Low Maintenance Animals That Work For You: Chickens, Rabbits, and Goats

When I began to plan my families survival food stores, it quickly became apparent that if/when we lose our suburban grocery store lifestyle, my stores are only going to last a limited time.  I also realized that there is a point at which more food is pointless without more trucks to move it and more people to drive them and more mouths to feed requiring more food.  I live in Phoenix, in the suburbs, in the middle of one of the harshest deserts in the world, where any TEOTWAWKI scenario will be a G.O.O.D. situation.  Relocation now is a desirable but unattainable option, so I am preparing to the best of my ability.  The solution to this vicious food cycle is to develop a plan that incorporates short term emergency food with long term sustainable food generation.  To this end, my plan includes emergency food to sustain my family through transitional periods, a garden and a store of non hybrid seeds for future planting, and carefully selected livestock which the rest of this article will be devoted to.

The idea of having to rely entirely on hunting or fishing for meat and other animal products does not seem sound to me.  Sport fishing becomes sport crawdad catching when the Game and Fish Department haven’t stocked the rivers and streams of Arizona, and if the populations of major cities were suddenly all roaming the countryside trying to find food I imagine game would become scarce.   My solution: become the crazy neighbor with all the weird pets.  (I tried to be subtle, but roosters crow at five a.m. and my goats aren’t silent all day long either.)  But, I have very strict criteria for all my ‘pets’.  #1 They must be useful for feeding my family.  #2 They must be low maintenance and able to feed on forage.  #3 They must be small enough to be kept in my suburban backyard and small enough to go on the road if we need to bug out. #4 They must be hardy and disease resistant.  Cows, pigs and horses are too big for the backyard, too expensive and complicated to care for, and would be impossible to bug out with, but chickens, rabbits, and dwarf goats are compact, practical, low maintenance, and a renewable source of eggs, meat, and milk.   

Chickens/ Eggs

When I first started looking at small scale livestock, the obvious place to start was chickens.  There is no end to the benefits of the egg.  They are a source of protein and healthy fats that you can’t get from gardening alone.  I purchased my first baby chicks as an impulse buy and thought they could just free range in my back yard after outgrowing the box in my laundry room.  Turns out the free range plan had drawbacks and after the dog ate my baby chicks we put a little more planning into action.  A year later, we have healthy, thriving birds, tons of eggs and we only spend 3 or 4 minutes a day caring for them. 

Chickens are very low maintenance critters.  In a back yard setting they need food, water and shelter.  Shelter can be just about anything that keeps the dog out.  Ours is a 4 ft. by 4 ft. cube made of 2×2 lumber enclosed by plywood on one end and chicken wire on the other, with a little door and some roosts.  Or, they can free range, but you’ll want to clip their wings to keep them from flying over the wall, you’ll have to hunt for the eggs, and instead of cleaning the coop once every few months you’ll be cleaning chicken feces off everything all the time, and then there’s that whole dog thing.  I feed commercial food, because it’s easier in our compact space, but they can feed on forage alone, they like bugs and grass.  The watering is the most difficult part because it gets nasty quickly.  You have to change it frequently(like twice a day).  I solved this by making some nipple style bucket waterers.  Now all I do is check the water level of the buckets and top them off every now and then.  You can get the nipples for under $2 on line at farmtek.com and find information about making them through an internet search.   

I ordered my chicks on line because I was very selective about the breed.  There are hundreds of breeds of chicken and some are bred for eggs, some for meat and some for both.  I chose Wyandottes because they are a dual purpose bird, good egg production and still meaty enough for dinner.  They are also relatively quiet, docile, and bear confinement well.  The web site backyardchickens.com has detailed information on the characteristics of different breeds and links to mail order suppliers.  When you order through the mail you usually have to buy a minimum of 25 or they won’t survive shipment.  Twenty five birds is a lot so plan on butchering some or go in with someone else or sell your extras on craigslist.  And of course a handful just won’t make it through the first week so get at lease a few more than you need.  After that they are very hardy.  

