Raising Chickens as a Sustainable Food Source
More and more people are getting on the road of looking out for their own survival. With a questionable economy, political and social turmoil, and an overall question mark on our way of life people are starting to realize that we need to take our fate into our own hands.
In order to feed themselves and their families more people are turning to hunting, fishing, gardening and raising livestock. In this piece I will look at the options and benefits of raising poultry; chickens to be more specific.
Raising chickens is where most people start when they’re interested in getting to the next level of self-sufficiency, beyond large stores of long-term food storage, and there is more to it than you might think. To learn about what it takes, I visited Woodland Farm in Goshen, Kentucky and Julie’s Happy Hens in Mont Vernon, New Hampshire.
According to Matt at Julie’s Happy Hens, poultry are considered “gateway animals” meaning that they are usually the animals that most people start with when they are looking to raise livestock as food. Some may stay with poultry while others may branch into other animals such as goats and sheep. Still others may take it even further and get into pigs and cattle. The bottom line is that it all has to start somewhere.
What is Meant by “Poultry”?
Before we go any further we need to define the term “poultry” because it is a very broad and sweeping one. It encompasses all forms of birds that have been domesticated for food production whether that is for meat or eggs. Into this category fall such species as domesticated ducks, geese, turkeys and chickens. Though all of these birds are viable choices for the person looking for a family food source, to cover them all would be impossible in one article. For that reason, this piece will deal with the most popular: chickens.
A Chicken is a Chicken, or is it?
For the most part, the chickens that you purchase at the grocery store, unless marked otherwise, are factory birds that have been manipulated by humans through many different means to provide food for the masses. Many of the eggs you buy were produced by hens that have become nothing more than egg-laying robots. Thankfully, this is not the case for all poultry. There are many small farms out there that raise their birds, no matter what type they are, the old way. The products produced by these birds are just as nature intended. It is the lessons from these people that I will share with you.
“MANY OF THE EGGS YOU BUY WERE PRODUCED BY HENS THAT HAVE BECOME NOTHING MORE THAN EGG-LAYING ROBOTS.”
Like with horses and cattle, the heritage breeds of chickens are those breeds that have been traditionally raised by humans for thousands of years. From my research, it seems that there is no breed of domestic poultry that has not been manipulated by humans in some form or another. How much manipulation and over what time period is what makes heritage breeds different from the genetic mutants that often find themselves sealed onto Styrofoam plates in the grocery store.
To confuse things even further, heritage breeds of chickens are broken down into Foundation and Composite breeds. So what is the difference?
Foundation, or heirloom, breeds are those birds whose origins have been lost over the centuries. These birds have developed naturally over time by the environment they lived in.
This is not to be confused with the term “landrace” where development is governed by the natural world with no “new blood” added from the outside, thus becoming a distinct genetic pool. Heirloom poultry naturally breed with others of their species to form their lineage over time. Ultimately, these birds became the foundations for the other birds to come; the Composite breeds.
Composite breeds are those old style birds that were purposely developed, based on the genetic pool of the Foundation birds in the 19th and 20th centuries. People crossed certain Foundation breeds together to get the birds for egg and meat production. These became the birds being raised for the early poultry industry and backyard flocks. Composite breeds still have many of the positive traits of the Foundation breeds, such as the natural ability to forage, good fertilization and resistance to diseases and pests. Some good examples of these birds include the Rhode Island Red, New Hampshire Red and Plymouth, or Barred, Rock.
A chicken like the Araucana cross is another good example. The Araucana was a wild form of chicken originally found in South America. What drew people to this bird is the fact that it laid blue eggs. Most Araucana crosses have many of the traits of their wild ancestors. They are expert foragers, they lay blue colored eggs and they can even fly.
Most heritage breeds are named after the people or the region where they were developed. This is important. Matt told me that the birds were developed for one or more of the following reasons: 1) meat production, 2) egg production and/or 3) climate tolerance. Whatever climate you live in you want to make sure that you get birds that can withstand that climate.
Heritage breeds tend to mature much slower than many commercial breeds found on the factory farms. They also tend to lay less, or even stop laying altogether, in the winter. Matt told me temperature and light has a great deal to do with egg production. For that reason, Julie’s Happy Hens keeps their coops at a constant temperature and the laying area has supplemental lighting in the winter to mimic the light available during the warmer months.
What is the Best for You?
That is a very open question but it needs to be based on which breeds will thrive in the environment you will provide. Then, your next choice is whether you want eggs, meat or both? Some poultry are naturally great egg layers, while others are good meat birds. Some do both. Identify this preference to be able to move to your next choice- the breed.
“KEEP IN MIND THAT CHICKENS, LIKE ANY OTHER LIVESTOCK, ARE A LOT OF WORK. IF YOU ARE READY TO TAKE THIS ON THEN YOU ARE ON YOUR WAY TO BEING INDEPENDENT OF THE FOOD SUPPLY CHAIN THAT IS ULTIMATELY PRETTY FRAGILE.”
Matt said, “People new to raising chickens should pick birds that are designed for the environment in which they live”. While other birds may stay alive in extreme conditions, they will lose weight and stop laying. Though Julie’s Happy Hens has New Hampshire Red and Rhode Island Red crosses, which are egg layers, Matt told me a good heritage dual purpose bird that people should look at is the Delaware, which is known for both decent egg production and its meat value.
What Do You Need?
