Self-Sufficiency Superstars – Pickin’ A Chicken

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Editors Note: Another article from R. Ann Parris to The Prepper Journal. Think you know everything there is to know about preppers preferred livestock to raise, maybe, but you will know much more by the end of the week. As always, if you have information for Preppers that you would like to share and be entered into the Prepper Writing Contest with a chance to win one of three Amazon Gift Cards with the top prize being a $300 card to purchase your own prepping supplies!

I should say right now that chickens are at or near the bottom of the list of my favorite self-reliance animals, right there with horses. I just don’t like chickens (they started it). However, as a homestead animal, they’re absolutely indispensable.

(As opposed to horses, which I love but don’t find efficient and thus stick in the “pet” category.)

Chickens’ feed efficiency, are multi-functional, and able to perform labor tasksthat make them fantastic livestock for backyards and big-acreage homesteads. They eat things my preferred game birds can’t and perform functions the non-diggers, non-grazers won’t or can’t.

There are pro’s and con’s to any animals, and birds are no different. As a permaculturist and a prepper with a mind towards long-term sustainability, I have a specific list of considerations when it comes to pickin’ my chickens. Those list items are why a few of the commonly recommended breeds don’t make my “superstar” list.

For example, I like buckeye hens, but the roos are commonly way more space aggressive than I want. Others drop off the list due to production when expected to free-range – 70% of their feed, heat stress, or low tolerance to confinement/penning.

Some breeds are bullies that don’t share mixed barnyards well. Some drop because their feathers are tougher to pull than ducks’.  Some are way too hair-triggered and panicky for me.

Alternately, some are oblivious to threats. Some pile up in a corner of a pen where a raccoon can reach through. Some stand stupidly staring at the sky while the ducks, doves, guineas, and smart chickens are bobbing in “I’m up, they see me, I’m down” sprints for cover or low-crawling under edges toward the dogs or Mr. Mother Goose.

Poultry are very situation-ally dependent, and there are always exceptions. I’ll go into the factors that affect my choices after my pick-chicken short list. Any prepper can use the traits as a checklist, even if my preferences aren’t as important or completely oppose their priorities.

Superstar Breeds

Wellies/Welsummers – 6-7 pounds, foragers but comfortable with confinement, 2-4 eggs/week (green graze to buggy lots, seed-grain lots, or bag feeds), medium eggs, heat & cold hardy, savvy, friendly & curious personalities, medium-average broodiness – A European breed as popular in Australia for ease & production as RIRs, Orps, Plymouth Rocks, and Wyandottes are here (U.S.); keen surrogates for hatching & raising guineafowl, turkey, or quail

Dominique – 6-7 pounds, foragers but comfortable with confinement, 2-4 eggs/week, small-medium eggs mostly, cold and humid-heat hardy, savvy, calm and curious personalities, average broodiness, super mothers – Popular from colonial & pioneer times through the Great Depression due to ease and efficiency in keeping, then almost lost as modern production breeds started taking over; cold-weather layers, seldom over-eaters, self-coop if coop-raised, shrewd stranger-friend-foe discrimination, chill with kids and known dogs but not pecking-order pushovers.

Images: Buff & Speckled Sussex

Sussex –7-9 pounds, foragers but comfortable with confinement, 3-5 eggs/week, medium-large eggs, cold tolerant, okay-decent heat tolerance, savvy roosters*, confident but calm personalities, average broodiness – Very old breed, once the standard English table bird (dethroned by the Cornish); prone to tender flesh & fattiness (fats are a good thing for self-sufficiency & survival), very non-flight prone, incredibly efficient & low-waste eaters, early- and late-season layers with year-round laying possible

*Sussex hens respond to roo, flock, keeper, & LGD warnings, but are typically juuuust a little less “stranger danger” and foot-traffic observant on their own than my other picks.

Sussex hens are surprisingly human-oriented tagalongs (not always a good thing).

