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Imbolc Rabbit Update

Today is Imbolc, and it was a terrible day to gather firewood! The past two days have brought us snow, followed by ice, followed by freezing rain, which was topped off by a flash freeze this afternoon where the temperature dropped something like 10-15 degrees in the course of about an hour. According to Celtic tradition, this means an early spring is coming, since the Cailleach won’t want to go out and replenish her store of firewood.

Whatever else she may have been up to this winter, the Cailleach has been looking out for our little farmstead! Our Solstice litter of rabbit kits is now 6 weeks old. They’re weaned and separated by sex, and enjoying the extra space as they work on growing big enough for harvest. We ended up with a textbook split of 4 does and 5 bucks. Mama is on her own again and just as aggressive as ever, if not more so. Once she is back in condition from her maternal exertions, we’re planning to put her in the freezer. She gave us a fantastic first litter and I am grateful, but an aggressive doe has no place in my long term plans.

We’re planning to breed both of our Californian does on Wednesday. This should allow their litters to grow to butchering size before we get to the hot summer weather, which is very taxing for rabbits. We may fit in one more litter before summer, or this may be all we’ll do until early fall. Regardless, we’re already making plans to possibly expand the rabbitry for next year!

Other highlights I’ve missed blogging about in the past month include finally getting a chance to go through some of the fruit we froze in the summer and making it into jam, breaking in my new pressure canner with a batch of chicken stock, and the return of indoor archery season at the sportsmen’s club…but more on those another time!

Fortnight

Today the rabbit kits are two weeks old. All nine are still alive and growing well! Their eyes are open and their fur has come in. They are half New Zealand White and half Californian, and you can see a little smudge on most of their noses and tails. IMG_20150103_122255540They are starting to venture out of the nest box and investigate mama’s food already! Mama is still not very cooperative when it comes to letting us get at them, but thankfully she did not decide to eat them. I hope as they become more mobile and start leaving the shelter of the nest box, that she can also manage to avoid trampling them. She looks so huge next to them!

The book says that while they can be weaned as young as 4 weeks old, it’s better to wait until about 5-6 weeks before we separate them from the mother. So they’ve got another 3-4 weeks before we make any significant changes for them. Then it will just be a question of giving them enough space to grow out to butcher weight. I am still trying to figure out the optimal time to harvest them, since I’m hoping to get use out of the pelts as well as meat. A roaster rather than fryer-size rabbit is perfectly fine for us, so having them get too big isn’t an issue, and I’m willing to take a slightly decreased return on feed conversion to get a better pelt. Some sources mention a “baby prime” coat around 10-12 weeks of age, or a “junior prime” somewhere between 4-5 months (16-20 weeks). My tentative plan right now is to look at possibly harvesting them in two batches, probably around 10-12 weeks and around 16 weeks, and seeing what my results are. But of course this will depend on how everything goes between now and then, and what our schedule looks like! No matter what I will get some practice pelts that I will be able to use as I figure out the tanning process, so they won’t be wasted either way. I have some small projects planned for any useable practice pelts, and some very grand plans once we are getting good pelts on a regular basis!

We are already making plans for our next breeding, which is very exciting. Up until now the only meat we’ve bred ourselves has been the poultry, by hatching in the spring and harvesting in the fall. Having a resource for ongoing production is a very interesting change! We’ll be breeding both of our Californian does in early February, then give everyone a break for the summer months when it’s hot. In late August or early September, depending on how the weather behaves, we’ll start up again. I’m also hoping that with such a rapidly-produced resource at hand, we’ll be able to start bartering rabbit meat for things!

Right on Schedule

I must say, this New Zealand doe has her faults, but she is nothing if not prompt. We placed the nest box on Wednesday, Day 28 from her breeding. By Friday there was evidence that she had been inside and explored it. Yesterday afternoon she built a beautiful nest and this morning, under a truly astonishing amount of soft, fluffy fur, we found our very first litter of kits. There were 9 live kits, and only one dead one. In retrospect, we think she may have had them sometime between 2:30 and 5:30 yesterday afternoon, but we were worried about checking the nest too early and interrupting her, so we let it go until this morning.

