What's the best flooring for a chicken run?

It's raining, and your lovely grassy chicken run has turned to mud overnight.

Flooring in the chicken run: ten types on test - pin for later.

Even in the summer months, a flock of even a few chickens confined in a relatively small space can peck grass to ground level and destroy the roots, making it unlikely to grow back until it's left to re-establish.

And soil left bare will again turn to mud in a flash. 

The problem? The place to start is looking at the placement of the coop and run. Is it at the bottom of a slope, where water runs off and pools? 

Is it in a position exposed to the elements – rain from above, snow from the sides? 

And how can any of these issues be resolved? 

If you haven't yet taken an inventory of these potential problems, you're not clear about why it's so important for your chickens' welfare, or you want to know how to improve the situation, you should to take a look at my article about how to sort out a muddy run.

It may also be a flooring issue, in which case this list of ten potential best types of flooring for the run, together with their pros and cons, should help.


What are the must-have features for chicken run flooring?

  • The must-haves are whatever keeps the run clean, dry and bacteria-free whilst – as far as possible – drying out poop.
  • The "nice to haves" are a surface that's easy to clean and hard wearing.
  • The "best" is whatever meets both those requirements.
  • Beyond that, the decision has to be based largely on your own situation. Flooring that suits a small run perfectly will potentially be too expensive for a larger space.
  • Both foraging and dust-bathing are critical to chicken welfare(1), so whatever flooring you use, your flock should have access to a place to scratch around and a dust bath – even if that means adding a dust bath inside the coop to keep it dry.

And bear in mind that it may be possible to fence off one part of a large run and create an appropriate flooring just in that area, for a limited time.

For example, block off one corner of the run during the wettest part of the winter until the warmer weather of summer arrives. It's easy then to add a cover, too.


The ten possible best types of flooring.

Interested in a particular one? Use these links to jump straight there!

These are roughly in the order of most popular and most recommended flooring in the run, based on research, evidence from highly experienced chicken keepers such as Gail Damerow, and my own experience.

1. Using grass with a chicken coop tractor as flooring in a run.

A grass run which the chickens enjoy in the spring and summer is ideal. The flock can spend their day happily scratching around for bugs, finding edible weeds and plants, and creating their own dustbaths in whatever shade they can find.

But even a small number of chickens scratching around, as all chickens love to do, can very quickly turn even the best grassy area into a dustbowl in summer – and, as you can see from my run (beneath) a mud bath in winter. 

Several chickens standing in a muddy chicken run.My large, grassy run was turned into a mudbath by a combination of snow and chickens.

One answer to help keep a grass run, particularly if your run is quite a large piece of land, is a basic chicken tractor. 

The chickens are moved temporarily from their coop to a piece of the run enclosed by the tractor. Before they have the chance to turn grass to mud, they and the tractor are simply moved to another part of the run.

This is an example...

A wooden chicken tractor against a wooden fence.A wooden chicken tractor can be the answer for a grassy run.

It gives grass time to re-grow.

It's also very useful when putting chickens to work turning over a vegetable patch ready for planting. They'll remove all the weeds and fertilise the patch as they go!

Any disadvantages?

  • The larger your flock, the larger the tractor has to be.
  • The chickens (obviously) don't have as large an area to roam, so their access to natural treats like bugs and worms is more limited.

2. Laying a chicken run on concrete slabs, with topping.

Best solution for a muddy run.

It's not great as a base for a large run, but concrete is good for providing a solid bed on which to place an absorbent topping in the smaller to medium sized run. Use slabs rather than one solid concrete base.

In a large run, try laying slabs on one part of it – a corner, for example, so that it's also  manageable enough to be easily covered.

As a bonus, it prevents rodents digging, so it also makes a good base in the coop – although it's not helpful if you want to use the deep litter method of bedding.

Some people paint the concrete but there's absolutely no reason to do this – and paints are neither eco-friendly nor good for inquisitive chicken pecking. Just use the basic slabs.

Bricks can work, too, but again need an absorbent layer on top. Bricks combined with rain don't make the best base – as you can see from my chicken run (below) before I refurbished it.

