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Livestock for prepping

There seems to be a common belief that keeping certain classes of livestock will insure a source of food (or transportation) when SHTF.  I’m an old lady, I’ve kept pretty much every class of livestock in my goal to be “self sufficient”, and I have a different perspective.  Let’s look at bugging out with livestock, supply chain disruptions for feed and supplies, predation, types of livestock, and sort out whether maintaining livestock REALLY makes us independent, or does it become an anchor around our neck when we need extreme mobility and lack of distraction.

1.  Chickens:  EVERYBODY loves chickens and thinks they’re an ace in the hole when SHTF.  First of all, let’s look at the avian flu epidemic that is affecting private flocks.  30+ chickens and ducks were just destroyed in our county.  There are undoubtedly more that haven’t been reported. They were probably free range.  It is unlikely that most chicken owners can grow their own healthy food for modern layers and meat birds (there’s an element of decades of breeding for high performance or exhibition that makes modern chickens different from those of the WWI era). So owners are highly dependent on supply chains.  Feed is hard to stockpile because it can easily go bad or become rat infested. Bedding is also subject to supply chain disruptions and inflation.  Bagged wood shavings can also be affected by the lumber market.  Around here, shavings were hard to get during the pandemic because the mills were all shutting down. Predation can bring death and destruction to a flock overnight. Oh, and the deep orange of homegrown eggs, to which is ascribed health benefits, is the result of feed compounders adding marigold extract – a dye – to the feed. It isn’t green grass and worms and sunshine.

2. Livestock and Evacuation: The overarching concern for ALL livestock owners is evacuation.  When our county was evacuated due to wildfires in 2020, there was a Facebook network called Cowgirl 911 which coordinated livestock owners with those willing to help transport.  That was the most appalling experience of a lifetime, seeing people pleading desperately for help transporting their chickens, pigs, goats, horses (not trained to load onto trailers).  And transporting to where?  As a horse owner caught up in the evacuation, the amount of time and space it took to load up those horses and their “survival gear” was staggering.

If you are a livestock person already, you’re probably aware of the devastating state of affairs of abandoned livestock after a big disaster. We’ll include cats and dogs here as well.

3. Other small livestock:  Somebody mentioned raising “cuy” in a recent post here.  Did anybody look that up?  Cuy = cavie = Guinea pig=rodent.  “They eat grass.”  Grass is not the same foodstuff from one hour of the day to the next, not to mention seasons.  There is a saying: “Just because you have grass doesn’t mean you have feed.”  I have been shepherding a horse through a major metabolic meltdown for eight months that occurred because of the grass she ate late last spring. 

Rabbits are kept caged.  They are susceptible to many ailments and are subject to the same issues with supply chains, evacuation concerns, etc.

Pigeons:  Why isn’t anybody raising pigeons anymore?  They were survival food for millenia.  If you look at a nicely grown out squab (young pigeon) expertly cleaned, you can only imagine how delicious it would be roasted.  Getting into pigeons is very expensive and subject to all aforementioned difficulties, but if I could convince my husband, I’d be trying pigeons. Or, if wild pigeons are in your area you can catch them to start your loft.

4. And lastly, may I bring up the subject of horses, which have been described here as “the ultimate bug-out animal”.  One prepping blogger went so far as to “instruct” the reader to go out and catch a mustang, train it according to Buck Brannaman (the “horse whisperer), and you’ll have transportation in case you need to bug out and all the roads are wrecked.  This is such a work of fiction that I can’t even wrap my brain around it.  The LAST thing you need to be “saddled” with (pun intended) is horses in a disaster.  They contribute nothing to survival unless you’re actually using them for farming.  They’re timid, they require more knowledge than raising children (neither comes with operating manuals) and while they’re not being used for bugging out, they require ENORMOUS assets, work and money to keep in a state of health. And what abandoned horses suffer in a natural disaster is the stuff of nightmares.  Even worse what they suffer in the hands of the uninformed.

If you are a city dweller who longs for the country life, that’s a realistic desire, but keeping livestock does not, in my book, equate to prepping or survival.  It creates an additional concern, a living “asset” if you will, which adds to the scope of necessary prepping, it does not subtract from it.

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  • Comments (21)

    • 3

      Raising livestock is a major lifestyle decision, so I would say that this line from the sane prepper mantra applies:

      “Prepping should not dominate your life.”

