Deep Bedding for Chickens

We’ve got about 5-6″ of loose stuff on the floor of our chicken run. Underneath that, it’s black gold.

Around this time of year, folks are getting chickens. Some for the first time. So I figured it was time to talk about deep bedding again. I know we’ve written about it before, in our book, or on this blog, but this advice bears repeating:

Nature abhors bare ground. 
Line your chicken coop and run with a thick layer of mulch.

Doing this is called “deep bedding.”

Deep bedding solves a whole lot of chicken-related problems in one easy step:

  • It goes a long way toward controlling odor. 
  • It reduces flies (it not only absorbs poop, it actually fosters parasites that kill fly eggs)
  • It makes the coop area much more attractive to look at. 
  • It gives the chickens more to do (ie scratch) which keeps them happy, which keeps them from developing bad behaviors
  • It saves you work, because you don’t have to clean it out very often. Maybe not at all. Depending on your set up.

(This is a little off topic, but in a similar way we also advocate thick mulch over any bare ground in your yard. It will improve the soil, encourage worms, discourage weeds, conserve water, etc. If we had lots of spare time, money and a big truck, we’d drive around LA dumping mulch on the many, many parched landscapes that desperately need it.)

    How deep? What do I use?

    The deeper the better. Say 4 or 5 inches to start, and you will add more to that as it breaks down. As to what to use, you can use any dry organic matter–leaves, husks, straw, dry grass clippings, pine needles. We use straw, and a lot of dead leaves fall into the run, too.

    If you want to use straw, try this: just toss a few flakes* of straw into the center of the coop, and the ladies will do all the work of distributing it for you. Scouts honor. Go away, come back in an hour, and it will be so level and even, it will look like you spread it yourself.

    Start to think about your chicken coop/run as a compost pile rather than as an animal enclosure. That is what it will become. The chickens break down the bedding material, all the veg scraps you give them, and their own manure, through their constant scratching. Over time, the floor of the coop and/or run becomes a deep soft deposit of compost. Ours is sort of like quicksand. We throw all sorts of stuff in there–kitchen scraps, huge stalks of bolted lettuce, armloads of nasturtium, squash rinds–whatever goes in vanishes within a day or two. The hens peck at it until all the good stuff is gone. Then they trample it. Then they bury it. It all becomes one.

    Wear and weather break down the bedding, so you will need to add fresh material every so often. You may also choose to harvest the compost that accumulates in the run. When you do so is up to you. We don’t harvest more than once a year, but your mileage may vary. When you do clean it out, replace what you took with lots of new bedding.

    You will probably want to transfer what you harvest into a compost pile to finish up before it goes into your garden.

    Note: The hen house is different

    Our hens don’t spend any of their waking hours in the hen house, except to visit in the laying box. This means they never scratch around in there, which means this whole “living compost” system just doesn’t work in the house. The poop remains where it falls beneath the roost, untouched. Because of this, we have to clean the house out regularly. To make clean up faster, we don’t use straw or leaves inside–though we could–instead we use wood shavings, because those scoop out fast and easy, like a cat box. The soiled litter goes into our compost pile.

    Hens so hot, they had to be put behind bars!

    *Flake, a vocab word: Straw bales are compressed in such a way that when they are unbound, they come apart in sections about 4 or 5 inches thick. These are called “flakes.”

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    49 Comments

    1. In reading chicken-keeping books and articles, it seems opinions on mulch and bedding vary. Thanks so much for the helpful first-hand advice!

    2. We use deep litter as well in our barn for the goats. Added benefits is that it helps keep the barn warm in the winter from the aerobic activity going on in the litter.

      We also like to keep our new chicks on it in the brooder. We’ve found this is our best defense against coccidiosis without having to treat. There are organisms that eat the oocysts that thrive in the deep litter so it keeps the population down while also exposing them to it early on so they can build up an immunity.

    3. With throwing the food scraps into the run, I worry about ants and roaches and rodents. Do you have problems with that?

      • Ants, Roaches and Mice in a chicken run? Not for long, have you seen chickens get hold of a mouse it is funny, not so for the mouse though. Ants and roaches are dead meat in a chicken run, free protein for your birds.

      • Hey, Jack Spirko! You are absolutely right. We must remember that chickens are nothing but dwarfish dinosaurs, tiny t-rexes.

