The litter you provide to your flock in their coop, run, nest boxes or other enclosures isn’t just a luxury. Sufficient litter provides a secure foundation for chickens’ legs and feet, a soft landing for eggs, a way to gather droppings quickly and the ability to easily clean your birds’ housing. Here are a few of the more widely used bedding materials—plus a few nontraditional ones—and how best to use them.
The Bedding Lineup
Both traditional bedding materials and non-traditional ones have their pros and cons, but your options are manageable.
1. Straw and Hay
Sun-colored straw, with its sweet, earthy smell and springy texture is what many new chicken keepers reach for to line their coop and nest boxes.
2. Pine Shavings
A popular and prudent choice for litter is pine shavings, found at many feed-supply stores, big-box stores and even pet-supply stores. Pine shavings dry fast, are inexpensive and don’t break down quickly, making them an ideal bedding material. The mild pine scent is inviting, though it does fade over time.
3. Cedar Shavings
Speaking of a pleasant aroma (and that’s a rare topic indeed where chickens are concerned!), an alternative to pine shavings is cedar shavings. There’s much debate as to the strong aromatic nature of cedar shavings and their effects on chickens’ delicate respiratory systems, and it seems the jury is still out. To play it safe, I recommend avoiding the use of cedar shavings with very young chicks confined to a brooder.
However, many chicken keepers have used cedar shavings with success in their coops with adult flocks, so long as the birds have other areas to inhabit besides the coop. If you opt for cedar shavings, they’re easy to find at pet-supply stores but are a little more expensive than pine; they do really smell great and work as a natural insect-repellent.
Sand, when used as coop bedding, is an excellent and very clean choice for those who have the time to devote to it. While expensive initially, compared to the alternatives listed here, sand as bedding in the coop need only be replaced once or twice a year if diligently cleaned and contained.
Sand dries very quickly and can be turned over with a rake to employ the deep-litter method (discussed below) or scooped with a cat litter scooper when used in small coops. Sand is the flooring material of choice for outdoor runs that are exposed to the elements frequently: It doesn’t break down, it dries fast and it doubles as a great material for dust baths. Your chickens will love it, as mine do. Be sure to use builder’s sand (found at home-improvement stores), as sandbox sand is too fine and tends to clump.
5. Grass Clippings
If you have enough, grass clippings are one viable coop bedding option, but they have a few disadvantages. Clippings tend to retain moisture and break down quickly. They also dry, shrink and smell. If you opt for grass clippings in the coop, be sure they come from a yard that hasn’t been sprayed with pesticides, fungicides, herbicides or other chemicals. Chickens will pick at anything and everything in their coop–bedding is no exception, especially if there are bugs in it!
6. Shredded Leaves
This is an option if the leaves are finely shredded so they dry quickly. Whole leaves take a long time to break down and are susceptible to harboring moisture, sticking together and matting. Wet leaves make a slippery surface that could lead to splayed legs or bumblefoot, especially in younger, growing birds.
7. Recycled Paper
A host of reclaimed and recycled manmade materials, such as shredded newspaper or shredded office paper, are options. While they are free, use them with caution. Ink can be toxic to chickens, and office paper is heavily processed and treated. Glossy paper—the kind found in magazines and fliers—also contains a large amount of ink and can create a matted and/or slippery surface.
For the Nest Box
In my opinion, pine or cedar shavings are the best bedding materials for nest boxes. They dry quickly, offer substantial padding for eggs, and smell fresh and woodsy. If you’re wary of using cedar shavings in the coop, the nest box is a great place to try it out. Chickens are rarely in a nest box long enough for any aromatic oils to disturb their respiratory systems (unless brooding, of course).
Mix in some crushed, dried herbs, such as mint, rosemary or lavender to keep certain pests at bay. This is a common practice to naturally fight pests, and most chickens don’t suffer any adverse effects from aromatic oils of the herbs.
For the Coop
For the chicken coop, it seems pine and cedar shavings would win again. (Again, this is my article and my opinion!) For all the reasons mentioned previously, shavings are the ideal material to line the coop. Using the deep-litter method ensures that even the bedding doesn’t go to waste and doesn’t require a significant investment in litter to have a healthy option for your flock.
For the Run
For an outdoor run, sand is the winner. Again, it dries fast, doesn’t break down, can be easily turned over to use the deep-litter method, and your flock will love to dust-bathe in it. I’ve never replaced the sand in my run; I’ve only added to it, as the dust-bathing chickens toss it out!
The deep-litter method of coop cleaning involves a little preparation, timely attendance and some calculated laziness. The idea behind the deep-litter method is simple: Begin with several inches of bedding material, and build the bedding, lasagna-style. Add a few more inches of material about once per month, give or take, depending on the size of your coop, the number of birds you keep and how much time they spend in their coop.
Include a bit of food-grade diatomaceous earth with each layer. Keep a rake handy to turn the bedding over periodically—generally, about once a week. If you begin to see flies, pests or an excess of manure, add more bedding and turn it more often.
The deep-litter method requires no more bedding material than any other method, but it does accumulate over time and tends to trickle out as the birds come and go. Use a plywood board or something similar at the coop door to contain the bedding.
The idea behind the deep-litter method is to allow the older bedding and chicken waste to break down, slowly decomposing (and essentially composting) in the coop while providing a bit of natural warmth. It’s also a fabulous method designed to save the chicken keeper’s time, energy and back. The deep-litter method of coop maintenance requires a full coop cleaning about once a year, and even that may be more frequent than is needed. Use your eyes, nose and good judgment to determine when you need to replace the bedding and start again. A clean, cared-for coop should never emit odor.
Save Money: Use a Dropping Board
Chickens make the majority of their waste during the night when roosting, so the best way to be frugal about the bedding you purchase and use in your coops is to install and employ a dropping board or tray placed under the roosts. The boards will catch all the nighttime waste, sparing your bedding of large amounts of waste trafficked across the coop and will remain dry and (mostly) clean.
Dropping boards also make transfer of pure waste to composts easy and efficient. A board can effectively be used in addition to the deep-litter method, and with both methods combined, might save additional costs in bedding than if you were simply employing one.
Unless your birds are kept in wire-bottom hutches (something I don’t recommend), all coops need bedding. Remember, lining the coop with comfortable, quality litter isn’t spoiling your birds; by providing them a soft foundation and keeping it clean, you are ensuring the health of your flock, their comfort and clean eggs. Your birds (and their uncracked eggs) will thank you!