The Chicken or the Egg? Part I
After the SHTF, you are probably going to need some eggs. You have a choice of chickens or ducks for eggs but let’s talk about chickens first. Again, I am going to say that there is a lot of information out there about raising chickens.
The basic requirements are a coop, a chicken run, and the hens. A rooster is optional as hens don’t need a rooster to lay eggs, but you are going to need the cock if you want babies (LOL, that’s funny when I read it now). But too many cocks can upset the hens (ok, I am just cracking myself up at this point). One or two roosters and if you have more than one, expect them to not like each other….
My first suggestion is to select a breed that will do well in your area. Local farmers and hatcheries will be able to advise you in this regard. Some breeds do well in colder weather, some in warmer. Consider which ones lay more often, the size of the eggs and if the breed also makes a good roaster. I had a mix of Rhode Island Whites, New Hampshire Reds, and Plymouth Rocks.
If you buy them as chicks, you will have to tend to them until they mature and wait several months until they begin laying. Chicks are usually only a couple dollars each. If you get a 20 week old hen, she will begin to lay almost immediately. Hens should continue laying for a couple of years (1-3) and then their productivity drops off. They will go in the pot!
Next determine how many chickens you want to raise. For a family of four, you probably only need a dozen laying hens. But the number of eggs you get is going to depend in part on their living conditions and diet. Having extra eggs is not a bad thing, especially if you want to sell extra eggs or you decide to “harvest” a roaster for dinner.
Luckily chickens eat almost anything. So you can give them table scraps that you don’t want to compost, let them pick at larvae and worms in the compost pile and augment that with some chicken scratch, wheat chaff, cracked corn. They need a variety of food (including grit to grind up food in their gizzard) to replenish the material they use to create an egg so they will spend pretty much their whole day scratching and scrounging for things to eat. I gave my hens about a cup of chicken scratch each day along with some day old bread (I would pick up day old bread at the bakery for ten cents a loaf, the baker would rip open the bags so I wouldn’t use it for my own consumption but I found it therapeutic go out in the morning and in the late afternoon and rip up some bread and toss it to them). If you hens are not laying eggs it is most likely because they are not getting enough food or the right type of food.
The coop: You can buy a coop or build one – the internet has endless designs. Each chicken needs about 2 sqft of floor space in the coop to avoid overcrowding. If conditions are overcrowded, chicken pick at each other and tear feathers which leads to more health problems. More room is better particularly in the run. While you want the coop to be well-ventilated, the coop should keep the chickens out of the weather (roof and sides). The chickens can survive pretty cold weather, their feathers keep them warm.
You also want to insure that predators cannot get inside so no gaps in walls or floors, you might bury some chicken wire six inches around the coop and run to foil diggers. Your door should allow you easy access and egress while carrying a basket of eggs. A dirt floor is fine but you might want to raise the floor off the ground so the manure can drop down.
On the side use 1” wire to prevent smaller predators from gaining access. Put in one nest box for every 3-4 hens, plastic tubs are easy to clean out later. And put in some roosts so they can get off the ground at night. I used an old broom handle. Don’t put the roosts directly over the nest boxes.
If you decide to run electricity to the coop you can install a small light to keep hens laying longer (they stop laying when the days get short). You don’t want to place the coop in low areas that will get muddy or water will pool. I have seen mobile coops (can be pushed to a new location which allows you to move the chicken manure around). Lay down straw or wood shavings on the floor and nest boxes. Clean out as needed and replace. Chicken manure is good fertilizer.
To keep the chickens from fouling the water, put out some waterers (one per 3-4 chickens) and replenish the water every day or more often if needed during hot weather. You can fabricate some feed troughs, you want them big enough where all the chickens can eat at the same time.
The chicken run: A fenced in area 5x20 is sufficient for 6 to 8 hens. I let my chickens free range in a fenced in area but since I did not have a screen on top, they were picked off by chicken hawks. If your chicken run is devoid of all life (the chickens picked it clean), they need more space. I will be upgrading my chicken run this year. If you have a covered area, the chickens will move under cover when they hear the hawk but a top screen is even better. More space in the run is better. Free ranging chickens eat insects and even small rodents. I saw one contributor call them the barnyard ninja assassins of bugs.
Ideally with a flock of 12 hens, you can get eight eggs or more a day (excepting during winter). They really don’t take up much space and only a few minutes a day to care for. As long as local ordinances don’t prohibit you (check these out before you start your chicken project) you can have a steady supply of eggs but you would have to start before the SHTF. Don’t be wishing you had some chickens after the fact!