      I know people who love taking care of animals and devote their lives to that. And that’s fine for those who want that lifestyle. I don’t want that lifestyle, so I won’t follow their example.

      As you say, Barb Lee, raising animals comes with a lot of challenges and isn’t a silver bullet for prepping. But for those who do raise animals, for whatever reason, good preparedness definitely needs to include how to continue caring for those animals in an emergency. Any one of the challenges you mentioned would make a good discussion topic for this preparedness forum.

      https://theprepared.com/prepping-basics/guides/sane-prepper-mantra-common-sense-rules/#balance

      • 2

        Eric, I’m grateful your reply was not a terse rebuttal!  I try to keep a lid on my feelings about this subject but I started to watch a new blog by a popular prepping vlogger that included this subject and the first thing that came up was keeping chickens (for the bazillionth time) as a prepping strategy.  This person was clearly more sentimentally attached to chickens and fresh eggs than someone who’s experienced the practice in an emergency.  It just strikes me as a cruel hoax that’s perpetrated on people who wish with all their hearts to make self-sustainability-as-preparedness their goal without cultivating an awareness for the hard realities of keeping livestock. I mean, anybody can walk away from a cabbage, but turning one’s back on a live animal is something altogether different.

      • 2

        “blog by a popular prepping vlogger… chickens as a prepping strategy… It just strikes me as a cruel hoax that’s perpetrated on people who wish with all their hearts to make self-sustainability-as-preparedness their goal without cultivating an awareness for the hard realities of keeping livestock.”

        I think what you’re saying is that someone is overselling chickens and other livestock as a prepping strategy, and that you’re worried some people here have bought into that.

        I do recall the post about raising guinea pigs for food. Can’t say I find that tempting at all.

        I think there’s a lot of skill overlap between emergency preparedness, homesteading, and camping. So I don’t worry that an emergency preparedness forum sometimes has posts on these other related topics. But you’re right that they’re not the same thing. I can only hope that most people here understand that.

    • 3

      I will say that having extreme mobility is not an issue for all folks.  There are lots of sections of the country where evacuations aren’t a likely occurrence.  For example, here in north Mississippi there has never been any such evacuation anywhere near here in my lifetime and I’ve never even heard of one.

      IMO, the best way to determine how to be self sufficient after a crisis is to look at how people lived in your area in the past.  I like to read & talk to old timers that farmed here during the Great Depression.  During that time, my now deceased father-in-law lived on a farm and their main source of protein was from their chicken flocks.  So much so that as an adult, he never would eat chicken again.  If you live in an area with long growing seasons, like we have around here, it is not a huge task to grow enough feed for them to last the winter.  The biggest draw for chickens is they reproduce so rapidly and get to adult size so quickly.  So in my book chickens make a great source of protein if you have to become self sufficient.

      Also during the Great Depression, the normal livestock you would see would be mainly goats and pigs, with sometimes just a few cows for milk.  The thing about goats and cows, as with chickens, is they can largely fend for themselves.  These animals will eat almost anything.  During the depression, families would mark their livestock and let them roam wild for much of their life.  They would feed them some so that the animals weren’t wild and would keep their young fenced in on the farm.  That ensured the adults returned after feeding.  One of my favorite books, that deals with exactly this is called Collard Greens: Growing Up on a Sandhill Subsistence Farm in Louisiana During the Great Depression.  Great book!

      I would also classify catfish as livestock, for this discussion.  During good times, I feed mine daily and my population is rather huge.  During a crisis we would slowly eat down the population to a size that would be naturally sustainable.  No huge rush as they aren’t the type of animal that would starve quickly without added food.

      I do realize climate is changing.  I see it here and am learning to adapt and learning to grow things that can handle the new climate.  I also realize some sections of the country are getting hard to live in and evacuation is a real possibility.  In that case, I agree that raising livestock could sure be a challenge… more so than the normal challenges associated with raising and tending farm animals.  Heck, I’ve spent the last month treating an ulcer in a horse’s eye and dealing with healing him up after having that eye removed when the treatment didn’t work.  Not for the faint of heart.  🙂

      • 2

        Awww, man!  What a heartbreaker about your horse’s eye!  I’ve read so many stories though, of wonderful adaptation by the horse when they lose an eye, so I’ll be sending positive energy your way that this is the case for you and yours. 

