Changing seasons, establishing a new flock or evaluating the health of your existing backyard habitat should always include assessing the bedding or litter choice. Bedding in the chicken coop and run should be nontoxic, absorbent, quick-drying, compostable for future reuse and relatively inexpensive.
Every backyard chicken setup differs depending on space, number of hens, regional weather conditions and other factors. It can be a matter of trial-and-error to find the right bedding strategy to best suit your situation and flock, but here are a few ideas to consider.
Alternatives to Wood Shavings for Bedding
Chickens spend a relatively short amount of time inside the coop. They will roost at night, lay eggs in the nest boxes during the day, and sometimes, in very inclement weather, hang out in the coop.
The most popular material for inside the coop is wood shavings. Made from soft woods, such as pine, spruce or hemlock, wood shavings give off a nice aroma and are absorbent, binding with fecal matter. Other white woods used for shavings are not as fragrant but do the same work inside the coop.
Shavings don’t require a lot of cleaning. Fecal matter can be removed from under roosting bars on a regular basis and new shavings can be added on top of lightly soiled ones. Shavings also provide a soft landing place for eggs in the nest box and warmth in the winter, and help keep the coop dry all year long.
Recently, the demand for wood shavings has grown for the production of paper, fiberboard and cardboard, and for horticulture applications, including pots, mulch and compost. This demand has made shavings more expensive and in some places, less available. Alternatives to wood shavings include the following.
Absorbent and compostable, chopped cardboard is also dust-free. Made from off-cuts of recycled cardboards, it’s not colored, so it doesn’t contain any ink chemicals.
This isn’t as absorbent as other options and has a tendency to compact and cake. It can be thickly installed in nest boxes to create a soft landing for eggs but should be regularly replaced, making it higher maintenance than other options.
Rice & Peanut Hulls
These are available in some parts of the country and perform well as bedding: Both are generally free of dust, offer thermal conductivity and have a good drying rate. They may be used alone or mixed with wood shavings.
A newer resource, coffee-bean chaff is light and fluffy. While it works well in the coop, it can float into waterers and feeders because it’s so lightweight. It can also stick to wet eggs in nest boxes and is difficult to rinse off. Like rice and peanut hulls, coffee-bean chaff may be more effective when blended with wood shavings.
Straw is the stem material of many different kinds of grass and grain plants. The long, hollow stalk of barley, Bermudagrass, rye, wheat, oats or flax straw is so long that it mats quickly and may need more heat to dry. However, chopped straw is a better coop litter than unchopped straw. Chopped or chaff straw is created by cutting the long stems into much shorter pieces. This makes it easy to handle. However, both unchopped and chopped straw are slower to break down when composted.
Bedding for the Run
Hens will quickly dispense with any grass in an outdoor run, leaving it bare and, depending on the weather, churning it into mud. Managing manure, feed, water and wet spots means considering bedding for this space as well.
This is one of the resources many urban chicken-keepers consider as a base in their runs. Prices vary so it may be more or less cost-effective depending upon availability in your area. Once installed, this type of sand is easy to maintain and similar to cat litter; fecal matter can be scooped out once a day.
Hens use it to dust-bathe and as a natural source of grit.
Sand can offer a cooler surface for resting hens in hot weather, but it isn’t as absorbent. In wetter climates, it might not be the best choice. Because sand is cool, it doesn’t offer much warmth to the hens during colder seasons. Another downside of using sand as bedding is that it can become dusty in very dry conditions. It’s heavier to move (by the bag) than shavings.
Fall brings with it a source of free bedding: leaves. Dry leaves, mulched by a mower, are an excellent bedding addition to a chicken run. They provide excellent scratching material, contain bugs and are absorbent when mulched first. Wet leaves, though, aren’t a good option as they can become moldy quickly. Dry leaves can also be bagged and saved to add later if they can be stored in an area where they will not get wet. Readily available in the fall, leaves can also be blended with other bedding materials. Shredded leaves will break down quickly so more can be added than you might think. A layer of 8 inches is a comfy addition to a coop or run and will offer hours of entertainment, too.
Straw & Chopped Straw
In the chicken yard, straw and chopped straw are an absorbent resource for bedding. Particularly in muddy, wet conditions, straw can help maintain the run’s substrate while giving hens something else to scratch around in. A disadvantage of straw is that in extremely wet weather, it doesn’t dry easily. Wet straw is the perfect setting for unwanted parasites and mites, so it should be monitored and removed if it isn’t drying out.
Like straw, wood shavings can be used in the coop as well as in the run. However, wet shavings caused by weather or a waterer being tipped over should be removed. If not removed and replaced they will soon begin to smell. Lightly soiled shavings from inside the coop can easily be recycled into the run.
This is a good resource for both inside the coop and in the run. It doesn’t have a scent like pine shavings do, is absorbent and has antimicrobial qualities. Up front, hemp may seem more expensive than pine shavings, but it lasts longer and doesn’t have any dust.
The Deep-Litter Method
Today’s busy lifestyles put a lot of demands on our time. Like farmers of the past, the workload can mean that cleaning a coop and run fall to the bottom of the chore list. Farmers solved this problem by adding more litter on top of old litter in a strategy called the deep-litter or composting-litter method.
The deep-litter method works with any type of litter and begins with a 4-inch layer of clean bedding after a thorough cleaning of the coop and run. When the surface material begins to look matted or packed, a pitchfork or rake can be used to break up the litter before adding a new layer of fresh bedding. From the workload standpoint, the composting litter will need to be raked or stirred as often as needed to keep the surface from crusting over.
Some chicken keepers prefer to remove manure from beneath the roosting bar or using a droppings pan to collect heavy waste. Coops need to be well-ventilated to help the composting process along; the deep litter shouldn’t be too wet or too dry, as these conditions aren’t ideal for your flock.
Choosing the deep-litter method doesn’t translate into ignoring bedding conditions. Rather, it means staying attentive to the ways in which hens are using both the coop and run spaces. Being observant of both the indoor and outdoor space chickens use will help you understand where more litter may be needed. It may also reveal the location of excess water, fecal matter or the need for stirring.
Like farmers of pervious generations, urban chicken-keepers using the deep-litter method will clean out their coop and run once a year. Usually this happens in the spring—and they begin the new deep-litter process with a fresh layer of 4 inches or more of clean bedding. Over the course of the spring, summer and fall this layer may grow to up to 12 inches—enough to provide an additional source of warmth for winter.
Coop cleaning in the spring involves removing most of the composted litter. A layer of a couple of inches can be left behind. It serves as a good substrate for supporting the addition of the clean, new litter.
What’s been removed doesn’t have to go to waste. It can be added to the compost pile to break down even further. Or because the deep litter has already composted by the time spring cleaning rolls around, it can be moved to the garden for the coming season. In the garden an application of 45 pounds of deep litter—about the amount produced by a single hen—can be spread over 100 square feet of garden.
Composted litter is ready to go to work for the planting season while the hens get busy with building their deep litter anew. A note of caution: Fresh chicken manure is too high in nitrogen and is hot enough to burn plants in the garden. Manure needs time to cool through the composting before it’s garden ready.
Beyond Your Choice
Your own observation skills are essential to caring for your hens. Being a good observer gives you information about the coop, run and individual birds in your care. Keeping a sharp eye on daily conditions as well as providing clean water and fresh food will keep your girls happy and healthy all year round.
This article appeared in the January/February 2016 issue of Chickens.