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 -

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