      • @Jack Spirko, re: roaches. I don’t worry so much about ants and mice, or even little ground snakes and lizards, but roaches and crickets are bad news. Yes, the chickens do like to eat them, but you run the risk of eye worms and eventually loss of eye and later death. I make sure to keep our bedding top-treated with a spray of household vinegar. Seems the roaches aren’t crazy about it and the hens have healthier feet & skin as well.

    4. Deep mulch in the chicken yard keeps the hens warm in the winter. They scratch a hole, sit in it and look cozy. Maybe it warmth from aerobic action. I did not know about that. My hens must not know about the smooth litter bit. They scratch huge holes and then I stumble around in the litter, quite nice when it is fresh, not so much fun when it is all broken down. If mine don’t have mulch, they stay busy by digging holes in the ground, many holes for me to stumble over and into, especially when the whole place has mulch.

    5. Horray for deep bedding! We use it in the chicken house too. I pile wood shavings on the poop every day and just let it layer for a few months. No smell. No flies. No problems. We also use it for the goats. The goat version isn’t hot, so you don’t have to further compost it before use. I’m digging some out to prepare my garden beds for my tomato seedlings this week. Poop is awsome.

    6. @Sara A.: A couple of things. One is that vermin generally prefer human food–eg plate scrapings–not veg trimmings. It’s a desperate rat (or roach) who turns to carrot peels. We give our hens mostly raw vegetable matter, so don’t have problems.

      Some people feed a more varied diet, incl. kitchen leftovers. This is more attractive to vermin, but I’ll say that if hens like something, they eat every scrap of it instantly. For instance, one our hens’ treats is leftover oatmeal. They’re on it like sharks on chum. And they eat every molecule. They have sharp eyes and greedy bellies.

      So, unless you overfeed them human food so much that there’s actually pancakes and whatnot left laying around in the coop, I don’t see that there’s going to be a problem. Same can go for veg scraps, too.

    7. @Parsimony: Ours dig huge holes too. I only mean when the straw first goes in (in flakes) they get so excited that they scratch it out all over the coop. We like to see this entertainment for them. It always ends up evenly distributed after a couple of hours.

      @Gloria: Poop IS awesome!!!!!

    8. Thanks for this one. We got a few chicks last weekend and have more coming from a hatchery soon. We are building our coop and I’ve been planning to do deep bedding. Great timing.
      Judy

    9. I’ve had chickens for over a year and I could never remember if I’m supposed to do bedding in the run or not. I call my henhouse the coop and could never figure out what that is so great because, yeah, they are never in there. Now I’ve finally got it!!! Thank you.

    10. I’ve heard that chickens will chase squirrels (looking forward to that) so I would venture to guess that if a rat stuck his nose in the coop and threatened their goodies, they would be on him like white on rice. I would also guess that they’d eat ants. But I would also guess that they wouldn’t leave anything around long enough for rats or ants to find. Just guessing.

      • This is a very late response but I’m adding it in case someone else comes along after me (later!) This is a great topic!
        I have a 12′x12′ coop with 1/8″ under the door and 1/2″ space for ventilation under the eaves, but I leave the door open all day. I used a deep litter method over winter that got to be about 12″ deep (straw and wood shavings). In spring I noticed some mouse droppings near the scratch buckets (on a shelf with lids).
        As I cleared out the bedding and moved things, my pomeranian found 5 mice nesting in the corners of the coop and behind nest boxes. My chickens aren’t big on any veggies (fresh), so I didn’t feed them much greenery. The mice had made little piles of scratch and seeds though. YUCK! Hantovirus is rampant around here! Those chickens were in the coop most days thru winter although I could get them outside if I made a pathway of straw for them. They did not seem to notice the mice, though I’ve seen other chickens chasing mice on youtube. So I think it really depends on YOUR chickens and how often you freshen the corners or move things around!

      • One more thing I forgot!
        There was a gray squirrel living under their coop in spring – I saw it run out of the coop a few times. The flock never seemed to care. We have pigeons, blue jays, mockingbirds, a raven, and a few deer that also come help themselves to leftovers on a regular basis… my flock only chases the wild birds off!
        So yeah, I really think it depends on your chickens what they’ll do.

    11. I’m always glad to see information in support of the deep litter method. I use in in the henhouse too but have to take care to rake it often, add new litter, and sprinkle in diatomaceous earth. Then I empty the henhouse bedding into the run once a month and start fresh.

