Bedding is an important part of keeping your chickens happy and healthy. In the hen house, the bedding provides a soft surface for the chickens to walk on, jump from the roost, and lay their eggs. It also absorbs moisture, droppings and odor. In a run or a small yard where all the grass has been eaten and only hard dirt remains, bedding helps with the cleanup and to some degree prevents mud.
There are many types of bedding to choose from, so let’s first look at the requirements. The bedding should be nontoxic, absorbent, dry and quick-drying, dust free, organic and compostable, and ideally inexpensive. There is no bedding that is completely maintenance-free, so whatever bedding you choose, you will still have to do some cleaning to prevent odors, flies, and dust to accumulate in the coop :)
Every coop differs depending on its location, size, number of chickens it houses, and the local weather. It may take several tries to find the right bedding strategy that suits your flock best. To help you selecting a bedding, here is a list of the most common types with their pros and cons.
Straw and hay are the basic and traditional beddings. They are typically used in the hen house and the run.
Very common and easy to find at local feed stores.
Chickens love to scratch and play in it, especially the hay as they can forage for seeds.
Straw acts as an insulator and can help keep chickens warm in cold climates.
Both are not very absorbent, prone to mold, and need to be removed and replaced often. They shouldn’t be used in a wet environment.
Their long stems make cleanup more difficult. They mat easily and don’t clump. Chopped straw is a better bedding as it’s easier to handle.
Straw and hay can be very dusty and cause respiratory issues.
Slower to break down when composted.
Wood shavings are a favorite among chicken keepers. Shavings come from different wood like aspen, cedar, pine, hemp... They are typically used in the hen house.
Very common and easy to find at local pet and feed stores.
Excellent absorption and good at controlling odors.
They facilitate the cleanup: one can easily pick up the soiled shavings and fluff up the remaining clean shavings.
Organic and can be thrown in your compost along with the droppings.
Shavings can be pricier.
Shavings can be dusty so select medium sized flakes that have been screened for dust to avoid respiratory issues.
Some chickens may ingest the shavings which can cause crop impaction, so supervise when introducing this new bedding and stop using if they do eat it.
Cedar is toxic to chickens and pine is mildly toxic, so avoid using these woods.
Sand is trending in the chicken bedding world. Note that it should be construction grade sand (aka builder’s sand) and not sandbox sand which is too fine. It’s typically used in the run.
Easy daily cleanup as droppings can simply be sifted out of sand like in a cat litter box.
Chickens use it to dust-bathe and as a source of grit.
Less moldy because it’s inorganic.
It needs only be replaced once or twice a year if frequently cleaned and carefully contained.
It can be costly upfront.
It is also really heavy so it can be an issue for some to bring it to the coop.
Sand provides less cushioning when chickens jump from their roosts.
It is dusty, especially when dry and could lead to respiratory issues.
Inorganic thus not compostable.
Don’t use on clay soil as the sand will turn it into concrete.
Shredded paper and cardboard are cheap bedding options. They are typically used in the hen house.
It’s free and you are recycling.
Shredded cardboard is quite absorbent and dust-free.
Ink can be toxic to chickens and office paper is heavily processed and treated, so select the recycled paper carefully. Stay away from glossy magazines.
Shredded paper is not nearly as absorbent as wood shavings, and can create a slippery surface.
Paper products are more likely to mold than shavings.
Shredded dry leaves are another bedding option. They are typically used in the chicken run.
Free. Available in fall if you have deciduous trees, or all year round with evergreens.
Leaves can also be blended with other bedding materials.
They provide excellent foraging material, contain bugs, and are absorbent when shredded. They are a nice enrichment.
Organic thus compostable.
Whole leaves take a long time to break down and can harbor moisture, stick together and mat.
Wet leaves make a slippery surface that could lead to foot or leg injuries.
Wet leaves can become moldy quickly.
Some leaves are toxic to chickens, so check that the leaves are safe before adding them in the coop.
Wood chips are a great mulching option in the chicken run.
Free. Call your local arborists and be ready to receive a truckload.
Make cleanup easier as one can rake the droppings with the wood chips.
Helps to prevent muddy run.
Chickens love to scratch around in them.
Organic, break down over a long period of time so just need a top up once or twice a year depending upon the depth.
Protect the naked soil and improve it as the chips break down over time.
Some wood chips are treated and colored, select only natural and untreated chips.
Wood chips are not absorbent enough to work inside the hen house.
Usually too slow to decompose to go in the compost pile.
Saw dust, cat litter, and pebbles shouldn’t be used as beddings neither in the hen house nor the run.
At our sanctuary, we use a 2-3” layer of wood shavings on the floor of the hen house and in the nest boxes (Eco Flake from America’s Choice). We pick up the soiled shavings every day, and every week we add new clean ones. We replace the bedding completely twice a year when we scrub and disinfect the whole coop. All the shavings end up in our compost pile where it turns into black gold later used in our vegetable garden.
In the turkey house however, we use rice straw as our turkeys are snacking on the wood shavings. It’s messier to clean up. And as it doesn’t decompose very fast, the soiled straw ends up in the city yard waste.
In the run and yard, we use wood chips and dry leaves. We rake the run once a week and add more chips and leaves as needed. The leaves come from the evergreens in the yard, and the wood ships from local arborists. We add hay in the run for enrichment during the summer (it’s dry here in California) and remove it when the rainy season starts.