My Many Fast Failures – Part 1, by M.P.

I just learned the hard way the truth about not counting your chickens before they are hatched. This is but one of the many failures I have experienced over the past several years as I have been trying to climb the learning curve of several different self-sufficiency skills. I wanted to share my experiences with the other readers of SurvivalBlog in hopes—not so much that you can learn from my mistakes though if that happens, wonderful!—but as much as anything to encourage you to start now making your own mistakes and learning from them if you haven’t already.

“Fail fast” is a term we don’t hear a lot of anymore, but it was big in tech circles a short while ago. It essentially means try lots of things and test often, fixing mistakes and errors along the way or learning early if a different direction needs to be undertaken. It is a practice that I think we preppers should be doing now and if we aren’t already, we need to start immediately.

If this nation and this world continue along the path we seem to be heading down faster and faster, then we are going to need to be providing for ourselves from our own resources in the near future. For most of us, this will mean having not only essential materials (seeds, animals, water, protection, etc.) but the essential skill set to use and manage these resources reliably and successfully. But the reality is that many, maybe most of us, even when our stores of essentials are deep, don’t have the skills developed to such a level that we can know that we will be able to provide for ourselves and our families in the long run. This is where implementing the concept of fail fast now—when we can afford to make our mistakes and recover from them—becomes so important.

If we wait until we must depend on our skills to get by, we are past the point of easily recovering from those inevitable mistakes. And if you can learn from my mistakes and fast failures, so much the better!

My chicken saga began several years ago, when I ordered a batch of chicks from a local feed store. I did quite a bit right, I think, at first. I had the coop and a run built by the time they were to arrive. I had all the supplies I needed on hand as well. When the chicks came, they went right into the ready brood box with a heat lamp, bedding, feed, and water. The box had to be in our breezeway (I’m not sure my wife thinks I did this part right as still years later she claims the breezeway smells like chickens) because of the cold temperatures in this region that early in the year. The box had a screened top to keep our cats away from the chicks, so that though they enjoyed sitting on top and watching them they couldn’t do them any harm. We enjoyed them, too, as did any grandkids or other children who came to visit.

At the right time, they were moved to the coop and they seemed to thrive. On days that my wife or I were at home, we let them free range, which kept costs down, and gave them good, natural food, which was reflected in the high quality of the eggs. One professional cook who bought from us declared them among the best eggs she had ever found. We were able to sell the excess eggs to church and work friends and cover the ongoing costs of the birds, with a bit of profit to boot. Plus we had no tick problems in our yard during those years.

Now, in spite of those many successes, this article is about the failures and lessons from them, right? Well, some early lessons were that my coop should have been larger. It was sized for the number of birds I had, but with no room for growth. Not a problem right away, but it is now when I want to grow my flock—something I had planned from the beginning. I also built only two next boxes, adequate for the small flock, but not for the larger one I have now. It would have been better to build larger at not much more cost.

The only option I have now is to either build a second coop or expand the first one, at more labor and cost and possibly wasting materials that have to be removed. The run, too, was built short to save money, but it is extremely awkward to work in as a result. I should have built a human-sized run rather than a chicken-sized one. I want to expand my flock but these things are now obstacles rather than purely assets. These, and some of the other mistakes, are mostly inconveniences, and I could live with them long term if I had to without serious problem. On the other hand…

Free-ranging the birds, too, was good, but with a severe downside that, while anticipated, was worse than expected. Various predators decimated that first flock over the two years I had them. I lost one or two, as I had expected, to dogs and a fox that grabbed one in broad daylight with my wife not 30 feet away. The one night that I didn’t shut the remaining birds in the coop in time was the night that the coyotes visited, taking the rest of the flock. Lesson learned, and my current flock does not free range, more is the pity in some respects.

I was able to cope with this major loss because I could get replacement birds, but if they were not available, as they likely won’t be in the future, that would have been the end of that protein source.

Money always being an issue, I opted for a temporary fence made of 7’ net fencing on ¾” poles purchased from Tractor Supply and Home Depot and made a pasture area for the new flock. I made gates by designing and 3D printing some pieces to form closures that could easily be handled one-handed. It took three tries to get the closure pieces right (more failures), but I am satisfied with the final design and they have held up well. The poles turned out to be quite flimsy and while fine if there is no stress on them, such as the neighbors horse masquerading as a dog (a Great Dane) who liked to visit the chickens when he was a puppy. Fortunately he isn’t predatory! But he could go through that fence, breaking the poles as if they weren’t there.

I was gradually replacing those poles with T-posts, starting with strategic locations. I wasn’t fast enough this year in purchasing, though, and the 8’ T-posts cannot be found for love or money at this point, so I am stuck for another year with several weak points in the fencing that might allow actual predators in. So far, so good, and I have lost no birds this past two years, but I am now religious about locking the birds up or having a neighbor let them out and put them in when I am out of town.

Chickens seem to offer an endless variety of ways to experiment and learn (a nice way of saying make mistakes) and I jumped on the chance to do that when one of my birds went broody. My second flock was nine Wyandottes—a wonderful, beautiful dual-purpose breed, though not quite as personable as the Buff Orpingtons from the first flock—which I had also brooded myself. I wanted to try having this bird raise some chicks partly to keep peace at home, and because this would be a necessary skill down the road. (This was the second bird that went broody, BTW. The first went broody when I wasn’t ready so I had to learn how to break her out of broodiness since broody hens aren’t laying hens.)

I also knew that I wanted to learn how to breed my own replacement flock, so I set the broody on some fake eggs in a separated cage and ordered five day old Wyandotte roosters. When they came, I swapped the chicks for the fake eggs at night while she was in her zombie-like sleep state, and she was a happy mama the next morning. There was a lot to learn at this point, but as most things went well during this time, I won’t elaborate on that. One lesson I learned that could have been a failure was that the other birds do not always take kindly to chicks and several times I had to save a few of them from being pecked to death by the hens.

The birds grew up and the four roosters (bird sexing is not perfect, I found, and one of the “roosters” was actually a hen) came into their own. As a humorous aside, we found that adolescent roosters have the same problem with cracking voices as adolescent boys do and we had a few fun weeks of hearing their early attempts at crowing. When they were obviously reaching the point that they would begin fighting, possibly to the death, for primacy, I selected the one I wanted to keep and rehomed the other three to other folks looking for roosters. This left me with a flock of ten hens and one rooster, a pretty decent ratio, but already too many layers for the nest boxes.

(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 2.)