    12. @Paula: It has been one of my great disappointments in life to discover that my hens won’t eat ants. (and believe me, I’ve encouraged it) That would have been so very, very handy! Don’t know why they won’t do it–maybe they’re just not hungry enough. Maybe ants are distasteful in some way.

      Anybody have ant-eating chickens?

    13. I love deep bedding because I’m lazy. I didn’t clean out the coop for more than two years and it always smelled OK. I finally had to dig out some of the compost because my head was getting closer and closer to the roof of the coop.

    14. hmmm…I’m thinking that after a while doesn’t it build up the ground higher and higher – if you don’t harvest it?

    15. Ha, I thought I was just being lazy too by layering fresh straw over the soiled all winter in the chicken. goat & duck runs. It was a nice surprise to discover it is actually a method. Everything you said about is true. Especially that it keeps the chickens busy. I know someone who keeps their pen clean, clean, clean & whose confined chickens went to picking each other so bad she got rid of the lot of them.

    16. We used to have a coop that sat over our raised beds, one fall we were moving it to a new bed, and digging up the old bed, and unconvered a couple of mouse nests. Baby mice were running everywhere. We’ve never seen the hens move so fast to eat those things. It was kind of gross, and kind of cool. They ate the bigger mice too, but not in one bite.

      Our chickens haven’t eaten ants, but they love earwigs.

    17. A friend told me his neighbor across the street had Argentian fire ants, many mounds, and could not get rid of them. When he got chickens, the ants disappeared. I wonder about the veracity of their conclusions. I was very disappointed when I saw my hens did not eat ants. One tried to catch a blue butterfly one day.

      My hens kick all the leaves or pine straw I put in their pen through the fence. So, the chain link dog pen is surrounded with chicken poop mulched leaves. Also, they kick everything toward the door so that the mulch is a good solid 8 inches inside and outside the door. THEN, I have to kick it away to force the door open and shut.

    18. Mrs. Homegrown
      You won me over, I opened a bale of straw and set the pieces around and let the chickens do the rest. It didn’t take long and they had the whole thing broken down and spread out. It looks good and I know the chickens and the new pullets are happy to have the straw for scratching through.

    19. love the coop as composting arena concept.

      I just plunked a huge bag of leaves–found on curb–in the bike trailer, nearly crushing my daughter. At home they all went into the coop and happy digging and scratching commenced.

      Also, our pea seeds went straight into chicken coop gleanings, lovely rich, black stuff.

    20. I love this idea but I’m worried about a big soggy mess. Does this foster mold? Our run will be roofed but rain will still get in I’m sure. Do the hens pick through it and it dries out? Can you tell I’m a new chick momma? :)

    21. We are planning to get chicks soon so are planning our coop design…LOVE this idea, thanks for posting.

      Question – the area where we plan to put the chicken coop is currently a bed of gravel about 7-8″ deep. To create compost, I’m assuming we’d need to dig out all the gravel and have the straw on bare dirt? Do you think it would be workable to leave the gravel in place and just put deep straw over it?

      Thanks so much…love your blog…read it in my reader daily! Jenny

    22. Great! I’ll be tossing some straw flakes into the run later today, thanks to your article. And thanks to the recent trademark debacle, I’ve been driven to your blog, which I find way more in line with my own homesteading experiences. What a refreshing upgrade!

    23. Let’s hear it for deep litter! When we built our run two years ago, we put a layer of dirt and a big layer of pine chips on top. In those two years, we’ve cleaned it … never. You gotta love the magic disappearing poop, and even melon rinds and corn cobs eventually just disappear. I wish I had something that would work that way in my house.

      We use pine shavings in the coop, and just mix in the poop when it piles up under the roost bars. Then, once a year — in spring — we clean out the whole shebang and put it in a compost bin. A few months later, you’ve got the stuff they charge an arm and a leg for at the garden center.

      I was surprised to read that some chickens won’t eat ants — ours love them. Whenever we’re splitting wood and hit a nest of carpenter ants, we just call the flock over and they have at it. My guess is that it’s the kind of ant, and not the kind of chicken, that is determinate.

      Just found you over here, and mighty glad.

    24. This makes sense. I’m new to chickens and had some of the confusion of another commenter about the hen house and run. I thought the deep litter was for the hen house. Thanks for clearing that up and letting me know it’s for the run as well.

