Chickens spend much of their time inside their run or coop, and as all owners know anywhere that these birds spend time gets put through a lot: scratching, pecking, pooping, and more.
That means that, in order to keep our chickens happy and healthy, we need to pick the right kind of ground cover.
Something that won’t harm our birds, something that stays dry and something that can promote good sanitation practices.
But there are all kinds of opinions out there. Just what is the best ground cover for a chicken run?
The best ground cover for a chicken run is a deep litter made from wood shavings and straw. Together, these materials are easy on chickens’ feet, promote dryness, and help absorb waste, while also providing chickens plenty of places to scratch and peck.
Deep litter is more of a methodology than an actual substrate, but the advantages inherent to this method are massive.
We will tell you everything you need to know about the deep litter method below, along with a variety of other materials that make good ground covers or that can be used in the deep litter method on their own.
Grab your shovel and let’s get to it!
The Best Ground Cover is Safe, Interesting, Sanitary, and Affordable
Before we go any further, it is helpful to understand just what we are trying to accomplish when choosing a ground cover for our chicken run, and why.
There are four main criteria that any good chicken run ground cover should meet:
First and foremost, the ground cover in our chicken run needs to be safe for our birds.
We don’t want anything that might contain harmful chemicals or that could cause our chickens to suffer from respiratory problems.
It also needs to be gentle on their feet in order to prevent injury, particularly bumblefoot.
Chickens love to scratch and peck, so it is important that their ground cover provides them with plenty of opportunities to do just that.
A boring, “fixed” ground cover may leave chickens bored and unhappy, and will also reduce foraging opportunities.
In order to promote good health, it is important that the ground cover we choose helps keep our chicken run clean and dry.
Anything that absorbs waste or keeps moisture away from chicken feet is a good choice.
Of course, we also need to consider the cost of our ground cover. All ground covers need to be updated, changed or otherwise refreshed, and constitute a not-insignificant ongoing cost.
After all, we don’t want to break the bank just to keep our chickens happy and healthy.
If your ground cover accomplishes the first three things on this list, you have a good one.
If it accomplishes all four, you have a great one! Now that we know what we are looking for in a chicken-run ground cover, let’s take a closer look at some of the most common choices out there.
The deep litter method is, as mentioned above and previously, a method of placing and maintaining ground cover, not so much a type of ground cover itself.
The deep litter method relies on a series of layers to create a comfortable, safe, and interesting environment for chickens while also promoting good sanitation practices.
The fact that you can use this method over dirt, grass, or even concrete is just a bonus!
The deep litter method begins with a layer of absorbent material, typically wood shavings or straw but sometimes sand or even loose, dry dirt.
This material will help absorb waste and moisture over time and keep the chicken run dry, two extremely important factors in promoting good health.
On top of this base layer, you will add a layer of fresh, soft material every few weeks or as needed. This top layer is usually straw, but can be leaves, grass, or even pine needles.
As the top layer breaks down and is scratched and pecked at by your chickens, it will mix with the base layer, creating a deep litter that has several advantages in addition to being fun for your birds to scratch and peck.
Namely, it is quite gentle on chickens’ feet, reducing the possibility of injury.
This deep litter will also help insulate your chickens’ feet from the ground below, keeping them warm in winter and cool in summer.
And one of the best things about the deep litter method is that it essentially creates its own composting system right in your chicken run.
As the material breaks down, it will release nutrients back into the soil (if over dirt) or itself turns into compost, providing a natural fertilizer for your plants.
Perhaps the best part is that a deep litter is easy to maintain. When the cover is getting too soiled from your flock’s leavings, all you need to do is add another, fresh layer on top.
This will give your birds a clean and hygienic surface to walk on, and then you only need to remove and totally renew the cover about once a year.
Made from easy-to-source and cheap materials, reducing labor and providing an excellent surface for your flock, the deep litter method is hard to beat and is quickly becoming the choice of many owners.
Sand has several advantages as a ground cover, and in areas where it is plentiful (or occurs naturally on the ground) it can make a fine addition to your run and coop.
First, sand is quite absorbent, meaning it will quickly soak up any moisture that gets into the run, keeping things dry.
This is important for two reasons:
- we want to keep the ground as dry as possible to promote good health and hygiene in our flock;
- a dry environment is much less hospitable to parasites or other pests.
Second, sand is also layered quite deep easily, meaning your chickens can scratch and peck to their heart’s content.
This also helps keep the area clean as your chickens will naturally aerate the sand as they play and hunt for food, making it easier for water to penetrate and wash away waste.
Third, sand is usually very cheap (when you do have to buy it), making it an economical choice.
However, it isn’t all good news. Sand has some definite drawbacks you need to be aware of before using it as your primary ground cover.
Even though sand is quite absorbent it also stays wet for a long time. If it gets soaked, your chickens will be on wet sand for a while.
It is also quite heavy, and therefore more difficult to transport than other materials like straw or wood shavings.
Lastly, in direct sunlight sand can get quite hot, potentially injuring your birds.
Grass, for many, will be the default choice of run cover, and it makes a lot of sense: it’s free, reasonably absorbent, and provides a natural, comfortable environment for your birds.
It is quite soft and gentle on their feet, and is an ecosystem in itself, harboring bugs and worms that chickens love to eat when they find them.
Grass does have some drawbacks, however. For one thing, it doesn’t absorb moisture as well as other materials like sand or wood shavings.
You will need to pay close attention to the drainage in your run to make sure it isn’t getting too muddy, which is never good for chickens.
Also, chickens are really hard on grass. As they scratch and peck you’ll notice the grass getting shorter and thinner, before disappearing entirely.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it can provide your chickens with valuable exercise, but you will need to either:
- move your run or tractor
- regrow the grass regularly to keep your run looking good and keep it underfoot
If you only have a small flock or allow your chickens to range over a wide area grass might be entirely acceptable as-is for your needs.
For larger flocks or stationary coops and runs it is usually best to supplement with other materials.
Believe it or not, concrete might be a good ground cover for your run, or at least a good component in your ground cover system.
It is super durable, easy to wash, and quick drying, but quite hard on a chicken’s foot and, obviously, provides no opportunity for pecking and scratching whatsoever.
It is also expensive to install, as you might imagine!
But, for areas that are beset by unstable ground or chronically muddy conditions, laying a pad of concrete and then supplementing it with a thick, soft ground cover (like deep litter, above!) and be an ideal one-two combo for giving your chickens what they need while making clean-up or clean-out a breeze.
Tom has built and remodeled homes, generated his own electricity, grown his own food and more, all in quest of remaining as independent of society as possible. Now he shares his experiences and hard-earned lessons with readers around the country.