A small flock of Chickens are not only fun to raise but also a good source of year round protein. They are good scavengers and can make high quality good tasting protein out of every day scraps. A little known fact about chickens is that they will eat almost anything and everything that grows or crawls on this earth. I have seen my small flock eat grass, seeds, bugs, flies, worms and yes I even saw the flock catch and eat a mouse one day. The mouse was stealing food out of the dish when one of the older hens grabbed him and ate him.
A small flock of chickens will provide protein in the form of eggs year round. The younger birds can be eaten in the fall. If you select the correct breeds and give them the right place to live they will hatch out their own young the next spring. The other good thing about chickens is that they are small enough that you can eat the whole animal at one or two meals. This will avoid the need to preserve the meat in the freezer and or refrigerator. These may be luxuries that are not around in the future. Eggs are very versatile and can be used in many many foods as well which will give you a great variety in your diet which may be missed in the future. The extra eggs can also be traded for other items and they will keep for over two months if stored correctly.
There are a number of different breeds of chickens. The white hybrids are the best chicken man can make. The ones that lay eggs will lay more eggs than any other breed out there. The ones that are made for meat production can grow to over 9 pounds in just 8 weeks. The main drawback to these is that you cannot breed them yourself. You need to get the day old chicks from a hatchery. So for practice they are a good way to get started. They will save you money each year on feed costs and give you the best product that you can get out of your flock. But for the survival flock they will not be what you are looking for. They cannot reproduce with the same traits that they carry. This is done by the breeders to keep their work from being copied. So for a survival flock I would look at a dual purpose breed. Ones that are okay meat producers and still have hens that will lay quite a few eggs. I like the Black Australorps and Rhode Island Reds but there are many many different breeds available. The hens are good egg layers and the young birds are very well fleshed out at 15 to 20 weeks. The only other thing you may want to look at is getting a few dark Cornish boys around for making some really meaty young birds with a cross breed with some of the hens above.
The most important part of getting started is to realize that the first month will make or break a small flock. You need to keep them warm and draft free. This is usually done with the use of a heat lamp or two and a draft free pen. Until they have feathers they will need an outside heat source. They like to have the area they live in at 90 degrees for the first week and then lower it 5 degrees a week until you reach normal out side temperature. It is best to feed them a high protein seed based diet. (corn, wheat, oats) You will need to crack the seed until they get to be 8 weeks old. Do not feed soybeans that have not first been cooked at 180 for 15 minutes. Some of the chemicals in Soybeans will destroy the stomach lining of poultry. Cooking breaks these down. You can boil the soybeans and that will make them safe to feed. Your hens will start to lay eggs at 18 to 22 weeks of age. The hybrids will lay a few weeks earlier and the really heavy birds will start a few weeks later.
You also need to keep them safe from predators. Almost every animal that hunts for a living will eat a young chicken. After about 8 to 10 weeks some of the predators will stop looking at them as food (cats, rats). But raccoons, skunks, mink, fox, coyotes, hawks, eagles and owls will eat them at any age. This means that if you want to keep your animals alive you should lock them up at night. Once they are about three months old they can be let out to forage on their own during the day and they will return to the coop to sleep at night. If you can close the door at night, this will keep most of the predators out and your hens safe. It is also a good idea to pick the eggs every night. Hens will usually lay an egg every 36 hours or so. They most likely will lay this egg early in the morning. If you can pick the eggs at noon and again as you close up for the night you will remove a temptation for predators. Not only do they eat the chickens they also eat the eggs as well.
In the southern U.S., chicken really will just need a place to get out of the rain and stay dry and warm on the colder days. In the northern states they will need to have a place that is not only dry but as draft free as possible. Chickens are really hardy animals and can take a lot of cold weather, but if the cold winter wind blows through your building you will end up with frozen combs and even some missing toes come spring. You will also get as many eggs as the house is warm. Once the birds start to use their energy to stay warm they stop producing eggs and just survive. Which is good because then in the spring you will have eggs once again.
Processing for meat
This is the hard part for many people. But when you are starving and or just sick of beans and rice this may be a lot easier. There are a lot of different way to put down your chickens. One way is to use a killing cone. It is really just an upside down funnel. You place the chicken in the funnel so the head comes out the small end at the bottom. You can then cut the throat until you get spraying blood. They will bleed out in a minute or two. Once the blood is all gone they will thrash around for a few minutes more. The cone will contain them and keep them from bruising the meat. One of the other ways is to cut the head off with a large knife or hatchet. Take an old stump and pound two nails in one side of it. Space them just far enough apart so they will hold the head of the chicken still. Hold the wings and legs with one hand and stretch out the neck. Them with one swift swing sever the head. Hold on to the wings and legs for the first minute or two. Once they have stopped thrashing around you can lay them down.
Heat your water between 150 to 160 degrees. Once the chicken has stopped all movement dip them in the water. You will need enough water to cover the entire bird. Use a small stick to make sure the water gets to all parts of the chicken. You should keep the chicken in the water until you can easily pull out the feathers. At that time I like to move to a plucking area. I keep this process separate from the rest. This will remove the feathers and the dirt from the birds. I usually remove the bottom part of the legs at this time. Then I move to a cleaning table where I remove the crop and then the insides. The crop is under the skin at the base of the neck and can be pulled away from the body once the neck skin is removed. Removing the insides can be done in many ways but usually I just make cut between the legs below the breast bone big enough for my hand to reach in and remove what is inside. You can save the gizzard, liver and hart if you want at this time. Rinse the inside with water and wash the outside as well. Now you can singe off the little "hair" on the body of the chicken. To do this you can use a torch or you can use a rolled up news paper. Once this is done get the bird into cold water to cool. Bury the rest with the feathers so you do not invite more predators to your area. Then enjoy the best chicken dinner you have ever had.
I have described just the basics of keeping a small flock of chickens for survival needs. There is much more to learn and much more to enjoy about keeping chickens. But this should get you started. From here if you listen to your birds they can give you clues of things they need. But for the most part chickens are one of the few animals that if left alone and given enough room to run they will balance their diet with out much help. Just keep them safe at night and enjoy fresh eggs and meat from your small flock. – Korey