How to Supply All Your Own Food — Self Reliant Food

With missing items at the grocery store due to recent events, many are desiring to take growing food into their own hands.

Beet greens from the garden

Hunting and fishing are great ways to provide food for your family. Look into what tags or stamps are the best for the money and meat amount. Not minding the taste of the meat is important too. Canada geese can be very inexpensive to hunt — up to several a day can be hunted on a stamp. But some are not a fan of water fowl such as goose or duck meat. If you live near a creek or lake, fishing is a no brainer. Fresh trout is super healthy and delicious with minimal work to prepare them.

Wood Sorrel foraged

Foraging is a great way to stay alive if you have no other options. You can even eat the white inner bark of many trees to feed yourself if times were really dire. Cattails, wood sorrel, wild carrots, wild strawberries, chicory, even stinging nettles are edible. We eat dandelion greens in salads sometimes, cattail pancakes, and plenty of blackberries in the summer. Do not think you can learn about a few plants and you are set. Research poisonous look-a-likes carefully. Go foraging sometime. You will discover it is very hard to get full on foraged foods. It is a great skill to keep you alive. But do not take it for granted. Foraging is a great supplement to gardening.

Strawberries in the garden

Gardening is as close to a guarantee as you can get that your family will have at least some food. I highly recommend crops such as potatoes, sweet potatoes, and other root vegetables that will fill you up and give you energy. I have even grown wheat, but that requires a lot of labor (though not nearly as much space as you would think). Look into some more obscure tubers once you have the basics, to diversify. If blight takes out your potatoes, you can still have sunchokes or hopniss. I am hoping to re-establish Duck potatoes to a local creek too as it is a native plant with potato-like tubers. Oca is also something I am experimenting with. Grow primarily what you eat or at least what you are willing to eat. Look into perennials such as kale, chard, strawberries, fruit trees, asparagus, or artichoke in addition to those tubers we mentioned before. Zucchini, tomatoes, cucumbers, and lettuce can be very productive for the space as well and a joy to eat.

A Chicken egg in the coop

Livestock and gardening go great together too. Many homesteaders raise their own meat or dairy by chickens, pigs, sheep, cattle, or turkeys. Maybe start with raising some chickens and give them your extra produce. They will convert it to eggs. From there you can decide how much you like raising animals and how much time and resources you can commit to them. Having our own dairy cow is very tempting but a big time commitment. Maybe someday, but for now, I hope to find a small, local dairy I can buy a share with.

Do what you can to provide the basic necessities for your family. But try not to live in constant fear. Anxiety can kill you plenty fast in itself. Be thankful for what you have and a life so far not having to worry about starvation. We will all pull through these harder times.

Why not remove reliance upon grocery stores as a hobby and cut your food bill at the same time?

Mess Free Chicken Waterer

2020 update: After nearly two years (originally posted August 2018), this waterer is still working great, conserving water and countless cleaning and refilling trips. I have since made a second one of these for my chicken tractor as the ground being uneven there frequently drained my other waterer. Now I have less to worry about when I am out of town too! 😊

Five gallon bucket with chicken waterer nipples

Tired of refilling and cleaning chicken water all the time? So was I, so I made a mess free waterer that conserves water well.

You can buy the specific chicken waterer nipples I got on Amazon. They recommend around 1 per 5 chickens. You cannot have too many though.

What you will need:

  • 5 gallon food grade bucket with lid
  • Drill with 11/32″ bit
  • Horizontal chicken waterer nipples
  • Concrete block or something to set the bucket upon
Simply drill through the bucket and screw in the chicken waterer nipples

They recommend an 11/32″ drill bit. I did not have one, but 3/8″ worked fine still without leaks. Drill about one inch from the bottom of the 5 gallon bucket and screw in the chicken waterer nipple. Screw it in until the cup part is on the bottom to help hold a tiny bit of water. Fill the bucket with water and make sure there are no leaks (I had none).

Installed chicken waterer nipples

Place the waterer on your concrete block or other pedestal. Try to get the water nipples a bit under chicken head height for ease of use.  Set it in with the chickens with an alternate waterer for starters and keep an eye on them to make sure they figure it out. All of mine picked up on the waterer within a few days. You could also try pushing each chicken’s beak against it to help them along. 

Main pen waterer
My chicken tractor waterer

One Easy Way to Make Chicken Feed Go 30-40% Further

Hens enjoying Fermented Chicken Feed

Though many of us have a goal to grow all our own chicken feed, if you have more than a few chickens, food scraps are not enough. Chicken feed can be expensive. There is a way to make the feed go around 30% further: fermenting the chicken feed.

