Bedding (or litter) is an important factor in the life of your chickens. After all, they’ll spend most of their lives walking on it! What characteristics are important in choosing bedding, and which kinds of bedding work best?

The Importance of Bedding

First, let’s look at why bedding is important for your chickens. Litter helps absorb moisture from droppings, reducing odor. Chickens scratch in the bedding, turning the droppings under it and helping to keep the coop clean. In cold climates, loose bedding traps heat and insulates the floor. Litter also cushions your birds when they jump down from the roost, and eggs when they are laid in the nest box.

Characteristics of Bedding

Absorbent: Sucks up moisture from droppings and other sources
Economical: Easy on the wallet
Easy maintenance: Can be placed and removed with little effort
Soft: Cushions your birds’ landings, and eggs, and provides a comfortable surface to walk on
Insulating: Traps heat, especially important in cold climates
Compostable: Breaks down easily in a compost pile or in place
Quick drying: Doesn’t retain moisture from droppings, rain, or spilled water  
Resistant to packing or matting: Stays loose with minimal effort
Chemical free: Has no harmful pesticides, preservatives, or other additives
High in carbon: Breaks helps reduce or prevent odor from droppings; generally dry, brown materials

Kinds of Bedding

When it comes to bedding, there are a number of different choices. However, they’re not all created equal. Let’s have a look at some of them.

Wood shavings: Shavings can last as many as four months and provide high-carbon material for compost. Large shavings resist compaction better than fine shavings and kiln drying kills any mold or harmful microbes. Wood shavings are popular but there are controversies attached to them. Cedar should never be used because it contains toxins that can affect your birds’ livers and irritate their sensitive respiratory systems.
Straw: This hollow grass is a good insulator. Unlike hay, which is food for animals, straw is not edible. Straw may, however, contain bits of grass seed that your chickens will enjoy finding (but make sure that your birds are not eating the straw itself!). Chopped straw is more absorbent, but it does not release moisture well and may mat up. Wet straw is hard to shovel, and mold and bacteria may grow in it. If you choose straw, it should be turned to prevent matting and molding.
Hemp: This bedding is made up of the stems of the cannabis plant. It is more absorbent than wood shavings and straw and is less expensive and softer. However, it may harbor bacteria. Hemp litter also can help with odor reduction, produces very little dust, and is a high-carbon material that breaks down quickly in compost.
Sand: Coarse construction sand (not play sand) may be a good bedding option. The material drains well and is very economical because it does not need to be replaced often. However, it should be cleaned at least weekly. Unlike other materials, sand does not compost. It also may cause digestive issues if the birds eat too much of it.
Natural bedding: Natural materials like leaves and pine needles are lightweight and free and may include insects. However, like straw, there is the risk of mold, moisture build-up, and matting up. You’ll have to replace natural bedding every two to three months. If these materials are completely dry, they will serve as high-carbon materials.
Shredded paper: This might seem like a great litter option, but it’s too absorbent and doesn’t dry out well. So you’ll end up with a matted mess that may breed mold and will have to be replaced more often. Although paper is high carbon, the inks and dyes may make your chickens sick and should not go into your compost bin.  
Grass clippings: These are free and contain bugs and seeds but are not very absorbent. Grass should be dried out completely on a tarp. Grass that is not dried completely can mold and is not a high-carbon material. Also avoid grass from chemically treated lawns.

Bedding to Avoid

Just say no to the following:

• NO sawdust. It’s too fine and your birds may eat it, leading to crop impaction.
• NO pressure-treated lumber. It contains unhealthy chemicals.
• NO cedar. The odor produced by this wood can make chickens sick.
• NO cocoa bean mulch. It contains both theobromine and caffeine, which are toxic for chickens.
• NO large items, such as wood chips or pine cones. These materials are not absorbent and do not break down easily.

Deep Litter

The deep litter method is the practice of adding gradually more bedding to the coop floor. You can start with about four inches in the late spring and continue adding to a depth of 8 to 12 inches by winter. Eventually the lower levels will begin to compost in place, generating a bit of heat for the winter months. If the coop smells, add bedding and stir. If crusty layers form, break them up with a rake. Clean out the litter in the spring and use it as compost but leave some in place to provide beneficial microbes.

Bedding Tips

The following ideas will be helpful for most kinds of bedding:

• Mix different kinds of bedding to get beneficial aspects of each kind.
• Place a dropping board under the roost area to collect your birds’ nightly deposits.
• Use a kitty-litter scoop or garden rake to remove droppings on a daily basis. If using the deep-litter method, just turn the droppings into the bedding.
• Turn the bedding with a rake to oxygenate and loosen any matted areas.
• Encourage your birds to scratch in the bedding by tossing in grain or mealworms.
• Replace wet litter, especially if it does not appear to be drying out.  
• If you smell ammonia, replace the bedding or add brown (high carbon) materials and turn the bedding.
• Compost your bedding and add it to your garden.

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