Rabbits


We have been busy around the farm this summer, trying to find the balance between getting things set up for another frigid and long winter, living temporarily, and preparing for our move in the spring.  Unfortunately, my busy-ness has decreased my blog readership by about 60%, so I guess I really need to make blogging a priority again.  Since farm-related topics seem to be the main topic of interest, I will start there this week.

We had to purchase our hay in 3x3x8 foot bales this year.  Thanks to the severe drought, there just wasn’t much to choose from.  In fact, to give you east-coasters some appreciation for real drought, a 55 lb. bale is currently going for around $13.50, while 70 lb. bales are going for $15.  The 800 lb. round bales I used to buy in GA for $30 cost about $200 here.  It is absolutely insane!  Thus, anticipating steeper prices and more shortage as winter arrives, we calculated out how much we would need to get us through the move, with a little left over for weaning onto pasture.  Unfortunately, we didn’t have a place to store bales of hay that big, so we built a cheap shelter out of cattle panels, t-posts, a tarp, and bulletin-board tarp.  It’s ugly, but it works, and can be torn down in about 30 minutes. I will probably do an separate post on the shelter for anyone interested.

Between the hay prices and the move, we have cut down on our animals.  So, our farm, which has done a complete turn around from the animals we had this time last year, now consists of 2 milking does and a spring doeling.  I recently submitted bloodwork from all 3 for several different tests, as these particular does had never been tested (just their parents before I got them), and, as expected, they were negative for everything–always a good thing!  I also plan to submit manure samples from them, just to see how our natural deworming regimine is working.

American Alpine, Latte, is a 2-year-old second freshener, producing just under a gallon a day currently. She peaked at 1.5 gallons. She is, coincidentally, a daughter of Stallion, our buck from last year, and a sweetheart to boot!

American Alpine, Faith, is a 1 year old first freshener, producing about 3/4 gallon a day this year.

American Alpine, Joy, is a spring 2012 doeling out of Faith (above) and Stallion, our buck from last year.  She is a very nice and correct doeling, and I am excited to see how she produces next year!

Of course, Athena is a keeper.  I am still toying a bit with improving her training slightly, but we absolutely adore her.  Her instinct to protect her animals and family are just fascinating to witness, just as her instincts to keep the peace are entertaining.  She always happily alerts us to any deer, squirrel, or fox that comes around (yes, that also means she is a bit noisy at times), but we haven’t lost any animals when she is on duty.  If the does start fighting over something, she is quick to break it up, either by grabbing a tail or leg and hauling the offender away to the other side of the pen, or just by getting in the middle and barking a scold at them.

Athena, the livestock guardian dog. She is 3/4 Great Pyrenees, 1/4 Anatolian Shepherd, and 100% sweetheart!

We also have Shiloh, the jenny, and her 3-month-old jenny foal, Asha, who we have decided to keep–seeing as how we do have 5 children that want to ride.  I have been slowly increasing the amount of time I work with Asha, teaching her basic manners, and Shiloh is getting ridden one to two times a week right now.  We are hoping to increase that to 3 or more.  Of course, it is my limited time that slows us down, as I have to bridle her up for the kids to ride.  I trimmed both girls’ hooves today, which I am quite proud of (and quite feeling it tonight–I’ve never done 8 hooves in a single afternoon!)

Shiloh and Asha, the standard donkeys (or burros, depending on which part of the country you’re from).

JR has had quite the rabbit enterprise this year, learning all about advertising, customer service, support-after-sale, dealing with difficult customers, and more.  He has sold about 15 rabbits this summer alone, some live, and some dressed. I have also perfected a couple of rabbit meat recipes that our family really enjoys, so I think the rabbits have earned a permanent place on the farm.  After we sold off all our extra breeders and then JR’s favorite breeding doe developed severe mastitis in one of her teats (I didn’t even know that was possible!) and had to be put down, we are down to just 4 rabbits, 2 does, and 2 bucks.  One of each is currently breeding age, and the other 2 are still growing as replacements.  The youngsters give us a back up in the event we lose a breeder over the winter, but we are hoping to move all 4 to give us a good start at Red Gate Farm.  The breeding doe currently has a litter of 5 week old kits, that will be weaned in the next couple weeks, and harvested after Thanksgiving.  We hope she will keep us supplied until we get settled and start breeding the new girl.

Pelham, our American Chinchilla, and current sire.

Hope, a Harlequin rabbit, and our current breeding doe.

Our up-and-coming buck, Jupiter.

Our still-growing doe, Mars.

Our current litter of kits. All are already reserved for meat.