This is the same concept as kefir or kombucha. Fermenting feed is super easy too. All you need is feed and water!

Fill a 5 gallon food grade bucket up around 3/4 the way with chicken feed (and supplements such as scratch and oyster shells if you wish). Then fill the bucket with water until it is a few inches above the feed.

As you can tell, this feed absorbed all the water. Time to add more.

The feed will absorb the water, so you may have to top it off after a few minutes. Keep the water topped off, and the feed should never mold even after days and days. If the water drops below the feed level, it could mold in just a few days.

Keeping the water level above the feed prevents it from going bad

Overnight soaking is fine and will make the feed go longer, but it is not truly fermented until at least 3 days. Fermentation has lots of good probiotics that are good for chickens’ guts just like they are for humans.

The feed should smell more like bread yeast than alcohol or really sour.

Here is a video by Homesteading Family that goes into this process:

Why You Should Automate Your Homestead

Our Garden with Automated Irrigation
Our Garden with Automated Irrigation

If you need to get away for a week, how will your homestead get along without you? Do you have so many tasks to do that leaving for a vacation sounds like more work than simply staying home (having a staycation)? Even if you do not foresee going on a vacation, unexpected events can come up such as the birth or death of a loved one, getting busy with non-homestead tasks, or becoming ill enough that you cannot complete your list of chores.

You should automate as much as possible on your homestead. As your homestead grows, you can then keep up with the same quality no matter how large or busy you get.

With chickens, this means having the ability to give them food, water, and shelter for at least a week without any input from you. You can accomplish this with 5 gallon feeders/waterers (multiple depending upon the size of your flock – 1 5 gallon feeder and waterer is plenty for a 7 chicken flock in my experience). Depending upon their shelter, if you currently manually close their coop door, you can automate this with an old car antenna motor and a couple of 12v power adapters (and extension cords or a 12v battery instead of the power adapters). If your coop and run are secure enough without a door, you have already automated this task. The only task difficult to automate is collecting eggs. In an emergency, you can simply let the eggs pile up and get broken, but otherwise you will have to add this to the list of tasks that a relative or neighbor does. We let the person who collects them for us when we are gone keep the eggs for free as payment for collecting them.

With cattle, do they have access to enough food or water for a week? If not, you can look into an automated waterer in a large trough or old bathtub. These are fairly cheap, and could be even cheaper if you use the float mechanism from an old toilet you may already have access to. If you have some shelter, you can leave extra hay under this shelter for rainy days while still giving the cattle access to their food. Make sure they are branded or have a collar to identify them as yours in case they escape while you are gone. If you have milking cows, this cannot currently be automated without expensive equipment (here is a business opportunity for someone to figure out).

Do you manually water your garden, orchard, flowers, or lawn? Save yourself hours of time by purchasing an automated timer. This can be a hose shutoff timer connected to your house or an electric timer such as for christmas lights if you use a pump for irrigation. Mulch greatly helps cut down on weeds.

Set a bucket under your gutter or where it can get rained directly on for water for your dog. You can also purchase or create an automatic feeder, but make sure it is sturdy and reliable before you set this up. The automatic feeder can either always allow feed for your pets, or if they eat too much, you can buy ones that give a set amount once a day.

If you tend to still worry about your animals or garden, you can set up a few cameras around your place that you can check on every once in a while. But try not to worry about edge case scenarios. If things go well while you are there for weeks, why would they not as soon as you leave?

Test all of your automations while you are home for extra peace of mind that while you are away, all your livestock and property are being taken care of. This will also cut out the more mundane chores from your day freeing up time to get more done or give more attention to your favorite aspects of your property.

How To Make a Rodent Proof and Less Wasteful Chicken Feeder

In my childhood, having rats and mice living off of the chicken’s feed during the night was a fact of life. We would set traps, but they always seemed to come back. Where there is available food, there will always be rats and mice. Looking online for rodent proof feeders, I found some very expensive feeders up into the hundreds of dollars or complicated plans for building your own that seem to have a chance of failure, not allowing chickens to eat if it failed.

Hens using my feeder

Chickens can be very messy with their food and spill it all over the place, digging for their favorite grains. This is not always a problem as I usually do not fill their feeder until they clean up after themselves, but when it rains, this food will disintegrate, get covered in mud or manure, and go to waste.

I finally found some 5 gallon bucket plans that were fairly simple and did the job for a few dollars rather than hundreds.

Many recommend using food grade 5 gallon buckets if you are concerned about plastics leeching into the chickens’ food. Though this is better with dry food than if it were wet, it can still be a concern.

