and! I think most of us are familiar with sand right? At some point in our lives we've either had its sugary grains squish between our toes as we've walked along the sea shore, or we've sifted its fine grit through our fingers in the play ground sand box, but what about placing sand in your chickens' habitat? There is quite a lot of controversy regarding this tiny granule being used within the confines of chicken coops, runs, and brooders isn't there? I myself was faced with the decision as to whether or not I should use it, so I did some careful research before going gung-ho. This seemingly simple material is anything but simple, as you will soon see.
Think Before You Act
What Is Sand?
The Phi (Φ) Scale of Sand
However, any sand that is smaller than 0.5-0.25 mm (medium grain sand) would most likely start causing problems with respiratory function, like play sand, which has a much smaller grain size then construction sand.
Not many bags of sand from your local home improvement stores have the Phi Scale information printed on them other than maybe the grain size being stated as fine, medium, or course, and don't count on the sales people knowing any of this stuff. Sands that are course (1.0-0.5 mm), and very course (2.0-1.0 mm) would be less of a risk for your birds and you. Any dust that is washed from the highly recommended construction sand, is actually silt and clay particles. These particles will inhibit the making of strong concrete, so they are washed out before the construction sand is bagged. Therefore, any subsequent dust would be from the breaking down of the remaining sand grains through mechanical means of crushing the bags during moving and stacking. The resulting dust would be from the quartz, silica, feldspar, mica, all of which are things not good to breathe. So you may have to rewash it just to get rid of any silica dust.
Granular size will also have an "impact" on a chicken's crop, especially little chicks.
I have read many a sad story where chickens and chicks have eaten a little too much fine sand and have suffered from an impacted crop. Is this the norm? Not necessarily, but it is a risk you should know about and consider. So if you are set on using sand, then just keep a close eye on your little balls of fluff and even on the crop health of the larger fluffy fannies in your flock.
Physical Performance of Sand
Sand in general:
- is a poor insulator as it absorbs high amounts of heat and doesn't hold on to it.
- quickly loses moisture in high heat situations and wicks away minimal amounts of water in lower temperatures, especially if it is over concrete.
- holds moisture in the presence of large amounts of water, especially when mixed with clay and silt.
- contains silica which doesn't decompose further into becoming silt or clay soil.
- is a cheap fill material for industrial uses, such as making molds, allowing for drainage and filtration applications, and in the making of concrete.
Now that we know the general properties and uses of sand, now we can apply that to specifics, such as chicken keeping.
Speaking of too warm, what about the opposite extreme of hot dry climates? I don't know about you, but I have experienced the torture of tip toeing through hot beach sand- - not a fun thing to do. If your chicken run is uncovered, or not shaded by trees, then sand in your chicken run is not a wise choice for obvious reasons, unless you plan on inventing chicken flip-flops to keep their feet off the hot sand. Really, this will hold true for any climate where the run isn't shaded. Sand accumulates a large amount of heat, and darker sand much more so, than lighter colored sand. If you want sand, then cover your run.
In my research, moisture is the deciding factor when it comes to heat and cold comfort and moisture even bears on the performance of insulation materials. Most insulation doesn't perform well once wet, except for the natural fibers of wool; this is due to the fiber's natural water and oil content, and its compression resiliency, and sand doesn't have any of these traits. Ehhh.....but I don't think that using wool as a bedding material is going to happen anytime soon.
Anyway, when moisture is present in hot conditions, evaporation occurs and thus, produces a cooling effect. But when all moisture is gone, the temperature starts to climb. However, a highly humid climate mixed with either heat, or cold is a problem too. When you have high humidity and heat, evaporation, and therefore cooling is hindered. In a cold and we climate, it is hard to get and stay warm if you get wet, since it takes more energy to heat water than air - - does this make any sense? So what does all of this have to do with using sand in your run and coop? Plenty! If you are going to use sand in your run, or coop in areas that experience extreme temperature fluctuations, and moisture issues, then you had better be prepared to adjust your run and coop's climate accordingly with the use of proper ventilation, insulation, water diversion, as well as temperature and humidity controls.
And what about when your little hens dig down into the sand looking for relief from a hot day? Soil (especially clay soil) will hold moister longer in a hot climate better than sand and therefore cool your birds better. Remember, sand wicks away moisture and unless you wet down the sand daily on hot days, or unless your run is covered, it won't be very cool when they dig down into it. But if they hit pay dirt - or moist clay soil, then that would be fine. So how is sand looking so far? Well, let's continue on with the subject of moisture.
