A few years ago, we moved out of the suburbs and onto a farm/homestead with plans to start raising every farm animal imaginable. Lots of friends and family thought we were crazy, but we had spent years researching animal husbandry and couldn’t wait to put our book knowledge to work. We moved in around Christmas and by mid-January we had baby chicks in the brooder and some donated hatching eggs in an incubator.
While our farm is not our main source of income, we do run it like a business and each spring we raise a few hundred pullets (young laying hens) to be sold to the backyard poultry crowd who don’t want the hassle (and smell) of staring chicks in their homes. While we do hatch some eggs on the farm, most of our day-old chicks are mailed to us from the hatchery (yes, that’s how it works) and then we raise them in the brooder with the proper light, heat, food, and water.
There are a few obvious problems with the mail-order hatchery approach if your goal is long-term survival and self-sufficiency. It relies on an operational postal system, operational hatcheries, cheap consistent electricity, and running water. If any one of these systems fails to operate, all of a sudden you can’t have chickens. Last spring, we lost power for just a few hours and lost quite a few fragile baby chicks. Anyone looking for birds this year knows that they are quite hard to come by; hatcheries are sold out over six months in advance in most cases today due to high egg prices!
A lot of homesteaders, preppers, and backyard chicken hobbyists buy their chickens this same way (or at the farm store which are still just mail-order chicks). Even backyard breeders that do hatch their own eggs generally do so with electric brooders just like the large hatcheries use.
So how can we prepare to raise chickens in times when these easy inputs like unlimited electricity are no longer available? The answer is a little more complicated than just going back to how things worked 100 years ago before electric brooders. We must rethink the breeds we raise and the way we raise them to stop our reliance on outside inputs.
Believe it or not, the most popular breeds today are hybrids and therefore don’t breed true, which means their offspring will not necessarily have all the same traits that they have. Not only that, but we now raise separate breeds for meat and for eggs. All of this is done to maximize efficiency for our current system but is not sustainable outside of that system. For example, the most popular laying hen is the ISA Brown which is a 4-way hybrid (cross of 4 breeds in a very specific manner) that will lay eggs like a machine for about two years. The cockerels (males) of the breed don’t make it past their first day and most females are culled after 2 or 3 years and discarded because they contain no substantial meat. If a prepper had a flock of hybrids, they might have eggs for a short time, but they would have no way to regenerate the flock.
Chickens have been bred with certain traits for thousands of years, but it is only recently that ‘chicken science’ has created these single-purpose breeds that lack the traits necessary to reproduce on their own.
So, if you are building a backyard or homestead flock and want to be prepared to continue that flock with fewer external inputs, then the breeds you choose truly matter. At our farm, we do have a lot of hybrids that we rely on for eggs and meat, but we always have some older, more sustainable breeds around just in case. That way we can take advantage of the efficiencies of modern breeds but be ready for a worst-case scenario.
The Best Traits
The more sustainable breeds, in my opinion, would have the following traits:
Reproduction: I know this sounds funny to think that a domesticated animal that has been prolific for thousands of years might not be able to reproduce; however, if left to their own devices these factory egg machines would probably quickly die off without ever hatching a single egg that they work so hard to lay. That’s because they never get Broody, that is, the trait to set on their own eggs has been bred out of them. It makes sense in a world with cheap electricity, but our ancestors would have probably been horrified. If you want a self-sustaining flock, you must have chickens that get broody and have the urge to nest and set on their eggs. Some heritage breeds are more likely than others to do this. Also note, that multiple chickens will lay in the same nest, so not all your chickens need to be broody or be broody at the same time as they will hatch and raise other hens’ eggs. Many folks that raise chickens will try to break a chicken of this habit, but at our farm we like to let some go and see what happens. Let them hatch out some chicks and see how many can make it. The mother hen works hard to hatch the eggs and raise them but inevitably they won’t all make it.
Good Foragers: This too is very important. If there is ever a time that you can’t run down to the farm store and buy a bag of chicken feed, it will be vital that your chickens can find most of their own food. They can eat almost any food scraps, but I can imagine a world where much less food is wasted. You will want chickens that can go eat bugs and other small particles and not compete with your family for food.