All you will need is:

  • 5 gallon bucket
  • lid
  • Two 1/2″ eye bolts
  • a screw, hook, or something else to hang the bucket handle by
  • a drill with 1/2″ or larger bit

Drill two holes in the bottom of the bucket. Make these holes larger than the eyebolt shaft but not wider than the head portion so it cannot fall out. Fill your bucket part way with feed after placing the eye bolts in the holes. Rotate the bolts back and forth and see if a decent amount of food comes out. This may take some adjusting to find a balance between too little and too much. You can always duct tape the hole from inside the bucket if you need to start over with a hole.

1 eye bolt in the bucket

Once you have the hole the correct size for the feed and eye bolts, you are ready to hang your bucket. I chose a tree growing on the edge of my chicken pen. Try to hang it about chicken head height so they do not have to bend down to get under it but low enough they can still reach the eye bolts and holes (my chickens sometimes peck the feed right out of the hole instead of the eye bolts).

Place your feeder as the only source of feed (or transition them to the new feeder if you wish), and when they are hungry, tilt the eye bolt a couple times. My chickens caught right on and started pecking the eye bolt and feed from the hole. Frequently, one chicken gets some feed out while the others eat it underneath.

Finished feeder hung on a tree

If you find the chickens start dumping too much feed out, you can either disable one hole with duct tape, place a tray underneath to prevent the feed mixing with manure or mud, or take their feeder away until they eat up the mess. One 5 gallon bucket feeds my 7 full grown chickens for about one week. Supplementing this feed with kitchen scraps will help it last even longer.

How to build a chicken tractor

As much as I would like to let my chickens free range, there are far too many predators where I live from raccoons to foxes to skunks. I also do not want all my chickens crowded in the small run, however. I discovered a good compromise for getting a lot of the benefits of free ranging with the safety of a run: the chicken tractor. 

The chickens when first moved out to the chicken tractor

Yes, it has a peculiar name, but it is an ingenious invention I learned from a video with Joel Salatin. It is a portable fenced enclosure with an open bottom where the chickens can eat bugs and greens and scratch and till soil. 

I plan to keep two separate flocks. One in the tractor and one in the existing pen and coop. I can collect the manure from the stationary pen chickens and use the tractor throughout our field. Our septic drain field area is fenced in anyway and growing plenty of grass, so I might as well make use of it and let the chickens mow for me. 

After I took down my temporary greenhouse from last winter, I had some spare small logs lying around. I resembled a rough a frame and wired and screwed them together. Though notching and all would look nicer, this was a basic project, and one of my first, so I kept things simple. I screwed a few supporting boards on and stapled chicken wire on. I recommend at least 1 inch chicken wire or even hardware cloth for some protection against small predators.

After stapling and tie wiring the fencing together and on, I used some spare panels of metal roofing lying around from when we bought the place. I cut them to length and screwed them to the logs and boards. I kept a gap between the ground and the roofing for ventilation. The roof keeps the chickens out of the hot or rainy weather and protects their feed and egg box from getting wet. Chickens also prefer a cozy high up place to roost for the night.

Putting roof panels up

To discourage predators from digging under the tractor, I added a 2 foot width skirt around the base and attached 2x4s to the end. These can be folded up and attached to the side of the tractor when moving it off necessary. 

I installed perches along the top to add dimension, giving them more room to spend their day and a few roosts for the night. I also constructed a basic egg box for multiple hens to lay at one time. I added a door to access the eggs from the outside. 

I am working on a feeder and waterer that can be refilled from the outside that last at least a week.

 took right to their egg box

Upon moving the chickens to their new home, they immediately started eating greens and bugs and scratching around. They even manage to take dust baths. All but one used the egg box right away, and that one has only lasted in the pen once. They use all the roost space. Mr. Rooster likes to roost in the egg box though, so if you want to prevent that, you can add a removable partition to keep them out of the box until morning. 

This design is a little on the heavy side. Ideally I would have used lighter lumber or installed wheels to make it easier to drag and move. Perhaps I will add wheels later on.

If I wish to expand my garden, these chickens can be moved to weed and till the soil first, fertilizing it as they go. We also have lots of grasshoppers and other pests that like to eat some of our plants. The chickens may help control their population. 

This tractor serves its purpose well. The chickens seem to enjoy the freedom and fresh air along with the new grass and bugs they keep from entering our garden. 

How much work are Chickens Really?

Chickens are as much work as you choose for them to be. My current setup allows me to only have to top off their food and water once a week and collect eggs daily.