Several wet brown hens trying to forage on a brick base.Bricks plus rain = a mess. Add an absorbent top layer.

Any disdvantages?

  • Concrete as one large slab is not environmentally friendly. It causes "runoff" – when water literally flows off the edge and can cause soil erosion.
  • Smaller slabs are more environmentally friendly, because the spaces in between them, although small, allow rainwater to run off onto the garden beneath.
  • Concrete kills any growth beneath, and doesn't attract insects for the chickens to forage for. It should always be covered with an absorbent topping.
  • Adding a topping to a small, flat area of slabs will quickly see the topping kicked off. You'll need to create a wooden frame so that the wood is a couple of inches higher than the concrete to contain the top layer.
  • You'll need to try to cover the part of the run where you're laying the slabs. Most bedding materials to add to the top will turn to mush if you allow them to get wet.
A rooster walking across concrete slabs.Concrete slabs make a good base but need a topping.

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3. Hemp bedding for chickens.

The most well known form of this bedding is commercially called "Aubiose", which is horse bedding. The poultry equivalent from the same company is "AubiChick". 

Both of these are expensive and available mainly in the UK.

The alternative is to invest in 100% hemp bedding – which is what Aubiose is. 

Hemp has a lot going for it:

  • It's organic
  • It composts down well and is environmentally friendly
  • It's super-absorbent and the best flooring when it comes to drying out poop
  • It's sold compressed, so a little goes a long way.

Any disadvantages for hemp bedding?

  • Like most beddings, hemp doesn't deal well with being wet although it does absorb moisture for longer than anything else. 
  • If you have very heavy rainfall, adding it to a solid base (see above) and covering the part of the run you use hemp in makes sense.
  • It is said to dry out more quickly than other bedding. Always be on the lookout for mould, though. The spores can cause severe respiratory problems.  

4. Wood chips for the chicken run.

A white hen walking on a bedding of wood chips.Wood chips can make an inexpensive, natural flooring in the run.

Wood chips are a well known natural product for use as bedding both in the coop and run, and make an excellent base for the deep litter method in either.

They're relatively inexpensive and a natural product which breaks down (although fairly slowly) when added to a compost heap, so they're environmentally friendly.

Although chickens prefer other materials as bedding, particularly compost and sand, evidence shows that where wood chips are the only type of bedding they have access to, they'll continue to perform those behaviours like dust bathing and foraging which are necessary to their welfare.(12)

To be successful and not have the chips disappear into mud, you'll need at least a 5cm (2") depth. If your run is too large to accommodate this, fence off a small part of it – it also makes it easier to add a covering.

Disdvantages of using wood chips as flooring in the chicken run.

  • Be careful which brand you use – some are dustier than others, and some are said to contain mites. Look for the larger chunks of wood such as you might sometimes see on children's play areas.
  • Some brands offer coloured and scented chips. Avoid these. They're chemically treated and your chickens will do perfectly well with the natural product.
  • They're not the best when wet, and will tend to sink into the ground especially if there's only a thin covering. Adding more layers, particularly dried leaves (so creating a deep litter) can help.

5. Sand in the chicken run.

Coarse sand (also known as builder's sand, but not the finer play sand) has become increasingly popular as a flooring in the chicken coop, and it's certainly helpful in keeping the flock cool in the summer months.

Easy to maintain and a boon in keeping flies away, for the small to medium sized run it's a  good option. For the larger run, again you'd need to section off one part – it will be too difficult to maintain otherwise.

It drains easily, has the advantage of being a permanent dust-bath and the flock can still scratch through it to the bugs and worms in the soil beneath.

A hen dustbathing in sand.Dry sand makes an excellent dust bath.

Disadvantages of using sand in the run.

  • You'll need to use a thick layer, which can make it an expensive option. Anything under about 15cm (6") will simply be quickly absorbed into the soil beneath, unless you use it on a hard base
  • Sand is not easily composted. It's a good solution to add to heavy, clay soils to improve drainage in your vegetable patch once you clean it out of the run, though.
  • If your run is exposed to the sun in the summer, be careful about heat on your chickens' feet.