Dual Purpose, a good egg/meat ratio: By this I mean that it is important to have chickens where the females are good layers, and the cockerels make good table fare. In desperate times you don’t want to be raising two separate lines of chickens, one for meat and one for eggs. This will mean you will end up with smaller breasted chickens than what we are used to eating today. In fact, I know many Americans that only eat boneless skinless chicken breast and have never even cooked a whole chicken or made chicken stock. We sell broilers on the farm (whole meat chickens) and it always amazes me when potential customers look me dead in the eye and admit that they don’t know how to cook a whole chicken and have never even tried.
If you have ever done an Internet search for chicken breeds or been on a hatchery website, you will note that they do list the traits of various chicken breeds. So, when you are searching for your doomsday chickens, I would recommend using the three traits I listed above to find birds that will also suit your geography and climate. Specifically, look for breeds marketed as Dual Purpose or Heritage. The dual-purpose breeds will help you with the meat supply and not just eggs. The heritage breeds tend to have more of the broody and foraging traits that have been bred out of more modern birds.
One of our favorite breeds is the Bielefelder. Don’t worry, you can copy and paste and don’t have to learn how to pronounce it yet. Beilefelders are big, beautiful chickens and the females and males both can get quite large. These take about 6 months to mature compared to about 4 months on a commercial layer but will forage for their food and set on their eggs occasionally (you don’t need them to always set).
Another widely available dual-purpose breed that can produce juicy Sunday dinners and 200 eggs per year is the New Hampshire breed. This breed was derived its egg capabilities from the Rhode Island Red but meat capabilities from other breeds and has been around for over 100 years.
As I previously mentioned, we have both dual-purpose/heritage breeds on our farm along with modern hybrids; however, when the SHTF it will be the dual-purpose breeds that really have to start pulling their weight. But don’t wait until that happens to let your chickens be chickens; let them practice brooding and raising chicks now so that they know what to do and so that you select the best in your flock (keep the best and eat the rest).
Items That You’ll Need
As you prepare long-term for your chickens, as you would for your family, I have made a list of items that you might consider having on hand. It’s unlikely that you could put up enough chicken food to last for years, but there are some other items that could prove useful in the long run:
Oyster Shell: This is a cheap supplement that helps your flock keep laying by providing them the necessary calcium for all those eggshells. A 50-pound bag can probably be had at your local farm store for $10 or less so stock up. Also, get in the habit of recycling your eggshells by crushing them and feeding them back to your chickens.
Traps/Sling Shots/BB Guns: Find a way to provide your chickens with a little extra protein, especially in the winter. The same rodents that could be getting into your food stores would make an excellent meal for the chickens. Similarly, the same animals that want to snack on your chickens could become chicken snacks. Find a way to kill them without poison so you can feed them back to the chickens. I also never let a fresh animal carcass go to waste, chickens love to pick at a deer carcass or other animal that you process on the farm and can turn that into eggs and meat.
Mineral Supplement: Like the Oyster Shell, minerals are important for your flock, they can get most of their nutrients from the land but will need mineral supplement to keep producing at maximum capacity. A little goes a long way but I suspect the lifespan on this is nearly unlimited with proper storage.
Seeds: As you plan your own family’s seed bank think about what the chickens could eat too. Yes, they will eat nearly all your garden scraps, but you could also think about planting some self-seeding annuals that your chickens can snack on in the fall/winter and will re-grow in the spring. Wheat comes to mind but I’m sure there are countless others that can be found with a little research. 50 Pounds of wheat might feed your family for a few weeks but planted in might perpetually supplement your flock.
References: Get a great chicken book like The Small-Scale Poultry Flock by Harvey Ussery: This book will be an invaluable reference now and in the future. This article just barely scratches the surface, and we haven’t even gotten into husbandry.
The best way to prepare is to get the experience. There is nothing like real-world trial and error to put you on the path to success. If your plan is to acquire chickens (or any other animal) for survival when the time comes, you will likely fail. You could read one hundred chicken books and articles but until you raise them and breed them and process them yourself you will never really know what it takes. Even in our current world, with cheap electricity, clean water, and a plethora of drugs, farm losses are quite common. When any one of those is taken away, animal husbandry will just get harder, so the more we learn now, the more successful we can be when it counts.
Read the full article here
Discussion about this post