Chickens are one of the most important yet overlooked purchases in the preparedness world. Chickens are relatively low maintenance, a joy to watch, and they offer a significant return on investment for the backyard homestead and small farm. Because they will eat anything from table scraps to fish heads, they are also very economical pre-collapse. On average, most chicks cost around three dollars each purchased from local co-ops and feed stores. They can also be bought online for reasonable prices (shipping costs are high, however, due to Postal Service regulations) and delivered to your local post office. Chickens of a variety of ages and breeds can be found on Craigslist or on local community advertisements.
Due to the fact that a small number of chickens can be kept most anywhere (most city ordinances allow for at least a few), the cost of even a small batch of them can be made back after a couple months of steady laying. Water can be collected from rain via five gallon buckets, and a small amount of purchased feed can be supplemented with a bowl of milk every day (for protein), as well as any extra table scraps after meals. There are many reasons for keeping chickens, but I will cover the three most important: eggs, meat, and soil fertilizer. Most hens will normally lay four to six eggs per week in their first four years, after which their laying starts to drop off. The eggs are a healthy source of fat, as well as a source of protein. Their meat, on the other hand, provides a solid meal, with many uses, such as a healthy broth from the chicken itself, and soup from the bones. Thirdly, the chicken’s droppings and scratching both aerate and enrich the dirt on the areas they have been on. This may seem less important now, but the opportunity to maximize your soil potential could be critical in a collapse. A small flock of chickens in a concentrated, movable pen over spread out compost can both loosen your soil via the chickens scratching, and increase the soils fertility (it also substantially lowers the amount of actual feed you need to find or purchase for them). Also, consider the long benefits of an average-sized flock of laying, broody-inclined hens, and a full-grown rooster. Most people anticipate an economic collapse following the hyper-inflation of the American dollar. While I agree with them (this seems to be the most plausible outcome), what if it’s a solar storm or a calculated government power grab? In both of these scenarios, there most likely won’t be an economic start-over for a long time, due to the very nature of these events. You can’t eat .308 Winchester, and pre-1965 silver coins don’t hold a whole lot of flavor. And while both of these things should have an important place in our purchases, you should at least have one way to continue food production to augment any bulk food storage, and a flock of chickens is one of the best ways to start.
There are three ways to start a chicken flock: The first way is to mail-order chicks from an established hatchery (such as Murray McMurray) or to purchase them from a store (such as Tractor Supply or a local feed store). When mail-ordering chicks, consider the date they are hatched. Chicks are more likely to survive if delivered in the summer or late spring, due to the fact that these months are warmer in most parts of North America. The second way is to hatch them yourselves with an incubator, and fertilized eggs which can be bought online. In this scenario, eggs are placed in a climate-controlled styrofoam box for around twenty-one days, and turned frequently so as to simulate an actual hen’s turning. There are many, many incubators (some with an automatic egg turner), with varying degrees of cost. Lastly is getting a hen to set on her own eggs .Obviously this not an option for new chicken owners, but will be the only way to get more chicks for those without a power source after the collapse. I highly recommend only buying breeds that will go broody on a regular basis, and in doing so giving yourself a somewhat steady supply of chicks. There are three important things that you need to have to make an easy transition from newly hatched chicks to started (or feathered) ones: warmth, shelter, and clean ground. Warmth, which can be provided in a number of ways, is essential in the first two to three weeks (before they start to feather). This role is normally filled by a heat lamp. However, because the majority of survival situations involve no electricity, a heat lamp will not be an option. An alternative way to provide heat is to select a broody hen from your flock and, at night, remove her from her eggs and put her with the chicks. She will think she hatched them. While uncommon, it does sometimes happen that a hen will leave her brood, in which case there is not a whole lot that can be done without electricity.
