A Yuppie Prepper’s Guide to Chickens, by Audrey H.

While I am new to the world of prepping; (having just read Discovery to Catastrophe and learned of prepping society), I have lived on a farm my whole life, and have spent the last 16 years home educating and canning my way to heaven.  It appears that my grandmother and mother taught me to be a prepper when I did not even know it and gave me life skills that are severely lacking in America today.  To pay homage to them, I respectfully submit the following essay:

Raising chickens for survival is an interesting topic these days when so many suburbanites are jumping on the bandwagon of backyard poultry simply because they want fresh eggs and a useful pet.  Considering the fact that the useful life of a laying chicken is about 3 to 5 years, with 5 years being a one- egg-a -month stretch, many of these folks are left with the question of how to humanely dispose of their now beloved pet.  If they are not big on chicken and dumplings, the compost pile may be the next best alternative.  Chicken retirement homes are a costly, disease harboring alternative.  But suppose said suburbanite would like to have a last supper with their pet- where to begin? This essay will proceed from egg to table, and the reader may decide where to enter or exit the train ride.

The safest and most efficient way to begin a survival flock of chickens is to order 15 to 25 baby chicks from a hatchery and have them delivered to your home in warm spring or summer weather.  By ordering from a commercial hatchery, the chicks will be free of disease, can be vaccinated for Mereck’s disease, and will be of a predictable lineage, meaning the breed will be expected to perform to the owners’ requirements. Research breeds before ordering, and match the chick order to the climate and the intended purpose of the chickens- meat, eggs, dual purpose free range birds or natural insect control. Hatching chicks at home is a romantic idea, but may not play out in reality unless eggs from a disease free flock are available. Hatchery chicks are available by sex also, to avoid raising too many males if eggs are desired, or too many females if fast growing meat males are needed.  Take time to explore the wonderful variety of poultry breeds available for their beauty and versatility.  For instance, many new breeds of pastured poultry like the Red Ranger combine the efficiency of commercial boilers with the free ranging adaptation of older breeds.  Breeds like the Silkie and Cochin are beautiful to look at, but need more protection from weather and predators, and tend to be more interested in hatching eggs than laying them.  Game chickens and jungle fowl require little care, will roost in trees and find their own grub, within reason.  They will hatch chicks and raise them without electric help, but don’t lay that many eggs or produce much meat. Let the chips fall where they may, a weekly chicken dumpling dinner from a bird shot out a tree is okay.  If you want eggs in the winter, consider old breeds like the Russian Orloff or Sussex that are known to be good winter layers, or put a light fixture in your chicken house to stimulate egg laying.

Many heritage breeds of chickens are not available for sexing, which means the chicks will be about half roosters and half hens.  There will be lots of roosters from certain breeds that eat feed but don’t produce much meat.  For economic reasons, it is best to allow these birds to free range in pasture and sunlight, don’t worry about toughness, and allow them to become stock chickens.  Process them for slaughter at about 2 to 3 months of age, as soon as it can be determined they are roosters.  Rooster chicks tend to fight more, have redder combs, a more pointed face, long, lanky legs and shorter tail feathers than pullets.  Of course the proof is in the crow!  In order to save on feed costs and prevent overcrowding and competition with the young pullets, slaughter these birds and turn them into canned chicken stock.  Chicken stock is a very important survival food, especially if water is in short supply.  Stock is an important source of minerals in the human diet, and using it to cook beans or rice in instead of water increases the available nutrition.  It is an important cure for colds and viruses and excellent nutrition for those recovering from injury or illness.  The cookbook Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon has an excellent recipe for soup stock.  Turn all spare poultry into stock during good times, can it in quart jars with a pressure cooker, and your emergency food supply is enriched, while you have less livestock to feed and care for.  (The same can be done with bones harvested from deer, beef or goats as well.)

