Monday, November 19, 2012

Ask Bee - How Do I Recondition My Chicken Run?

Dear Bee,
I have a question concerning barren ground.  I have a 20'x40' pen with 4 mature pine trees. Coop is inside the pen.  When I am not home, chickens are in the pen - they free range when I am home. 

I was losing hens to a hawk last winter, so for a short time I made a smaller pen inside the large one with wire fence as a roof for the small pen. (Hawk would sit on top of the wire roof waiting for dinner.) 

The ground in the small pen and under the coop (construction trailer turned coop) is bare and hard.  We are in a drought. The ground under coop used to be soft dirt, it is now pretty compacted.
I think this is what you would call barren ground.  How do I go about reconditioning my run?

Bee’s Answer:

That packed down, bare earth cannot breath, it cannot absorb water well and filter impurities out and it usually has no beneficial bug or worm life in it.  That kind of ground is where only bad things can thrive.  To recondition it you need to look to nature for that model.  When you have a barren spot in your yard and want to fix it, what do you do?  You probably lightly till, fertilize and reseed it to grass. 

Since you can't do that in a chicken run as the birds will just deplete that again, you'd have to find other ways to loosen and return the soil to good health.  A forest floor has a great soil culture, though it grows little grass.  Bugs and worms thrive in the leaf pack and decaying debris of a forest floor.  If you cannot have grass cover for your soil, the next best thing is to create a faux forest floor.  If you live in a dry climate, use more moist composting materials.  If you live in a moist climate, use the drier stuff.  Layer it in, let the birds pack it down, poop on it, let the rain soak it, layer some more.  I'd create a dry side and leave one side uncovered.  The birds will toss material back and forth between these two sides.  I'd do whatever it took to cover that soil and bring earthworms back into the soil. 

A good layer of hay at the bottom is conducive to worm life in drier climes, leaves in wetter areas.  Do an experiment... leave a hay bale sitting in one corner of the run for a couple of months... then lift it up.  You should see earthworms living directly under it, feeding off the hay.  They like the dark and they like it moist… and they will loosen the earth for you when they move in to feed on the composting material.  As the worms and other bugs loosen the soil, you get your great sponge and filtration system back.  That healthy soil will revitalize itself and also provide a place for beneficial bugs and bacteria to live and feed off of any bad bugs and bacteria.

It may take time and tweaking to get it right but a forest floor doesn't get created in one season... it takes years of leaf fall, moisture, decay, fresh air, etc.  It's worth working on it, though, if you want a healthier flock and if you plan on keeping chickens in that area for years.   

Bee -


  1. Great information!


  2. Great info! Currently I'm turning my pens into compost piles; just dumping everything in there that I would put into a compost pile; next summer I'll move the chickens to another area and plant my garden in this one. I use anything I can get, straw and hay, even spoiled hay are expensive here. I even use shredded paper.

  3. Great info!! I guess I'll be spending the weekend raking leaves, something I said I'd never do again!!!


  4. Great info for those of us starting out or may have been away from the hobby for a while!


  5. When we had some trees taken out about a year ago I had the tree service leave all the chipped wood in a big hill. I was originally thinking I'd use them for landscaping somehow. At the time I didn't have chickens.

    After getting the "kiddos" (as I call them) I found 2 things... One was that the small run that is used for a safe place when they can't range lost it's grass pretty quickly. The other was that when they could get to that chip pile they were in "chicken heaven" - scratching and going to town finding all kinds of bugs and worms that were in there.

    So...I have been moving some of those chips into the run a wheelbarrow at a time whenever I have the opportunity. They LOVE digging and scratching in there. Funny - sometimes they stay in just to dig in the chips rather than go out and run in the larger area - especially if I've just added some new ones.

    I started doing this after having read this suggestion some time ago on the original threads.

    Thanks to BK for the suggestions!


  6. It's like a garden in a chicken pen. thanks!

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  8. We have built 4 pens so far. Two very large ones that are almost as tall as the hen house which we covered with chicken wire for their protection against raptors. We placed a light layer of straw over the grass so they can scratch the ground but not deplete the grasses. We move them back and forth and whatever is depleted grows back pretty quickly. We have plans to build several more pens because we have some chicks growing fast and will need to make room for them. Eventually we hope to free range them a portion of each day to prevent this from occuring.

  9. I found your site via From the Farm Blog hop and what a great site! I have similar problems in my chicken run and have a question. Do you ever rake the material out of the run or just leave it? Is there problems with a build up of chicken poo or does the act of composting take care of it?

    1. In general, the act of composting will turn your run matter into soil. Most people find they simply need to keep adding more... plus chickens love to dig about in plenty of hay, leaves or what have you.
      Welcome to the blog, and good luck with your run. Let us know what happens.

  10. I tried using deep litter in my open chicken run and my chickens are now stuck with lice infestation. If you live in a humid climate, make sure they can dust bath.

  11. Hi
    I am confused, my run is 700 sq ft, for 10 chickens, so do I ever need to rake out the poop? It is dirt with a few weeds, we are in Colorado,they have been there in the run only 5 weeks or so, today I started raking and removing poop, but along with it was so much nice mulch material, I felt guilty removing it, if I leave it wont the poop build up and be unhealthy?

    1. Instead of raking the run out, consider adding more material into it - grass clippings, raked leaves, pine needles... what ever organic stuff you have. Your chickens will love digging through it and it will help keep the ground from getting too barren. You will likely never have grass in there again, but the ground will stay softer and more fertile if you add too it.


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