What is the Best Ground Cover for a Chicken Run?

When it comes to chicken runs, there are a lot of different factors that you need to take into consideration. One of the most important is what kind of ground cover you put in your chicken run.

baby chicks and ducklings in chicken run

This ground cover will help determine how comfortable and safe your chickens are, as well as how easy it is to keep them clean. So, what is the best ground cover for chicken runs?

Good ground covers for chicken runs are those that promote dryness, are relatively easy to clean up, and allow the flock to scratch and dig a little when they want to: wood chips or shavings, straw, pine straw, sand, gravel, leaves, grass, and even dirt.

Your chickens will be spending plenty of time in the run, and you’ll be spending plenty of time taking care of it, so proper ground cover selection is important.

In this article, we will discuss what makes for a good ground covering and then list the top picks!

What Makes a Good Ground Cover?

When it comes to outfitting a chicken run, there are many things to consider. One of the most important is the ground cover.

After all, chickens spend a lot of time on the ground, so you want to make sure they have a comfortable and safe place to roam.

You’ll also be spending plenty of your own time maintaining it and walking over it yourself, so the ground cover should help your efforts, not hurt them.

There are several things to look for in a good ground cover material. First, it should be absorbent to help keep the run dry and clean.

Droppings from chickens and precipitation can turn the ground of the run into slurry, so you’ll want something that can drain readily and give the chickens a nicer surface to walk on.

Second, it should be durable enough to withstand scratches and digging. Chickens love to scratch and dig, so anything that will make for good digging without hurting them or breaking their nails is a good thing.

Third, it should be comfortable for the chickens to walk on. Chickens spend much of their time on their feet, and even though they are tough they aren’t invincible, so the ground cover should be easy to walk on and relatively gentle on their feet.

A variety of materials can meet these criteria, and depending on your environment, local weather, the personality of your birds, the type of run and other factors one might serve you better than others.

But no matter what your circumstances, you can rest assured that there is a ground cover that will be perfect on the list below.

The Best Ground Covers for Your Chicken Run

1. Straw

One popular choice for chicken runs is straw. Straw has a few advantages – it’s relatively inexpensive, easy to handle and it’s easy to find.

In addition, it provides good drainage and aeration, and it can help to keep the run dry and clean.

However, straw also has a few disadvantages to manage. First of all, it does not last very long, so it will need to be replaced frequently.

In addition, some chickens like to eat straw, which could lead to digestive problems. And finally, straw can harbor insects and other organisms, which may or may not be an issue; chickens love to eat worms and insects, but parasites will be problematic!

As a result, it’s important to weigh the pros and cons of using straw before making a decision.

2. Pine Straw

Pine straw is a ground cover made from the needles of pine trees. If you’ve ever walked through a forest, you’ve probably noticed a thick blanket of soft, brown needles covering the ground.

This is pine straw, and it’s actually an important part of the forest ecosystem. Pine straw can help to prevent soil erosion by trapping water and preventing runoff.

It works wonderfully as a ground cover because it is absorbent, durable and comfortable for chickens to walk on, and it also helps to keep the run clean and dry.

Also most chickens don’t seem to like nibbling on it! It is a good option for chicken runs in climates where pine trees are common, but it can be difficult to find in other parts of the country and expensive when you do find it.

plastic tote filled with sand
plastic tote filled with sand

3. Sand

If you’ve ever tried to walk on sand, you know how quickly it shifts beneath your feet. This shifting nature makes it difficult for anything to take root in sand and also provides for excellent drainage.

As a result, sand makes an excellent ground cover for chicken runs. It is easy to clean and maintain, and it doesn’t provide a place where most parasites will want to hide.

Because they have to work a bit harder to keep their footing, your birds can get a good workout while they are scratching around in their sandy run.

However, it isn’t all good news; sand is a very fine material, and it can blow away in high winds or get into your chicken’s eyes and respiratory system.

You’ll want to avoid fine sand for this reason. But if you are looking for a low-maintenance way to keep your chicken run well drained and easy to clean, sand may be the perfect solution.

4. Gravel

For those of us with backyard chickens, gravel may not be the first thing that comes to mind when we think of ground cover.

But in fact, gravel has a number of advantages as a chicken-friendly ground cover. For one thing, it drains well, so it’s perfect for rainy climates.

It also deters some insect pests. Gravel is also easy to clean – just rake it around and replace any depleted spots.

However, gravel has a couple of drawbacks. First of all, certain types it can be hard on your chicken’s feet, so you’ll want to make sure you take great care in selecting a smooth variety.

In addition, gravel can be significantly more expensive than some of the other options on this list and is much heavier when it comes time to move it.

But if you are looking for a ground cover that is non-organic and will last a long time gravel is a great choice.


5. Leaves

Leaves and leaf litter has many advantages as a ground cover for a chicken run.

They provide natural weed control, and can provide extra food for your chickens in the form of plant and insect life (insects love to scurry around in leaves before your chickens pick them off).

Furthermore, leaves are easy to obtain from your own yard or from neighbors and free in most cases. Simply rake them up from your yard, bag them, and spread them out in the chicken run.

You can also use leaves as compost after your chickens have been “servicing” them for a while; this naturally processed compost will help to improve soil fertility and retain moisture in your garden or planters.

Overall, leaves are an excellent and inexpensive way to keep your chicken run clean and healthy while also providing additional benefits down the line for your garden and compost pile.

clover in the grass

6. Grass

Grass can also be an excellent if short-lived ground cover for a chicken run. It provides a soft surface for the chickens to walk on and helps to keep the run clean by anchoring soil and absorbing droppings.

In addition, grass is itself a natural source of food for chickens, providing them with essential nutrients and serving as an ecosystem for smaller creatures that they eat.

And, since chickens love to peck, forage, scratch and dig, it can help to keep them entertained. But those latter attributes are also the chief problems with grass…

Chickens will quickly destroy any grass you put in their run when they peck, dig and nibble, and it can be difficult to keep the area replanted and functional, much less looking good.

In addition, grass does not provide much loft to keep chickens off wet ground, so it is important to make sure the soil beneath is well aerated to avoid problems with waterlogging.

If you have the time and patience to replant your chicken run every few months, grass can be a great ground cover. Otherwise, you may want to look at some of the other options on this list!

digging in the dirt

7. Dirt

I know, I know. It sounds downright odd, even counterproductive, to list dirt as a good ground cover on a list about ground coverings!

But hear me out: So long as you can keep it dry, or mostly dry, dirt is fine for a chicken run.

Chickens will scratch and peck at it, of course, but dirt has a way of absorbing and breaking down their droppings and is easy to care for so long as it does not turn to mud.

And that’s the principal shortcoming of dirt: When it gets wet and isn’t well drained, it can turn to mud, which is not only unsightly but also unhealthy for your chickens.

High clay content soils can also trap smaller birds. If you live in an area with a lot of rain or snowmelt, you may want to consider another ground cover that drains better, such as gravel, if you cannot ensure the run will be sheltered.

But if you have good drainage and relatively dry conditions, dirt can work just fine.

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