Providing safe shelter may require some serious creativity. Depending on where you keep your chicks, requisite pens and overhead shelter will need to be provided. Keeping them in either your basement or garage is recommended, as these areas are covered, and stay relatively warm throughout the winter. If you have neither available, then putting them under a covered porch or against the side of your house comes in a close second. If they are to be outside, then make sure you have at least two weatherproof tarps that are larger than the pen itself, as well as vehicle cover bungee cords to strap them down. Also, clean ground and bedding is essential in preventing disease in your chicks. I have found that pine shavings are generally the best option for my chick brooder( Note: it’s best to stay away from this option once they no longer need heat, because in a fixed, non-movable coop, much, much more feed is needed, as they will overgraze the area around them). However, depending on your region, your local Wal-mart or feed store probably won’t be open for a while after a full scale crash, and wood shavings will last less than a week if there is any moisture in it. With the aid of a machete or knife, tall grasses can be pulled or cut and laid down in the pen. Cardboard can also be laid down, but this remains clean for little more than a day or two, and is normally reserved as a short term option.
Once the chicks get their feathering in, they can be moved out into the field with the older chickens (if any), or moved into their own pen. However, if moved into a pen with the older hens, the two groups must be kept separate for at least a day. The reason for the separation is twofold: The new pullets (young female chickens not of a laying age) will get acclimated to their new surroundings, and, when the other hens come in for the night, the older ones will not be able to see the younger ones well enough to be able to peck them out. This can be accomplished by letting the hens out early in the day (preferably at daybreak) and confining the pullets to their new pen for the remainder of the day. Come morning, let all of them out, and a new pecking order will undoubtedly be established quickly.
A pen, or coop, is one of the key elements to keeping your chickens alive. There are a multitude of predators out there, such as raccoons, possums, weasels, snakes, rats, coyotes, and dogs, to name a few. In the city, there are less actual types of predators (mostly stray dogs), but they are harder to deal with. In the city, you can’t legally shoot an animal with anything more than a high-power air-rifle (Gamo makes very good, economically priced air-weapons). It is best, though, to have a good quality coop before you have any predator problems. A good coop needs to be situated on well drained, yet flat ground. If placed in a slight bowl, water will eventually rot the wood on the coop. Hardware cloth is an essential element to making your coop (nearly) predator proof. (While chicken wire is more aesthetically pleasing, I have literally seen raccoons tear it apart far enough to reach the baby chicks inside) Hardware cloth is very strong, and provides less of a claw hold for marauding animals. Three inch screws are optimal, as these give a sturdy foundation when screwed into two by fours. Finally, going against all tradition, a fixed coop style pen is not optimal, due to the fact that wood tends to rot faster in a fixed position, as well as the fact that the chickens grazing will be less concentrated. However, a top opening, long (but not too tall) pen has been, in my experience, the most predator and weather resistant type of pen I have used. This type, normally called a “chicken tractor”, is designed to be moved, and can hold a fair amount of chickens. Protecting your chickens from the weather is just as important (and as hard) as protecting them from predators. There are many combinations of factors that go into this. For example, in a snow storm or blizzard, hay or straw must be set down around the openings of the coop, and a tarp secured over any exposed tops to keep the chickens warm and dry. This also has the added benefit of hopefully adding enough warmth to keep the waterers from completely freezing over, and possibly cracking them. However, you also have to juggle the need for ventilation versus how much insulation there is. In a grid down situation, fulfilling your flock’s needs for warmth begins to get a little trickier. Hay is not always readily available. Tarps will tear, and bungee cords snap. Also, due to the cold (or heat), water sources will begin to be harder and harder to find.
Heat can also be a problem, especially for thickly feathered breeds such as Cochins or Brahmas. In light of these problems, it is best to choose breeds of chickens based on your region. There are three breeds that will normally work for most North American climates: Light Brahmas, Dark Cornish (not to be confused with the Cornish Cross, a fast-growing, hybrid meat bird), and Barred Rocks. Light Brahmas are amazing winter layers that breed frequently, and are good for meat. Dark Cornish chickens also make great meat birds, but lay well in the summer. Barred Rocks lay best in the spring and fall, and forage well. However, learn to select chickens based on where you live. Cochins (a thickly feathered breed) will not thrive in New Mexico and Shamos, small game birds originally from Japan, and best suited for hot weather, generally don’t do well in Canada. If you want to have a fast-growing meat breed, go with the Cornish-cross. This breed matures in 6-8 weeks, and has tasty meat. Make sure to provide ample shade (I know of some who go as far as making mobile shade booths, but this is unnecessary for the smaller flocks like I am describing here) and lots of water, all the time. I cannot stress the last point enough. Try to keep the waterers as clean as possible, as this makes them want to drink from them more. In the summer, check your flock frequently, and make it a habit to check them at roughly the same time every day.
