When it comes to survival, one thing you really can't live without is food. After getting married and starting my own family, I became really interested in sustainability, and have been working towards becoming more self-sufficient in all sense of the word. We started small with a garden, but it wasn't long before this hobby branched into a fully fledged investigation of the different livestock we could raise. Lacking a huge amount of land, the obvious choice was chickens. That's right. Chickens. As you could probably expect, my wife was a tad reluctant at first. It took a few weeks of persuasion, coupled with the idea of fresh eggs every morning to win the argument. Little did I know the difficulties that would come from having my own little flock of clucking hens. Aside from the initial effort building their coop and expenses to get started (oh and the need to keep their coop clean), I worked hard to ensure I'd not hear my wife say those four little words, "I told you so." After a day the chickens settled in, and a 4-5 months later we had our first batch of eggs. Victory has never tasted so good, but there were a few mistakes I made along the way. Here's what you need to look out for.
You’ll Need an Efficient Coop
There's two options here. Many hardware and gardening stores offer ready-made solutions for chicken housing, which are both inexpensive and relatively easy to setup. The second is to build your own coop, which is what I opted for. I spent a weekend slowly putting it together from a collection of "materials" I'd been collecting in the garage, and ended up with a covered run which is 15 by 8 foot, and a coop that's 10 by 8 foot. Personally I'd recommend building it yourself, it's much more fun and you get to practice your carpentry skills along the way. Here's a quick list of what it needs to have:
- Find a nice shady spot in your yard
- Elevated the coop off the ground to stop any water soaking in
- Have enough ventilation to let the air circulate in the coop
- If you've got a harsh winter install lights to keep their egg production up
- Baskets and straw give your hens a comfortable spot to lay their eggs
- Ensure your coop is strong enough to keep out a raccoon, fox or a cat
- Design for convenience, so you can easily get in and clean it out
You'll need more than one chicken
Your flock isn't going to work with just one chicken. Just like us, chickens are social creatures, and they will do a heck of a lot better if they're with a bunch of friends. Keep your chickens happy (and productive) over the long term by keeping at least 6 chickens, so long as you've built enough space for them. In your designs, you're going to have to allow for at least 2 square feet of coop floor per bird, which gives them enough space to move freely, and hang out with their other bird-companions. Plus, the additional space will lessen the chances of any diseases spreading among your chickens.
You'll need to read up on chicken health
My knowledge of chicken-related health and wellness has increased exponentially over the last year, as I have spend an obscene amount of time reading, studying and asking other preppers about the best ways to care for my little flock. Being a responsible chicken owner is more than just feeding them, or cleaning out their coop. You need to be proactive in ensuring they're healthy, if one gets a disease or a little sick it can quickly spread to the rest of your chickens.
You'll learn to live with the smell
Despite everyone telling me how bad chickens smell, it's not really noticeable until you climb into the coop to start cleaning it out. This has got to be my least favorite part of the job, and I'd be lying if I said I love the smell. Your best chance is to learn to live with it, it's not altogether bad unless you've been lazy and haven't been cleaning the coop regularly. Our birds definitely have a way of keeping their coop messy at all times. The trick is to not leave it too long between cleanings, otherwise the smell will build and start attracting other flies and insects. We use straw in our coop to help it stay fresh and clean, replacing it at least once a week to stave off any odors and disease.
You'll get eggs when your hens are ready
It takes roughly 17 weeks for your chicks to grow and develop enough to start producing eggs, but don't get all excited marking off days on the calendar. The eggs will come when your hens are ready. Different breeds will mature at different times, one of my friends had to wait almost 7 months for a particular hen of his to lay its first egg. Once they do start however, it really is up to the chicken. Some hens will happily lay an egg a day, others only every few days, and a handful will start-and-stop producing eggs at random. The best way to manage this is to not have any expectations, and make sure your feeding them hearty whole grains to increase the chances you'll get more eggs.
You'll have to learn to accept death
When you start raising livestock one of the biggest issues you'll have to come to terms with is that death is inevitable. Sooner or later, you're going to find one of your chickens has died from old age, a random disease, or an accident. It can be painful yes, especially if you've got young kids who will grow to love each and every one of your chickens. All I can recommend is ensuring their coop is strong enough to keep out any predators, be a responsible owner and keep their coop clean and healthy, and give them a good life in the meantime. Successfully keeping a flock of chickens was one of my big-ticket items on my prepping to-do list, as it takes my family one step closer to self-sustainability. We've now got a flock of eight happy birds, which (consistently) produce anywhere from 2-6 eggs a day. Actually doing it was far less troublesome than I thought, and looking back I am glad I took the challenge. What animals are you raising, and do you have any suggestions for what we should raise next?