Since this is my first litter, I don’t have much to compare with, but they seemed to have nice round bellies and lots of energy for how helpless and fragile they seem. Surprisingly, it wasn’t too difficult to pull out the nest box and take a look inside, as Mama was busy trying to draw us off to the other side of the cage rather than attacking us (which is her usual M.O., and why I don’t plan to keep her). We removed the dead kit and the bedding from the front of the box that was soiled with blood, added plenty of fresh hay, and put the kits back where we found them under their blanket of fur. Then we cleared out pretty quick after making sure Mama had plenty of food, hay, and fresh water. As the book suggests, we’re supplementing her with plenty of black oil sunflower seeds in addition to unlimited pellets and hay.

We will give everyone plenty of time to settle back down, and do another check later this evening. I only hope the stress of this necessary check wasn’t enough to push Mama into eating the kits. At this point that is my biggest worry, since she is such a spastic personality to begin with. Time will tell. In the meantime, it seems fitting to welcome the return of the light this Solstice with new life on the farm.

The Home Stretch

Today is the day we place the nest box in the New Zealand’s cage! We will give her plenty of soft hay and a cozy spot to make a nest. If she is bred, the litter should arrive this weekend! Keep your fingers crossed!

A Day in the Life

Today was my day off from my regular job, and I used it to relax and get some things done! First I started a fire when I got up. We have a fireplace with an insert, and while we don’t heat exclusively with wood, we do try to at least offset our oil usage somewhat. Then, after the house pets were fed, I went out to the barn to feed and water the poultry and rabbits.  I have started the NZ doe on free choice pellets, and I picked up some alfalfa/timothy mix hay for her. I’m still not positive that she’s pregnant, but I want to make sure she has plenty of calories and protein available just in case. The resident gentleman gave me a very serious face over breakfast:
I also spent the morning stripping all the rabbit cages and giving them a thorough cleaning. I’m sure they were a bit confused as I was listening to (and singing along with!) some Christmas carols the whole time! After the barn chores were done, I made a run to the feed store for a few things, and took care of some other errands. Instead of getting clearer and warmer, the weather stayed dreary, so I did some various boring (but necessary) household chores inside. After it got dark and I closed up the chicken door and did a final check of everyone’s food and water, I made myself some dinner, then snuggled up with a blanket, my knitting, and a Christmas movie (Arthur Christmas, which I had never seen but recorded on a whim. It was a fun little film, with an absolutely all-star cast). My current project is a long-overdue baby blanket. It’s in the “black hole” phase, where I knit and knit but it just doesn’t get any bigger! That’s about all I’ve really had going on today. I’m just quietly holding down the fort this weekend while Avery is away, but it’s really nice to get a day to just sit back and take care of myself and the farm for a change.

Darkening Days

The days are getting shorter and colder, and we’re in a bit of a holding pattern here on the farm. The harvest is in, and we’re getting used to most meals including at least some element that we grew ourselves, which is an absolutely fantastic feeling. The birds all seem perfectly content, and the rabbits as well. They adapted seamlessly to their new heated water bottles, which work a little differently from their oversized summer ones. The main order of business right now is getting ready for the holidays and making sure our plans are all well-laid for springtime.

No news yet on whether our rabbit breeding was successful; palpating a rabbit is a delicate skill that requires practice, and I don’t think a novice farmer attempting her first palpation on a cranky doe is a recipe for success. Some books will recommend a “test breeding” to determine whether the doe is pregnant, but I’ve decided against that for several reasons. In a test breeding, you would put the female back in the cage with the male, the reasoning being that if she is pregnant she will refuse to mate with him. The problem is, it’s not foolproof. She could accept his advances even if she is pregnant. In rabbits, it is actually then possible for her to become pregnant with two litters at the same time, with different dates of conception. In this event, it’s unlikely for either litter to survive, and it can be dangerous for the doe. So with palpation and test breeding both off the table, we are electing to simply wait and see if she kindles on schedule, with presumptive prenatal care in the meantime.

32 Days

The rabbit breeding went without a hitch today, much to my surprise considering how flighty this doe can be. It took the buck a few minutes to figure out what he was supposed to be doing, but he got the idea in the end, and it was pretty much by the book after that. I mated them twice, once in the morning and again several hours later. Rabbits are induced ovulators, meaning the mating will trigger ovulation in the female to occur about 10-12 hours after the initial breeding. Mating the rabbits again later in the day can give a better chance for a successful breeding and possibly also a larger litter, or so I’m told. We shall see! Rabbit gestation is about 31-32 days, so by breeding her today we should expect kits the weekend before Christmas if she takes.