Feeding your chickens in a collapse can become difficult. It is a given that most large chain stores will close, leaving you on your own when it comes to feed. However, as stated above, by God’s design chickens will eat nearly everything. Gathering the food, then, is where the problem lies. There are many sources of foods that can be found, including: dandelions, wild flowers, wild apples and berries, and some types of grasses. They also eat many different types of meat, such as: crawfish, mice, skinned squirrels, bluegills, and liver. As also said above, gathering food can be a risk; however, a fair portion of these foods can be found close to home or bartered for (providing a barter based economy is established post crunch). Also, in the event that there is still gas available and for a fair price, put that mower to work. Chickens love scratching in freshly cut grass, due to all the insects and bugs normally found in it. Water can also be collected easily, if gutters are installed. If they are not, a 55 gallon drum, or several food-grade 5 gallon buckets placed in an open location can be used as well.
Finally, to get maximum benefit from your chickens, slaughtering is an important skill. Slaughtering can be done quite easily in a grid-down, post-collapse environment if proper care is taken to prepare your workplace and your tools, and if you are informed on slaughtering procedure. Sanitation is absolutely imperative. Knives must be spotlessly clean as well as the worktable. The table can be washed with hot and soapy water or a bleach solution (rinsed down of course). The first step is to kill it (normally done with a hatchet and chopping block), and then to remove the feathers. There are two ways to do this: one is by dunking the dead and bled out rooster in boiling water for one minute and then plucking it. However, the easiest way I have found to get rid of feathers is to skin the bird, saving time and a lot of mess. This is a bit tricky for the first time, but does get easier. With skinning, slow and steady is best, as you do not want to pierce the intestines or crop. If you do decide to pluck it, you can pull the feathers yourself, or buy or make a plucker yourself. Herrick Kimball makes the best of these, and also sells plans for making your own. After skinning is accomplished, gutting is next. This is simply reaching inside the body cavity and removing the intestines, gizzard, and the lungs (by far the hardest part). Also, the neck, crop, and oil gland need to be cut away. With a good enough knife, and enough patience, slaughtering can be done. Note: Crowing roosters can possibly be heard from a long distance, and can be a security risk. It is important to learn how to slaughter before the Crunch. You may have to, and there is no reason to throw away a perfectly good rooster.
Eggs are what chickens are most associated with (we Americans love our eggs). Most hens should start laying at four to six months. They normally lay around five to six eggs per week, although this does vary depending on the breed. Eggs do not necessarily have to be refrigerated, and can stay up to ten days unrefrigerated, if they are out of the sun. It is always advised that you both wash and check your eggs for freshness. To check an egg to see if it is good, simply submerge it in a bowl of water. If it sinks, than the egg is okay, and not rotten. But if it floats, than the egg is not safe to eat. Due to the regularity of most hens laying, they represent a significant long term investment, which, in time, will pay for itself many times over. In a full scale collapse, a small flock of around ten hens and a rooster would be worth as much as gold.
Because chickens drop a lot of manure, they are great for aerating and fertilizing the soil. When eight chickens are confined to a movable 4’ by 8‘coop for just two days, they will have spread their own manure evenly over the space of a standard garden bed, as well as chopped the ground up due to heavy scratching (in most circumstances anyway; in the winter, there will necessarily be a lot less bugs, and thus a lot less scratching). If put on a same sized bed of table scraps or lawn clippings, the same thing will happen, but much less feed will be needed, along with the added benefit of the compost being worked into the ground. In a week or two, you will be able to see lush, green grass start to grow back. Also, if proper fencing is available, they can be turned loose on your garden in the winter after everything has stopped growing. This will serve to prepare the soil for the next year via loosening and aerating the soil.
Chickens are an amazing, versatile tool. Be creative, learn from your mistakes, and faithfully use the resources God has given you.