As soon as the chicks arrive, they need to be placed in a small enclosure indoors (like a bathtub or large storage container) with a heat lamp bulb hung in the center to bring the area to 95 degrees F. Use old bath towels. [JWR Adds: Be sure to use a towel with a cut pile rather than a loop pile, so that the chicks don’t snag their claws.] This will create a non-slip surface.  The chicks will need to be brooded at 95 degrees the first week, decreasing the temperature by 5 degrees each week until outside ambient temperature is reached. Clean water and chick starter feed need to be easily accessible.  On a daily basis remove the towels, shake the manure into the compost pile and replace with another clean towel.

At about 5- 6 weeks of age, the chicks will be independent enough that they can be moved to a protected outside enclosure with roosting space and shelter.  Expect to be a good mama hen, keep them out of drafts or damp and away from predators like dogs, cats and raccoons.  Do not leave cat, dog or chicken feed out at night as this attracts predators like raccoons, opossums and skunks.  Chilling of birds is the most likely cause of poultry diseases, many of which are airborne. Keeping birds protected from extremes of weather and good hygiene reduces chances of infection when supported by proper nutrition.

Young pullets begin laying eggs at 20 weeks of age.  Most breeds of meat birds are ready to be dressed at 6-8 weeks, depending on the desired product.  Young hens need a safe, secluded place to lay eggs, and young meat birds should be restricted to small pens to encourage tender growth.  Eggs do not need to be refrigerated unless they have been washed, extra eggs can be shared with neighbors or removed from shells, whisked, and frozen.  Dispatching meat chickens or non-laying (spent) hens is not an overwhelming project with prior preparation.  A garage or well-lit shed will suffice.  Assemble the following materials:

  1. A large pot for scalding water with a few drops dish detergent, deep enough to hold water and a whole chicken. Gas camp stove or indoor rangetop.
  2. A table covered with newspapers to catch feathers from plucking and blood .     
  3. Sharp knives and kitchen scissors.
  4. Coolers of ice to chill the birds, after washing the carcass in a large sink.
  5. Storage bags or vacuum bags and sealer to  preserve the birds for freezing, or largemouth canning jars to pressure cook canned meats.

Do not feed the chickens the day you plan to slaughter them.  Use para-cord to hang the live bird by its feet (slip knotted) from a tree limb, clothes line or etc.  Use the knife or shears to cut the jugular vein below the jawbone.  Allow the bird to hang and exsanguinate until dead.  [JWR Adds: A killing cone that retrains the chicken in a head down position minimizes the flapping and blood splatter. For smaller breed chickens, a plastic milk jug with the bottom cut off and the top spout enlarged slightly will suffice. You can attach it to a tree with a couple of drywall screws. For more sturdy designs, do a web search. There are lots of designs available on the Internet.] Be prepared for flopping and blood dripping below.  Once the bird is dead, use the legs like handles and dip the bird repeatedly in the hot water until  all the feathers are wet.  Keeping the bird too long in hot water will cook the skin, too cool a water temp will make plucking difficult. Depending upon if the work is done in cool weather or hot, water temperature must be continually monitored.

Pluck the chicken, remove the head and feet.  Remove the crop, esophagus and trachea (which makes a neat whistle!) from the neck side.  Split the skin of the abdomen under the breast bone, carefully bung the rectum and remove all the entrails and the lungs.  Reserve the liver, heart and gizzard if so desired.  Wash the bird thoroughly inside and out.  It is ready to be frozen whole or cut up in parts and canned the in the pressure canner.  If the chicken is going right to the table, soak it in a mild salt water solution while chilling it.  Then prepare older birds in the crock pot for dumplings, or fry younger birds. 

Discard the entrails [forelegs, heads] and feathers in the compost pile, or feed the entrails to your self-sufficient pig.  Pat yourself on the back for graduating from the preppers school of poultry life skills.

[JWR Adds: Chicken entrails should not go in your compost pile if you live in bear country. Bury them several hundred yards away from your house, or you will have uninvited guests!]