      And the comment about what mice and bugs eat and don’t. Much appreciated. :)

    25. Can you tell me the difference between the coop and the hen house? We just have one building with nesting boxes and a large open floor area. It is attached to an outdoor run. Can we use the deep bedding in the building?

      Thank you!

    26. @k8wheat: Always a good question. The henhouse is the structure with the roost where the hens sleep at night. The run is the open air playpen which is attached to the henhouse. The two, taken together, are called the coop.

      You can certainly try deep bedding inside the house and see what happens. If it’s a big space and the hens spend some of their waking hours in there, they’ll work their poop and bedding into compost. If they don’t spend time in there, they won’t. You’ll know pretty soon.

      Ours are never in their house except to sleep, so the poop ends up in neat, undisturbed strips beneath their roosting bar. That would never break down, and gets stinky fast, so I clean the floor of the house regularly–but leave the run to the deep bedding.

      But if the hens hang out inside, either because the house is big and lit (ours is dark and small)–or because of nasty weather– it would work. It hurts nothing to try it and see what happens.

    27. Ours is a tractor so the 10′ x 3′ run is “moveable”. The floor of our run is open to the grass so deep bedding there wouldn’t work. But if you put straw on the floor of your run, how do the chickens get to the grass and bugs? Does that matter? If not, maybe I will screen the bottom of the run (with big-holed poultry fencing) and do the deep bedding. Not sure I need to.

      I am going to do deep bedding in the house, see if they do anything with that. The floor of the house is the big-holed poultry fencing, so not much poop stays around!

      Clearly, I’m new to this, lol!

    28. @Sally_Oh: Regarding our run, and grass and bugs: grass can’t survive long contact w. chickens, so it’s not even a concern in the run. (That’s why tractors are portable!:) Gives the grass a chance to recover.) They dig through the straw in the run to the dirt below for dusting and bug hunting.

      You ask if it matters–it does. Chickens need greens, dirt and bugs. If you have them in a tractor they’re going to get all of that, so no worries. If you keep them in a run, as we do much of the time, then give them greens to eat(weeds, kitchen scraps, garden trimmings, etc.)–and as I said, they have access to dirt and whatever bugs they can find.

      Unless they spend a lot of time in the house, deep bedding just won’t work in there. The technique depends on them working the poop into the straw. If they aren’t in there much, it will never happen. The poop will just sit there in piles under their roosts. We just put down a light layer of bedding in the house and clean it weekly.

      I’m a little worried about the wire floor of your house. I hope the house is inside a secure outer fence? I’ve heard too many stories about people’s hens and rabbits being eaten by raccoons straight through screen floors–raccoons just grab a leg and start eating.

    29. Question: I have been using leaves in the house and the run. I have their water and food out in the run and raised up on top of bricks. They still kick leaves into the food and water. Guess I could hang the water. The round grain feeder they don’t even really use. They eat the most when it’s sprinkled on the ground. What is everyone else’s experiences with food-water & deep bedding?

    30. i have my chickens on concrete and i use straw on bottom i clean out every week but i dont like the concrete is so hard to keep clean really cant put them any where else do you think the pine needles will be ok and keep drier and will it mold my chickens wont eat ants either

    31. really! wtf! first yr w/chickens – st paul, mn, – high 20′s and rooster’s comb looking dark – think deeper bedding may help – what do the rest of your coops look like insullation-wise?

      • I think deep bedding inside and outside the henhouse will help. We’re in S. California, so we don’t need to use any insulation, but in freezing temps it is very important to keep the hens out of drafts and leaks. It’s also super important to keep their water from freezing–drinking helps them regulate temperature. I’d rec. going on one of the chicken forums and searching out discussions about keeping chickens in icy temperatures–I’m sure you’ll find lots of info easily.

      • Hi Linda–we’re in Los Angeles where it never gets cold enough to worry about insulating a coop–unfortunately I don’t have much experience with cold weather. The bedding is more for sanitation.

    32. Pingback: Backyard Chickens 101 - Questions to Ask Yourself - Ever Growing Farm | Ever Growing Farm

    33. I love this idea but have also read a ton of info on the dangers of wet/damp straw that gets moldy and can give chickens respiratory infections. We have a roof on our 12 x 12 run, but sideways rain still gets the floor pretty wet and soaks the straw.

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