Diatomaceous Earth (DE) is a crumbly, chalk-like substance that consists primarily of amorphous silica, which are the fossilized remains of the shells of prehistoric phytoplankton algae called diatoms. These microscopic single-cell algae, believed to have been formed between 2.5 and 65 million years ago, are chiefly found in sea beds of ancient oceans and lakes.
DEs can usually be extracted with relatively little effort, as deposits are often located either near or on the earth’s surface. However, owing to the diatom’s huge diversity (estimated to be around 25,000 species) and other long-term biological, chemical and ecological dynamics, harvested DEs come in various sizes, silica composition, granularity, and levels of absorbency – all contributing to their efficacy .
Today, DEs are used in various industrial, agricultural and domestic byproducts. For the latter two, only fresh water-based (Food Grade) DEs are used, as the salt water-based variants are known to be toxic to humans.
The Mechanics of Diatomaceous Earth as Insecticide
Unlike pesticides, DEs are not toxic substances and do not require ingestion by pests to function. Instead, the effectiveness of DEs’ lies with their incredible level of absorbency, augmented by an abrasive outer surface.
Pests that come in close contact to DEs will immediately suffer from dehydration, as the DEs aggressively absorb moisture from their outer wax coating. The rate of absorption is enhanced when the abrasive outer layers pierce the soft segments between skin or exoskeleton plates, leading to the absorption of internal oils, fats, and moisture. The gradual desiccation will kill pests over a short period of time.
DEs are particularly effective with insects such as beetles, weevils, fleas, borers, and arthropods like dust mites, ants, cockroaches, spiders, caterpillars. They are less effective against larger and water-heavy gastropods such as slugs and snails.
The efficacy of DEs is more pronounced in high temperature and low humidity environments. In a study conducted by Kansas-based Grain Marketing and Production Research Center, researchers discovered that the application of DEs inside a flour mill resulted in a 100% increase in the mortality rate of flour beetles once the temperature reaches 41°C.
Application of Diatomaceous Earth in Agriculture and Farming
DEs offer a wide range of benefits in farms and agricultural enterprises. Apart from the protection of harvests, DEs are equally effective in protecting livestock, stables and working areas.
Regular application of DEs in stables, coops, and kennels, among other locations, prevents the infestation and breeding of fleas, worms, ticks, mites, lice and flies in the area. This will also sanitize the area while significantly reducing the stench brought upon by a combination of moisture and bacteria. Over time, the breeding cycles of some of the pests may even be permanently ended.
Additionally, DEs can be used as an anti-caking agent for feedstock. As a bonus, DEs is an excellent dewormer of parasitic worms, leading to healthier livestock.
As a precaution, DEs should also be sprinkled on farm equipment and vehicles, in addition to hard to reach crevices and crannies around the farm.
However, users should familiarize themselves with the product first before acquiring them, as there are two major types of DEs marketed to the public – the Food Grade DE, and the calcinated (heat treated) variety used as swimming pool filters. The latter contains a considerably higher level of crystalline silica, and is toxic for humans and most mammals. The World Health Organization cautions that DEs containing crystalline silica in excess of 3% may cause lung complications.
Using Diatomaceous Earth to Protect Grain in Silos and Storages
For wheat farmers, grain protection probably ranks as one of the most crucial aspects of farming operation. Food Grade DEs provide a safe and effective solution to managing and protecting grains from pests.
The storage area should ideally be treated with DE first. Sprinkle the DEs liberally around the unit, paying particular attention to corners, cracks and uneven areas on the floor and walls. Next, bring in the storage platforms, if any, and coat them with the DE dusts. Allow the dust to settle for several hours before bringing in the stock. Repeat the sprinkling process once again over the grains. With every subsequent stock movement, remember to perform another sprinkling.
The application process can be simplified by filling the DE dusts inside plastic application shakers or even old powder containers. Depending on the requirement, the holes at the top of the containers may need to be slightly expanded – a screw driver will work perfectly. Just point and squeeze.
Supplementary Information on Diatomaceous Earth Use
- Medical Mask: While there are no known health risks associated with amorphous Food Grade DEs, even normal flour can lead to nose, throat and eye irritation when ingested. As such, it would be advisable to use medical masks when working with DEs – more so when users are affected with respiratory issues like asthma. Interestingly, there are a growing number of users who swear by the positive side effects of DEs, including, lowering blood pressure and cholesterol level. So much so, there are companies that now market DEs as food supplements.
- Effect on Livestock: Studies over the last couple of decades have not indicated any adverse effects on livestock exposed to DEs.
- Effect on the Environment: Silica constitutes between 80 and 90% of DEs, and makes up more than 10% of the mass of the planet’s crust. As such, DEs will, over time, reenter the earth’s ecological cycle with zero environmentally-undesirable effects.
- Temperature and Moisture: The effectiveness of DEs is drastically reduced in low temperature and high moisture environments. As such, using them on cold, rainy/snowy mornings is not advisable.
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