Sunday, April 17, 2011

Keeping Backyard Chickens for Survival

Keeping chickens is a great survival plan. We had chickens for years, and I really enjoyed all the fresh eggs. Since they’re small, chickens can be kept in a fairly small area, and many owners allow their birds to roam freely. Depending on your area, this might or might not be possible. For one place we lived, this worked out well. For another, however, it didn’t. This area was heavily wooded, and predators like foxes and hawks kept getting my chickens, so we built them a simple chicken run.
We made our chicken coop as sort of a lean-to on the side of a barn. It had a simple roof that was slanted in order to shed water. Hubby built a frame of treated 2 x 4s and stretched chicken wire across the frame. The floor was dirt. Against the barn wall we hung nesting boxes and filled each with hay. The wooden boxes were hung about 3 ½ feet high – high enough to keep most snakes from reaching them, but not so high that I couldn’t see into the boxes to gather the eggs. Each nest needs to be at least 12 x 12 x 12 inches. At each end of the chicken coop, we installed roosts. The roosts need to be higher that the nesting boxes. If they’re not, the chickens will probably roost on top of the boxes and create a big mess in the nests.
For part of the time, we had both roosters and hens, and resulting baby chicks. I actually liked not having roosters better, however. Many folks think you need a rooster for hens to lay eggs, but you don’t. We got lots of eggs with no roosters around, and I didn’t have to worry about eating fertilized eggs.
It’s important not to crowd chickens. If you do, they’ll often resort to cannibalism. Adult chickens put out a lot of body heat, so the biggest problem isn’t keeping them warm, it’s keeping them cool. In very hot weather, you might need to use a fan. In winter, if the chickens have cozy nest boxes, they’ll usually be fine.
Choosing the right breed
There are two basic types of chickens – layers and meat chickens. Layers are more prolific with egg production, and meat chickens are heavier, meatier birds. There are also some dual-purpose types that are used for both their eggs and for their meat. When I had chickens, I wasn’t interested in eating them – I just wanted the eggs, so let’s discuss layers first.
In my opinion, the best layers are small birds that don’t eat much yet produce a lot of large eggs. Is there such a chicken?  Yep! A white leghorn hen in her prime might lay almost 300 large white eggs a year, and she’ll do that on little feed. Leghorns do well with confinement, too, but there’s not much meat on them. An adult hen usually averages about for pounds. If you’re looking for a constant supply of eggs without spending an arm and a leg on chicken feed, this breed is the best, from my experience.
If you’re a lot more interested in raising meat birds instead of getting a lot of eggs, the buff Orpington is a good breed. It doesn’t take them long to reach eight pounds, and they handle confinement well. Another large meat breed is the Jersey giant, which weigh about ten pounds at maturity. Both of these chicken breeds are usually easy to handle and docile.
Maybe you’re looking for dual purpose breeds that can give you both a steady supply of eggs and meat. Some of the most popular dual purpose breeds for backyard flocks include the Dorking, the New Hampshire, the Holland, Plymouth and barred rocks, the Rhode Island red, and the Dominique.
If you plan on keeping different breeds together, called a “mixed flock,” you’ll need to research various breeds for compatibility. Very aggressive breeds will bully other more docile chickens.
Feeding chickens
Before we get to chicken feed, you need to understand the importance of water. Your chickens should never run out of clean, fresh water. We always used the plastic fountains that each held one gallon of water. These devices resemble upside-down jars with a tray around the bottom. The water level in the drinking tray is kept at a constant level as long as there’s water in the reservoir.
Always provide more water than the chickens will need. This way, if one of the fountains malfunctions or gets turned over, the chickens will still have plenty of water. Just six adult chickens might drink as much as a gallon of water on a hot day, while the same amount of water might be enough for twelve or thirteen chickens during cold weather.
Unlike some animals, most chickens won’t eat non-stop. They’ll usually stop feeding once they’re reached a certain number of calories. Because of this, it’s important to feed a good quality feed that includes adequate amounts of protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals like salt and calcium. Calcium is important for producing egg shells. Most good quality feed and mash made for layers includes ground oyster shell, limestone, or another source of calcium.
Chicks are usually fed chick starter to begin with and graduate to a pullet grower after a few weeks. Mature layers will need a laying mash or feed. An average hen will eat about 1/4 pound of feed a day, though it will probably consume more than that in the winter. Laying hens can be fed twice a day, or you can provide them with free-choice feeders. Meat birds will usually consume considerable more, and they need to have access to food 24/7, along with 24-hour lighting – they won’t eat in the dark.
It’s often tempting to give your chickens scraps and garden refuse, but it’s not a good idea. If you feed a balanced chicken feed, the birds will get everything they need from that. If your chickens are free range or are given foods other than commercial chicken feed, they’ll need access to grit. Grit is rough sand and small pebbles that digest the food in the gizzard.
Do your survival homework
If you decide that keeping backyard chickens sounds like a great survival idea to you, do some more research. I’ve given you a basic overview, but you’ll need more specific information on the breeds you decide on.

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