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What Livestock My Grandparents Raised During the Great Depression

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For many preppers, livestock forms a key part of their long-term survival plans.

Shelves of canned food and a stash of home-made jerky will be a big help in getting through the weeks and months after a crisis hits, but in the longer term if you want fresh meat you’re either going to have to hunt for it or rear it yourself.

For other things – milk and eggs, for example, or wool if you plan on making your own yarn – keeping livestock is the only real option.

Of course, just a couple of generations ago a lot of our ancestors didn’t see livestock as an emergency resource; it was part of their daily lives. My own grandparents went through wartime rationing in the UK, and that was tough.

Meat, particularly, was tightly rationed. The weekly ration per person during WWII included one shilling and two pence worth of meat, which usually worked out to about a pound and a quarter, plus four ounces of bacon or ham.

Some meats, like sausages or offal, weren’t rationed; they were just almost impossible to find, because supply never came close to keeping up with demand.

Meanwhile if you got one egg a week you were lucky, except children and pregnant women who got three. Cheese? You could have two ounces a week, and another two ounces of butter.

Most people couldn’t keep a cow, or spend the time to make their own cheese and butter, but with meat and eggs in such short supply there were many who saw the value of having some livestock.

Not all of them were rural people either; in fact millions of homes in British towns and cities boosted their rations by keeping some animals. Obviously if you did live in a rural area, and had more space available, you had more options – but even in a city apartment it was possible to raise some meat.


What Livestock My Grandparents Raised During the Great DepressionOne of my great-grandparents was a chicken farmer, but that was on an industrial scale; he had row after row of sheds, containing thousands of birds.

My grandparents’ generation went in for chickens in a much smaller way. A few chickens didn’t take much time or effort but made a real difference to their diet.

Nowadays, chickens mostly eat food pellets – but the truth is they’ll eat almost anything. If they can wander in a yard, they’ll peck at the ground looking for insects and worms.

They’ll eat seeds, small plants and even small animals. You can feed them most kitchen scraps. They do need grains in their diets to stay healthy, but feeding them isn’t a big expense – and they’ll more than repay it.

When eggs were rationed to one a week at most (in 1944 the average British civilian got about 30 eggs on the ration through the whole year) having chickens at home made a huge difference.

Depending on breed, diet, and season, a hen can lay anywhere from one or two eggs a week to 300 a year – almost one every day. A single chicken could provide ten times the egg ration.

If they fed the chickens this plant, it made them lay at least twice as many eggs as usual. And of course, when a chicken stopped laying, it would be killed for meat.


What Livestock My Grandparents Raised During the Great DepressionRabbit meat has gone out of fashion in the US, but some people still eat it – and a couple of generations ago many more did. During WWII there was a surge in rabbit-keeping in the UK.

Even chickens need at least a small yard, but apartment residents would often mount rabbit hutches outside their windows.

Like chickens, rabbits are cheap to feed. They’ll eat kitchen scraps like vegetable peelings, and their diet could be bulked out with pretty much any leafy greenery.

Some foraging for weeds in the local park, or even around bombed-out buildings, would provide plenty food for a few rabbits, and they’re fast-growing.

A baby rabbit will grow to maturity in as little as six to eight months for a meat-producing breed. Another benefit of rabbits as livestock is that they’re notoriously efficient at reproducing, so if you start off with two of them you’ll have a more or less endless supply of rabbit meat.


What Livestock My Grandparents Raised During the Great DepressionIf you see a pigeon shed in someone’s yard you’re likely to assume they breed racing pigeons – but they might actually be raising them for meat and eggs.

They don’t produce anywhere near as many eggs as chickens do (usually two at a time, up to eight times a year) but they’re an efficient way to produce cheap meat.

Related: An Ingenious Way to Catch Pigeons and Other Birds in Your Own Backyard

Pigeons can be allowed out to forage during the day, and they’ll return to their shed or loft at night; they’re basically self-feeding, which takes away one of the big expenses of most livestock.

Baby pigeons, called “squabs”, will grow as big as their parents in just two months and are a great source of tender fresh meat.


What Livestock My Grandparents Raised During the Great DepressionPigs are a little harder to raise than chickens, rabbits or pigeons.

You’re definitely not going to keep one in an apartment. Unlike smaller animals, it needs a yard with enough space to roam free.

They’re amazingly efficient at converting kitchen scraps into protein.

If you have enough land to let them forage, they’ll happily eat grass, other plants, worms and small animals.

Pigs are omnivores and need a balanced diet, but you can feed them quite cheaply; in return you’ll get a lot of meat.

Slaughtering and processing a pig can be a big job, though. However, you can learn here the simplest method for butchering and preserving a pig for a whole year without refrigeration, just as my grandparents used to do.


What Livestock My Grandparents Raised During the Great DepressionFor country people with a bit of land, including my grandmother, sheep were an option.

Like pigeons they’re basically self-feeding.

Turn them loose on a big enough patch of grass and they’ll just wander around it all day grazing.

They’re hardy animals too, able to survive wet or cold weather thanks to their thick wool coats.

Outside of lambing season, all you have to do is protect them from predators and make sure their grazing land is enclosed so they don’t wander off or blunder into any hazards – they’re not the smartest of creatures, and have a knack for getting lost or stuck.

Every year a sheep will have one or two lambs, which can be slaughtered for meat when they’re three to four months old.

Keeping livestock doesn’t have to be time-consuming or expensive – and it doesn’t need a lot of land, either.

Our ancestors chose the animals that worked in their personal circumstances, whether that was a dozen sheep or a couple of rabbits in a cage. There’s nothing to stop modern preppers doing the same.

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