Moisture Retention of Sand
Knowing all of this, depending on your situation, sand can be a life saver, or a nightmare. If you're not able to fix a perpetual wet spot in your run due to inclement weather conditions, or if your coop has sprung a leak, sand will buy you time until you can fix it properly. Sand, like duct tape, is a temporary fix, not the end all solution to a chronic moisture problem. Remember how I said that sandbags hold waste material? Well, all that sand in your coop and run has accumulated chicken poo particles, right? Eventually over time, it will start to stink, especially when it gets wet. Sure, this may not happen as quickly for those who free range their birds, those who live in a drier climate, and who are vigilant in their poop scooping, but for those who keep their birds in the run, live in a more humid climate, or are lazy with their poop scooping, then this will be a much bigger issue. Did your favorite chicken expert that sings the praises of sand tell you any of this? I doubt it. Again, sand may not be right for you, so consider well. Moving on.
"The tiny clay particles simply fill in the gaps between the sand grains, resulting in a substance similar to concrete. If you want to improve clay, the secret ingredient is compost, not sand."
- "no decomposition required in compost pile/great soil amendment to compost"
Possible Vehicle for E-coli?
Along the same line, I have also read that some of the fabulous things about sand are that the coop and run stay so clean and sanitary, and how easy it is to take care of with a kitty box scooper, or a pitchfork wrapped with hardware cloth . These do seem like great benefits, right? Well, I seriously doubt that the run and coop are as clean and sanitary as they appear to be. Even scooping kitty litter has taught me that small poop bits break off the bigger chunks and remain in the litter box even after meticulous scooping, and the birds themselves don't avoid walking all over their steamy piles of poo, they stomp them into smaller pieces into the sand. Another scary thought .... dear reader, you do realize that the cash in your wallet, though fairly crisp, may not have (forgive me) visible poop smears on it, but nevertheless, there are microscopic traces of fecal matter on dollar bills.
As for the claims of easy maintenance and neat appearance, well, did you get chickens because you felt it would be easy and not messy? Taking care of animals has it challenges, and messes to deal with. I'm all for ease and neatness, but that should not be the sole reason for adopting any method of keeping animals.
For example, I saw an episode of 'The Incredible Dr. Pol' where a seasoned farmer thought it would be easier for him to feed his cattle earlier in the evening, rather than later. As a result they all got sick, because the time between the last evening meal and the morning meal was too long. Dr. Pol was not impressed with his new and easy feeding method. So here we have a real life example of what is easy and best for you, isn't better for your animals. This may apply to the use of sand...so consider it well.
Other Things To Consider
- Will, or do your chickens currently free range most of the year?
- Will, or do your chickens stay in their run only?
- How many chickens will, or do you have?
- Will, or do you have more than enough room for them in the run and coop without going postal?
- Are you a fastidious, moderate, or lazy poop manager?
All of these question will contribute as to whether or not sand is the right choice for you.
Experts That Recommend Sand
And because of that, I think it is highly irresponsible for people like The Chicken Chick® and other sand "yes men" to not give a thorough break down and a more honest and balanced pro's and con's list for using sand as litter. Experts must understand their responsibility to those who look to them for advice, and some don't, and some even block you from commenting on their site if you disagree with them. Right Kathy?
"You've Been Blocked From Commenting..."
Surely, Lianne could not have been the only one who found sand to be a bad choice at the time Kathy wrote her article extolling the virtues of sand. Do you know what happened after I entered my comment? She blocked me from commenting on her site. Really??? Yes, really. I didn't use four letter words, nor was I verbally abusive, even so, I'm not allowed to comment anymore. Ya know, I have found that there are people these days who have very thin skins. They simply can't handle the slightest hint of what they consider to be "negativity" in the form of criticism, constructive or otherwise. And as if that isn't bad enough, the harbinger of "negativity" is then usually labeled as a "cyber bully."
I just hope those who blindly follow her irresponsible and one dimensional advice don't experience any adverse effects. But what about those who do bring sand into their run, coop, and brooder only to find it's not the superstar litter they were told it was? All I can say is that anyone taking on the responsibility of raising animals needs to accept liability in adopting any practice they use, even though an "expert" recommended it. You must make the best educated decision you can with as much information as you can gather. But there are people who don't have the patients to research and think for themselves, so they put their good faith in the 'expert.' I'm not saying that to be snotty, it's simply the truth.
What I Finally Decided On
- Because I can afford it.
- I like the smell of it (especially after I add my herbal potpourri to it).
- The poop still dries out in it, so that tells me straw must wick away some moisture, and I'm sure our hot and dry climate helps, no doubt.
- It composts beautifully.
- And believe it or not, when it does get cold here in SoCal, the straw is a great insulator. If any of it gets wet, then all I do is take out the wet part and add dry straw - done deal.