Finding reliable scientific sources regarding supplements is important in livestock production
Finding reliable scientific sources about supplements is important.
Using diatomaceous earth in livestock production is popular among some producers.
Although the practice of supplementing with diatomaceous earth (DE) is common, scientific research consistently shows DE is ineffective as a standalone treatment. Anecdotally, the product is an impressive jack of all trades. However, in practice, there are many variables to account for before jumping on the DE bandwagon.
Livestock producers have a strong local research and extension network to turn to when deciding whether to incorporate new practices such as using DE as a feed supplement or as a natural insecticide. Examining potential benefits and current research is vital when separating hype from fact.
The substance itself is unique, due to its abrasive and absorbent qualities. DE is made up of diatoms, or aquatic microorganisms comprised of silicone dioxide. The inert dust is harvested from sediments found at the bottom of oceans, lakes and rivers around the globe. Tiered grades are available for purchase. Food grade DE is recommended for human and animal consumption.
DE is slated to control internal and external parasites when used in place of, or in conjunction with, other parasite management practices. DE is also marketed as a natural insecticide, anti-caking agent, filtration and pelleting aid. There is debate over the benefits of DE, which are hard to pinpoint. Considering the myriad of variables at play on an average farm or ranch, identifying beneficial practices becomes a challenge for producers.
In small ruminants, the powder is approved as a feed supplement, if the correct grade and ratio is used. Producers may sprinkle the powder around feed, directly mix it into the feed as a dewormer or dust it along animals’ backs to control for external parasites.
Linda Coffey, agricultural specialist for the National Center for Appropriate Technology’s sustainable agriculture assistance program called ATTRA, explained that she has heard of the practice of using DE in livestock production, but she encouraged beginners to remember that no practice is a cure-all.
“I can’t think of a single practice in agriculture that stands alone. If you are managing a farm and only focusing on one thing, whether that’s animal health, selection or pasture management, it’s not going to work. You have to look at the whole picture,” said Coffey. “One of the problems with research is that you can’t look at everything holistically, you have to look at one thing at a time.”
Coffey pointed out that using DE as an insecticide is not backed by research and that beginner or seasoned producers, can benefit from a healthy dose of skepticism. The main tennets of DE use are that the abrasive and drying qualities will affect larval growth. However, the concept is unproven.
“In controlled studies, it doesn’t lower fecal egg counts as a dewormer,” Coffey said. “It’s speculated that it’s going to be in the manure, and when the eggs hatch, maybe it will damage the larvae. It is speculated that over time it could lower the population.”
Sorting out cause and effect is difficult because of the variation between species, seasons, management practices and so forth. Based on experience with producers, Coffey noticed that the most successful producers employ a broad range of techniques that, as a whole, contribute to animals’ well-being.
“Working with producers, a lot of times, they are good observers and managers. DE may be an accidental, extra thing,” said Coffey. “The reality is that it may not be the variable that is making a change. When scientists try to control it and only measure DE as a variable, they don’t see results.”
So how do producers decide for themselves when a practice is widely touted and so loosely supported by science? Coffey recommends small scale producers set up their own informal experiments and plug into their local community.
“Get out on other people’s farms, ask questions and find a local mentor,” Coffey urged. “Local mentors will be more familiar with your market, weather and your situation. For a beginning producer, go to local meetings and be alert for someone who seems to know what they are doing, have done it for a while and are willing to teach. That person is a gold mine.”
In addition to local Extension services, growers can access tip sheets for management practices on the livestock page of the ATTRA website (www.attra.ncat.org). Coffey recommended “Managing Internal Parasites in Goats and Sheep” and “Managing Internal Parasites: Success Stories” as a starting point. Coffey also suggested the American Consortium for Small Ruminant Parasite Control as an online resource.