        And yes, catfish ARE livestock!  If we’re going to raise these animals we have to choose our battles so to speak.  They’re a pretty big impediment to “escape”, whether for emergency, or for recreation!

      • 3

        Thanks for your kind words.  The horse is fine.  We did everything we could do to save the eye.  For 2 weeks, I injected meds every 2 hours between 8am & 10pm, thru a tube on his shoulder that ran into his eyelid.  It just didn’t heal the ulcer.  And yes, he has adapted wonderfully.  Luckily he was already low man on the totem pole, so he didn’t have to worry about losing any dominance in the herd.  And the timing couldn’t have worked out better, as the day the vet installed the lavage system into his eye, was my first day of retirement.

        When I think of escape, I think of escaping from the crazy world out there.  I get so much satisfaction being with our animals.  I loved all my chickens but had to stop having them when I couldn’t stop predators from killing them off… or worse, injuring them horribly.  I had no desire to lock them in cages so instead of that, I just got out of the chicken business.  

        IMO, fish farming is often overlooked by preppers contemplating some sort of self sufficiency.  In my one acre catfish pond, I have thousands of pounds of fresh meat available.  If I had to evacuate for a few weeks, no harm done.  They are not the type of livestock that can be stolen in mass by poachers.  If for some reason you had to stop feeding them for a bit, they would be just fine.  They are very low maintenance also.  An added benefit is I have a nesting pair of bald eagles that have claimed the pond.  They keep the catfish population in check and I get the joy of having such glorious, majestic animals to gaze upon.

    • 2

      Barb, you make a lot of good points for people to consider before they pursue the livestock route. And I think for the average city (or even suburban) dweller or those who live in evacuation-prone areas, it is probably WAY more effective to invest in freeze-dried/shelf stable foods than pursue livestock. Even for those planning for long-term survival situations, owning livestock that would require you to bug out from the city (or store large amounts of feed, etc.) is full of complications as you described and probably just not realistic/effective.

      That said, I also agree with Redneck that if you live in an area where you are most likely bugging in and aren’t prone to too many evacuations, livestock can be a fantastic way toward sustainable, self-reliance. Your caution about inputs is very valid, even for people who find themselves in that situation, though. I’m a big fan of permaculture that looks to harvest your inputs from “waste” outputs that you have elsewhere on your plot and also encourages building mutually beneficial, sustainable ecosystems (e.g., growing acorns and mulberries that reliably produce with little human input and so provide “free” feed for many kinds of livestock whose manure then provides food for your fruit/nut trees). That type of set-up just isn’t possible for most urban/suburban folks, but it certainly more possible further out in the country.

      And, for you urban/suburban folks who either can’t or don’t want to pursue livestock, you certainly have other options, too. If you did find yourself bugging out in a longer-term survival situation, consider how to harness those same ecosystem realities by planning to hunt/fish near nut-heavy forests and lakes/streams or consider joining a CSA or other type of food co-op where you have a relationship with someone who IS growing their own food/livestock. That could keep the “food pipeline” open during challenging times or even give you a friendly person you could partner with in a bug-out situation.

      Of course, we all hope we never have to go to quite those lengths, but I also like to have some idea of what I would do in different contingencies… 

      I also agree with Redneck’s book recommendation of Collard Greens. It’s a fascinating book that describes some of the nuts and bolts of people who lived under really difficult circumstances.

    • 2

      I agree to some extent – as you said, livestock owners are still extremely dependent on the supply chains. My animals still need feed and medicines that I can’t produce on my own. Poultry in particular require seed/grain based diets and unless people are somehow able to produce their own grains to support their flock, they are going to be dealing with starving chickens eventually. Similarly, many people keep livestock like horses as pets which is a totally different arrangement than keeping animals for food and culling them when needed.

      At the same time, I still view *some” animals as a valuable (albeit costly and time intensive) prep. I view our livestock more as a key supplement to our diet and survival-time extender in a crisis, than a fool proof insurance policy that can take on the end of the world. A homestead with a few months stockpile of feed is going to have eggs and meat on the table alot longer than the average American’s home where they produce nothing on site. We would run out of feed eventually, but it buys us a few more months than most. A few extra months of not scrounging for food is more time for you to figure out a better long term plan, if you can.