6. Leaves and pine needles.

Concrete, hemp, wood chips and other forms of manufactured bedding – even builder's sand – has a carbon footprint. Leaves and pine needles, on the other hand, do not.

As another bonus, they're free. Even if you don't have trees of your own, neighbours would be pleased to allow you to collect theirs for your own use!

Collect and bag the leaves or pine needles on a dry day. Using old feed bags to store the leaves makes this method even more environmentally friendly.

Use them to create a deep litter in the run. It's an excellent habitat for insects, provides the chickens with endless entertainment for foraging and makes excellent compost once broken down.

A white chicken standing in a chicken run with a base of leaves.Leaves can make a good layer on top of a concrete base in the run.

Don't have your own pine needles? Buy some!

If you don't have access to your own source of pine needles, you can now buy them online. This product is a "pine straw" which takes the needles and makes them into a bundle.

I haven't used this method myself, but reviews suggest pine straw is reasonably absorbent and does not easily blow around. Those who have used it in a chicken run have been happy with it.

Make sure the source you buy from does not use any colouring, additives or pesticides.

Disadvantages of leaves and pine needles in the run.

  • As with all beddings, leaves and pine needles can become a problem if they become wet and can't dry out. Wet leaves produce mould spores which can affect a chickens' respiratory system.
  • Using this method under cover is an answer, but not always possible.
  • The deep litter method is not, as many people think, a lazy way of creating an appropriate flooring. It must be regularly turned and raked if it's to keep the organic process balanced.

7. Do pine shavings, pellets and bark work for the chicken run?

Pine shavings: Don't mix up pine wood chips with pine shavings. The chips are chunky pieces of wood, while shavings are exactly that – pieces of wood shaved thinly.

They're often felt to be the best bedding for both chick brooders and chicken coops, largely because they're inexpensive, smell nice and compost down (slowly) after use.

Find them online, or more cheaply at your local feed store.

Pine pellets are different again. If you don't have a large area to cover, these are a good solution. Usually used for horses, they're made of compressed shredded pine.

They soak up moisture, expand and then fall apart, leaving your run covered in a kind of fluffy sawdust rather than mud. 

Disadvantages of pine shavings, pellets and bark.

  • Pine shavings: are fine to use in a dry area but are not absorbent. Even within a coop, they can leave poop without it drying out, so adding humidity which can lead to issues with excess ammonia unless the coop is well ventilated.
  • In the run they simply deteriorate too quickly, even under a tarpaulin cover. Use as one part of a deep litter bedding, but not on their own.
  • Pine pellets: are effective but also expensive. Poop sits on top of them without drying, so they need to be turned regularly.
  • This short video compares using pine pellets to hemp – and decides that hemp is the best option.
  • Bark: bark bedding is used mainly for reptiles. Its cost generally makes it too expensive to be used in even small coops or runs – and it's not ideal anyway, since it turns to slush very quickly and tends to harbour both mould spores and mites. Leave bark out of your plans.

8. Straw in the chicken run.

If you have a small, covered back yard run, chopped straw is inexpensive and could potentially be used as a flooring.

However, it is not absorbent and poop – as this photo shows – sits on the surface and adds moisture to the environment. 

The only place I would advise to use straw is in nest boxes, which hens generally don't use for anything but laying eggs. 

A small backyard coop using chopped straw as ground cover.This small backyard run uses chopped straw kept dry by a weatherproofed roof.

Disdvantages with straw in the run.

  • Because it's not absorbent, damp weather means straw can easily become mouldy.
  • Damp straw creates spores, which can cause problems for the respiratory system, and harbours mites.
  • My advice would be not to use it for an outside run.

9. Gravel in the chicken run.

If you have a particularly hard, clay soil which bakes and sets like a rock in the sun, and becomes a mud bath clinging to everything after rain, adding a layer of gravel to the top may help.

Adding a gravel layer can also help when laid on a run that has already turned to mud. It doesn't, like other toppings, turn to mush.

