PHOTO: Kathy Shea Mormino
November 1, 2016

Proper litter management is an important and necessary function to raising a healthy flock. Unfortunately, litter type isn’t often considered by most aspiring chicken keepers. Enter the best-kept secret in backyard chicken-keeping: sand.

Let’s face facts: Litter isn’t glamorous. Selecting fancy coop designs and picking colorful heritage chicken breeds are much more compelling than the choice of material to collect poop on the coop floor. Unfortunately, the potential consequences of using a litter that doesn’t perform well can be disease, bumblefoot, frostbite, parasite infestations, flies, unnecessary labor and a slow leak in your wallet.

For the first two years of my chicken-keeping adventures, I successfully used pine shavings as litter inside the coop primarily because they were a common, inexpensively recommendation that was readily available at my local farm-supply store. It never occurred to me to use sand inside the coop even though I used it in my chicken run. However, when a Facebook fan of mine vouched for its performance in her chicken coops, I figured it couldn’t hurt to experiment: The worst case scenario was that I’d have to scoop it out into the run and return to using pine shavings.

A Time-Tested Material

As it turns out, sand is not a novel or modern litter concept; its use is tried and true. In the early 1900s, poultry visionary Charles Weeks wrote of the benefits of sand in Egg Farming in California (1919):

“Sand is the only material to use on the floors of poultry houses. Clean, dry sand prevents any bacteria from starting … Clean, sharp sand is the freest from dust and easy to keep clean, as the droppings lay on top and are easily lifted off.”

In modern studies done by Auburn University’s Department of Poultry Science, sand proved to be better than pine shavings with lower bacterial counts, lower fungal populations and lower moisture levels. In the 2005 article titled “Bacterial Levels of Pine Shavings and Sand used as Poultry Litter,” Auburn researchers stated that “sand, being inorganic, contains few nutrients that could be utilized by bacteria and, thus, would tend to lead to lower bacterial numbers. Additionally, sand may lack binding sites for bacteria.”

The Benefits Of Sand

Here are some of the major reasons sand makes a great coop litter.

  • Sand doesn’t retain moisture or decay inside the coop, which means less risk of respiratory infections, insect activity, bacterial growth, bumblefoot infections and frostbite when compared to shavings and straw. There is no risk of crop impaction with sand; in fact, sand is beneficial to the digestive tract because it’s used as grit in the gizzard to break down fibrous foods before being passed in the droppings.
  • Due to its high thermal mass, sand also maintains more stable coop temperatures; the Auburn researchers found that sand keeps henhouses cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter.
  • In inclement weather, sand inside the coop is dry and dust-bath-ready. Eggs in nest boxes remain cleaner in wet or muddy outdoor conditions because hens’ feet are cleaned and dried while walking through sand inside the coop to reach nest boxes.
  • Sand is easily cleaned with a cat-litter scoop, rake or sifter.
  • At approximately $15 per yard, sand is economical and labor-saving; it very infrequently requires wholesale replacement from the coop.
  • When sand is removed annually or biannually, it can be repurposed or washed, sun-dried and reused in the coop, making it super eco-friendly. The minimal amount of sand that goes into the compost with sifted chicken droppings requires no decomposition, resulting in a great amendment to clay-heavy soils and compost with a higher percentage of valuable, nitrogen-rich manure.
  • Aesthetically, sand not only looks cleaner than other litter options, but actually is cleaner: The Auburn researchers found coliform counts, including E. coli, significantly lower in sand than in wood shavings.

Sand Type Matters

The correct sand type for coops goes by many names: washed construction-grade, bank-run, river, etc. The construction-supply company I get mine from has changed what they call it from year to year, so when sourcing sand, it’s better to see or describe the desired product rather than insist on a certain label.

The main thing is that sand for use as chicken litter or dust baths should be natural and consist of variable particle sizes. Coop sand shouldn’t be manufactured by crushing. Many play sands are manufactured by crushing quartz, which creates fine, dusty particles that are easily inhaled and pack closely together, impeding drainage and rapid drying. It’s best to steer clear of manufactured sands, as they contain a much higher percentage of free silica than natural sands, which can pose a respiratory hazard to humans and animals over time.

Sand can be purchased in bulk at local quarries relatively inexpensively. Most communities have a local source for use in construction and landscaping projects. Garden centers, landscaping and construction companies are all good sources, too. Home-improvement centers usually carry bags at less economical prices than bulk, but caution must be used to be certain that what you use is natural, not manufactured.

Newly delivered sand is typically moist from being washed and stored outside. In warm weather, it will dry quickly; raking the it a few times during the day will help, too. Any water spills can be easily handled by raking the wet sand into the dry or simply shoveling the affected sand out of the coop. Any residual moisture from spills dissipates very quickly.

Sand Management

The drier and cleaner a coop is kept, the healthier the environment for the flock. With all litter types, it’s infinitely better not to keep the flock’s drinking water inside the coop, so as not to foul it up. Encourage outdoor activity and a healthy coop by placing water and feed in the chicken yard, which should also eliminate any rodent activity and significantly reduce the fly population inside the coop.

Sand can be used on cement, dirt or wooden coop floors. Inexpensive linoleum placed on top of wood flooring before adding it makes deep-cleaning the coop a breeze. A shovel and broom make quick work of the annual task in my coops. I use approximately 4 inches inside the coop and as much as a foot in the run.

Sand is especially ideal in wet climates because water drains through it instead of creating mud puddles filled with decomposing straw or wood shavings. If possible, roof or cover the chicken run to keep the sand dry. Should sand in the chicken run get wet from drinking water or blowing snow or rain, using a rototiller or shovel to turn it facilitates drying and keeps the bedding fresh and mobile.

The one disadvantage is its weight. Sand is heavy and may not be a feasible option for physically limited chicken keepers or for use in large chicken tractors.

Sand has proven to be an effective litter option for managing coops and yards. It drains water brilliantly and dries rapidly, resulting in lower bacterial and fungal levels, not to mention that it’s economical, easy to maintain and will not decompose. The secret is out: Sand is a chicken-litter superstar!

This article originally ran in the November/December 2016 issue of Chickens magazine.


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