Chickens on Wood Shavings
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A Clean and Comfy Chicken Coop: A Comprehensive Review of Chicken Bedding Options

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As a backyard chicken keeper, selecting the right bedding and nesting materials for your coop and run is essential for maintaining a healthy, comfortable environment for your feathered friends. Different areas within the coop and run have distinct requirements. For example, nest boxes need to be dark, clean and bacteria-free while the run may be exposed to wind, rain and require quite different considerations. Making the right choice can seem daunting but with a little knowledge and understanding of your options, you can create the perfect home for your chooks.


Customer Research

In 2023, Talking Hens ran a customer survey and received 165 detailed responses. In two of the questions, we asked about the type of nest box and chicken coop bedding customers were using (both charts shown below). Over 44% of respondents used wood shavings in their chicken run area and 38% used hemp in their nesting boxes closely followed by 31% who used wood shavings (most likely due to the relatively lower cost of wood shavings).

Why Bedding Matters

Bedding plays a crucial role in the health and wellbeing of your chickens. It provides a comfortable surface for them to walk on, helps absorb moisture from droppings and spills and can even help regulate the temperature in the coop. Poor bedding choices can lead to a range of problems, including:

  • Respiratory issues from dust, mould or ammonia
  • Footpad lesions from rough or damp surfaces
  • Bacterial growth and odours from inadequate moisture control
  • Pest infestations from mites, lice, flies and rodents

By choosing the right bedding material and managing it effectively, you can prevent these issues and keep your chickens happy and healthy.


Key Factors to Consider

To help you make the best decision, we've developed a star rating system based on four key elements:

  1. Absorbency: How well the material soaks up moisture from droppings and spills. This is crucial for keeping the coop dry and preventing bacterial growth.
  2. Non-caking: The ability to resist forming a solid mass when wet. Caked bedding can be difficult to clean and can harbour bacteria.
  3. Non-toxicity: Ensuring the material is safe for your chickens. Some materials, such as treated wood, certain types of sawdust or printed paper, can contain harmful chemicals.
  4. Resistance to mould and bacteria: Preventing the growth of harmful microorganisms. This is especially important in more damp or humid conditions such as in the more tropical areas of Australia.

By considering these factors, you can choose a bedding material that will provide the best possible environment for your chickens.


Top 7 Bedding Materials for Chicken Coops

1. Hemp (5 stars) - The Gold Standard

Hemp is the ultimate bedding material for your chicken coop. Its natural antibacterial properties make it perfect for nesting boxes, where hygiene is paramount. Hemp provides excellent insulation for chickens as well and is a good absorber of odours. Hemp is also highly absorbent, able to soak up 5 times more moisture than most other bedding materials. This means it can handle large volumes of droppings without becoming saturated, helping to keep the coop dry and reducing the risk of bacterial growth.

Another benefit of hemp is its ability to break down quickly and compost well. This makes it an environmentally friendly choice, as it can be used to enrich your garden soil after it has served its purpose in the coop. Hemp is also a highly sustainable crop which takes just 90 days to grow without the need of any pesticides, insecticides and no chemical additives for processing into the final bedding products.

While hemp tends to be more expensive than most other bedding options, its long lifespan and superior absorbancy and performance can justify the higher cost, especially for smaller coops or high-priority areas like nesting boxes.

Best use: Nesting boxes

2. Wood Shavings (4 stars) - The Economical Choice

Wood shavings are a popular option among backyard chicken keepers due to their balance of cost and effectiveness. They are 3 times more absorbent than straw, helping to keep the coop dry and reduce odours. A deep layer of dry wood shavings (around 10cm), can easily last over 12-months making them a cost-effective choice.

Wood shavings also provide a comfortable surface for your chickens to walk on and can be easily composted after use, adding valuable organic matter to your garden. They are readily available from many pet and grain stores.

However, wood shavings do have some drawbacks. They need to be kept dry to work effectively, as damp shavings can cake and lose their absorbency. Replacement of any wet or caked shavings and turning of the bedding can help prevent this issue. Luckily, your chickens will be happy to do this for you as they peck, scratch and dustbathe in the dry shavings.

Best use: Under roosting areas and in a dry chicken run

3. Wood Chips (3 stars) - Readily Available

Wood chips are another common bedding material and particularly for exposed, outdoor runs. They are inexpensive and easily sourced from garden centres and landscaping suppliers throughout Australia.

However, wood chips are not very absorbent and do not provide much in the way of odour control. They also don't allow chicken droppings to compost nearly as effectively as other dry materials, which means that bacteria and parasitic worm eggs can easily grow in number over time.

Wood chips, being thicker and harder, can also cause cuts and abrasions to chickens walking on and digging through them. Chips can also contain tannins and treatments that can be toxic to chickens.

Best use: Exposed ranging areas

4. Straw and Hay (2 stars) - A Popular Choice with Few Benefits

Straw and hay are traditional bedding materials that many people use for their livestock, including chickens. While they are widely available and familiar to many backyard chicken keepers, they have several drawbacks when used in a chicken coop.

Straw and hay tend to cake easily and have poor absorbency. This means that droppings can run off and migrate to the bottom of the bedding, leading to increased odours and the risk of mould growth. They can also cause footpad lesions in chickens due to their rough, spiky texture. Hay can go mouldy in damp conditions which is no good to anyone let alone the chickens.

Another issue with straw and hay is that the tubular nature of the fibre makes it a convenient home or place of refuge for parasitic insects. With the frequent cleaning needed when using hay or straw, the cost in terms of time and money starts to add up when compared to many other options.

