A range of considerations come into play when selecting food to cache at your retreat for survival post-TEOTWAWKI: caloric load, shelf life, storage space required, price, ease of preparation, etc. This article will deal with a topic I hold dear to my heart: fresh meat. Depending upon where your retreat is located, hunting may or may not be a viable option; space, facilities, and season impact animal husbandry choices as well. While pork and beef are preferred sources of meat for many Americans, there is no argument against the fact that pigs and, even more so, cattle require a fair amount of room and feed to thrive. That is why guinea pigs make an excellent survival food, whether your Bug Out Location is rural or urban, temperate or alpine.
Guinea pigs were domesticated by the Incas about 7,000 years ago in what is now Peru; people there eat around 65 million guinea pigs a year – over fifty percent of Peru’s animal protein, according to veterinarian and food expert Calvin Schwabe, author of the book Unmentionable Cuisine. Vegetarian mammals, they can be fed for little or no money, depending upon your access to grass. Guinea pigs are quiet, which provides an advantage if your retreat must be hidden or appear unoccupied, and they are highly portable. They reproduce quickly, due to a short gestational cycle, and reach sexual maturity (important for a breeding herd) at a young age. Guinea pigs do not usually cannibalize one another, and people living in an area served by Craigslist or near a guinea pig rescue organization can often find free guinea pigs. While their skins are small, they produce supple leather that would be well-suited for clothing items. In addition to their short gestational cycle and early age of sexual maturity, guinea pigs are advantageous for a post-disaster environment compared to other livestock because their feeding efficiency is high:
4:1 ratio of forage/food to growth weight for guinea pigs
8:1 ratio for cattle or sheep
Establishing a breeding group of guinea pigs
Female guinea pigs are fertile one month after birth; breeding females are called “sows”, and the males are “boars.” The gestational cycle, including estrus, averages 80 days; females can bear up to five litters a year. Each litter averages four pups, though established pet breeders in the United States have achieved much higher litter size. Stillbirths are fairly common, so you will need to plan to breed more guinea pigs than you expect to keep or eat. Research supported in the book Microlivestock: Little-Known Small Animals with a Promising Economic Future indicates that a herd of 20 females and 2 males will produce enough meat annually for a family of six. Depending upon the size of your retreat and the number of people in your survival group, you might select one of the following models for your breeding herd:
1 boar and 2 sows bred over a 5-month period with no harvests:
2 sows x 2 litters yield an average 16 pups
8 pups from first litter (assume 4 females/litter) bred 1x during initial 5-month period yield an another 32 pups
At end of initial 5-month period, herd is likely to = 48 guinea pigs
This model is good for short-term food production but unsustainable for long-term breeding because it will promote the appearance of recessive genetic traits.
2 boars and 3 sows bred over a 5-month period with no harvests:
3 sows x 2 litters yield an average 24 pups
12 pups from first litter (assume 6 females/litter) bred 1x during initial 5-month period yield another 48 pups
At end of initial 5-month period, herd is likely to = 72 guinea pigs
This model is better for both long-term food and breeding.
The more boars you have in your initial breeding group, the more genetic diversity you can create in your herd. Make sure to select the larger guinea pigs for breeding. If your food needs are not urgent are expected to exist long-term, rotate/rest your breeding females to promote greater likelihood of full-litter delivery.
Tips for herd management:
- Guinea pigs are social animals and mix well in a herd, though an all-male group may incite aggression. Boars do well together if they are pairs that have been brought up together. Cull boars from your herd for eating to keep space/management needs low.
- Use spray paint or Sharpie markers to identify lineage; this enables you to maximize genetic diversity in your herd. Colored markings on the guinea pigs conserves space better than creating segregated pens.
- You will want to segregate by sex if you are establishing breeding lines or trying to control the rates at which litters are produced.
- Pregnant females should be housed alone when possible to minimize stress. Keeping the mother and babies separate from the herd until the babies are weaned is a good precaution.
- Sex the guinea pigs early (you will need to examine the genital area closely to do this; females will have a Y-shaped opening under a flap, and males’ penises will appear if you press above the genital area.) Knowing the sexes of your herd will allow you to control breeding rates.
- Harvest your guinea pigs before the age of 3 years; the strain of breeding shortens their life expectancy (by contrast, pet guinea pigs commonly live to be as old as eight years.)
- Females must be bred for the first time when they are between four and seven months old.
