The material that covers the floor of a chicken coop is commonly referred to as “bedding,” which is more aptly termed “litter,” as chickens don’t sleep on the floor, they poop on it. Litter’s primary functions are to absorb moisture from droppings and water spills, keep odors down and facilitate coop cleaning. The most commonly used litter options are: wood shavings, wood horse stall pellets, sand, hay and straw. I have tried most of them and have concluded that sand is the best choice for all the reasons outlined below.
My first flock of chicks, their first day in the coop. Much has changed since then.
WHY I CHOSE PINE SHAVINGS ORIGINALLY
Pine shavings were the recommendation I had seen most often when researching my litter choices. I knew it was absorbent, readily available at my feed store, and affordable at $5.00 per cubic foot. I had ruled out straw and hay due to their lack of absorbency, propensity to harbor mites and worst of all, to mold when wet. The last thing I wanted in my coop was a droppings-laden mat of respiratory trouble for my chickens, so...pine shavings it was.
The reason I elected to use pine shavings over sand was that idea of fluffy shavings appealed to me aesthetically. I believed shavings would be a cleaner-looking, more comfortable bedding for my peeps. Wrong. What I did not take into consideration, was the frequency of cleaning required or the disproportionately high amount of shavings to droppings going into the compost pile. I was also blissfully unaware that my chickens would kick and drag the shavings out of the coop into the run. So much for aesthetics.
So, when Facebook fan Kelly V enthusiastically recommend sand and suggested that I try it, I gave it some serious thought. Due to location of our coops at the bottom of a hill, adjacent to wetlands, we have always used sand in our runs. We purchase 2 yards of sand each year at the cost of $15 per yard. It drains brilliantly, which is important to the health of our flock as wet conditions are a breeding ground for coccidiosis. The runs are easy to clean and the sand keeps odors and flies to a minimum. Since sand performs so well in the runs, I figured I’d give it a shot in the coops.
Admittedly, I was fairly skeptical that sand would be a viable coop litter choice, I just was not convinced that it could desiccate droppings as claimed, but since we had a pile of sand on-hand, I concluded that it couldn’t hurt to experiment. Worst case scenario was that I would hate it, scoop the sand out into the run and revert to pine shavings. No harm, no foul.
Washed, construction grade sand is a better litter choice for the coop and run than play sand.
THE ECONOMICS OF SHAVINGS versus SANDEven though most of the daily droppings fall on the droppings boards in my coops, I am still fastidious about the litter. When we had just one, 4’x6’ coop, cleaning it and replacing the shavings weekly cost approximately $5.00 per month. When we built our 8’x8’ Little Deuce Coop, the litter bill increased significantly, as did the amount of time required to change the bedding each week. With the addition of the second coop, sand began to sound like a good idea. So, with shovel in hand...I passed it to my husband to load up the coops with sand. ☺ The chickens were pleasantly surprised by their new litter.
Little Deuce Coop
Our 4'x6' coop
I even use sand in the brooders; the chicks LOVE it and clean-up is a breeze with a kitty litter scoop.
NOTES ABOUT SAND as BROODER BEDDING:
I always start my just-hatched chicks on paper towels over puppy training pads. This provides them with secure footing and the opportunity to locate and identify feed sprinkled on the clean paper towels easily. After the first few days, I often switch over to sand in the brooder. In her book, Hatching and Brooding Your Own Chicks, here is what Gail Damerow has to say about sand as brooder bedding:
The best type of sand to use is natural sand: washed, construction grade sand or river sand fits this bill. The type of sand to avoid is manufactured by crushing quartz rocks, which can present a respiratory hazard to humans and animals over time. We buy our sand at a local quarry for $15.00 per yard and use one to two yards per year for two coops (12 x 14 total) and two runs (approx 260 square feet total). Once a year I remove the sand from my coops, wash the entire coop and refill it with fresh sand. Some people reuse the sand by washing it and allowing it to dry thoroughly in the sun.
