A bad experience with sand in the chicken run

A bad experience with sand in the chicken run

Sand vs. Shavings is one of those things, each chicken keeper has their own personal preference, based on their run situation and location of their coop. In 2008 when I was in the planning stages of building my chicken coop, a few individuals in the online chicken community were heavily promoting the use of sand in a chicken run. They made it sound like the best thing since sliced bread. None of my chicken keeping resource books mentioned using it as a bedding material, and that should have been a red flag, but I was new to chicken keeping and looking to the advice of others with more experience. My coop and run are built over concrete, not dirt. I have used both sand and shavings in the chicken run, and I can honestly say I HATE sand.

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A Stinky Situation

Okay, sand in the chicken run did work out great at first, that is until winter, about 8 or 9 months after moving the chickens into the coop. Daily raking out of the poop with my fine-tooth rake kept it looking fresh and got out all the solids.  But once Southern California winter rains came, things got bad.  The sand got wet, and it got stinky, I mean really, really stinky! Probably the kind of stinky that gives backyard chickens a bad name.  It was awful and would take many days to dry out after each storm.  It was wretched to be within a few feet of the coop. 

I felt terrible about leaving the chickens in the stinky run, so of course, they got to free range to their heart’s content during the drying periods.  This got them believing they were entitled to be out all day long and they asked as soon as the sun came up every day. That lead to other problems. But back to the sand. As the sand dried out with the door open, it attracted flies by the thousands.  Bad, bad, bad!  I didn’t want a complaint from neighbors that my chickens stink and they had been attracting flies, but for the time being, it was true.  I had to fix it.

The Problem

What had been happening was the chickens were incorporating some of their poop into the sand each day with their scratching, and the rake wasn’t able to remove the wetness.  The runnier wet poops weren’t rake-able, they just leached into the sand in the chicken run.  I wasn’t really cleaning it as well as I thought.  The fact my coop was built to prevent rodents and critters from getting in at the base and with the concrete underneath it, that may have aggravated the drying problem after the rains.  After a half-dozen winter storms, I decided to muck out all of the sand and start over fresh.

sand for bedding in a chicken run doesn't work long term
I keep the chickens in the coop a bit longer each day, now that there isn’t stinky sand in there with them. It is much easier to keep clean with pine shavings or chopped yard waste.

Fixing a stinky chicken coop

Southern California garden experts all warn against adding sand to our clay soils, and sand won’t break down in the compost. I have read time and again that adding sand to clay soil creates a nightmare for gardeners by destroying the soil’s natural structure and takes on a concrete-like consistency that is impossible to correct, short of disposing of the soil.  Nevertheless, a lot of it got sprinkled around the flower beds and scattered over the lawn because I didn’t what else could be done with 600 lbs of really disgusting, smelly sand.

In the comments below, other chicken keepers recommend adding the following products to the sand in a chicken run to make it less stinky:

SoCal has clay soils so it would not be a good choice to add a product containing lime to anything that might end up in the yard. Aglime may increase the pH of the soil. In other parts of the country, adding lime products is a regular and sometimes necessary part of gardening., especially in areas with acidic soils. Read through the comments at the bottom of this post for more tips from other chicken keepers on materials for runs and additives to sand.

A Better Bedding Material

I switched to pine shavings, a biodegradable material, for bedding and I haven’t used sand since.  I am so much happier with shavings and have not felt the need to add anything to them.  There are no flies in the coop and no bad smells. In the fall, I also use fallen leaves from the Chinese elm tree.  It works out so much better because all of the used litter goes into the compost and creates an almost perfect balance of greens and browns.  The compost normally heats up to between 150 to 160 degrees and I usually have hot finished compost within 6 to 8 weeks.

Update 2021

A decade later, we still have our little flock of bantam chickens, and I never switched back to sand. The current group of hens is contented to stay in the coop and run, but they do get to roam the yard when I am out gardening. After switching to shavings, I have not had any more issues with flies, especially because my coop and run have a layer of aluminum screening over the hardware cloth that keeps the flies and mosquitos out, that is unless the door is open.

