As both an organic, pastured chicken farmer and someone very interested in preparing for any possible future disruption in the food chain, I have given much thought to what it would take to keep my flock going if everything went to heck in a hand basket.
Eggs or Meat?
Over the past several generations, chickens have been selectively bred to either grow fast and put on lots of meat quickly or crank out eggs like a Pez dispenser. The problem with this specialization of breeds is that it has created fragile, problem prone chickens. The modern breeds require high octane specialized feed and even then suffer from leg crippling problems and deformities. Also problematic is the fact that modern meat birds can no longer mate naturally and must be artificially inseminated to reproduce. This is not a good scenario if you are trying provide your family with a sustainable source of fresh meat when you can no longer swing by the grocery store for some plastic-wrapped boneless, skinless chicken breasts.
Ready, Set, Go
To have any hope of realistically raising chickens for meat or eggs in a survival situation there are several factors that must be addressed. Don’t even hope to be able to do any of this after everything goes to heck – you must get started and you must start now.
The single most critical factor in your success at putting fresh chicken on the table is the careful selection of breed. You must have a thrifty dual-purpose flock established before everything comes grinding to a halt. This can be three birds in your backyard or thirty birds on half an acre but whatever you do, do it today! Look for birds that can lay eggs but that are also meaty enough to justify the effort of plucking and processing when they are “spent” which is generally at two years old. If you live in colder climates, the heavily feathered Orpingtons are a great breed. In warmer climates, we prefer their heat loving cousins the Australorps. If you are looking online, look for heavy breed brown egg layers. There are many good books written on different chicken breeds and many hatcheries can point you in the right direction if you ask the right questions. Start with “What’s a good, hardy dual purpose breed that does well in (insert your climate here).
The breed you choose should be aggressive foragers but not aggressive birds. Meaning, they will actively spend their day scratching for bugs and seeds but will not try to attack your children when they collect the eggs. Most heritage breed chickens have retained the ability to shift for much of their own food but if you plan on getting many eggs out of them and keeping them meaty, you will have to supplement their diet. The more you can move them to new grass, the less you will have to provide extra feed. Luckily chickens are omnivores and as such will eat almost anything you give them. Any scraps of leftover food especially bits of meat will provide their protein needs. If you catch rabbits, game, mice or rats you can take off the bulk of the meat to feed your family and throw the rest to the chickens. They will pick the bones clean and then you can feed the rest to your pigs or guard dogs. Since you are probably planning to grow your own wheat, barley, corn etc.; set aside a small plot to feed to the chickens or make friends with a local wheat/corn farmer. Once everything crashes and burns, you’ll be able to trade darn near anything for a fresh, whole chicken. As with all of your animals, your chickens will need fresh clean water on a daily basis. Make sure during the summer they never run dry or the stress will negatively impact their health.
No Heat Lamp? No Problem
When everything is working as it should and all is right with the world, you would phone up a hatchery and have them ship some day-old chicks right to your front door. Pop the little peepers under a heat lamp and you are on your way to some tasty eggs and meat. What happens when the hatchery doesn’t answer the call, the phone doesn’t work or the post office doesn’t deliver anymore? How will you get more chicks? The answer is, if you have carefully selected the right breed, and have followed the suggestions so far, you can sit back and let nature take it’s course! Any chicken worth it’s keep will go “broody” meaning she will sit on her eggs until they hatch and then care for the baby chicks. As long as you don’t eat your breeding stock, this will continue to provide nearly unlimited replacements for the chickens that you use for meat. [JWR Adds: As I’ve mentioned in the blog once before: If your breed of chickens isn’t broody, then you can buy a few broody “foster moms” of another breed. Bantam hens are famous for their broodiness.] Although you don’t need roosters to get eggs, you will need some to get more chicks. I recommend getting roosters from at least two or three different hatcheries – that way you can ensure the genetic diversity of your flock if this becomes a long term situation.
Protect Your Flock
Everyone will want your chickens – including hawks, owls, coyotes and raccoons. Unless you live next to a pharmaceutical company and have unlimited access to antibiotics and poultry meds, don’t plan on keeping your flock indoors all the time. Chickens don’t do well in confinement and will peck at each other out of boredom and become sickly. You can build a shelter for them or buy one of the ready-made chicken houses but either way, they will need a safe place to roost at night. We keep the coyotes and raccoons at bay by surrounding the chickens with portable electric fencing that runs off a deep cycle battery with a solar panel. You can assign one of your kids to watch the chickens during the day and keep the hawks away – what else are they going to do if the Xbox doesn’t work anymore? Make sure the chicken house is closed up tight each night or owls will literally walk in and start demolishing your flock. Have enough chickens so that if you lose one or two before you find out who the new predator is – snake? skunk? opossum? – it won’t be the end of your family’s meat source.
So now you have raised some chickens, you’ve gotten eggs out of them and they are slowing down production – time for chicken and dumplings. You need minimal equipment to get your bird into an edible form. A rope and sharp knife is all it takes. Flip your bird upside down, tie the feet to something so your hands are free and slit the jugular right behind the jaw bone on each side. While the bird is still warm, pull all the feathers off – cut off the head and feet. Make a slit just above the vent (anus) making sure not to cut into the viscera. Pull out the innards and rinse the bird inside and out. You can see some great videos of this being done on youtube.com – type in “chicken processing” – forget the fancy equipment – it won’t work without some serious power and you don’t need it for a couple chickens a week anyway. It’s not hard at all to process a chicken but you might want to try it a couple times before you have to do it on an empty belly and your hungry kids staring you down. As a fun family project, make a homemade solar oven and see if you can cook up a nice casserole for dinner without using any energy at all.
With proper care, sunshine, bugs to eat and grass to nibble on, your hardy dual purpose breeds should have zero health problems and will be a joy to raise and maintain. However, if you ever see one of your birds behaving strangely, off on it’s own, making strange noises, having breathing problems, swollen eyes or any other unusual signs, cull it immediately. Don’t wait to see if it will get “better” remove it from the flock and kill it. Feed it to the pigs and check your flock constantly so that you can catch any other chickens behaving strangely and cull them immediately as well. Don’t take a chance on an illness wiping out your whole flock – healthy birds can fight off most diseases. The ones that can’t don’t need to be part of your breeding stock.
On our farm, we raise many animals – pigs, chickens, turkeys, cows, goats, rabbits, ducks, dogs and cats but in a true survival emergency the chicken will be our go-to source of meat and barter. They are easier to process than rabbits, reproduce faster than cows, grow out sooner than turkeys and are simpler to raise than pigs. They are small and kid friendly but provide critical sources of protein and fats. The right breed in the right conditions will have few health problems and will reliably produce offspring with no intervention on your part. Starting a small backyard flock today could be one of the most important steps that you can take toward survival when TEOTWAWKI arrives.
Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens by Gail Damerow
Chicken Coops: 45 Building Plans for Housing Your Flock by Judy Pangman
Keeping Chickens: The Essential Guide by Jeremy Hobson and Celia Lewis
The Joy of Keeping Chickens: The Ultimate Guide to Raising Poultry for Fun or Profit (The Joy of Series) (part of the ‘Joy of’ Series) by Jennifer Megyesi and Geoff Hansen
Chickens: Tending A Small-Scale Flock For Pleasure And Profit (Hobby Farm) by Sue Weaver