Mr. Rooster Keeping an Eye on Me

I am working on a chicken tractor, which will allow half of my flock to venture across my pasture eating fresh greens and bugs. I still will supplement their food with grains, but full time access to greens alone can be a quarter of their diet. The abundant grasshoppers may not be so abundant with the chickens having them as another source of protein. But this means I will have to move the chicken tractor once a day or more to give them the benefits of green grass.

So if I am home every day, this is no problem, but if we want to take a vacation, I have to find some way to automate most of my daily tasks. Having multiple feeders or one large feeder that allows the chickens to have enough food for a week allows me to vacation for a week with only asking neighbors/family to collect and keep any eggs. Our five gallon waterer is sufficient for around a week for seven chickens as well depending upon the weather. Our electric fence and fully fenced run keeps me from having to close them in the coop each night and open it each morning. 

When I have extra time, I pick fresh greens and bring the chickens table scraps. Though this is not necessary, it gives them a higher quality of life and nutrients. Thus if I want to spend more time than collecting daily eggs and weekly water and food, I can, but if I get busy, I can rest assured they will be fine without much maintenance at all. 

How to be a Mother Hen to Raise Baby Chicks

Which comes first for chicken owners? The chicken or the egg?

Probably the chicken. Unless you are given adult chickens though, in order to have your own flock, you will have to start out raising chicks.

Ideally, you would have the mother hen to raise your chicks as a good mother hen takes care of all her offspring’s needs. Most of us do not have this natural way of raising chicks at least for our first batch. This means we will have to play the role of mother hen ourselves to raise these chicks in good health.

Shelter and Heat

Chicks need to be sheltered from predators and the elements and provided with adequate heat. We use a cardboard box with a utility 60 watt incandescent lightbulb. We place this as close to the chicks as possible when they are young, raising it up in the box as they grow older (and taller). We close the box lid except where the light is. Be careful that the bulb you use is not too high wattage for your light fixture and that the light is not placed too close to cardboard that it gets hot as these cases can cause fires. We usually cut or rip the corner of the box open a bit to slide the utility light fixture closer to the bottom of the box. Watch your chicks closely at first to see if they are huddling very closely under the light. Though they frequently huddle and sleep when young, if they seem to do nothing but huddle close, they may be too cold and need a closer fixture to them or a higher wattage lightbulb. If your chicks start to venture out regularly to their food and water, they are probably warm enough. Also make sure they have enough space to get away from the light if it is too hot underneath it. If they never go underneath the light, but rather huddle a little ways away from it, you can go with a lower wattage lightbulb or place the fixture higher up. Some use heat lamps for this which work great as well (they are hotter and typically use more electricity, but they allow you to place the light higher to warm more chicks at a time).

Brooding Box

We typically start out the chicks inside our house until they are old enough to smell bad. Then they are moved into our basement with the box slightly elevated from the ground to insulate it from the cold concrete.

As the chicks grow, make sure to supply a decent sized box for them to move around in. A smaller box keeps them warmer when they are young.

Bedding

As the brooding box gets used, the floor will get messy and the box smelly. To keep your chicks healthy, choose a good bedding material. I use newspaper, wood shavings, and some grass clippings for this. These materials are compostable meaning I can simply transfer the chicks to a temporary box and dump this out in a compost pile or the garden. I typically have to do this once a week or every few days once the chicks get older (raising about 8 at a time). This can depend upon the box size and number and breed of chicks though.

Water

It is important to provide fresh water to chicks in a way that is unlikely to cause them to drown. A dedicated chick waterer works well for us and can work with mason jars full of water. This needs dumping every couple days for me as the chicks frequently poop or kick bedding or food into their water. Elevating the water a bit can help with this. Once the chicks are large enough to knock the water over, I have found they are ready to go outside. Some recommend warm water rather than cold as the chicks are sensitive when young. Some also use probiotics with the water to aid digestion, but again this is up to you. We have had success with and without it.

Food

As full size chicken feed pellets are too large for chicks, I typically purchase starter chicken feed crumbles. If you can grow your own grain or catch bugs, these are great sources of food as well. With the chicken feed, I add chicken scratch (corn and some other grains). These are tasty to all chickens and helps their digestive system to not get constipation and clump up on their rears (which can even lead to chick death). Our last batch of chicks did not have any digestion problems with adding some scratch to their feed. They tend to poop in the feed, so you may have to clean this out sometimes too. Elevating this can help as well. Bringing the chicks outside under supervision can be a fun adventure for them and is entertaining to watch them discover the outside world. Beware of predators of the air and land as chicks are particularly vulnerable.

Chicks with feathers out in their Chicken Coop

All Grown Up

Once the chicks have all their feathers and the weather is not too cold outside, they are ready to be moved outside overnight. Ideally they have some sort of closed coop to keep them safe from predators overnight. This can have an automatic or manual door or simply have a well secure run that they can venture out to and from once they are coop trained.