      • 2

        Poultry in particular require seed/grain based diets and unless people are somehow able to produce their own grains to support their flock, they are going to be dealing with starving chickens eventually.

        IMO, if a prepper is considering some sort of self sufficiency and has chickens, then as you prep to grow your own food you simply keep your chickens in mind.  Growing food for them is really not that hard.  And it is not like you are somehow giving up valuable food.  You simply are exchanging one food item for another.  This way you easily broaden your diet and keep a valuable resource… chickens.  And since chickens reproduce so quickly and get to adult size so quickly, you don’t have to keep your whole flock fed thru the winter.  Just feed a few breeding chickens over the winter and eat the others.  Then come spring, grow your flock back out.

        As I have stated on this forum many times, the main seeds I keep in storage to feed us during a crisis are the three sisters (field corn, winter squash & pole beans) plus amaranth.  I consider amaranth the #1 seed that preppers should always have in storage.  To quickly summarize, amaranth grows taller than corn from a tiny seed, the whole plant is edible (the leaves are as nutritious as spinach) and each plant can produce hundreds of thousands of nutritious seed that can be ground into flour.  Here is a link to a discussion on saving seed: https://theprepared.com/forum/thread/survival-gardening-make-your-own-seed-vault/

        Chickens will eat everything I mentioned above, so you simply grow more than your family needs.  The easiest crops to grow extra would be winter squash and amaranth.  I grow Seminole pumpkins and are they ever prolific.  Each vine can grow 20 feet long or more and be loaded with fruit.  These pumpkins can easily store all winter and spring just in your garage and chickens love them.   There are around 850,000 amaranth seed per pound, so you can easily and cheaply scale up your amaranth production to feed chickens as well as your family.  It grows like a weed and needs little or no care. It is extremely easy to collect the seed heads and store.

        Here is a video of my Seminole pumpkins getting started last summer.  Even now, I probably have 40 or 50 of them laying in the garden.  Those few plants produced way more than we can eat.

        Here are some pics of a the amaranth I grew last summer.  I just grow enough plants to allow me to store millions of seed each year.

        amaranth 11

        amaranth 12

        amaranth 13

      • 3

        And I think if someone is dead set on having chickens, they should realize that a lot of “modern” breeds of livestock are either selected for excessive meat production, excessive egg production, or useless exhibition attributes.  Even if you are starting with “heritage” breed chicks, you may want to skip the big hatcheries and go to small breeders who specialize in preserving the attributes of the birds that made them desirable for farm flocks originally.  Any modern high production food animal requires a much higher plane of nutrition than a WWI era flock.  There aren’t a lot of chickens that could be raised these days like the barnyard scavengers of 100 years ago.

    • 2

      @Barb Lee,

      I have not raised livestock but a good friend of ours raised chickens for many years. She raised layers. She said modern chickens are not hardy and takes a lot of work and it’s easy to lose them to illness. She switched to ducks and was very happy with them. They rarely get sick and the eggs are superior. In fact, in the most exclusive French bakeries, they only use duck eggs.

      Guinea pigs are a significant source of protein in South America, especially Peru where 65 million are harvested annually.

      • 3

        Shaun, one of the big problems with many livestock ventures is that pathogens tend to build up in “fixed” housing such as chicken coops.  I’ve got some friends with a bunch of chickens that have an intractable infestation of feather mites.  They medicate and soldier on, but the chickens are pretty rough looking.  This is where the idea of portable housing (so called “chicken tractors” and to some extent, rotational grazing) becomes an option, but it’s also management intensive.

        That being said, ducks are definitely an attractive alternative to chickens, though known to be very hard to “pick”, or get the feathers off, and very fat.  And messy.  Overlooking that, if they tend to be more hardy, that definitely tips the scales a bit in favor of ducks.  I’d like to try them (again).  You can keep a Muscovy drake to maintain a supply of fertile eggs, whereas a crowing rooster can really disturb the peace and quiet of an entire neighborhood.  So you’re not having to buy expensive replacement chicks.  I think people like me would have a more closed production loop with ducks, absent all the other concerns.  If SHTF, you can butcher the breeding stock one at a time.  With cattle, pigs, goats, butchering and preservation become enormous issues if humane destruction becomes necessary.