Each of my five birds lay about five eggs in seven days giving us two dozen eggs a week.  I also have two roosters (just in case one dies) so that we can hatch our own fertile eggs.  To hatch eggs, you can buy an expensive incubator, but all you really need is a box, bedding, a thermometer and a hygrometer that can be found in reptile supplies at pet stores so that you can monitor and adjust the temp and humidity, and turn the eggs every day.  You do not need a rooster for your hens to lay eggs for eating.  A rooster will keep your hens bred resulting in eggs that are fertile and can be hatched out.  You only need one rooster for about a dozen hens, but it’s always good to have a spare.  There is very little difference between eating fertile and non fertile eggs.  When you collect your eggs, the ones for hatching should be kept warm and the ones for eating should be refrigerated, or kept cool, this will prevent them from growing into baby chicks.  It takes about twenty days for chicks to hatch, it takes about five months for the hens to grow to laying age, then they will lay for two to three years, then dinner.  Butchering and plucking are not as difficult as they sound either.  The hardest part is waiting for them to stop moving after you kill them, (I’m girlier than I thought).  You can find anything you need to know about chickens on line, but it’s a good idea to have a reference book in hard copy. 

In a G.O.O.D. scenario, we have a 2×3 ft wire cage that they all will fit into for transport in the back of our truck and I made a lightweight run out of PVC and cloth netting that can be easily assembled and broken down in the wilderness.  It is low to the ground and has a larger footprint, 5ft by 10 ft by 2 ft tall, so I can move it around allowing the birds to find forage during the day and be returned to the more secure wire cage at night when predators might be out.  After the initial investment of the birds and their equipment, and the work of building the shelter and setting up the bucket waterers and the homemade incubator, their daily care consists of dumping a cup of feed in their trough twice a day.  I spend 12-15 dollars a month on feed but I get 8 to 10 dozen eggs in a month. 

Rabbits/Meat

According to what I’ve read on line and in books, rabbit meat is among the most nutritious you can eat.  They are also easier to butcher than chickens, no messing around with feathers, and provide you with leather.  There are several breeds of meat rabbit.  I picked New Zealand because I found a local supplier.  Another meat breed is Californian and now we have one girl of that breed as well.  The pet rabbit world is a little offended by the idea of meat rabbits, so you might want to be subtle.  For instance, a craigslist search for meat rabbit will come up empty, but if you search for homestead rabbit or New Zealand rabbit you’re more likely to yield results. 

Rabbits are easier than chickens to care for.  The trick is to be clever about their hutch set up to minimize extra work.  Each rabbit needs their own hutch or else they will fight.  We had two sisters together for a long time and thought they were fine, but as soon as they reached maturity they began trying to dominate each other and had to be separated.   We have very roomy hutches for them here in the backyard, but a few well placed pieces of plywood will divide one cage into separate spaces for each rabbit in a G.O.O.D. situation.  We made them out of 2×2 lumber, plywood and hardware cloth for some sides and the floor.  The bottom of the hutches are made of hardware cloth so that the feces falls through and the rabbits feet stay clean and dry.  This is important for their health.  Our hutches sit on a 2×6 frame on the ground filled loosely with straw.  This absorbs the urine and contains the feces.  Rabbit manure is extremely good for the soil so every three months or so we move the hutches off to the side and shovel the whole mess into a wheelbarrow and into the garden.  Rabbit manure does not have to compost.  It can be added straight to the soil.  The babies won’t do well straight down on the hardware cloth.  So we add nesting boxes to the hutches a week before kindling.  The bottoms of the nesting boxes are made of tighter hardware cloth and filled with dried grass, and then momma rabbit lines it with her own fur.  The doe is completely self sufficient with her young.  Just keep her fed and she knows what to do.    

