Chickens for preppers: Important considerations
I wanted to put out a guide for preppers who are interested in keeping chickens or other poultry for long term food security reasons. This is a discussion of important concepts for improving self sufficiency in flock management, not a guide for basic animal care. Please add your thoughts/comments/additions!
1. Select the right breeds and flock mix
For preppers, I recommend going with a mixed flock of hardy, dual purpose breeds that are bred for egg production levels of about 200+ eggs/yr. These birds are big enough to make a good soup/stew bird when their laying days wind down and produce higher amounts of larger eggs than fancy and bantam breeds. You want a bird that can forage well, and safely manage all season conditions without heaters or other special care requirements. Popular breeds in the dual purpose category include barred rocks, Rhode Island reds, New Hampshires, orpingtons and australorps, among others. Hybrid production/efficiency birds like ISA browns/red stars can be added to amp up egg production. I also recommend keeping a couple hens of dual purpose breeds that tend to go broody, like brahmas, in the event you want/need to produce chicks without the aid of electric incubators and brooders.
2. Size your flock for your anticipated long term needs
Egg production varies by breed, age of hen, the animal’s health, and environmental/seasonal conditions. Birds under 2 produce more eggs than older hens past their prime, and the dark days of winter can dramatically reduce egg production on a cyclical basis. Even very high temperatures in summer can throw a bird’s laying schedule out of whack. This means that a very small flock of only 3-4 birds is unlikely to produce enough eggs for a family over time, even if they produce enough when they are at their peak. So if you want 3-4 eggs a day from your birds, you will probably need about 6 hens to consistently achieve that.
3. Buy vaccinated chicks from reputable hatcheries/breeders
Many backyard keepers buy, sell, and trade the chicks they produce at costs that are much lower than big hatcheries. The trouble is that most small keepers and breeders dont manage their lineages for health and performance (they just breed whatever rooster they have to whatever hens they have) and more importantly, they ususally don’t vaccinate their chicks for Mareks (https://www.merckvetmanual.com/poultry/neoplasms/marek-disease-in-poultry). Every year, I see backyard keepers on chicken forums looking for help with sick and dying birds infected with Mareks. Many times they lose multiple birds, and the surviving birds become permanent carriers (which means they will infect any unvaxxed new birds the keepers try to get to replace the dead ones). In my opinion, for preppers, it is especially important to maintain a vaxxed flock if at all possible because you don’t want to be losing your birds in a time of food/chick shortages. A 100% vaxxed flock also means that if you want or need to breed your own birds without access to the vaccine, those new birds will be safe. You also don’t want to be contributing to the spread of Mareks in backyard flocks in your region if you sell your birds to others, as that can destabilize the local food supply when you need it most.
4. Use a multi-flock/purpose 20% protein feed in anticipation of changing flock needs
There are a number of different bird feeds out there – chick, grower/raiser, maintenance, layer, etc – and it can be hard to know which one is best. I recommend going with a 20% protein all-flock grower/raiser as your standard feed for your birds once they are off chick crumble for two reasons. First, a 20% feed can be used at all stages of life and for a wide variety of birds – meat, layer, males and females, winter, birds in molt, birds without access to forage, turkeys, ducks, etc. Conversely, layer-specific or general adult maintenance pellets don’t have enough protein for the rapid growth required of young and meat birds, have too much calcium for male birds, and often don’t have enough niacin for waterfowl. This means that if you have your hens on layer pellets and then you get a rooster, now you need to switch feeds. Or if you get ducks, or turkeys, or broilers. You get the idea. Second, as preppers, you should be storing extra feed. If you don’t know how your flock might change over time, you want to make sure whatever feed you have stockpiled will work for everyone in the future, or else you could end up with hundreds of pounds of food that is poorly suited to your animals.
5. Plan on rotating in new layers to keep production consistent
Due to the natural decline in egg production over a hen’s lifetime, your flock’s production will dramatically decrease after a few years if you don’t keep resupplying it with younger hens. Many keepers follow the 1/3 rule: replace/add 1/3 of your flock size every two years to keep egg production high. So if you have 6 hens in 2020, that means you should plan to add 2 new birds by 2022. Older hens do continue to lay, just at a reduced rate, so if you don’t plan on culling older birds to make way for the new additions, be sure to make your coop big enough for a larger flock than you start with.
6. Have a multi-faceted backup feeding plan in the event of feed shortages
The obvious first line of defense for feed shortages is storing enough feed for your animals to get them through at least a couple of months without needing to resupply. Long term situations though, like a complete collapse in the supply chain, will require mutliple other backup food sources in case you can’t resupply when you run low. Fostering a healthy pasture environment for your animals to range is one important strategy. This means preferably offering your animals something more than the typical lawn, and adopting grass/property management strategies that maximize seed production and insect populations (basically the exact opposite of what most suburban lawn care seeks to do). But even with a good pasture available, poultry need supplemental feeds. You can make your own scratch feed by grinding/crushing a mix of dry corn and grains from your own food stores, and you can crush/powder cooked animal bones, eggshells, and crustacean shells for calcium supplementation. Kitchen scraps can help round out the diet. A mix of pasture, kitchen scraps, homemade scratch feed, and carefully rationed amounts of dwindling commercial feed is hardly ideal, but it should hopefully allow you to keep your birds alive longer in a true crisis scenario than if you don’t take advantage of all these methods.
7. Have a backup bird resupply plan in the event of chick shortages/shipping issues
When the pandemic hit, there was a run on chicks and hatcheries were overrun with a surge of orders (https://blog.cacklehatchery.com/the-pandemic-triggers-a-run-on-chickens/). But eggs hatch on their own time frame regardless of how many humans want birds and why. So the orders got backed up, important production breeds sold out, and many people had to wait far longer than usual to get the animals they did manage to order. Issues struck again just recently when problems with the USPS resulted in serious shipping delays, causing thousands of chicks to die enroute to their destinations (https://www.politico.com/news/2020/08/20/farmers-chicks-arrive-dead-usps-399372). USPS is the only shipper of live birds in the US. If they can’t get the chicks to farmers and keepers, then only people/businesses local to the hatcheries can get birds from them (and there aren’t many hatcheries). These problems highlight the importance of having a backup plan to restock your birds as needed. Keeping a rooster in a laying flock can be a major PITA but it has the major advantage of allowing you to make your own chickens without relying on the agricultural supply chain. If you live in an area where you can’t have a rooster, or if you really don’t want to deal with their general ridiculousness, you can still plan on hatching your own eggs by connecting with other local keepers who are willing to sell/trade fertilized hatching eggs or chicks to you (the pro of hatching eggs vs chicks is that they are cheaper and you don’t have to worry about disease introduction, the con is that hatch rates can be dodgy).