*Wellie and Sussex hens are so chill, they’re likely to be low-bird on the totem pole. Introduce them to mixed flocks with a handful of other birds, not as individuals.

Reds, Woman, Reds!

Yeah, I skipped the Rhode Island Reds/RIRs (and the less-common Rhode Island Whites & Blacks) and New Hampshire Reds. They are hugely popular backyard and homestead birds.

However, they’re “excellent” 5/week layers (with extra-large eggs that further tax feed and calcium needs). All roos are rough lovers, but RIRs and NHRs seem excessively so, especially in small-flock situations. I also find Rhode Island’s excessively destructive and messy compared to other breeds.

Both also tend to classify all dogs, cats, and humans in the same categories – either all good or all bad – and aren’t keen at individual recognition. That’s a problem here.

Top Priorities

The first thing I want out of my birds is the ability to reproduce them, which means a purebred (and a rooster I can stand long enough to breed).

I typically trial heritage and dual-purpose breeds. They’re more likely to both lay and “eat” well, and to be forager-willing and predator-savvy than the production breeds and dedicated laying or meat breeds.

They’re also a smidge more likely to have retained the ability to sit their own broods, politely, without me fighting constant broodiness, which lets me skip electric incubators and brooder boxes.

I also want mothers to be able to raise clutches within the flock so I don’t have to segregate, then introduce flock members. Mothering hens need to be canny to chick threats (including foot and equipment/tool traffic), but not over-defensive.

Breed Traits

Flighty v. Docile – Docile birds are less likely to have excellent risk awareness (water, predators, egg care), but flighty birds are commonly pen and tree hoppers, harder to handle, and noisier. The calm-savvy line is a tough one to walk, which is one reason my short list of breeds is actually short.

Images: Buff Sussex

Broody balance – willingness and ability to sit eggs (theirs and other poultry’s), keep a clean nest (relatively) while eating and drinking well, but not constantly fighting to keep hens from hiding, stealing chicks/eggs from other birds, and sitting eggs (and rocks, tennis balls, etc.)

Mothering – able to care for 10-16 chicks – protecting them from predators and the flock, teaching them hunting and foraging, keeping them warm and out of thick, wet grass, but not smothering them or excessively guarding

Rooster behavior – good flock provider, accurate predator savviness, but relatively quiet and easy handling (relatively = “for a roo”)

Rooster weight – All but one rooster every 2-6 years is going to hit a pot, so I want a breed that gains relatively well in the 3-9-month harvest-age window, as opposed to being excessively lean teens.

Breast meat – Many dual-purpose & layer breeds birds lack significant breast portions. It’s not a must-have but it is a big check mark for me if pullets & roos develop decent breast meat.

Camouflage – I like breeds with colors that blend into the terrain. (I don’t mind the skin color undulations or darker skins on meat from colorful birds versus the uniform white-pink of most market birds.)

Images: Speckled Sussex flock, Blue-Laced Red Wyandotte hen, & Dominque flock

Barred, laced, and speckled plumage – even the stark white-black zebra-type – camo sometimes surprisingly well in pasture, bare runs, snow, and dappled edges. They do better against predators, especially when they typically cluster elbow-to-elbow to forage, run, and roost.

   

Forage efficiency – I want birds to free-range from pasture, compost, garden-orchard spaces, scrub and woods. We’ve bred both the inclination and ability out of many breeds.

I also want breeds with the least production loss on green-grazing and green-protein forages (versus seed-nut and bug-heavy seasons/areas).

Flight – Pasturing, penning, and evening re-cooping is easier with breeds that are just disinclined to leaving the earth, versus “normal” tree-roosting and flight-happy breeds.

Laying balance – I typically look for breeds listed with mediocre to middling laying rates. (Somebody just fell out of their chair.)

Thing is, egg production is one of the tweaks we’ve made along the way, like our leaner pigs, faster-growing meat animals, and dairy production. It’s based on cheap, easily accessible grain feeds. Even heritage breeds listed as both excellent foragers and layers aren’t reaching their 200-275 eggs/year on just pasture.

