Strange brown carpet that's "alive"!A while back, I started noticing this dust layer beginning to accumulate around my grain bags in the barn. I walked by it for days, half-consciously noticing it; then becoming more conscious that the pile seemed to be sort of… expanding. I made a mental note to look at some under the microscope. I was worried that it could be some kind of mold dust. I happened to stick my hand into the middle of one of the grain bags, and felt heat in the middle: not good.

Finally, I remembered to investigate. I scooped up a bit of this fuzzy tan stuff in my hand to take a closer peek. It looked like it was moving, but I thought surely this was just a trick of my eyes. I slipped some onto a microscope slide, topped it with a coverslip, and brought it into the house. I flopped into my office chair, flipped on the scope light, and took a gander. And, holy bejeezus, what I saw just about make me fall outta my chair! Hundreds, literally layers upon layers of mites- yes, those hideous, prehistoric, hairs-sticking-out-of-corpulent-body-and-too-many-legs critters; all crawling over each other, and other debris, in a zombie jumble. The whole mass was in a mosh pit of motion, trying to spill off the slide. So, my eyes hadn’t lied: this wasn’t dust or mold, this was a freaking living carpet of grain mites on my barn floor! Gaaah!

I could not stop scratching all evening. Despite my logical brain reiterating over and over to the unconscious: mites don’t transfer to different hosts. These are grain mites, they don’t live on people. They are not in the house. Everything is fine. I have different mites which naturally reside in my eyebrows and such. No big deal. My subconscious wasn’t buying it, I felt itchy all over. It’s amazing how looking at living things under a microscope does that: somehow, they become bigger than life, and are just extra creepy. I don’t have a camera-microscope, so can’t share with you my horror; but if you feel like itching, just take a look at Google images of grain mites here. Apparently, there is a thing called Grocer’s Itch, which can be caused by coming into contact with certain mites infesting grocery food stuffs. But honestly, I’m not swimming in this stuff, so I do think in my case, the itching was purely psychological; and didn’t happen until I saw the damn things under the microscope!

I managed to regain my composure eventually, and did some reading. Grain mites are common. They usually come in your grain load, meaning it was contaminated before you brought it home. They thrive in warmth and moisture. The grain mill filled my tote bags really full this time, up past the plastic skirt-tops which are meant to tie together and keep moisture out of the bag during transport. I opened and flared the tops as much as I could. But, I couldn’t get as much air flow as I would have liked, due to the purse-string nature of the tops and the over-filling. So I think this didn’t help, it probably prevented the grain from breathing as much as it might have otherwise; and of course, just the bigger mass in the bags meant more grain that needed to breathe. And we’ve had an unusually warm, moist winter.

After scuffing the surface, it flows back to fill in the void...I have been pushing the limit ordering grain in late September and using it through early April. I’ve gotten by with it so far, and it saves me money on delivery. Our barn is enclosed and dry, with a concrete floor, and the grain sacks are on pallets. But, still the air is moist in an unheated building. This is one risk in storing it that long, things can go awry.

I haven’t been able to find a lot of detailed information on the subject of these little critters. I think the main thing is that the mites slowly consume the grain, breaking it down into dust, so they just cause waste. I’m not sure if they can eat whole grain, or whether they only thrive on processed grain, or grain dust. My grain is rolled, so there is definitely some dust. And, I think the mites make more dust: perhaps a lot of them die and create a residue. I feel like the grain looks dustier than usual, especially in the top layers of each bag; so I think there is definitely something happening there.

As far as the sheep eating the mites, dead or alive, I don’t think this is necessarily a concern. Sheep eat insects in their feed and forage all the time, so their digestive systems won’t mind. As far as I understand, there is nothing toxic about this particular type of bug. I read on some chicken forums that some people let their chickens eat mite-infested feed a lot, and no reports of ill affects.

What could irritate the sheep is breathing the extra dust, and that is a concern with grain and hay dust anyway. I checked-in with the feed salesman, who chastised me for storing it so long; but he wasn’t aware of any health concerns either. Anyway, I’ve decided to keep feeding the grain. I try to pour it low, to keep the dust from getting kicked up. The palatability hasn’t been affected, the sheep devour it normally. It still smells good. It looks normal, just dustier than usual; and rolled grain is always somewhat dusty (unless you buy the fancy sifted stuff). The monster trying to flow away from the D.E.

We’ve had a few cold spells and I think that has curtailed the propagation of the mites, as I’m seeing much less active evidence. The middle of the bags is no longer warm, so the heating issue is resolved. (I was first worried that it was fermentation causing the heat, but now I think it was just the activity of the mites in there, as I see no signs of decomposition of the grain itself.) I’ve scooped off the tops of all three remaining bags, to get their levels lower. Maybe the mites ate through all the dust available, and this is why they are now trying to exit the bags, and crawl across the floor? (They clean concrete floors really well, by the way, the patches underneath them are shiny new!)

The moving critter carpet on the floor I’ve attacked with diatomaceous earth. It is known to be a desiccant: it dries out the exoskeleton of little bugs like mites and fleas and causes them to perish. It definitely works with these guys, as long as I put a lot out. You can see in the photo, the futile attempt of the carpet to “flow” away from the D.E., but with a few re-mixes, the living carpet dies. Then I sweep it up and bag it in the trash. This also gave me the idea to mix some DE into the top layers of the grain bags, and I think that might have also helped curb their propagation. DE is fine for sheep to eat, many people add it to feed in hopes that it may have anthelmintic properties (though that hasn’t been scientifically proven).

Ok, now I’m itching. Are you? Does anyone else have more experience with these hairy little organisms they’d like to add?