What’s the best bedding for your duck coop or run?

What's the best bedding for your duck coop or run? thumbnail
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Are you trying to figure out the best type of bedding for your duck coop or duck run? In this article, we’ll discuss the pros and cons of each material option and provide our recommendation for keeping your ducks clean, healthy, and happy.

We’ve had pet and backyard ducks since 2013. Before getting ducks, we spent about six months reading and learning everything we could about ducks so we could be good duck parents.

Our two favorite duck parent preparation books:

These books were invaluable and helped us avoid making tons of mistakes. However, the considerable amount of information we learned from reading books and articles has been dwarfed by what we’ve learned from actually raising ducklings and ducks ourselves.

So, two things we’d like to tell you new or intending duck parents out there:

  1. Learn the essentials of keeping your ducks healthy and alive before you get ducks, but…
  2. You’ll never learn everything you need to know about raising ducks BEFORE you get ducks. Experience is the ultimate teacher.

The search for the perfect duck bedding

Back when we became new duck parents, there was hardly any information available about how to build duck coops. So after a few trials and tribulations, we designed and built our first “Quackerbox.”

Duck pond and duck coops at Tyrant Farms.
A view from above of our duck’s primary living area. You can see Quackerbox 1 & 2 in the back right corner. (#2 is for our drake, Sir Winston Duckbill.) Our backyard has a 6′ fence around it, so it functions as a large duck run. We also have detailed instructions for building a DIY self-cleaning backyard pond if your ducks are demanding one.

Duck coop done. But what bedding should go in a duck coop?

There was lots of conflicting information and everyone (e.g. the other three backyard duck people on the internet at the time) seemed to have a different opinion.

Over the past many years, we pulled a Benjamin Franklin, experimenting with every option before finally settling on a clear favorite based on:

  • Health – Which option is: a) most gentle on duck flippers (to avoid injuries and infections such as bumblefoot (ulcerative pododermatitis), and b) not likely to cause respiratory issues/infections (like aspergillosis) or allergies for ducks or their human slaves?
  • Economics – Which option makes sense financially, also factoring in prevention/NOT having to treat duck foot injuries?
  • Availability – Which option is easiest to get?
  • Environment – Which option has the most environmental benefits?

Here’s what we’ve tried and learned along the way:

Duck coop material trials & recommendations

1. Chopped leaves

Each fall, we can rake and bag piles of leaves. They’re free, abundant, make great compost, and are about as locally sourced as you can get. All good attributes.

The problems?

  • Leaves get moldy easily when wet, and that can be a perfect environment for Aspergillus fumigatus to proliferate (the fungi that causes aspergillosis). Having lost a beloved duck to this disease once, we’re very wary to create conditions where this could happen again.
  • We don’t have the room to store huge bags of leaves in our garage to use throughout the year.

2. Straw/hay

Straw and hay are not actually the same thing. Straw is typically wheat stalks left over after the wheat grain is harvested. Hay is usually a grass or legume species (like alfalfa) grown expressly for feeding animals. Hay is harvested before it goes to seed for maximum nutrition.

Regardless, neither one makes good poultry bedding in our opinion. Why?

Two reasons:

  • Like leaves, wet straw and hay provides an ideal environment for Aspergillus fumigatus. And if it’s in a duck coop, it’s going to get wet.
  • Unless you grow it yourself or source it from a certified organic farm, there’s no way to know whether or not the straw or hay you’re using has pesticide residue on it. Birds (including ducks) are especially susceptible to pesticide exposure and we don’t want our ducks spending their nights in pesticide-covered bedding.

3. Cedar shavings

What’s a product that will keep mold, insects, and Aspergillus fumigatus away? Cedar, juniper, and pine have some pretty potent anti microbial properties.

Cedar shavings to the rescue, right? Nope.

Several years back, we put cedar shavings in our duck coop. By “we” I mean “Aaron,” because I’m the early riser that lets the ducks out in the morning and tops up their coop with fresh bedding each night.

I’m not allergic to anything, but within a couple days of using cedar shavings, the lymph nodes on the side of my neck swole up to the size of golfballs. Turns out, lots of people are allergic to cedar.

The small quantities of cedar dust I breathed in while topping up the duck bedding was all it took to make my immune system go haywire. As such, we didn’t like the idea of our ducks spending their nights breathing in cedar dust.