Humans are hand-delivering 50-75% of their nutrients.

*Nice article: Modern chicken timeline, 1900-present – https://www.thehappychickencoop.com/a-history-of-chickens/

Without that feeding (and without heating or cooling and 12+ hours of light) most of those “better” breeds rapidly lose productivity, hitting 100-150 egg/year ceilings.

I want birds free-ranging 70+% of their soft-seasons feed. The middling-production breeds typically retain more of their optimum laying (and weight gain) in those conditions, ending up with larger total yields in side-by-side comparisons with a “better” bird.

Two, hens need a lot of calcium to maintain successful laying and bone density. High-yield layers need more, and faster-absorbing sources, and can get less of their total-need percentage from forage and free-choice ground eggshells.

Tons of fragile eggs that crack in the boxes or basket do me less good than a smaller number of hardy eggs, before we even get to layer-breeder losses from deficiency injuries.

Condition & age-production resilience – resistance to production drop in lowering light & low temperatures; reduced slumps in 2nd, 3rd, & 4th-year laying (my goal: average decreases of 8-10% per year v. 12-15%)

Range-space versatility – willingness to wander for forage but also comfortable being penned/barned for 8-16 hours a day, & for days & weeks at a time (bird & produce harvest safety, pasture regrowth, evacuation crates/trailer, weather, theft/predator risks, injury/disease quarantine, flooding, assessments)

Mid-Size – best-fit for my predator load, efficiency desires, & climate (wet winters with ‘teen-20s lows, then 95-100+ with 80-95% humidity come July-August)

Feathering – This is really climate specific, but I prefer clean legs and short, light feathering on thighs, heads and spouts. The smoother they are, the less dirty they get. (You still have to provide leaves, straw, and mulch to soak up seasonal mud and wastes.)

Rule of Thumb: For cool to frigid climates, you want a rounder medium to heavy breed with tight, dense feathering, fluffy “undercoat”, and small combs (lessens frostbite). Some want feathered legs and feet; some of us feel that just collects snow and cold spring mud, then chills birds. If you have warm to hot climates, you typically want lighter-built birds with naked/clean feet and larger combs (heat transfer).

Images: Gold-laced & Buff Orpingtons, & laced Wyandottes

Pickin’ A Chicken

Many of my checkpoints don’t apply to people with less interest in long-term sustainability and self-reliance, or who only deliver bagged feed to a permanent coop with less movement. Climate, interaction, and individual needs and abilities factor hugely in appointing superstar status.

Marans and Legbars max out at 120-180 eggs/year, but they can near that max on trash-grass and pine/fir woods forage. For some preppers, that might outweigh the low ceiling and other traits. Others might choose high-yield layers or prefer fast-turn meat birds for a variety of reasons.

Images: Barred Plymouth Rocks, Legbars, & Australorps

Bantams or ornamentals that will only reach quail-level meat and egg yields but are smaller or quieter may suit others best.

Varying preferences are how we got all these choices in the first place. Most homesteaders and backyard keepers run multiple breeds (and types of poultry) even when we’ve settled on a primary because of the diversity.

Do your research (multiple-source research), don’t ignore breed and experience-needed warnings, but experiment. It’s easy to trial multiple breeds even with just a handful of starter birds. At most it’ll cost an extra $0.25-$3.00/chick to mix-and-match breeds when ordering them.

*DO pay extra for sexed hens and limit your roo populations if you’re just getting started.

For some general pointers, there are chicken-specific sections in http://www.theprepperjournal.com/2016/11/22/dont-know-can-hurt-us-livestock-edition/ and http://www.theprepperjournal.com/2017/01/24/planned-parenthood-for-preppers/.

You might also want to check out https://www.thehappychickencoop.com/keeping-backyard-chickens-what-i-wish-id-known/ and your local-area chicken-keeper forums.

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