Share your experience with sand in a chicken run

If my run was over dirt, my experience with sand may have been a little different; I don’t know.  I am curious if others have had a similar experience after long-term use of sand. Please share your experiences in the comments. Thanks.

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18 thoughts on “A bad experience with sand in the chicken run

  1. We use a coarse concrete sand in our run/coop. No problems really. We apply “Aglime” to the sand & it INSTANTLY kills any smell. Aglime is safe for all critters & humans. You can just throw it out on top of the sand or other litter to keep the smell down. Or apply it & rake/mix it into the sand/litter in coops & runs. It works amazingly well on keeping that chicky bird smell down & keeping neighbors happy. Less smell also means less flies. Use only livestock approved Aglime!! Other types can burn their feet.

  2. Quite possibly all the issues you have are related to the sand you chose to use. A fine sand is a definite no no. Playground sand does not drain well at all. A coarse construction sand, river sand, or concrete sand appear to be the best to use as they drain.

  3. We’ve tried many things in our uncovered run (over dirt). It’s 100 square feet and we have 4 hens. Sand was a disaster (for the same reasons above). I read somewhere that someone compared using sand to a beach and we all know how that smells when it gets wet.

    We haven’t tried wood chips, but our current success is with chopped straw mixed with leaves (that I am currently scavenging from the gutters). When the garden centers have it in again, I will also add in some more peat moss and a few bags of garden soil and compost occasionally. Balancing the greens and browns so it doesn’t smell when it rains is the hardest part. I have also started doing a quick scoop of solid surfaces once a day and that seem to help, too.

    I do use sand in a small area of their coop (which is covered) for dust bathing.

    1. Hi Leah, We have a tree nursery and use peat moss to hold in/retain water in mixed media. I started with river silt base in the run. We live on an area that can get a lot of rain, so we added a mix of fir nuggets and wood chips. It has been 6 mo. since adding this and it is still in pretty good shape, but does start to breakdown naturally. Nice for use in the garden. I do regular poop pickups and raking. The hens have no trouble scratching around in it and no problems with their feet either. It drains well and I haven’t seen any puddles. I rake in diatomaceous earth and zeolite from time to time. Helps keep things fresh and is safe for birds. I use pine shavings in the coop with DE and zeolite. Knock on wood, haven’t had problems with mites or lice.

  4. I use a heavy layer of wood chips and fir nuggets over river silt (the river silt naturally contains some sand.) The run is covered, but when there are heavy rains and wind things get wet. There isn’t any mud or standing water though as it drains through. The wood chips and nuggets break down into mulch eventually. Haven’t had much problem with odor as long as I clean out obvious poo and give it a quick raking almost every day. I’m sure there are plenty of pathogens growing in the material in the run, but with poo, etc. it’s bound to happen. I add new chips as needed and will remove and replace as the mulch gets finer. Great for garden. The only concern I have is providing a dry place for them to dust bathe. I actually considered sand on the dryer end mixed with diatomaceous earth, but am now concerned about using sand. Just curious what kind of sand you used? I think I read construction sand is good because it is more coarse. Sand that is used in sand boxes is too fine and doesn’t drain well. The idea of being able to remove the top layer and have cement below that I could clean sounds kind of nice, but I think the river silt offers drainage that wouldn’t exist with cement. I use pine shavings in the coop and mix in Zeolite and DE that really helps keep it dry. I thought about using the deep litter method, but for it to work efficiently you can’t use the Zeolite of DE as it affects the composting that happens with poo under the shavings. I think keeping it dry is more important. Thanks so much for the info. you provided.

  5. Oh how I wish I had discovered this blog a few months ago!! We recently relocated our chickens to a new, larger coop with a larger run, which is dirt. My husband was concerned the new run would smell and so I did some “research”, unfortunately limited to the proponents of sand in runs, and so we got a large amount delivered and he spread it out. Winter has not even come yet and already there is a smell and lots of flies. We never, ever had this problem in our old smaller run, where we just used straw as covering…it was great!! No smell and no flies and nice rich compost. I’m especially angry at the common sense aspect that totally eluded me–why would I put in sand, which would cover up all the good bugs to eat? Now we are left with a large smelly layer of dampish sand which he is not of a mind to shovel out. Has anyone tried putting straw over the sand?

