Brooders can become incredibly smelly in just a day or two under the wrong conditions. Using a thin layer of sand in the base of your brooder can eliminate odors and provide an easy way to clean up–like scooping out a cat’s litter box. This keeps your chickens healthier and is a breeze to maintain.
In the past when I needed to brood baby chicks, I would use either metal rabbit cages with a tray for droppings, or wood shavings. Neither were satisfactory as far as odor and cleanup went.
So, after a bit of research, I decided to start using play sand in my brooders. I have never looked back! I was afraid the chicks would try to eat too much of the sand, but they really don’t.
My goals when brooding baby chicks are simple: to keep odors to an absolute minimum, and make daily cleanup fast, easy, and efficient with minimal wasted bedding (i.e. expense).
You will need the following materials:
- Children’s play sand and/or reptile terrarium sand
- Reptile litter scoop or food strainer with large mesh (cat litter scoop holes are usually too big for chick droppings)
- Tiny trash bags or plastic grocery bags to put the dirty litter in
- Optional: Sweet PDZ (stall freshener for horses, odor eliminator breaks down amonia smells)
Reptile sand is perhaps the most ideal of all, since it is so ultra fine that you can scoop out all the litter with no rocks–but it is also very expensive when compared to play sand. The first time I used sand in a brooder, I used mostly play sand, but stirred in a bit of reptile sand to “dilute” the pebble-heavy play sand. This may or may not be a necessary step depending on the quality of your play sand, but mine had so many pebbles that the first few cleanings were mostly sand rocks mixed with droppings. I then sprinkled one scoop of Sweet PDZ across the brooder and mixed it in to help keep odors to a minimum.
I only use play sand for brooding now–I don’t bother with the reptile sand since it is expensive. You will get tons of rocks along with the droppings when you scoop, but it doesn’t really matter, and you can easily add more sand to the brooder if you find you’re scooping out too much. It usually isn’t an issue, though–once you get the worst of the rocks out, daily maintenance scooping is a snap.
A few years back, I had to keep my baby chickens in the house for a whole month (I do not recommend this!) and the sand and Sweet PDZ made the brooder have virtually no odor at all. Sweet PDZ is good to have on hand as a freshener even for adult chickens. I don’t use it all the time, but if the coop is starting to get an ammonia odor, a little bit goes a long way in neutralizing unhealthy fumes.
When you have a brooder with sand in it, I recommend scooping it out several times a week at a minimum–every day is best, of course. I simply scoop the brooder out as if it’s a giant litter box. I must warn you, particularly if you have allergies or asthma (I have both!) that it’s imperative you wear a dust mask and possibly goggles when you scoop the brooder, because sand is dusty and chickens make it even more so.
After scooping, you can sprinkle a little Sweet PDZ on top just to make sure everything stays fresh–but it usually isn’t necessary to add more until things start to stink.
The chicks don’t eat the sand excessively. They like to peck at it, scratch, and take dust baths in it, though. It absorbs any water spills, distributes warmth wonderfully, and also eliminates the need to give your chicks grit if you feed them treats. All in all, the only complaint I have from the sand is that it’s incredibly dusty, but I’ll take dust over gross smells any day!
Please note that ducks can also use play sand in the brooder, but baby ducks are a little more prone to eating the sand as newborns. They learn what food is quickly, but I recommend either keeping an eye on them til you’re sure they’re eating the food or else simply cover the play sand with paper towels for a day or two. The main issue with using it for ducks is the fact they get it wet and pack it down, but it doesn’t cause any real issues.