We feed a commercial rabbit food for the same reason as the chickens, it’s just easier in the city.  But our californian doe is an escape artist and she lives under the shed for weeks at a time with no food provided from me.  I save all my veggie scraps and strawberry tops for them and give them weeds from the yard.  If they had to subsist on forage they would be fine.  We use the same bucket style watering system that we made for the chickens, with the same nipples and all.  We have one five gallon bucket from the hardware store sitting on top of the last hutch and a length of PVC pipe that drops down then angles and spans the length of the hutches with a cap on the end.  Each hutch has a water nipple poking in through the hardware cloth side.   Fill one bucket, water every rabbit, yeah!  A five gallon bucket is more than a month’s supply of water for five rabbits and it stays surprisingly clean. 

Now for the good part, the gestation period for the rabbit is about a month.  They have 8 to 12 kits per litter.  It takes about two months for the young to be up to butchering size, which coincides with weaning so you only ever have to feed the doe. New Zealands give about three pounds of meat per rabbit.  So you’re looking at 20-30 lbs of meat every three months per doe.  If we round that to 25 lbs, you’re looking at 100 lbs of meat per doe per year.  This rapid turn around is what makes them so valuable.  Of course, not every mating results in pregnancy, not every litter is born alive, and sometimes mom isn’t producing enough milk for all the kits, so the law of redundancy is important.  Breed more than one doe at the same time.  I’d rather have too much than not enough.  Rabbits are also less hardy and disease resistant than chickens, but keeping one particular animal alive is not as important.  If one isn’t healthy, cull it.   Frequently save your strongest kits for new breeding stock.  It takes eight months for them to reach maturity, so plan ahead. 

The other main advantage to rabbits are their hides.  Tanning is surprisingly easy, but yucky.  All you need is an acid/brine solution, a plastic bin, and gloves.  I followed the directions in the book Backyard Livestock: Raising Good, Natural Food for Your Family, by Steven Thomas and George Looby (ISBN-13: 978-0-88150-760-7).  It worked great.  Water, salt and two ounces of sulfuric acid, which I found at a prospecting supply store, mix in the plastic bin, add the hides and shove it in the shed for a month.  I couldn’t make shoes from the leather, rabbit is too thin, but there are a million other uses for it.  Tanning in a wilderness setting is a topic for future research. 

Goats/Milk

Goats are getting a little further into the realm of farming than backyard pets, but in the city I live in, a person can keep two dwarf breed animals in a suburban backyard, under the exotic pets exemption.   The Nigerian Dwarf Breed is perfect for this purpose.  They were bred specifically for milk and have a higher butterfat content than other breeds.  Their milk is also less goaty tasting than the stuff you can buy at the store.  They are about the size of a medium to large dog, smaller than my border collie, but bigger than my beagle.  They won’t do well alone so you must have two.

They need a shelter that will keep them out of the elements.  A doghouse is fine.  They also need enough space to move about.  I wouldn’t suggest letting them roam free in the backyard because it’s easier to clean up after them if the mess is contained to one area and they will eat things you may not want them to eat.  We enclosed a corner of our yard with chain link fencing.  It’s about 15x15ft, very roomy for them, and then we put down a layer of straw.  We have a heavy duty bucket for their water, we tried the nipple style and they figured out how to use it, but I didn’t feel like they were getting enough that way.  We feed them alfalfa hay and a loose mineral supplement that includes copper.  They must have this.  It’s also sold in bricks like a salt lick but the brick melts away in the rain.  We leave a few spoonfuls of loose minerals in a pan in the pen and it lasts for weeks.  We also feed them baking soda.  They have complicated digestion and baking soda helps them with tummy aches.  We just leave a little in the pen and they eat it when they want.  For a treat, they love animal crackers.  Grooming includes keeping their hooves trimmed.  If you buy goats make sure you get ones that have been tested for CAE.  CAE is a virus that causes a joint disease and animals can carry the virus with no symptoms.  It is non-communicable to humans so the milk is safe for consumption from an infected animal, but it is communicable to other goats through nursing and breeding.  If your goat has this virus they might eventually need significant veterinary care. In a survival situation you must have healthy animals or you’ve wasted your efforts. 