    1. I put straw over sand, and as I clean out the coop, just take the straw sand mixture out, dump it in the compost and later to the garden. Will not be doing sand again..

  6. I thought that I thoroughly educated myself for a year before I started my coop and run. Boy, was I wrong. I have a covered run with a dirt floor and was sure the sand was the way to go..within a week it stunk so bad. I couldn’t pick up all the poop as it would crumble when I picked it up. I even made a screen to put in the scoop..nope! So now we removed all the sand…20bags!..my poor husband! I don’t know what I’m going to do yet. For now, I just take a broom and sweep it clean. I have silkies and really wanted the clean feet..any ideas!

  7. Wow, I am SO glad I read this article. I live in Whittier, and was seriously considering sand. I’ve read you can add a little sand to clay soil, but no more han 50% of the volume of the soil, or you will end up with concrete. But sand proponents say that you have to change out the sad every 6 months – that’s a lot of sand, so this is clearly out of the question. Our chicken run is covered and we will have dirt underneath it, but now I think I will be going with straight dirt in the run, and straw in the coop and maybe use the deep litter method. Thanks for saving me a real head ache, time, and money.

  8. Great article. I am currently researching sand and have read it also harbors e.coli and other nasties. Plus bug larvae and earthworms don’t live in it, so you deprive the chickens the enjoyment of scratching for them. Our run is dirt and I toss in pine shavings when it gets muds and also when I clean the straw out of the coop I spread it over the dirt. So far so good. Again, I enjoyed your article.
    Fresh Eggs Daily

  9. I use straw. its cheap and no problem at all changing it. try your local pet shop only £3 per compressed bag . lasts & lasts. they also eat some. doesnt smell and they move it around all the time but I dont keep them locked up they run around part of my garden. free range. straw is on grass base.

    1. Thanks for the suggestion. I do use straw in the garden as decorative mulch when I get it free after Halloween, but it had not crossed my mind to use it as bedding in the chicken run.

  10. I’m in Massachusetts and my coop is also set over cement to keep out predators and rodents. I also tried sand in my run and had the exact problem that you describe: great in the beginning but as the rains came and got the sand wet, the run became SOOO smelly. I too switched to shavings and it has been so much better. The shavings get wet too, but are so much easier to clean out and yes, I add them right to my compost! Can’t do that with sand. Every so often on a sunny warm day, I’ll clean out the whole run and hose off the cement for a fresh start. Thanks for sharing a little part of yourself in this blog! Its great!

    1. Hi Heidi,

      It is nice to know it was not just my coop with the smell problems after using sand long term. There are some folks at BYC that totally sing the praises of sand in a run and coop, and I wasn’t sure if the concrete was a factor or not.

      Thanks for visiting my blog.

  11. I’ve got sand over dirt, and so far no odor issues (it’s only been six months though). I have gone to great effort to reduce the amount of rain that can get in, re-routing gutters, etc. Also, when it has been wet, I’ve mixed in a good amount of diatomaceous earth to dry it out and absorb odors. Last week I knocked over a bucket of water in there, spilling maybe a gallon across the sand, and there wasn’t any odor. I do imagine I will have to replace it at some point though.

  12. My run is over dirt so no experience there but I know even my daughter’s sand box smells rancid after rain and I usually dump it all and not let her play in it if it gets wet. It is in a small wheel barrow so it isn’t much sand to get rid of but stinks none the same.

    1. I am having problems with smell as I have a dirt run and its been raining a lot. I am going out to get pine shavings and barn odor destroyer to try . But not sure how to use the ( Barn Odor Destroyer) until I read the box, bottle, etc. This is not cool at all I am rethinking even having chickens if I have to deal with this smell. I live out in the country but still don’t want the smell for not only me but the chickens. I feel sorry for them so I’m going shopping today. I even tried to put straw in the run but with the rain no help. I only have 10 chickens in the run so it really shouldn’t smell and didn’t until the rain. So time to go shopping I guess, but with the rain I can’t stop . They have a good size run for the amount of chickens & I keep it nice and clean so is there anything besides the above I can use for the smell that is not toxic to my chickens and me ?

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