, it’s essential to only use products labeled food grade, which is the amorphous type and must contain less than 1% crystalline DE in order to acquire that label. Although this low percentage of crystalline diatomaceous earth does present some level of risk, it’s minuscule when compared to the risk of a parasite infestation or the use of other synthetic anti-parasite treatments. Remember: Crystalline DE becomes problematic with prolonged exposure and Food Grade DE might contain trace amounts.

Natural Doesn’t Mean Harmless

We must protect the bees at all costs.

I’m a proponent of diatomaceous earth, but I’m still careful to limit its use to dust baths, the coop, or on the chickens themselves. Just because DE is a natural substance doesn’t mean it can’t negatively affect the ecosystem, especially when it’s overused. If you were to spread DE all over your chicken yard, it wouldn’t just ward off unwanted parasites, it would kill beneficial insects such as bees, butterflies, and even microscopic critters we can’t see but we definitely need in a balanced environment. So, yes, use DE. But please, be responsible with it.

So, what do you think? With this information in mind, do you feel safe using diatomaceous earth? Why or why not? Let me know in the comments. And remember, no matter what your answer is, you’re always welcome in Chickenlandia. 🙂

Cool stuff to click on:

Make Your Own DIY Dust Bath!

Diatom Information

Fact Sheet on DE

Study about the Benefits of DE for Chickens

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