The final nail in the cedar coffin: once when visiting our avian vet, we had cedar shavings in the duck carriers. Upon arrival, she (the vet) looked inside, saw the cedar shavings, and recommended we not use them due to potential respiratory issues they could cause.

Thus, no more cedar shavings for us.

4. Aspen shavings

One day while picking up cat food, we saw bags of aspen shavings at the pet store. They were labeled as hypoallergenic (meaning they’re great for people or pets with allergies) and they were also advertised as having virtually no dust. All good.

Aspen shavings work great. The problem for us:

  • the only store that carries them near us is about 5 miles away from our house (that’s a long distance for us), and
  • they’re very expensive relative to other alternatives. ($11 for a 56 liter bag.)

5. Pine needles

Pine needles are cheap and abundant. Heck, you may even be able to rake them out of your own yard. They also have antimicrobial properties.

The problem: walk barefoot on fresh pine needles and see how your feet feel. Those sharp needle points are also likely to poke tiny holes in your duck’s flippers as well, which makes them prone to foot infections like bumblefoot.

6. Large flake pine shavings

We have a Tractor Supply store about one mile from our house. That store sells giant bags of screened (no/low dust), large flake pine shavings.

Pine shavings are also antimicrobial. Like sawdust, pine shavings are usually a byproduct of the lumber industry.

After using pine shavings in our ducks’ two coops for the past three years, we can confidently report the following:

  • Funguses and molds do not readily grow in wet, mucky pine shavings.
  • Pine shavings do not cause allergies or respiratory problems in our ducks or in their slaves (us).
  • Pine shavings are very gently on duck flippers (and human feet).
  • We use a modified deep litter method (more on that below) and by the time we remove the old bedding to put in our compost pile or to mulch around our fruit & nut trees, the shavings have started decomposing, but are not moldy.
  • A 226 liter bag of large flake pine shavings from Tractor Supply costs us about $6 and lasts about a month. That’s pretty economical — especially since it ends up becoming fertilizer for our garden which saves us money and grows food. (It’s also environmentally beneficial as it builds healthy carbon-rich soil in our perennial plant beds).

Key takeaway: Of all the types of coop/bedding and run materials we’ve tried for our ducks, we think large flake pine shavings are the best.

Our Welsh Harlequin ducks tucked in to their coop for the night with a fresh top up of pine shavings.

Final tip: Use a “deep litter method” in your duck coop

In case you’ve never heard of it before, a deep litter method in your duck coop simply means you continually top up their bedding on a regular basis rather than disposing of it. We add a small amount of fresh litter on top of poo spots each night before we put our flock into their coop.

If your ducks are continually confined to spots where their bare feet are on their waste, they can get nitrogen/ammonia burns on their feet, infections, and worse.

Instead of removing and disposing of the litter/bedding in your duck coop or duck run, put it to a higher and better use! For us, that means completely removing the old bedding every ~3 months with a pitchfork and wheelbarrow, and using it to grow more food.

Composting duck bedding

Making good compost requires a balance of carbon-rich (“brown”) and nitrogen-rich (“green”) material. Cornell University recommends about 30:1 carbon-nitrogen ration based on weight.

A base material like pine shavings is very carbon-rich (“browns”). By the time your ducks have had their way with the shavings and covered them with ducky poo, the shavings will have a nice addition of nitrogen-rich material (“greens”).

Compost away! Once your compost if finished, you’ve got a rich soil amendment ready to grow food.

Using duck bedding as mulch

You can also put the recently removed bedding from your duck coop around your perennial plant beds. Your elderberries, chestnuts, persimmons, and other perennial plants will LOVE it!

No duck bedding goes to waste at Tyrant Farms! Our yard is a giant organic garden and “used” duck bedding either goes into our compost or directly on our perennial plant beds.

Warning: it should go without saying, but do NOT put fresh duck bedding or duck poo around annual food crops or plants that you intend to eat within the next six months. Pathogens in raw waste can make you very sick.

We hope this article will help you keep your flock happy, healthy, and clean! If you use a material in your duck coop or run that you think works better than large flake pine shavings, please let us know in the comments!


Other duck articles that will quack you up:

… and more duck articles from Tyrant Farms.

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