With a cynical eye on the rapid downward spiral of events, it seems prudent to plan for a very long time of sustainable living. In this case survival depends not only on your stockpiled preps, but also in your ability to sustain food production past the end of your stored supply.
Let’s assume, to begin with, that you have reasonably stocked retreat. I’m not talking a stock to the level described in “Patriots”, but rather one that includes a year (or more) of food, basic ammo, firearms, reliable water, heat and power source … the basics.
Now it’s time to look past the first year or so and decide how you will continue to produce food and supplies for your family. Hunting is often an option, but it can’t be considered a long-term complete food source, as it is not nutritionally complete.
Much has been said about keeping heirloom (open pollinated) seeds, and this cannot be stressed enough. But you have to plant and harvest a crop each year to continue to re-supply your seeds. Most retreats seem to be in colder climates as they tend to have a lighter year-round population load. If you’re up in the mountains, altitude will play a significant factor in what you can hope to grow. Staples such as corn require heat days in order to properly pollinate and “set”. You generally want to lay in a supply of varieties that have the shortest maturity date. That means from the time you plant that seed to the time you harvest the crop is the shortest possible number of days.
Using “short season” varieties gives you two advantages. First, if you have a crop failure for some reason, you can often have time to replant. Secondly, if you’ve harvested your first crop, you have time to put another crop in the same space.
As summer approaches, consider a great time to practice crop production, if you haven’t already. It is not as simple a poking a seed into some dirt. Get a couple of good gardening books, or better yet, books on basic farming. Carla Emery’s Encyclopedia of Country Living and the Reader's Digest Back to Basics are both excellent reference books that cover everything from farming to livestock to making basic necessities.
Having a huge variety of seeds is not as important as having plenty to the right seeds for your needs. If you just can’t live without brussel sprouts, by all means, lay in some seeds. But stick mostly to the basics: wheat, corn, squash/pumpkin, beans, peas, tomatoes, onions, potatoes, peppers, and your basic herbs. If you haven’t planted fruit trees, now is the time to get started on that. It takes several years for trees to be come productive. Also give consideration to other perennials such as strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, blueberries and grapes. Again, it take a few years for these (except for strawberries) to get into full production.
Besides your garden, fields and orchards, you’ll need to take a serious look at what sort of livestock will fit in to your situation. Eventually, you will probably need some sort of animal power for transportation and heavy work.
The most efficient feed-to-food converter is a chicken. One hen will lay approximately one egg every other day. Peak production (during the summer) generally is an egg a day. Winter drops to an egg every third day or so without significant extra light in the chicken coop. You can expect to raise two or three sets of chicks each summer. Hens will get “broody” and sit on eggs to hatch them once the weather is warm. In order for the eggs to be fertile, you of course must have a rooster. The best ratio is one rooster to every ten hens. A family of four would do well with 25 laying hens and three roosters. The extra eggs produced during the warm months can be frozen or used for feed for other animals. You can even feed the [well-pulverized and unrecognizable] eggshells back to your chickens to give them adequate calcium. During the spring, summer and early fall, you don’t even have to provide chickens with any feed. They are excellent consumers of all sorts of insects and bugs. “Free range” chickens pretty much feed themselves during the warm months. If predators are an issue though, you’ll want to keep them in a moveable cage (called a “chicken tractor”) so they don’t become a snack for some varmint. Raccoons are especially fond of chickens, as are weasels.
If you know that the stuff is hitting the fan, try to order 50 chicks or so [and buy a 50 pound sack of chick starter feed at your local feed store]. Chicks arrive in the mail. Ideal Poultry and Murray McMurray are two excellent sources. If you order “straight run” chicks, you’ll get a mix (about 50/50) of hens to roosters. The best all-round chicken in my opinion is the Astralorp. They start to lay early (at about five months of age) and consistently, they are good mothers and are big enough to still be a reasonable source of meat. The roosters tend to stay calm and usually are not aggressive. Chicks will cost you around $1.50 each. The price varies with the breed, the supplier and the time of year. Ideal tends to have good sales, which you can keep up with by signing up for email alerts.
Another excellent feed-to-food converter is the basic goat. I’ll say right off that they are tough to keep fenced in. Goats are terrifically intelligent and are phenomenal escape artists. If you keep goats, make absolutely certain that your gardens, crop grounds and trees are well fenced off and well protected. Goats can decimate fruit trees in minutes. Goats produce milk, meat and leather. A doe can kid as early as eight months old, but it’s best to wait until they are yearlings. Goats’ gestation is about five months and they tend to only breed in months that have “R” in the name (Sept, Oct, Nov, Dec, Jan, Feb, Mar, Apr). There are some aseasonal breeders, but don’t count on it. If your does are bred in early September, you might be about to get them bred back again in April, two months after kidding. Goats usually have twins and triplets. Bucks can be smelly and can be aggressive during rut.
