There’s a reason people refer to getting settled in as “nesting.” Chickens are the masters of creating a comfy nook for themselves to either roost or lay their delicious eggs. Planning for chickens includes the vital decision of which type of bedding to use.
Bedding serves many purposes besides comfort; it must also provide a means of odor control, a method of absorption, and a place for chickens to lay their eggs. A dirty, humid chicken coop is an excellent place for bacteria and parasites to thrive.
In the Brooder
Baby chicks are fragile little creatures, and they are just beginning to understand the world around them. Even though they are young, their natural instincts are powerful. As soon as they have the strength, they start pecking and scratching at anything and everything. Choosing a soft litter that absorbs well is an essential part of brooder basics. Shavings are an excellent choice as long as they are not too small or dusty. It won’t hurt the chicks if they decide to start eating the shavings, and in most cases, they will determine it doesn’t taste that great anyway, but to be safe, a large-cut shaving would probably be the best option.
Chickens are delightful animals, but let’s face it, they are messy little critters too. They poop anywhere and everywhere, even as they roost at night, and their droppings are quite wet. To top it all off, they love to make even more of a mess. To this day, I cannot figure out how they manage to get their water so filthy in 24 hours. That’s why I always recommend an automatic chicken waterer.
There are many options for bedding, and what works for one person may not work for the next. There is truly no right or wrong answer here, but let’s examine the pros and cons of some of the most popular types of chicken litter.
Using straw as bedding is like to getting back to basics. Before wood chippers and packaged shavings from the local supply store, farmers used straw. I always think, well if it was good enough for them, then it’s still good enough for me. It works just fine for bedding, but there are a few things to consider when using any kind of long, dried, grass for chicken litter.
- Accessible – Straw is easy to find in most areas. Straw can be found by searching classifieds or asking local farmers if they can spare enough to sell to a chicken fancier.
- Fun – Chickens love to scratch and play in straw.
- Warm – Since straw is hollow, it acts as an insulator and can help keep chickens warm in cold climates.
- Lacks Absorption – Straw is not very absorbent, and it needs to be removed and replaced often.
- Difficult to Clean – It can be difficult to clean due to knotting, matting, and lack of clumping.
- Stinky – Odors are more prevalent because that it is not very absorbent.
- Pesticides – Pesticides and chickens are not a safe mix. Many farmers spray their straw with pesticides.
Shavings are a favorite among chicken owners, and this type of bedding comes in different forms of wood. The most common kinds of shavings are Pine and Cedar although there is a lot of talk about the possibility of cedar being toxic to chickens. I love to use shavings due to odor control and ease of cleaning. It is much easier to clean shavings than it is to clean knotted, wet, straw.
- Excellent Absorption
- Easily attainable – Shavings can be picked up at local feed stores
- Easy to Clean – Shavings can be fluffed and forked up much easier than straw bedding.
- Great Odor Control – Because shavings are typically more absorbent than straw, it is also better at controlling odors.
- Cost – Depending upon coop size, using shavings can become somewhat pricey.
- Crop impaction – Since chickens love to scratch and peck, they may decide to ingest the shavings which have been known to cause crop impaction.
- Can be dusty – The smaller the shavings, the more likely they are to cause respiratory issues in a flock.
Sand for chicken bedding is a time-consuming kind of litter to use, but those who use it, seem to prefer this method above all others. Sand is widely used with the deep-litter method and merely is “turned” when it becomes overly soiled, thus the clean sand from the bottom is brought to the top. The sand clumps like cat litter and when it is turned, it is sent to the bottom and seemingly disappears. Although, it could be said it’s like sweeping dust under a rug. It’s still there and since chickens love to root around the old droppings will most likely catch their eye, and they will peck at it. To prevent this from happening the litter would have to be quite deep and turned often. Some chicken owners chose to remove the clumps of feces as though they were cleaning a litter box; this is where the time commitment comes into play. I have never used this method; however, I would imagine that chickens would love to be able to take dust baths whenever they like. Plus, sand for a chicken coop probably doubles as free-choice grit.
- Clumping Litter – Soiled sand litter is easy to see and clean when needed.
- Dust baths – Chooks will love having 24/7 access to the spa.
- Odor Control – Most people who use this method say that it has great odor control.
- Does Not Compost – Sand does not compost, thus it would be impossible to use as fertilizer.
- Less Cushioning – Chickens jumping from their roosts will have a rough landing.
- Dusty – Sand can be dusty, especially when dry. This could lead to respiratory issues.
- Lack of Odor Control – People who don’t use this method say it smells.
Paper is best left for the brooder box. It would take a lot of recycled paper to cover an entire coop, but it is an excellent option for young chicks because it’s incredibly soft and gentle on the babies. However, it absorbs quickly and needs to be changed often. With that being said, it is not the best for odor control.
Deep Litter Method
The deep litter method has gained a lot of traction among chicken owners over the past few years. Litter type will also depend on whether or not the deep litter method will be used. Sand, for example, cannot be used for this method of bedding. There are many benefits of this method if done correctly, including ease of use, natural warming insulation, and the creation of fertilizer.
The deep litter method goes something like this: a deep base of either straw or shavings is added to the coop initially. Then, once a week more litter is added along with some tasty morsels that will entice the chickens to scratch and aerate their own compost which, in turn, promotes decomposition. After a year, or once the litter is about a foot deep, it’s time to clean! All but a small layer, which is alive with good microbes, is left behind to start the process over again.
Once the litter is removed, it can be used as fertilizer that can be directly added to a flower or vegetable garden. It is essential to select bedding that has not been sprayed with pesticides to ensure it does not enter the chicken’s system, your eggs, or your flower bed. This method is a harmonious, natural, and easy way to keep chickens.
Chicken manure is one of the best forms of fertilizer; however, it cannot be used directly on a garden due to its high nitrogen content. However, with the right type of bedding, and a little patience, it can be a fantastic fertilizer. Most types of bedding are fine to use if it will eventually make its way to the garden; however, it is wise to ensure that all bedding is free of chemicals and other pesticides before using it.
Chickens are amazing animals to raise due to the many different benefits they can provide to their human family. They give fresh eggs, meat, companionship, entertainment, and droppings. Yes, with the right kind of bedding, we will love them for their poop too—as fertilizer, that is.