Best use: Feeding to livestock such as cows

5. Sawdust (3 stars) - Effective but Needs Careful Selection

Sawdust can be an effective bedding material for those with sheds or very large coops. It is absorbent and will break down chook droppings effectively if kept dry. However, there are some important considerations when using sawdust.

Firstly, sawdust can be quite dusty, which is not ideal for the respiratory health of your chickens. It's important to choose a low-dust variety or allow the sawdust to at least settle before introducing your chickens to the coop.

Secondly, you must be careful about the type of wood the sawdust comes from. Softwood sawdust is generally safe, but some hardwoods and treated woods can contain chemicals that are toxic to chickens. Always choose untreated, natural sawdust to avoid any potential health risks.

Finally, sawdust needs to be used in a deep layer similarly to wood shavings (at least 10cm), and kept dry to work effectively. Sawdust that gets wet from a damp subsurface or rain above, can cake and lose its absorbency very quickly.

Best use: The run

6. Sand (2 stars) - Cold and Non-Absorbent

Sand is not typically used as a primary bedding material in chicken coops but is good at limiting bacterial growth and provides an inhospitable environment for many pest insects. Unfortunately, it does come with some significant drawbacks.

Sand isn't a carbon source so is unable to break down chicken droppings into compost that can be used in the garden. It is a good filter but non-absorbent so sand will tend to stick to droppings to cover them but will need regular, if not daily, removal from the coop. Sand tends to be a poor insulator too so can be cold in winter and hot in sunny spots in summer causing discomfort for your chickens.

If you do choose to use sand in your chicken coop, be prepared to rake out droppings frequently to avoid a large amount of camouflaged chicken droppings from building up.

Best use: A rain-exposed chicken run, as long as you rake out droppings frequently

7. Gravel (1 star) - Avoid Using Directly Underfoot

Gravel is generally not recommended as a bedding material for chicken coops as it can be rough, sharp and cold underfoot. It does not provide any absorbency or composting benefits due to it containing no organic, compostable material.

However, gravel can be useful for improving drainage around or underneath the coop, particularly in areas that are prone to becoming muddy or waterlogged in winter. By creating a gravel border or foundation, you can help keep the coop and run area drier and more hygienic.

Best use: Coop drainage

Tips for Managing Chicken Bedding Effectively

Choosing the right bedding material is only half the battle. To keep your chicken coop clean, dry and healthy, you need to manage the bedding effectively. Here are some tips to help you do just that:

1. Regular Cleaning: No matter what bedding material you choose, regular cleaning is essential. Remove droppings on any hard surfaces using a scraper when you find them. Depending on the bedding used, you may need to remove all droppings done by the flock on a daily basis and replace or top up the bedding.

2. Deep Litter Method: For materials like wood shavings, hemp or sawdust, you can use the deep litter method. This involves maintaining a 10cm layer of materials, keeping them as dry as possible and allowing your flock sufficient time to dig over the bedding. This can greatly reduce the frequency of clean-outs and provide additional insulation during colder months. Just be sure to monitor the moisture levels and turn the bedding regularly to prevent caking.

3. Ventilation: Proper ventilation is crucial for managing moisture levels in the coop and preventing the build-up of ammonia from droppings. Make sure your coop has adequate airflow, with vents or windows that can be opened and closed as needed. This will help keep the bedding dry and fresh and reduce the risk of respiratory problems for your chickens.

4. Check for Toxicity: Always make sure that any bedding material you use is free from chemicals or treatments that could harm your chickens. Avoid treated wood products such as those used for construction or landscaping, and opt for natural, untreated options instead. If in doubt, ask your supplier or do some research to ensure the material is safe for use with poultry.

5. Monitor for Pests: Regularly inspect your bedding for signs of pests such as mites or lice. These tiny creatures can quickly multiply and cause serious health problems for your chickens if left unchecked. If you notice any signs of infestation such as excessive preening, feather loss or hens not wanting to roost or return to the coop at dusk, take action immediately. Remove and replace the bedding and treat your chickens with Wipe Out Mites and/or Bugs Away/Lice Away.

Don't forget Composting!

One of the great benefits of keeping chickens is the abundance of nutrient-rich manure they produce. By choosing a super-absorbent bedding material that is a carbon source, such as hemp or wood shavings, chicken droppings will be converted over time, into compost. This compost becomes a valuable resource for your garden. Don't let this opportunity go to waste – compost your bedding and enjoy the benefits of healthier soil and happier plants.


User Experience Highlight

"We use wood shavings because it's dry underfoot, the girls love to turn it over to find the bugs that live underneath, it's compostable, and generally the coop and pen don't smell. It looks good and clean as well." – Andrew, Red Hill

Andrew's experience highlights the benefits of choosing a bedding material that is absorbent, easy to clean and appealing to chickens. By using wood shavings, he is able to keep his coop dry and hygienic while also providing his chickens with a stimulating environment that encourages natural foraging behaviours.


To Wrap It All Up!

Choosing the right bedding for your chicken coop is essential for the health and happiness of your backyard flock. By considering factors such as absorbency, source of carbon, non-caking, non-toxicity, resistance to mould and bacteria, abrasiveness and sustainability etc, you can select a material that will provide a clean, dry, and comfortable environment for your chickens to thrive.

So whether you choose hemp, wood shavings, sand or any of the other options we've discussed, remember that the key to success is consistent management and attention to detail. With the right bedding and a little bit of TLC, your chickens will reward you with years of eggs, entertainment and companionship.
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