        I wouldn’t be adverse to eating a Guinea pig at all.  My main concern is the “they eat grass” comment as a universal recommendation for keeping them.  The reason we rely heavily on commercial feeds is that they are compounded to meet the changing nutritional requirements of different classes of livestock consistently, day to day, season to season, region to region.  “Fattening” young livestock have different nutritional requirements than pregnant/lactating livestock.  Because of our year-round demand for protein, breeding/fattening/growing-out production methods are practiced regardless of the natural cycle of the grass, so we’ve had to come up with ways to level out the nutrition of each class of animal, thus we’ve created uniform processed feeds. We also harvest feeds at the peak of their nutrition to preserve for the “off” season. 

        This is one of the reasons why “grassfed” meat, milk and eggs tend to be seasonally available and of high cost.  A grass farmer is bound by the seasons, and squeezed by the expectations of the market to raise his product without starchy processed feeds.  He is also using alternative feeds, plowing and planting brassicas and grazing corn, so his livestock will have the equivalent feeds of “grassfed” (which is a USDA hijacked label) so he can match out of season market demands.  (The whole original intent of “grassfed” was to de-intensify production and heavy metal machinery.)

        This probably all seems irrelevant to a simple flock of chickens, but the desire to be self reliant never stops at the acquisition of the first chick.  Or gun. Or solar panel.

      • 2

        but the desire to be self reliant never stops at the acquisition of the first chick.  Or gun. Or solar panel.

        Amen to that!  That is hitting close to home here.  🙂

      • 1

        I also resemble that remark!  LOL!

      • 2

        Barb, your livestock observations are spot on! Too many have an unrealistic and romanticized view of the self sufficient Homestead. Yes, it can be done, but it takes a heck of a lot of ongoing work and very specialized, regional knowledge, plus ideal location and community. The good old days were not so great. 

        On a more positive note, after many years of various livestock, our Nigerian dwarf dairy goats are the loveliest, healthy, low maintenance, and easy livestock I have ever owned. Plus, they’re wonderful, interactive and gentle pets. Highly recommend for a hobby farm, little kids, realistic homestead experience, but yes, you still need to study…and get them from a well regarded farm family, socialized from birth or they never really tame down. Disposal of excess garden prunings and produce has never been so easy, they love it all!

      • 2

        That is fantastic!  Can they deliver their kids naturally?  I had a friend that was involved in show miniature goats (not dairy) and their ability to kid naturally was being systematically bred out of them in favor of exhibition qualities.  Many had to deliver via C-section. I would seriously consider these as I think I could manage them in my situation (as long as I could find someone with a buck to breed to!  LOL!)

      • 2

        Yes, Nigerian dwarf goats are naturally small, not bred down to dwarf, so they don’t have the issues with kidding that Pygmies have. I have a friend who brings the buck by to visit the girls (for a fee) when the time is right, that way I don’t have to feed & house Mr. Stinky. I do choose sweet tempered ones to breed to and keep, of course. Their size does make them vulnerable to predators, but so easy to manage by hand too. We live at the edge of a small town, with good fences (5’ woven wire with stout posts & crossbars) and have had no attacks since getting them about 8 years ago. 
        If you choose to milk them, it’s delicious, high butterfat with no “goaty” flavor. Have tricked a number of sample tasters with it. But they do have tiny teats to milk! And of course the babies are beyond adorable, jumping happily into your lap to snuggle if allowed, and I haven’t had to bottle feed any of them yet, the mamas have managed as long as it’s no more than triplets. 

      • 1

        You have a really great thing going there!

    • 1

      strange that.

      British people kept rabbits and chickens during WW2 when the supply chain was next to collapsed and imports were subject to torpedo’s from enemy subs but somehow they managed, probably different breeds that what we have these days.

      • 2

        There’s a YouTuber by the name of Utility Jude that does videos about how the British survived during WWII.  The videos are staged as though they are current events, and she is talking as though speaking to a group of housewives that she is instructing on rationing, cooking techniques, etc.  There is a specific episode about feeding chickens.  One of the books of the time that she references, about feeding chickens and rabbits on scraps, has been reprinted and is available for purchase. 

      • 1

        yep, I have that book.