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Straw vs. Hay vs. Shavings | My Choice for Chicken Coop Litter

When you raise chickens, it's important to learn the difference between the various coop bedding choices - hay, straw and shavings. I'll teach you, and also share my choice for chicken coop litter.

I cleaned the coop yesterday morning when I got home from my latest trip. 

The ducks especially were SO excited to go to bed and find brand new soft straw bedding on the floor! I've been using straw for years...and would never use anything else. 

It's relatively expensive here in Maine - but only the best for my flock. It keeps them warm and happy and smells so good! And when I clean the coop out, I use the old straw to mulch the garden. 

And no, before you ask - using straw bedding doesn't lead to mites. After ten years of using almost exclusively straw, I've never seen a single mite on my chickens. Ever.

And it doesn't lead to impacted crops. Chickens don't eat straw - although they will pick the seeds or chaff or whatever it's called out of it....

And straw is SO much less dusty than shavings and drier than hay so it doesn't mold....and it's soft for the ducks and geese to sleep on, the chickens to walk on. And it's hollow so it traps and holds air to provide nice insulation.

I am, and likely always will be, #teamstraw

Straw vs. Hay vs. Shavings | My Choice for Chicken Coop Litter

But a bit of personal history....

In the past, we had always only used straw on the floor of our coop, but in our new chicken coop I built back while we were still living in Virginia, I decided to try pine shavings instead.  

When the topic had come up on Facebook, people seem pretty evenly split on whether they use shavings or straw, so we decided it was time to give shavings a try.

We always had bags of shavings on hand because we use them in our horse stalls, so I opened a bag and spread them on the floor of the coop.

Advantages of Shavings?

    The potential advantages of the pine shavings from what I could see were:

  • easier cleanup, almost like cleaning out a kitty litter box, I could just use a rake to remove the soiled shavings and chicken poop
  • fairly inexpensive
  • already on hand
  • nice pine smell
  • minor pest repelling properties in the pine

Within minutes, some of the chickens had come in to see what I was doing and began scratching in the shavings, as chickens are prone to do.

Within two days, I had three chickens with respiratory problems. They were breathing with difficulty, one was braying almost like a donkey and squeaking in between breaths.

(Thank goodness, I was able to treat them fairly easily with VetRx and saline solution in their eyes and they are all fine now.)  I immediately suspected that the shavings were the culprit.

I shoveled and swept out all the shavings and replaced them with a nice deep layer of straw.  While I was removing the shavings, my eyes started to water and my throat started to tickle, so they certainly do create a fair amount of irritating dust.

I don't know for sure that breathing in the shaving dust or eating particles is what caused the breathing difficulties, but that was the only thing I could think had changed and the timing was just too coincidental.

There was no paint, stain or sealer used inside the coop, so I could rule out any paint fumes being a factor.

Chickens are extremely susceptible to respiratory issues and I don't want to subject our flock to anything that might trigger any breathing problems.

You may use shavings in your coop and never have had a problem, but I do know that we get asked fairly often on our Facebook page how to treat chickens with respiratory issues . just keep in mind that the shavings dust could be a contributing factor.

So here's the rundown on some common choices for coop bedding:


If you do choose to use shavings, try and get the larger 'chips' versus smaller shavings, and NEVER use sawdust.  Also, only use pine shavings, NEVER cedar. Cedar is too aromatic and the oils have been proven to be harmful and even toxic to chickens.

Hemp Bedding

Instead of shavings, try hemp bedding. It has some of the benefits of shavings without the dust.

Pine Needles

Pine needles (or pine straw) is another good option, as is dry clipped grass or dried leaves. You can't beat free! And your chickens will LOVE poking around looking for weed seeds and bugs!


NEVER use hay as coop bedding. Hay is livestock feed, straw is livestock bedding. Hay is too "green" and tends to harbor mold and bacteria which is extremely detrimental to poultry health.


NEVER use sand as coop bedding. A warning about sand: It seems that some chicken keepers have started using sand in their coops and just scoop out the feces like you would in a cat litter box (kind of like I was able to do with the shavings).

But beware that sand has the potential to harbor e.coli pathogens even more than water does, is also dusty and can lead to silicosis (a respiratory disease) and the chickens might be tempted to eat large quantities of the sand which could lead to impacted crops. 

Read more here about why you should never use sand in your coop.

Update: I have heard from lots of you who have decided to try sand and then lived to regret the decision. For all the reasons above and more. "It's stinky,hard to remove, the chickens don't like it, what do I do with it when I do clean it out - and it's really cold in the winter"

Straw vs. Shavings

So, to sum it all up, we are sticking with straw.  The advantages of straw, at least to me, are clear:

  • straw is hollow so it traps air and works as an insulator on the floor of the coop
  • smells fresh and clean in the coop 
  • about the same price as shavings (this might not be true, depending on where you live, it's certainly not true in Maine where we now live, but still worth it!) 
  • no dust
  • the chickens like to scratch in the straw and eat the chaff 
  • decomposes very quickly once discarded in our compost pile or used to mulch the garden

I admit that cleaning out the soiled straw is not as easy as removing soiled shavings, but in raising chickens, as with any other type of animal, it's not about what is easiest for me, but what is best for them.

 And I am convinced that straw is best for them.

Now our hens can scratch to their heart's content and I won't worry they are going to end up wheezing and coughing.

Our ducks and geese can make nice warm nests for their eggs and sleep on a soft bed of straw.

And again, to reiterate, no, mites and lice won't hide in the straw. I've been using it for years and never had any issues with parasites. 

But if you're concerned, a sprinkle of diatomaceous earth (DE) or lime on the floor of the coop and some occasionally sprinkled over the straw and raked in will help not only control bugs, but also dry the poop and reduce the chance of ammonia fumes.

So to summarize....

Pine needles (pine straw)
Pine chips (large shavings)
Clipped dry grass
Dead leaves
Shredded paper or newspaper (B&W only - no color or glossy sheets)


Cedar chips or shavings (can cause respiratory issues)
Sawdust (too dusty, causes respiratory issues)
Hay (too green, can mold)
Sand (harbors pathogens, no insulation in winter)

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