Egg laying chickens typically take about 6 months before they start laying. Before introducing chicks to an adult flock, make sure they are big enough to not get too picked upon. You may have to set up a separate chicken tractor for them until they get of size.

Good luck with raising your chicks. This will be an entertaining and rewarding undertaking as you learn to be their mother hen.

What is Permaculture?

We have already discussed many techniques to imitate nature and make gardening easier. Bringing them together is called permaculture. Make connections between inputs (needs) and outputs (results). Plants need nitrogen and result in food. Chickens need food and create nitrogen with manure. Bring them together and you are making a connection.

Mr. Rooster

Chickens need calcium after laying eggs. Humans need eggs but typically do not eat the shell. Feed the crushed egg shells back to the chickens to supplement their calcium and avoid waste.

Splitting firewood while getting exercise is another connection

We can bring this into our lifestyle as well. We need exercise and to stay warm in the winter. Why not split wood by hand if we are capable and get both at the same time? This also saves fuel and money. After burning the wood, the wood ash can be used for chicken dust baths or used in the garden helping soil become more alkaline.

Repurpose our waste to be useful and work in as many connections as is feasible. Reuse aluminum cans and plastic containers as starter pots for plants.

Create connections and reap more with less work

All these connections help us live more in harmony with nature rather than fighting it so much. This also makes our jobs easier, more efficient, and eliminates waste. Take on the challenge to recycle and reuse as much as possible and write down inputs and outputs around your homestead that can make permaculture connections.

Permaculture Chickens: a Garden’s Best Friend

When growing a garden, many purchases and tasks we do can be replaced with work from chickens. Why not put nature to work for us rather than working against it?

Baby Chick
One of our Ameraucana hens as a chick

The most productive product a chicken makes is their manure. The more they eat, the more they make. This manure makes great fertilizer for gardens meaning you will never have to buy chemical fertilizer again! Fresh chicken manure is strong and heats up as it decomposes, so I shovel up a couple wheel barrow loads and leave a pile to sit for a while before using it on my garden. This way plants do not get too hot, but still get the benefits of the nitrogen in the manure. Manure is also a great companion to mulch such as wood chips. The wood chips protect the soil and keep it moist while the manure fertilizes it and helps provide the plants with more nutrients.

If you have the space, plant your garden as big as you can get. You can even plant extra specifically for feeding chickens. The more you can grow, the more free chicken feed. I plan to experiment with growing wheat or oats for chickens. Mulch helps keep this maintainable with weed reduction so you can grow more with less effort. Any extra food you have that your family does not eat, the chickens will clean up for you. They convert those spoiled tomatoes and wilted greens into manure and eggs.

Fresh eggs

Eggs are a great supplement to garden vegetables and fruit. While your garden provides excellent vitamins and other nutrients to your body, you have to eat carefully and a lot to get enough protein to make it through the day. Eggs are one of the healthiest sources of food nature offers packed with around 6 grams of protein per egg and many other vitamins and minerals. Eating eggs helps balance your diet of vegetables and fruit. Many raise meat chickens for even more protein in their diet. Beware though that raising chickens often results in chickens becoming pets, so if you plan on raising them for meat, you may still get attached to them.

Homesteaders often put chickens to work for them preparing a garden for planting. Chickens are great at killing weeds and all other vegetation, tilling the soil, and mixing in the manure all themselves. You can fence your chickens in your garden throughout the wintertime (barricade off any perennials or winter crops if you do not want these eaten).

Rooster
Mr. Rooster coming out of his coop

Another popular option is a chicken tractor – a portable coop and run that can be moved multiple times a day or week so that you get the benefits of free range chickens with safety for them and your garden. This is a great way to concentrate their efforts on one section of a current or future garden for spring planting.

Christmas Dinner scraps that the chickens cleaned up

Any weeds or spoiled produce from your garden can be fed to the chickens. I recommend raising your chickens somewhat near your garden if possible as the hauling spoiled produce and manure back and forth is then easier and more likely to get done. Placing your chicken run next to or around the perimeter of your garden can help protect the garden from some devastating insect pests. Many have noticed their mosquito or grasshopper populations plummeting when raising chickens.

An Ameraucana laying an egg

Having fresh eggs on hand all the time means one less item you have to buy at the store, and one more healthy food you can raise yourself. Before no time, chickens earn their keep with eggs and their garden work. They are also a great source of entertainment. You can decide how much you interact with your hens. Put your “pets” to work for you. They will be happy to help.