The Pros and Cons of Chicken Coop Bedding

The Pros and Cons of Chicken Coop Bedding

by Kenny Coogan

With lots of chicken coop bedding options out there, it can be overwhelming. I contacted Marissa Byrum, the director of communications and the general store manager for Shell’s Feed & Garden Supply, to find out
more. Byrum has a lot of great insight into the financial and sustainability aspects behind chicken coop bedding and which types possess the greatest potential for pathogen problems.

Best Shavings for Chickens

“The most common bedding sold for chickens is pine bedding, because it is cheap, relatively absorbent, and doesn’t really have too many adverse
effects on chickens,” Byrum explains. “A lot of what is best for chickens or
safest depends on how often you clean. Pine bedding can be controversial,
depending on what research you read. Pine bedding dust can be toxic and, of course, as with any shaving, if you leave it unclean for too long, it’ll
generate mold, and bacteria, and hold onto ammonia. Cleaning frequently is always required.”

“Pine and any of the hardwoods can cause a respiratory problem,” Byrum says. “If the chickens are cooped up in a place where the shavings were just put down and the door is closed immediately, they’ll breathe it in and that can cause respiratory problems.” Just because pine bedding is the most
common bedding sold, doesn’t mean it’s the best.

“We know that, even for humans, if you’re breathing in cedar for a long
time, you can get an irritated nose and throat — or at least I do — so it’s best
to avoid the dust particles.”

The Compressibility of straw and hay makes them a good value to use as poultry bedding. Photo by Kenny Coogan.

Hay vs. Straw

The second most common bedding material sold for chicken coops is hay
and straw, according to Byrum. “They are very cheap and soft, so chickens like that. You shouldn’t put hay for chicks in brooders, because they can eat
it. Same with pine shavings; the little babies shouldn’t have too much of that, because if they eat it, it can be toxic.”

Marissa Byrum with Red the Rooster. Photo by Marissa Byrum.

While hay and straw are good at absorbing moisture, they’re both bad at releasing that moisture, which means frequent cleaning to avoid accumulating ammonia.

Byrum says that chopped straw is better than hay for multiple reasons.
“They both harbor pathogens, but chopped straw has low dust and is more absorbent. During the compressing of the bales, a lot of dust can get sucked out.”

Newspaper and Cardboard

“You get a lot of product for your money because it is compressed,” Byrum adds. “On the flip side, you have to clean it more often — six of one, half a dozen of the other — I hate to use an egg pun!”

For baby chicks, Byrum recommends newspaper. “Most newspapers are printed with plant-based inks. Don’t use glossy paper, just use the regular
paper. I would recommend using flat newspaper on the bottom and then
adding shredded paper on the top so the chickens can get some traction.
In our brooders, we had grates that allowed the waste to pass through to
the newspaper, but most people use brooders made out of boxes or totes.
I wouldn’t recommend any type of bedding that’s too thick, or else you
will lose your chicks in it!” she jokes.

“PitMoss Roost is a pre-consumer shredded paper that’s very easy to clean up,” Byrum says. “You just pick up the clump where the waste is, and then you replace that clump. It’s more expensive than some traditional bedding. Both newspaper and PittMoss compost very easily.”

On PittMoss’s website, they claim that it lasts four times longer than pine shavings and significantly reduces odor and promotes healthier birds. The
composition of the material is akin to hamster bedding.

Bags and bags of chopped up cardboard bedding, Photo by Amy K. Fewell.

While Byrum hasn’t seen it locally for sale, she’s seen some recommendations for cardboard bedding. “Cardboard cuts are basically
little squares of cardboard that’re off cuts from making boxes and things like that. Virtually no dust, and the chickens don’t eat it. While it isn’t that common, it works pretty well!”

Hemp and Hulls

Hemp is another chicken bedding alternative. However, according to Byrum, it isn’t easily available and it’s more expensive. The positive is that you don’t need to use as much.

“Hemp has low mold levels, and you can use it as deep litter. It doesn’t tend to hold onto the ammonia for too long if you have proper circulation. Hemp bedding is the left-over stalks and dried leaves; the manufacturer uses the top part of the plant for clothing or paper products. It kind of looks like straw. It’s definitely one of the better options. You can use it in the nesting boxes or in the run of the coop.”

Rice hulls, peanut hulls, and corncobs aren’t ideal for chicken bedding. They aren’t as absorbent, and since they are an organic material, you have to keep on top of it and make sure the area is clean. “High mold levels and high ammonia retention make them not the best,” Byrum explains. “Unless you just happen to come across a really great deal, I would stick with the other options.”

Sawdust is another cheap and readily available option. “If people have been milling treated wood, you definitely don’t want that. But if it’s just from
processing raw pine trees, it’s almost like pine shavings but obviously smaller and dustier.” Sawdust does compost well and is very absorbent and lightweight. “It does insulate,” Byrum says, “but again the dust and the possibility of mold are there too. The biggest killers in chickens, in general, are respiratory issues, whether it is bird flu or any number of
chicken diseases; most of the respiratory issues happen in the chickens’ faces, so you don’t want to comprise the air they’re breathing. Don’t irritate their respiratory system by choosing the wrong type of chicken bedding.”

“For the nesting boxes, you could really use any of the items we mentioned. Chopped straw and hay, paper products including PittMoss will all insulate the coop,” Byrum says.

When to Compost

“In coops and runs, you can use PittMoss in a deep litter method,” Byrum notes. “It’ll compost in place, which is nice, and you don’t have to worry about it being too messy. If you need to rake it all out and replace everything — which I recommend doing quarterly — it can go
directly to the compost; you don’t have to worry about pre-composting, since it is just paper.”

Pine shavings are cheap, absorbent, and relatively safe for poultry. Photo by Kenny Coogan.

If you are composting plain newspaper, Byrum recommends adding some green material to make it compost faster.

“For typical wood shavings, it can take up to a year to fully compost. Some people can do it faster, if the compost is hotter, but it still takes a little more effort.”

Old, soiled hay and straw are not great for compost, Byrum says. “There isn’t much of a point in composting them because the mold can survive a wide range of temperatures. For me, it has a pretty poor composability, unless you are going to keep it separate from your other compost — it takes a long time.”

Sand in the Chicken Run

“The medium-grade sand is probably the best type of bedding for the coop area, as it doesn’t hold liquid, doesn’t harbor pathogens like mold, and it’s very easy to clean,” Byrum says. “A lot of people try to use play sand, but there’s a problem with the smaller grain silicates. Silicate pneumoconiosis is a disease that chickens can get from play sand, due to the tiny particles entering the lungs.”

Medium-grade sand is not the cheapest, but once you put it down, it’ll be there for a while. You’d be saving money long-term because you’re not
having to replace it often. Sand also regulates the temperature year-round.

Choosing the right coop and run products depends on where you live,
what you can spend, and how you’ll deal with it when soiled. Luckily, there
are a lot of options.

KENNY COOGAN is a food, farm, and flower national columnist. He’s also part of the MOTHER EARTH NEWS and Friends podcast team. He has a master’s
degree in Global Sustainability and leads workshops about owning chickens, vegetable gardening, animal training, and corporate team building.
His new book, Florida’s Carnivorous Plants, is available at

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