Spring and summer are accompanied by many beautiful and wonderful new living things in our barnyards. However, these seasons also usher in many unwanted pests – mosquitoes, flies, ticks, fleas and lice – that can make our livestock and pets miserable, contribute to disease, and reduce production.
We often resort to using chemicals for pest control, but there are many issues with their use, especially if you are trying to raise organic stock. Pests can develop immunity to pesticides over time, making them less effective. In addition, there are possible toxic side effects to chemicals, and many of us are eager to exclude or reduce them from our environment, our food and our water.
So, before investing in any of these often expensive, potentially toxic chemicals this year, consider utilizing some all-natural techniques to control the pests that pester your animals.
Let’s look at a few of the possibilities:
Vinegar seems to be good for just about anything. It even works as a great insect repellent. Mosquitoes, flies, fleas and ticks find vinegar repulsive. I started using an apple cider vinegar mix repellent last summer, and I’m happy to report that I never had a tick on me when I used it. When sprayed on fur, skin or clothing, vinegar will deter most any pest from landing and biting. Either white or apple cider vinegar (ACV) may be used, but I prefer ACV. If the vinegar smell repulses you or those around you, mix in some essential oils to make it smell more pleasant. Vinegar can also be added to your animals’ drinking water, in small amounts, to help ward off pests.
Herbs and essential oils
A vast array of herbs and essential oils are effective repellents and even insecticides. While there are numerous plants and herbs that are great insect repellents, I will share a few of the more common and easily found. It may be necessary to do a little experimentation with different herbs and oils of varying concentrations and mixtures to find the perfect concoction for your needs.
Essential oils, such as eucalyptus, lavender, peppermint, rosemary, lemongrass and tea tree, are all good repellents. When utilizing essential oils, be sure to start with 100-percent oils that are organic and are not mixed with anything else. This allows you to control the amount of essential oil in whatever preparation you use, and it’s also more cost effective. These oils are generally safe to use on animals, but use caution on sensitive skin and avoid getting any in your animals’ eyes. Undiluted oils may be used, but sparingly. I only use undiluted oils if there is a big infestation, and then it is used one time to kill the pests and is removed a short time later to avoid skin irritation.
For fleas and flies, lavender and peppermint are among the best repellents. Peppermint should be used sparingly on sensitive areas, as it is the most likely of any of the oils we will discuss here to cause skin irritation. When mixed in a spray, it is less likely to cause problems, but be sure to keep it away from the eyes. If mixed in a water-based solution, it should be applied at least once per day. If mixed in an oil-based solution, it can be applied less often. Mosquitoes and ticks dislike lavender as well, but add lemongrass to really keep them at bay.
In addition, tea tree oil, eucalyptus, cedar, rosemary, thyme and sage can also be utilized in repellents. Any of these essential oils can be added to a recipe to boost repellent power as well. Experiment with different oils to see which ones work the best, which have the aroma you prefer, and which are most readily available in your area.
Peppermint, as a live plant, also works as a spider and wasp repellent. I’ve started planting a perimeter of peppermint around our house and barn to help keep spiders from coming in and to discourage wasps from nesting. This herb is easy to grow and spreads like crazy. It dries and stores well, and because it can be used in many other medicinal ways, having it in abundance is not a problem.
Diatomaceous earth (DE) is a powder made from finely ground shells of tiny sea creatures or diatoms. It is widely used in the commercial grain industry to help control insects in large grain bins. Purchase only food-grade DE, which can be found at farm supply stores, garden stores or online, and is relatively inexpensive. DE works because, as the silica-containing shells of microscopic diatoms, each particle has sharp edges and corners. These particles work their way inside an insect’s exoskeleton between the individual body segments. Once inside the exoskeleton, the sharp particles lacerate the insect, allowing air, dirt and bacteria inside their bodies, killing them without any toxicity to the surrounding environment.
DE can be applied directly to livestock using sprinkling cans or puffers, or added to dust baths or livestock dusters. While DE spells certain death for insects, it is not hazardous or toxic to other animals. As always, avoid the eyes. Work the DE dust down through your livestock’s fur or plumage, to the skin where the pests reside. Periodic retreatment will be needed, especially if the animals get wet. DE works great for fleas and ticks on dogs, cats and other animals, and for lice on poultry or other livestock.
DE may be utilized in the environment as well. Sprinkle it on bedding and in feed, where insects are a problem. This will work best in dry environments, but could be utilized outside as well, if a specific area is heavily infested with crawling pests like ticks, fleas or lice. Be sure to dust the sleeping and resting areas for your livestock guardian dogs and barn cats to help control the flea and tick population.
In addition, DE can be used safely inside your home. If fleas invade your house, treat the environment by sprinkling DE on carpets, pet bedding, and pets themselves. It is safe and nontoxic. When applying DE, it is recommended to wear a face mask to avoid inhaling the dust. Though it’s not toxic, inhaling a large amount can irritate your respiratory tract.