I have two female goats, one is barely up to breeding age, 8 mos, and the other is pregnant.  The gestation period is about six months and they have one to three kids usually, sometimes more.  I have been caring for them for a while now but we haven’t been milking yet.  This next bit of info is the result of research and has not been tested by experience, yet.  Nigerians give up to a quart of milk per day.  You’ll need a milk pail, strainer and strip cup, preferably all made of seamless, stainless steel.  Nigerians are small so your milk pail shouldn’t be huge.  You wash the udders before milking, and then collect a test sample in the strip cup.  Look at it and smell it.  If the milk seems off, milk the animal, but toss it out.  If the milk looks and smells normal, keep it.  After you’re done milking, pour the milk through the strainer to remove any hair that may have fallen in.  Pasteurize or don’t pasteurize depending on you personal preference by boiling the milk to kill possible pathogens.  This will also kill beneficial enzymes.  Now you can make butter and cheese.  My grandmother made what she called “kick butter.”  She put the cream in a gallon glass jar with some ball bearings and the women would sit and sew, or chat, while rolling the jar back and forth across the floor with their feet, kicking butter. 

My girly goats are not as low maintenance as my rabbits and chickens, but daily care still only takes a few minutes to toss out some hay and check their water and minerals.  When the kids come, the milking process will add 15 minutes twice a day to my chores.   Every few months we use a gas powered tiller and turn the soil under, burying the old chicken feces and straw, and then we lay down new straw.    Eventually this is going to be very, very good soil for the garden.

When the SHTF, we have a large dog crate that they will both fit into to travel in the back of the truck.  They walk on a leash and we also have a corkscrew stake and 20 foot tether that we can use in the wilderness to let them roam about during the day.   They can also survive on forage and a wilderness shelter can easily be constructed for them that suits the climate in question.  We do not have a buck because they need to be housed separately and we don’t have the room.  I am trying to talk my sister into housing a buck for us in her backyard, but have been unsuccessful so far.  If the SHTF before I work out this detail we will be praying for a baby buckling to mate to our other doe and keep the whole thing going. (Our girls aren’t related.) 

In Conclusion

This article is intended to provide an overview of the ease and benefits of raising small livestock in a suburban setting and a survival situation.  It is not all inclusive or a replacement for doing your homework.  Again, a good book to start with is the book Backyard Livestock: Raising Good, Natural Food for Your Family.  It provides a range of information on raising and harvesting animals. 

Since I began my experiments in small scale livestock, my family has completely changed our eating habits.  I started this because I want to know that I have the skills to feed my family if there are no  grocery stores.  But now, whether TEOTWAWKI happens or not, we are trying to become grocery store free.  It is rewarding in ways I can’t capture with words.  Food from restaurants I used to love, tastes like cardboard and motor oil now.  My husband and I sit in the backyard in the evening surrounded by life.  I love watching him sweet talk the chickens when collecting the eggs.  My children are learning to respect nature, understand food, and give thanks to God for it.  My first experience with butchering was also very eye opening.  There’s a reason why the first kill turned a child into a man in primitive societies, now I know I can do what it takes to feed my family. 

One final note, the skills you acquire from these kinds of things are far more important than the stuff you collect.  You can’t expect to try something new for the first time in a crisis situation and have it succeed.  My first chickens were killed by our dog(we no longer own him).  My first gardening attempt was a dismal failure because my soil was bad and I didn’t know to fix it, I do now.  My first litter of rabbits died because the doe didn’t get her milk in and you can’t bottle feed rabbits successfully, now I’m growing herbs that increase milk production to feed to my rabbits and goats.  And the first two goats I bought had CAE and we had to sell them and start over.  Everything is a learning process.  Our little “mini ranch” in the city is starting to thrive now that we’re getting the kinks worked out, and I’m confident we could take this show on the road.  Get skills and experience before you are facing starvation.  Start small and take it one project at a time.  If you’ve never made food from scratch, start experimenting.  Make butter.  Sew a simple project.  Grow some herbs.  Can some food.  Don’t wait for a life and death situation to learn how to be self reliant.

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