Baby Crazy

The New Zealand White doe is about 7-8 months old, and seems to be having a false pregnancy. She’s pulling fur and building a nest in the back corner of her cage. From all my research and consultation with more experienced rabbit raisers, this indicates that she has reached sexual maturity and can be bred whenever I like. I had been planning to breed her around Thanksgiving anyway, so I’ll just move my schedule up a week! I plan to breed her on Wednesday so that she should kindle the weekend before Christmas. If she takes, and is a good mom, we should have rabbit ready to eat by Easter/Ostara!

Nothing up my sleeve…

Presto! The modest trio of meat rabbits we planned to start with? They just became six, count ’em, SIX rabbits currently in residence! All due to the generosity of our rabbit mentor, Avery’s uncle. Apparently he was at the county fair last weekend, and decided to purchase the winning trio of Californians from the 4-H rabbit show. He gave the buck to another friend of his, and sent the two does to us, since they are both better conformed and of a nicer temperament than the one we originally got. Actually, both of our original does are really showing their early lack of handling. Despite our efforts to get them to associate us with food and high value treats, and to introduce them to gentle handling, they both remain fairly aggressive and flighty. As such, we are quite happy to have a pair of well-socialized 4-H rabbits instead!

My mother-in-law went to pick up the Californians, and while she was there, fell for a young Rex doe from a recent litter Avery’s uncle bred. Since we had room for one more, she decided to bring her home as well – why not? So we are officially at rabbit capacity! Our current plan is to harvest the aggressive Cal we originally got, and keep the NZW just long enough to breed her in early December and let her raise one litter. Otherwise our initial breeding would be pushed back by at least a month, since the new Cals are several weeks younger. Once the NZW’s litter is weaned, we’ll get her fit for the freezer and harvest her, unless she’s had a major attitude adjustment in the meantime. That will get us back to our originally planned trio of Californian meat rabbits, plus the Rex who, let’s face it, is mostly just for fun. Avery’s mom doesn’t ask for much, though, so we’re happy to oblige! And she is awful pretty – take a look!

butterscotch rex

New Additions

Where was I? That’s right, I was going to share the new additions my in-laws brought back for us from their trip over 4th of July weekend! This year is turning out to be a big one for us in terms of expanding our self-reliance when it comes to the meat we eat. Last year we produced nearly all of the chicken we ate ourselves. This year we have 15 young ducks destined for the freezer, and in addition to our first set of pigs, we have added meat rabbits!

Californian buck

Californian buck

I’m excited because the addition of rabbits really takes us to the next level of our homesteading life. It’s a very different meat, not as mainstream even as our ducks. Rabbit meat is very lean, all white meat, and it will add real variety to our diet. But the meat isn’t the only thing rabbits have to offer on the homestead. Their manure is gold in the garden, for one thing. But I’m also determined to learn to put the rabbit pelts to use.

Californian doe

Californian doe

For me, the ultimate way that I show my respect for the animals I eat is to waste as little as possible from their sacrifice. As someone who came from a completely non-farming background, the learning curve on this is a bit steep, and I’m far from perfect, but every time we butcher we are doing more and more. Learning to put things like poultry feet, hearts, livers, gizzards, and such to good use has taken time and effort, but it is important to me. We even save decorative feathers as much as we are able, and compost the waste feathers so nothing is lost. Rabbit fur is warm and soft, and while the skins can be delicate, I’m eager to learn the skills to turn them into useful items.

New Zealand White doe

New Zealand White doe

We are starting with a pair of Californians and a New Zealand White doe. Avery’s uncle has been breeding and showing rabbits for years, as well as raising for meat, and he scouted out our first rabbits for use to help us get good stock. This will let us get a feel for the two main meat producing breeds as we learn. Once we’re more established, I’m interested in exploring other options like the New Zealand Red or the Silver Fox.

These rabbits will be ready to breed late in the fall, around November or so. I’m planning to breed the NZW doe around the first week in December, which should mean we can celebrate Easter with home-raised rabbit for dinner. I’ll stick with breeding one doe at a time in the beginning at least, until we get the feel for how things go!