We’ve been managing our chicken coop through a hybrid sand and deep litter system. This hybrid system has worked extremely well in our particular coop. Briefly, how that system works is, the chickens roost over the sand, which acts like kitty litter to dry out their overnight poop, and in the morning the poop is raked to the lower area, where it composts-in-place with lots of straw and other high-carbon bedding.
Last year, fed up with the very real problems involved when you combine chickens and vegetable gardening, we decided to stop attempting to free-range our birds and instead fenced in a large, outdoor area adjacent to the coop. We confined the hens to this area (the ducks, less destructive, still get to free range) and this solved many of our chickens-scratching up-my-seedlings problems.
Too Much Of A Good Thing?
However, this confined run area led to another problem. This is a good problem, a problem I cannot believe I have, but it’s a problem nonetheless. In order to accommodate our flock in this confined area, we piled on the straw and woodchips in both the coop’s lower area, and the outdoor run.
This has led to, basically, more compost than I can use. Yeah, I have too much compost. Crazy, right? I didn’t know there was such thing as too much compost.
And it’s not just dealing with storing Mount Compost Heap up there. The bedding was building up so deeply in both the coop and the run that we started to have problems just opening the door to the coop. The chickens weren’t super effective at scratching down to the lowest levels, and I’m embarrassed to say that some anaerobic ickiness was starting to take place in the deeper levels of the bedding.
Something needed to change.
Is Sand A Solution?
In order to manage these drawbacks, we are experimenting with a sand bed in the run area of the coop. The fenced outdoor chicken area will still be managed as a deep litter system, with arborists woodchips and straw added as needed for carbon.
But inside the coop itself, I’m trying sand.
I see several potential upsides to a sand bed, and a few downsides as well.
- Sand bed is lower profile, so we’re able to open the door without hassle.
- Seems drier in winter due to superior drainage.
- Spilled chicken food is less likely to get “lost” in the bedding. I’ve observed chickens pecking at the food that falls on the sand. Less food waste = less feed expense.
- Sand adds natural grit to a chicken’s diet and sharpens nails
- Probably less expensive in the long-term, since sand doesn’t require frequent additions or “top-ups” like a deep litter system.
- May allow for indoor dust-bathing. I have not observed my hens using the sand to dust bathe, but I’ve read that they will.
- May cut down on opportunities for Coccidiosis in chickens by providing an inhospitable environment for the protozoa.
- Easy collection of poop allows for a more dedicated manure-composting system, which might be of use to people looking at black soldier fly farming (hem hem, me) or related endeavors.
- Cold. The sand does not add to the warmth of the coop like the composting bedding. The sand feels noticeably colder to me when I touch it, and I’m not even walking around barefoot like my chooks. Cold is a drawback here in January. However, to chicken keepers in hot weather climates, perhaps a non-heat generating litter option would be a benefit?
- Requires more regular dedicated maintenance. We’re already in the daily habit of scooping the poop from the sand covered upper coop area, so this doesn’t add a huge amount of work to that chore, but it’s definitely not the kind of job you can ignore for several
- Does not break down into compost. Unless your chickens already make more compost than you can use, less compost is a bad thing.
- The ducks don’t seem happy about the sand, but then ducks don’t like change, so I don’t read too much into this yet.
- Duck poop doesn’t scoop well. The front runner of Reasons I May Go Back To Deep Litter is wet duck poop on sand. Ewww.
- The poop has to go somewhere. In the prior system we just scrapped the upper poop onto the composting bedding. Now the upper and lower poop have to go somewhere. At the moment we’re scraping the poop out the door into the outdoor run area, but this experiment of sand-bedding the indoor run has triggered a re-evaluation of all my manure and compost management practices. So, who knows what might come of this simple change.
As of now, I have more questions than answers. I’ll let you know how the sand bed works out going forward.2