So, you have picked the birds, now what do you do? There are a few topics you need to address. How much land can you devote to the chickens? How will you protect the chickens from predators, from both land and sky? Are your birds just for your own use or do you plan on selling the meat and eggs? How you answer these questions will determine how many birds you will need, or want. “Factory” egg farms have at least 20,000 laying birds. Julie’s Happy Hens, though they sell their eggs, doesn’t operate like a factory farm. Nonetheless, they have 3,000 birds.
Matt told me that, for a healthy flock, you will need 100 square feet of open land per bird, not including the nesting area. The nesting area should measure two square feet per bird. This could equal a very large space so you need to keep this in mind when acquiring your birds.
When I visited Woodland Farm in Kentucky, I discovered that, besides raising heritage chickens, they also raise bison and heritage hogs. Manager Kristopher Kelley took me for a tour and what I found interesting is how they care for their chickens. Just as they rotate the pastures for the bison, they do the same with the chickens. They do this for a few reasons. First, it helps to keep the ground from being worn out. Second, the chickens keep the tick and other insect populations under control by their natural foraging and third, the chickens survive a great deal upon natural forage which in turn cuts down on feed bills.
As chickens will not roam too far from their nesting boxes Woodland Farm has the nesting boxes travel with the chickens. Built onto old trailer frames, the boxes are totally portable and are moved from field to field and even within the same field. The backyard chicken farmer can do the same thing, though on a smaller scale using a “chicken trailer”. While there are “chicken trailers” commercially available, you can easily make your own for a small amount of money and a little elbow grease.
Protection From Predators
Predation from the ground and the air is always an issue. You need to face the fact that you will lose birds to predators. You can cut your losses a few ways. There is fencing and overhead netting, and then there are the natural ways. None of them are foolproof, but using them will help.
Fencing will work to a point. The fencing needs to have small enough mesh to keep animals like skunks, raccoons and foxes out. Overhead netting, which is primarily used to keep hawks out, will help as well. Giving the chickens a place to seek shelter is probably one of the best things you can do.
Woodland Farm has a unique way to protect their birds, especially when they are in the roosting trailer. As the roosting boxes are built upon the metal frame of an old trailer, they have attached solar panels to the top of the boxes. The panels supply electricity that runs to the metal frame. The current doesn’t affect the chickens, but when a land predator puts its paws on any metal portion and then steps off the ground it gets a shock.
“COMPOSITE BREEDS STILL HAVE MANY OF THE POSITIVE TRAITS OF THE FOUNDATION BREEDS, SUCH AS THE NATURAL ABILITY TO FORAGE, GOOD FERTILIZATION AND RESISTANCE TO DISEASES AND PESTS.”
Julie’s Happy Hens uses a natural way to help protect their birds. Among the chickens are Guinea fowl. These birds will sound the alarm if anything is out of the ordinary. Then there are the roosters. Many of the younger, non-dominant roosters pull guard duty. When a predator is detected the roosters will start to herd the hens back to the safety of the coop.
So, whether you are looking for a food source to support your family or for a means of income or bartering to get those things you need, chickens are a good place to start. Keep in mind that chickens, like any other livestock, are a lot of work. If you are ready to take this on then you are on your way to being independent of the food supply chain that is ultimately pretty fragile.
Keep it Clean
Clean, uncrowded birds are happy, healthy birds. Keeping up with the manure is a constant chore, but it needs to be done. To help keep things as clean as possible here are a few things you can do.
1) Don’t overcrowd your birds: The more birds in one area, the more manure that needs to be taken care of.
2) Clean often: Sure, it is a pain, but it will pay off in the long run. Excess manure not only stinks, but it also attracts vermin and disease. Remember, chicken manure is an excellent fertilizer for your garden.
3) Don’t overfeed: This is a common error that can lead to big problems. Excess food attracts rodents and rodents attract predators. Rodents also eat eggs and chicks and they carry disease.
Uses for Your Chicken Byproducts
By far, the greatest byproduct of chickens is their manure, which makes an excellent garden fertilizer and a valuable barter item.
Eggshells should be put in your compost pile to boost its level of calcium and then added to your garden.
The bones of all fowl, including chickens, have been used for centuries to make fishing hooks and game calls.
While I wouldn’t use chicken feathers for stuffing a pillow or arrow fletching, they will work in a survival situation.
What’s In it For Me?
|Breed||Delaware||NH Red||RI Red||Plymouth/ Barred Rock||
|Estimated Egg Production/Year||280||200||260||250||250|
|Mature Hen Weight||
|6.5 pounds||6.5 pounds||7.5 pounds||4 pounds|
|Weeks to Mature||12||20||19||20||20|
Predators are something you are going to have to live with. All predators are opportunists, so if you give them an opening they will take it. The top five predators you will most likely deal with are:
1) All members of the weasel family: This group includes weasels, skunks, fisher and mink. When putting up fencing, remember that if they can get their head through the mesh, the body will soon follow.
2) Raccoons: Raccoons are true opportunists, basically eating anything they can get their paws on, including your chickens.
3) Foxes: Leave the door open and a fox will get in. They may only take one bird at a time but if they aren’t stopped, they will be back for more.
4) Bobcats: Not as big a problem as foxes, bobcats will try to avoid humans at all costs, but they are not above snatching a free meal.
5) Bears: Bears will eat just about anything and if they want something they usually get it. If a bear really wants your chickens a non-electrified fence will not stop it.
6) Birds of prey: Hawks, eagles and even vultures have been known to swoop in and grab a meal. If you have a small area, then netting will keep the hawks away. If you are letting the chickens roam over a large area, make sure that they have a place with overhead cover to hide in.
Murray McMurray Hatchery
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the January, 2018 print issue of American Survival Guide.