The breed of goat really is an individual preference. Goat enthusiasts will extol the virtues of their particular breed, but mostly it comes down to basics: good dairy does will give about a gallon of milk a day. Goat milk, properly processed, is indistinguishable from fresh cow’s milk. If you have never consumed fresh milk, you ought to give it a try. It is completely different from what you purchase in the store. It makes store-bought taste like water. Goat milk is white, it does not separate as easily as cow’s milk (it takes longer to skim enough cream for butter), and it is often well-tolerated by people with lactose issues. During grazing months, a goat will produce milk just with pasture (grasses, clovers, and browse). A small amount of grain is nice at milking time so the does will be excited to come in to the milking area. It beats chasing them all over Creation. IN the winter, they will require hay and a little grain if you intend to keep milking. Some people “dry off” their does in the winter in preparation for kidding. You have to allow about two months of no milking before the doe kids so that her body has time to produce the colostrum the kids need in order to survive.
Goats are capable of pulling small, fairly light carts and helping with basic garden work (muzzled, of course). They can work individually or as a team of no more than two. They are also good packers capable of carrying about 30 pounds (for a full grown adult goat). For a family of four, two or three does and one buck is plenty. And yes, you can keep doe kids and still breed them back to their sire (or their brothers). Line breeding is not recommended over the long-haul, but it’s perfectly fine until things stabilize and you can trade genetics with a neighbor.
Sheep are extremely important, in my opinion, but are rarely discussed. They don’t have a terrific feed-to-food ratio, as they require a bit more protein. But for what they give you in return, they are an excellent survival animal. Besides meat and terrific hides, sheep produce wool. Wool is one of the very best natural fibers. It is somewhat flame retardant, retains its warmth even soaking wet, and is incredibly versatile. It can be spun into yarn, felted, woven, and even worked with “raw”. Lanolin is the “grease” on the wool. Once cleaned, it is an excellent, lasting softener for badly chapped/burned skin.
Sheep are not very smart, and so they really require looking after. If you have a predation problem, you’ll want to keep sheep close-in, or have some sort of guardian (human or animal) with them at all times. Sheep are similar to goats in breeding and birthing habits. In fact, you can keep sheep and goats together without any problems. They do not interbreed (although you may see the males trying it anyway).
Merino sheep are the best for fine wool production: the kind of wool you can wear next to your skin and not feel “itchy”. They are hard to find in the United States. Virtually any sheep, except “hair sheep”, will work for survival purposes. Larger breeds such as Columbia, Suffolk, and Corriedale will have more coarse wool, but they will produce bigger (meatier) lambs on less feed.
Like goats, you’d want two or three ewes and one ram. Rams can be dangerous. Repeat: rams can be dangerous. There is a product available called a “ram shield”. It is a leather piece that fit over the ram’s face so that he can’t see straight ahead to charge. However, his vision is fine for eating and wooing the ewes. (By the way, it works on goat bucks, too). After one Suffolk ram kept charging me, it is standard on our rams except for the Merinos. I’ve never had an aggressive Merino ram. Not to say it couldn’t happen; it just hasn’t happened yet. Merinos are smaller and when the rams fight during rut, the Merinos can take quite a beating. With the other rams wearing shields, it helps keep the Merinos from getting clobbered. It’s best to have a separate ram area away from the ewes once the girls are bred. It’s just safer for the shepherd/ess during feeding and lambing time.
Hogs are not for everyone, but they are one of my favorites. They produce a lot of meat, they are smart and easy to manage if you treat them decently, and they can grow fat on table scraps, roots, and forage. One sow can produce 20 or more piglets in a year. That a lot of meat and useful fat (soap-making). My experience is that colored pigs do better on pasture and forage than white pigs. I have no idea why this is true, but it seems to be. I don’t think the breed makes much difference, as long as the pigs aren’t white. Contrary to the stories, pigs do not like to be dirty. However, they cannot sweat to lower their body heat, and they must be provided with a place to cool off. A shallow concrete “pool”, access to a creek or pond, or even occasional hosing off will work. If pigs cannot get cooled off any other way, then they will wallow in a mud source.
Pigs “root” (dig) almost from the minute they are born. This is a terrific help in the fall when you want to get your garden turned over. They are omnivores and will graze, browse, and yet still consume table scraps and meat. Pigs are a good way to dispose of any accidental animal carcasses that you can’t eat yourself. Pigs are extremely smart (some say smarter than dogs). Boars can be dangerous, just like any other male, especially when he’s chasing a female. If you see the boar slobbering (white foam), stay out of the pen. He’s wooing a lady. We tame our pigs by hand-feeding eggs to them. After a few days, the pigs will come when you call. I have never even been charged by a pig, and I feel comfortable around ours. However, I never forget that they have razor-sharp teeth and that they weigh about 600 pounds when full grown! I never let the kids go into the hog pens unless I am standing right there. We’ve never had a problem, but I don’t believe in being foolish either.
