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.
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.
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.
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.
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...
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!
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.
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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:
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.(1, 2)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.