To be effective it again needs to be at least 5 - 8 cm (2 - 3 inches) deep, and if the surface is on a slope it will need to be contained by an edge of some kind. Otherwise, the nest rains will wash it away.

Don't lay any kind of membrane underneath. The poop will wash through the gravel and collect on the membrane, creating problems with bacteria.

Buy pea gravel online, or much more inexpensively at your local builders' yard.

Two hens on a gravel path.Gravel: free draining but doesn't allow for welfare needs.

Disdvantages of gravel as a flooring in the chicken run.

  • Chickens don't like walking on it – it seems to hurt the soft foot pad, which can lead to lesions and in turn, to bumblefoot.
  • It's best to buy pea gravel rather than the standard builder's gravel. It's smaller, more rounded and therefore softer to walk on and kinder to feet.
  • It's hard to remove poop from the top of gravel. Using it as a base layer and covering it with some top soil can work – though you'll need to keep adding soil as it will tend to drain away.
  • Gravel alone does not allow chickens to forage or dust bathe – two of their essential welfare needs. Again, adding top soil can help.

10. Metal in the chicken coop run.

This is the way in which many chickens are raised commercially, from very young chicks to adults. 

It involves having a run made of a raised metal floor. It's a mesh design, with holes of about one quarter inch and no bedding on top.

It's used commercially because it's easy to keep clean. Droppings fall between the mesh holes into a pit underneath. The metal is easily cleaned with a power wash or metal brush.

Chickens sitting on metal mesh in a commercial poultry cage.Mesh has no place in a backyard chicken keeper's run.

Disadvantages of the mesh style chicken run.

  • It's highly unlikely that any backyard chicken keeper would want to use this as a healthy, welfare-based method in a chicken run.
  • If the holes are too large, the likelihood is that the chickens will trap their feet. It can lead to broken legs.
  • If they're too small, the poop will be trapped on the mesh and there will be a build up of bacteria.
  • There is no way for the chickens to forage and scratch, and no means of dust bathing. All those behaviours are known to be essential for the welfare of the flock.
  • Chickens who are in a natural environment are able to keep their nails and beak naturally trimmed because they're scratching on hard ground. On mesh flooring, that's not possible and will lead to potential over-growth problems.

Mesh flooring has no place in a backyard run. Just don't do it.


In summary: which is the best flooring in the chicken run?

These ten possible flooring options, for the most part, have both pros and cons.

The one exception to this is mesh. There is no way any backyard keeper (nor commercial system, come to that), should be keeping their flock in this environment. It's quite simply not humane.

So which will work for you?

That will depend on your own circumstances. A large run in an area where there is high humidity and high levels of rainfall will be a different proposition from a situation where rain is scarce, or heavy but quickly over.

Take this list of ten possible flooring options. Consider which is most likely to work best for your personal circumstances.

And then, test. If one option doesn't work, try another, until you find the perfect solution for you – and for your flock.

Two hens walking through a perfect grassy run.Test out the different flooring options until you find the perfect solution.

If this article was helpful, you may also like these.

All you need to know about creating the perfect chicken run. Click to see article.
Mud in the chicken run - link to article.
A beginner's guide to raising chickens - link.
7 chicken coop design ideas - link.
How to free range chickens - and whether you should. Link.
Bedding in the brooder - 5 options on test. Link.
Thumbnail link to boredom busters. Chicken standing in snow.
Dealing with rats in the chicken coop - link.
Winter in the chicken coop - link.

Sources.

A lot of "facts" you'll find on the internet are often people's individual views, based on inaccurate information repeated from poor quality sources.

The information I provide in this article and others is based not just on my own experience, but on evidenced facts from scientific, peer-reviewed research and books from highly respected and experienced poultry keepers such as Gail Damerow.

Some of the trusted sources I have used in this article are these.

1. Monckton, V, et al: Floor Substrate Preferences of Chickens - a Meta-Analysis. Pub. Journal of Veterinary Science, 2020.

2. Shields, Sara, et al: Effect of sand and wood shavings on the behavior of broiler chickens. Pub. Journal of Poultry Science, 2006.

Link to Raising Happy Chickens home page.