What type of bedding or litter should I use for my chickens?
Bedding is an important part of keeping your chickens happy and healthy. On the coop floor the bedding will provide a soft surface for your chickens to walk on and will absorb droppings and odor. You want your coop sanitary and sweet-smelling, don't you? In the nest, bedding will give freshly-laid eggs a soft landing so they don't crack. (A cracked egg is a spoiled egg.)
Whatever you choose to use, the bedding in your coop should be at least 2" thick--more is better. There are many bedding materials to choose from, but we think the best is pine wood shavings (not to be confused with pine chips). Pine shavings cost $6.00-$9.00 per 35 pound "compressed" bag. These can be purchased at a pet store or garden supply store. Many areas will have aspen shavings available, and those work too. DON'T use cedar shavings, no matter what friends or your local feed store tell you: the aromatic oils will irritate your birds' lungs, and make them more susceptible to respiratory problems later in life. Other materials, like hay and straw, are either far less absorbent or more likely to become infested. Some materials, like peat moss, are just too dusty.
Sand is also recommended by many, but it can be costly upfront. It is also heavy--very heavy--so it can be sort of a pain in the neck to lug into your coop. Sand isn't a very good medium for bacterial growth, either. That said, droppings can simply be sifted out of sand, so it lasts longer than shavings, since shavings break down. However, the fact that shavings degrade along with the droppings means you can use all of it, shavings, droppings and all, in your compost pile. With sand as bedding, though, you can only compost the droppings. However, you have to use the right sand. Mortar sand is recommended (it is less dusty). Other types of sand may have "fines," or very fine dust, that can be irritating to your chickens' lungs.
In your brooder, remember that even baby chicks are big poopers, so make sure you have plenty of bedding, and change it often. Resist the urge to use newspaper! It's not nearly as absorbent, and worse, the slippery surface can lead to a permanent deformity called "splayed leg" which can ultimate result in the other chickens picking on the affected bird to death. Many people also swear by paper towels in the brooder, changed often, but that is fairly expensive and more time consuming than pine shavings. Plus, paper products are more likely to mold than shavings--you don't want mold in the brooder! That can lead to many illnesses.