Some people have discussed utilizing DE for internal parasite control. However, DE does not work well when it becomes wet, so it may not work well for internal parasites.
Garlic has been used as a pest deterrent for years. Recent research has shown it to be an effective topical insecticide for plants as well as livestock. Pure 100-percent garlic oil can be sprayed on livestock to kill lice and fleas, and to help control flies. In addition, research is ongoing into its use as an internal parasite treatment. It is widely known that internal parasites often develop immunity to the variety of medications available to treat them. While more research is needed, preliminary results are promising for the use of garlic oil in the treatment of internal parasites in livestock such as goats. Dogs should not ingest large amounts of fresh garlic in any form, as it can be toxic to them. Powdered garlic, in the form of tablets or granules, are available for safer use in dogs.
Mosquitoes breed in standing water, making water troughs an ideal place for mosquitoes to multiply. But what to do? It’s not easy to dump, scrub and refill a 100-gallon tank daily. One solution we employ on our farm is to utilize goldfish. They are inexpensive, hardy, and quite effective at keeping the tanks free of mosquito larvae. Use at least 10 goldfish per 50 gallons of water, and replace them as needed. Sometimes they will even winter through in a tank with a heater.
Another way to keep mosquitoes out of livestock tanks is to add a small amount of vegetable oil to the tank periodically. This produces a thin film on the surface of the water, keeping the mosquitoes from depositing their eggs into the water. It will not harm the livestock, and it is an inexpensive solution.
Barley straw is yet another mosquito deterrent for the water trough. It also helps to deter algae growth, making the time between dump and scrub days longer.
Living areas and pasture rotation
This article would not be complete without discussing the importance of keeping livestock areas clean in general. Flies, gnats and other pests breed in manure. Regular routine maintenance of livestock living areas should include removal of soiled bedding, replacement of soiled hay and/or straw, and making sure manure piles are kept as far away from your livestock areas as possible as they compost.
In addition, many internal parasites can be effectively controlled without any treatment at all. Carefully planned pasture rotation and/or utilization of forage that works on internal parasites has been shown to be more effective at maintaining parasite-free animals than medications like ivermectin. Choosing breeds with natural resistance to common parasites is also something you might consider.
In conclusion, there are many all-natural ways to combat the pests that plague our animals. They can be inexpensive, effective and safe, allowing us to enjoy the outdoors without using harmful chemicals.
• 2 cups vinegar (preferably organic apple cider vinegar)
• 1 cup water
• 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
• 15 drops lavender essential oil
• 10 drops peppermint essential oil
• 10 drops lemongrass essential oil
• 10 drops rosemary essential oil
1. Combine vinegar and water in a 32-ounce spray bottle.
2. Mix all oils together thoroughly, then add to spray bottle. Shake to mix.
3. Apply spray liberally to livestock and pets, avoiding eyes. Shake periodically during use to keep oils dispersed.
NOTE: This repellent can also be used on humans. Be careful to avoid the eyes.
Creamy pest repellent
• 1/4 cup chopped beeswax
• 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons organic coconut oil
• 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
• 3/4 cup water
• 15 drops lavender essential oil
• 10 drops rosemary essential oil
1. Melt beeswax and coconut oil in the top of a double boiler over low heat, heating the water to just boiling. Add baking soda, and immediately remove from heat. Slowly add water, mixing with a whisk or handheld electric mixer. The oil will turn white as it emulsifies with the water.
2. Place pan in an ice bath, and mix until mixture is completely cooled. Add essential oils. Pour mixture into a jar with a tight-fitting lid.
NOTE: This mixture is gentle enough to use on most sensitive skin, such as areas around the eyes and mouth. It is an effective fly repellent for wounds.
Simple fly repellent
• 3 tablespoons oil (almond or grapeseed works well, but vegetable oil is fine, too)
• 1 tablespoon peppermint essential oil
• 1 teaspoon rubbing alcohol
1. Mix all ingredients together thoroughly in a small container.
2. For use on dogs, horses and other animals, apply the repellent with a cotton swab or a rag to the animal's ears to keep flies and gnats away.
Witch hazel repellent
• 1-1/2 cups water
• 1/2 cup lemon witch hazel
• 20 drops lavender essential oil
• 15 drops lemongrass essential oil
• 10 drops eucalyptus essential oil
• 10 drops tea tree essential oil
1. Mix water and witch hazel in a 20-ounce or larger spray bottle.
2. Combine essential oils, then add to the spray bottle, and shake well to blend.
NOTE: The witch hazel in this recipe helps to keep essential oils suspended. This repellent is especially effective for mosquitoes.
Jackie Wilt is a registered nurse and certified equine massage therapist who lives on a farm in rural Wabaunsee County, Kansas, with her husband, Doug, their daughter, Kate, and a host of pets and livestock.