Feeding Your Herd of Guinea Pigs
If you have a yard or outdoor space with grass available, your guinea pigs can subsist totally on grass and vegetable scraps leftover from your kitchen garden. If your post- TEOTWAWKI retreat is an apartment or bunker and you do not expect to have access to vegetables and fresh plants, you will want to store baled alfalfa or pellets; you will likely also have a smaller herd than makes sense for someone with a rural retreat or city house with a yard. Guinea pigs must have green food to eat, as they are susceptible to scurvy. Grass or the ends of your vegetables are fine. They are selective eaters and will not eat once they are full, so if you add fresh food to a bowl or cage and they have leftovers, the leftovers will not get eaten; make sure they finish what you’ve made available to them before providing more food. If possible, make hay and/or pellets available to them all the time and supplement with vegetable scraps. For indoor guinea pigs (think – urban stronghold), you should provide a small handful (1/8 to ¼ cup) of pellets per guinea pigs each day. Their weight gain should be apparent; you are raising them to eat, so too much food is not really a problem.
Housing Your Herd of Guinea Pigs
Being both small and sociable, guinea pigs require very little room; you can keep ten females and one male in a cage, pit, or cardboard box together. Extensive herds can be cared for by a single person. It is helpful to provide bedding (straw, wood shavings, etc) whether they lodge indoors or outside; if provided adequate bedding and shelter from wind, guinea pigs can live outdoors in any season. They handle cold temperatures better than hot, as they are chubby, furry little creatures. Some people in Peru let the guinea pigs run loose in their homes; others allow them to forage outdoors during the day and herd them into pens or underneath their homes to sleep at night. For a rural retreat that may have lots of predators, I recommend building tractors (essentially wire mesh cages with no bottoms) to concentrate the guinea pigs in small areas for grass consumption. Their portability makes them a good food source even in the event that you may have to bug-out. Guinea pigs do best if they are housed either outdoors or indoors; going back and forth between the outdoors and a conditioned environment is not as good.
Food Value and Preparation
Guinea pig young may be weaned at three or four weeks and experience rapid weight gain for four to six weeks; by age ten weeks, they should be big enough to be worth eating. Dressed carcasses result in a little over half of the guinea pig mass to be food value.
Preparation is simple: skin and gut your animal. The head is commonly left on and provides a few little morsels of crispy flesh. You can also blanch if you wish to scrape the fur off but leave the skin on. Grilling or cooking on a spit over a fire is the easiest way to make your meal; simply rub with salt and spices and cook over flame – turn frequently, as the animals are small and burn easily. stewing is also yummy. The feet can be eaten whole, bones and all.
A few simple recipes:
Dry-rub with a mixture of spices: cumin, paprika, black pepper, coarse salt, dried basil or cilantro. Butterfly and grill over flame until the skin is crisp.
Rub with salt and pepper and deep-fry or pan-fry in oil; serve with a spicy peanut sauce or garlicky marinara.
Bake whole in an oven or pit lined with coals (if using this method, wrap with foil or large green leaves from a plant you know to be nontoxic); guinea pig is an excellent dish for preparation over a campfire. Enjoy!
JWR Adds: I know that Lisa’s article will elicit howls of criticism, but facts are facts. Just because guinea pigs (“cavies”) are cute, doesn’t make them inedible. Harvesting them for meat is no different than what has been traditionally done with rabbits. Both rabbits and cavies are herbivores and in my estimation both are perfectly safe to eat. And both breed almost like tribbles. But be advised that neither are considered kosher. Raising guinea pigs can actually be profitable in the short term, by selling most of your sows’ offspring to pet store buyers. Our family did this in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when I was briefly lured back to the corporate world, and living in the suburbs. As I recall, our family’s little herd peaked at around 90 cavies, at the turn of the century. In 2001, weaned cavies were selling for $5 each, wholesale, in Northern California. The buyer even came to our house to pick them up, and he offered to buy all the cavies that we could supply. This arrangement more than covered all of our expenses, including feed and cages that we had bought via mail order, from Bass Equipment. Eventually, we sold our entire remaining herd to the wholesaler, just before we moved back to the hinterboonies. But we still make good use of the cages, for our rabbits.
Although most states don’t even have procedures in place for commercial processing and sale of cavy meat, there are very few restrictions on selling them “on the hoof.” Peruvian ex-pats are few and far between in the U.S., so plan on raising your cavy herd just for the pet store trade, for now. Thus, you can gradually build a herd and selectively breed for size, large litters, and and sows with good nurturing behavior. If and when the economy disintegrates, you can easily transition your cavies into a sustainable meat herd for your own family’s use.
But needless to say, consult your state and local laws before starting any breeding program.