Sows’ gestation is 3 months, 3 weeks and 3 days. Sows will have between 8 and 15 piglets per litter. Many times, sows will have fewer “faucets” than piglets and you’ll have to make sure every gets their fair share of food in the beginning. Within a week, the piglets will be running everywhere and helping themselves to whatever Mom is eating. Piglets can be weaned at one month, but we generally leave them on until the sow weans them herself. The nutrition they receive from the sow doesn’t cost me anything and it helps the piglets get an excellent start.
Pigs can be butchered at about 160 pounds, which will give you about 80 pounds of meat and 20 pounds of lard. Pigs raised on pasture have much less lard and more lean meat. A little corn each day will help them gain weight faster, but much of that weight gain is fat and is probably a waste of valuable resources.
One sow and one boar will keep your family fed and provide lots of meat for trade.
As for larger stock, cattle and horses are generally what most people think of. They have great benefits but also great draw-backs.
Cattle produce milk, meat and hides. They also have a poor feed-to-food ratio compared to smaller stock. However, cattle can provide muscle as oxen for pulling, farming, and carting things around. Oxen can be male or female, so even your milk cow can be your ox in a pinch. Cows eat a lot. Figure on a milk cow eating 30 to 50 pounds of hay a day in the winter time. That’s a lot of hay if you’re putting it up by hand. Bulls are dangerous, but necessary to keep your cow bred (unless you can trade for the service a neighbor's bull). It takes about a year or so to get a calf to butcher size, which means you’re going to be feeding that calf over the winter (more hay). However, your cow will produce five to eight gallons of milk a day (on average). That’s a lot of milk for your household, for trade, or for feeding chickens and hogs. Cow milk separates easily.
A cow’s gestation is about nine months and they will breed any month of the year. You can continue to milk the cow up until about two months before she calves. Cows usually have just one calf. Dairy cows produce far more milk than beef cows, but they have less meat. A good solution is to have a dairy cow and a beef bull. The resulting calf will have more meat at butcher time. However, if you’re trying to raise a replacement milk cow, this won’t work in the long run.
There are many breeds of dairy cows. Dexters are excellent dual purpose (milk/meat) for a small group. They are little cows, about the size of a pony. They consume half the feed of a full size cow, produce two to three gallons of milk daily and have a beefier carcass. They dress out at about 65%. The down side is that they are still relatively expensive ($1000 for a cow/$800 for a bull). If you look carefully, especially in this down economy, you can probably find them quite a bit cheaper. Dexters are docile and make excellent oxen.
Jerseys are another “homestead” favorite due to their smaller size and high percentage of butterfat in the milk. Jerseys are 800-1,000 pounds full grown and produce 5-to-8 gallons of milk daily. The milk is rich in butterfat and slightly sweet. I think it’s the best milk. We have a Jersey cross milk cow for our family’s use.
Horses are a huge help, but not necessary to survival. They consume a lot of feed without producing any food in return. Most of the work horses do can also be done by oxen. However, I’d rather ride a horse than an ox any day. If you have plenty of pasture, plenty of feed and plenty of shelter during storms, then by all means keep a couple of horses. Again, a mare or two and a stallion keeps things sustainable.
It’s unlikely that most people would be able to keep each of these animals, or even that they would want to. The idea is to carefully consider what you need to supply for your family over a period of years. What livestock can you add to your retreat planning to help insure a sustainable food supply? Other possibilities include rabbits (meat/hides), geese (down/eggs), ducks (higher protein eggs) or domestic turkeys. Both of the books mentioned above for farming practices have a wealth of information for small-scale livestock production.
The other thing to consider is mobility. If you’re already living at your retreat, adding large stock is relatively simple. If you’re going to have to bug out, you’ll have to consider what you can take. I know that I can put three goats, three sheep, six piglets, and 30 chickens in and on the back of my Suburban. I know because I tried it. It took me 30 minutes to get all of them safely loaded and/or crated. [JWR Adds: My #1 Son mentioned that you should have videotaped this exercise--it would be very popular on YouTube!] I’d have to leave my cattle and horses if I had to bug out, but I could take enough livestock to keep us going for the foreseeable future.
So give consideration to what you will do when your stash runs out. How will you feed your family, your neighbors, your group if hunting is difficult or impossible? What can you do that is sustainable and practical? Think about what works for you in your situation. It’s easy to butcher poultry. It’s a bit more complicated for sheep or goats, and it takes some serious planning for a 600 pound pig!
Think ahead and be prepared.