Most farm-raised poultry flocks are raised on the floor with a layer of bedding called, “litter,” spread over the top of the floor. Unlike livestock where bedding material is typically clean and unused, in poultry flocks the term bedding material can also mean used bedding material that includes manure, spilled feed, water and feathers.
“Good litter should be nontoxic to the birds, be free of contaminants, such as pesticides and metals, be very absorbent with a short drying time and be readily available and relatively inexpensive,” Dr. Jacquie Jacob, Animal and Food Sciences at the University of Kentucky, said.
Absorbency and “friability” are the most important factors in selecting appropriate bedding materials. “Any material used under birds has to be like a sponge in that it will soak up moisture and give up the moisture to the ventilation system so that it stays dry,” said Bill Brown, the Poultry Extension Agent at the University of Delaware. “A bird excretes 50 percent of the moisture it consumes back out through its feces so the litter needs to be able to hold and wick the moisture,” he added.
Pine shavings are considered the “gold standard” among all poultry litter options. “Pine does a good job wicking and holding moisture and then giving up the moisture to the ventilation system,” he added. Availability, cost and competition with other industries for shavings can make it difficult to rely on the material. Fortunately, researchers and poultry producers have experimented with different types of litter to find alternatives.
Local availability is a driving factor among bedding options for poultry producers. “Personally, I use cocoa hulls from the Hershey chocolate people in my coops,” Brown said. “The dry materials are full of cocoa powder so it even smells great the first few days.” Located on the eastern shore of Delaware, Brown is close enough to the chocolate manufacturer to make the option affordable.
“In the southeast U.S. peanut hulls are often successfully used and in other countries rice hulls are used,” Jacob said. Rice hulls in particular have been used with good results. “Rice hulls are typically free from excessive dust and their size, thermal conductivity and drying rate make them a good choice for bedding,” Jacob noted.
Poultry producers located in regions that raise cereal grains have also tried ground straw, Bermuda grass, flax, oat, wheat and rye. “Producers in Canada and Europe use a lot of cereal grains because that is what they have available. The key to any cereal grain is that it needs to be processed into one-inch lengths to work effectively,” Brown said.
Commercial producers raising large flocks in confined areas may be limited in their litter choice to ensure flock health and sanitation. Conversely, smaller, farm-raised flocks may do well on several alternative litter options.
Producers have become creative with identifying substitutions. Shredded paper can be used for litter, but it cakes and compacts within the first two weeks of use. “If used, newspapers should be limited to old newspapers because some printing inks are toxic until thoroughly dried. Glossy paper should not be used because it will not absorb moisture,” Jacob said.
Sand offers another option for bedding material. “Auburn University has done a lot of research on the use of sand as bedding material in large-scale commercial broiler units and it has been successful,” Jacob said. However, the use of beach sand is not an agreed upon choice. “Sand was one of the first litter materials used, but we no longer use it because it’s not an environmentally sound practice,” Brown noted.
“Some people have unsuccessfully tried dried leaves. I guess if you change it frequently it might not be a problem,” she added.
Poultry bedding material is designed for use in small-scale operations with nesting boxes and coops, as well as in large-scale commercial houses. Free range birds or those raised in runs shouldn’t need bedding. “I have seen straw used in runs if the drainage isn’t good and I saw someone using sand in the run and they raked it like they would do with kitty litter to remove droppings,” Jacob noted.
Maximizing the life of the litter begins proper installation. Brown recommends spreading a minimum of 3-4 or ideally 5 inches of material, especially pine shavings, when establishing a new flock. “If you think of the depth of bedding in relationship to a sponge and only use 1 inch of bedding, there is not enough surface area to wick properly,” he explained.
Wet bedding creates unhealthy conditions for the birds and can cause the birds to develop ulcers on the bottom of their feet, among other conditions. The flock density, or the number of birds raised in each square foot or square meter, will partially determine the coop ventilation system and watering system, and will all have an impact on the effectiveness of the material and how deep it should be for starters.
Unlike livestock that requires fresh bedding on a daily or weekly basis, properly installed and maintained bedding can last a year and, in many cases, longer. “Some facilities are cleaned once a year – in the spring,” Jacob explained. “They leave in the old litter and add to it instead of replacing it.” Referred to as “built-up” litter, this alternative can provide some warmth for the chicken house by heat from composting litter at the bottom of the layer.
Commercial boiler houses may only completely clean (remove and replace litter) every two to five years. “The bedding is reconditioned with every flock. A machine is used to break up the wet cake and separates it from loose material, saving any useable materials,” Brown explained.
Worth the work
Availability, price and effectiveness are important considerations in finding a bedding material for your flock. Installing the litter at a depth of 3-5 inches requires extra time and effort, but is worth the benefits your birds will enjoy. The appropriate type and depth of litter for your poultry flock provides a solid pad for the bird’s legs and feet, a soft landing area for eggs and an efficient method for easily cleaning the coop. The deep-litter method of bedding offers the added benefit of slow decomposition, essentially composting, while also retaining a bit of natural warmth during the months when the birds need it most.
“Commercially, pine shavings are the gold standard, but availability and price make it difficult to rely on. Find an alternative that is affordable and effective for your flock,” Brown said.
Cover Photo: hudiemm/istock