Facebook thread #3
Clean mortar sand or sandbox play sand makes excellent brooder bedding. It is not as absorbent as other types of bedding, but it absorbs heat more readily and evaporates moisture more rapidly and therefore stays drier. Perhaps for the same reason, sand is more resistant to microbes than other types of bedding, keeping baby birds healthier. Soiled sand doesn't stick to feet like other types of bedding can. When it is kicked into a drinker, sand doesn't float and discourage drinking but rather sinks to the bottom so the water remains clean. Provided it is sifted periodically to remove chick poops, sand lasts much longer than other types of bedding, making it extremely economical. [S]and is fireproof, but because it retains warmth better than any other bedding, you have to be more careful about heater placement to avoid overheated chicks.**NOTE: while Gail Damerow recommends "sandbox play sand," river sand and construction grade sand are better choices as they contain sharper, larger, various sized pieces and less silica.**
BENEFITS OF SAND INSIDE THE COOPS
- desiccates droppings
- does not retain moisture
- does not decay or degrade inside the coop
- superior drainage (if water spills)
- inexpensive ($15.00 per yard)
- Eco-friendly: sand can be removed from the coop, washed, dried and reused
- natural grit/no risk of crop impaction as with straw and hay
- easy clean-up (a once daily scooping & bi-annual change)
- keeps feet clean and nails manicured
- cleaner feet=cleaner eggs, particularly in rainy conditions
- any dropped feed gets eaten, not lost in the litter
- dust-bath mecca
- no decomposition required in compost pile/great soil amendment to compost
- keeps coops cooler in the summer (provided the coop does not have a glass roof and direct sunlight all day)
- sand is an outstanding choice in the winter because it evaporates moisture more rapidly than other litter and stays drier, reducing the risk of frostbite
- in the winter, sand retains warmth better than any other bedding and given its high thermal mass, it will keep coop temperatures more stable than other litter choices such as pine shavings and straw.
risk of frostbite reduced in cold temperatures (as moisture is not retained in the litter)
looks cleaner than other litter options and it is cleaner
Feet stay nice and clean and nail length is maintained.
The sand pile doubles as a fabulous dust-bathing area for the girlz.
DRAWBACKS OF SAND INSIDE THE COOPS
- heavy to move
- dusty, but so are pine shavings, straw...and chickens, for that matter.
Our annual sand delivery needs to be moved from the driveway down to the coops. Good times.
One of the benefits of sand in a covered run is that chickens can dust-bathe all year long. As long as sand doesn't get wet, it stays loose even in the coldest temperatures. This photo was taken in the middle of winter during a week with sub-zero temperatures.
TIPS FOR USING SAND
Any water spills can be 'cleaned up' easily by raking the wet sand into the dry sand. The moisture dissipates very quickly.
I spread 3-6 inches of sand on the floors of my coops.
I spread 3-6 inches of sand on the floors of my coops.
Daily scooping is recommended, it takes all of 2 minutes with a handy mulch/compost rake and a small piece of hardware cloth zip-tied to it.
The hardware cloth should be the smallest mesh available, this 1/2" wire was too large.
The run is not completely enclosed and as such, rain does get the sand wet from time-to-time. When that happens, I either use a shovel to turn it or roto-tiller to freshen it up. Since it dries up so quickly, once turned, it will break up nicely. Approximately once a year, or if the sand begins to smell, I sprinkle pelletized lime in the run and turn it in with the roto-tiller. Pelletized lime is safe for use around chickens and is brown, so it does not draw attention to itself for the chickens to identify and pick out (as they do with vermiculite in my planters).
References and further reading:
Testimonials from actual chicken-keepers:Facebook thread #2
Facebook thread #3
Keeping Garden Chickens in North Carolina. NC State University (Sand as brooder litter & "a perfect ground cover")
Raising Chickens for Dummies, Willis & Ludlow, Wiley Publishing 2009