Then there’s the chickens.  We lost all but 8 of our layers from last year to the fox (who has since been dispatched), then we were gifted 5 more layers early this summer, giving us 13.  Of course, half of them started molting mid-summer, so we have been getting about 6 eggs a day for several months now.  In addition, we were given 12 more chicks in early summer, most of which are pullets we are raising as layers.  Some of them are Americauna’s, meaning we could finally get a few green/blue eggs mixed into the batch.  Depending on how many wind up being roosters, I may sell a few of the pullets this fall.  I was hoping to take a few with us when we moved, to hold us over until we could raise a new batch, but I have discovered several states we will be driving through may require certain tests for poultry.  So, depending on the process and price, we may just sell all the girls next spring and just start over.

Of course, I can’t forget the honey bees.  We have 6 hives now, which we will maintain through the winter.  If all survive, then we will sell 3 hives, mainly to get rid of the larger sized boxes.  S has really spent this year focusing on regressing his bees and using natural, non-chemical methods.  While the process has been very successful in terms of producing healthy hives, due to the regression process, the severe drought (meaning minimal nectar flows), and the fact the previous owner harvested too much honey last year, we aren’t sure we will get to harvest any this year.  It’s kind of borderline at this point.

Finally, just for kicks, we recently had a visitor.  A very smelly, rutty visitor, who reminded me why I sold Stallion last fall.

Meet Marcus, a very well-bred American Alpine buck from Harmody Alpine lines. Notice the incredible bouffant hair do….

You see, this little buck was just born this spring.  Chances are, that hair will keep on growin’, until Marcus resembles his dad, Elvis….

Elvis was quite the king of the herd. Look at that hair!  And he was only a yearling when this pic was taken last year.  I borrowed this pic from a friend’s website. Our black Alpine doe, Onyx, was bred to Elvis last year, but we wound up selling her twin boys. I am rather hoping to keep a little buckling out of him if I can get my hands on one.

Don’t you just love the resemblance?

Well, guess that it’s for now.  Wait until you read tomorrow’s post about a quite unexpected adventure we had in the middle of the night!  Let’s just say it involved a drunk guy, several accomplices, our woods, Athena, and several sheriff’s deputies wielding spotlights and shotguns!

Last year, we began what we hope will be an annual tradition of hosting a “Farm Day.”  Essentially, folks come out to our farm for a day, and follow us around while we do our normal farm duties, teaching mini-classes as we go.  We have a cheese-making demonstration, give the attendees opportunities for hands-on experiences, have a potluck lunch, a discussion on the Biblical principles and life-experiences that have driven us to make the choices we have, and there are tons of activities for the kiddos such as a new bucking barrel, donkey rides, and much more.  At the end of the event, S actually gives a class on animal harvesting.  We have debated continuing this lesson, as butchering animals is certainly not the most pleasant of activities.  However, the requests continue to come in.  Attendees want the whole picture, as many are considering moving into this type of lifestyle, and I guess they just want to know everything that is involved in self-sufficiency.  The thing that never fails to amaze me is that most of the time, men are the ones initially interested while their wives insist they will not stay for the harvest.  Yet, when it comes time for the actual task, so far, EVERY SINGLE person that attends has gathered around to watch.  Most people comment on how surprised they are at how easy, quick, and completely painless the killing is, and how fast we can have meat ready for the oven.  It truly seems to get them thinking.  In regards to this portion, I love a motto we have adapted from natural farmer Joel Salatin, and that is “our goal is to give our animals an incredible, happy, wonderful, natural life that involves just one bad day.”  Of course, if all goes as desired, it is literally one bad moment.

Unfortunately, because we do run this event by ourselves, we were not able to take any photos.  We had over 20 people this past weekend, for a planned private event that we were asked to host for, and then next weekend, we are expecting around 60 people for a more public Farm Day.  I hope to have a volunteer I can ask to take photos for me.  In any case, though, I did manage to take a video of what I am most proud of…..7-year-old JR giving his first public speech, as he taught the rabbit class.  He had been asking to do it for some time, we practiced a couple times prior to the event, and we informed the family we were hosting that he would be doing it so they were aware and prepared.  There was no need though, as he did awesome (if I may be biased).  We allowed him to speak, and when he seemed stuck, S or I would just ask him a pertinent question to get him going again.  It’s about 10 minutes long, and somewhat far away as I didn’t want him to know I was videoing him, lest it distract or make him nervous, but I have to share:

 

 

Thanks to our experiment raising meat rabbits in a community environment, we are learning a great deal about rabbit social issues.

Granted, raising in a fenced-in colony is not completely natural.  In the wild, rabbits have far more space than a fenced pen allows, and tunnel systems can be quite intricate.  Nonetheless, after reading many seemingly successful stories of colony raising, we figured it was something we needed to try.  Even if we can’t duplicate nature in it’s entirety, we figured everything we could duplicate would only improve the lives of our bunnies.  The following is a totally random compilation of what I have observed:

Temperament:

I feared turning rabbits loose would cause their temperaments to become more skittish and wild.  To the contrary, every rabbit, of several different breeds, that I have turned out, has grown friendlier with time.  All I can figure is that they learn we are not trying to catch them every time we come in (like you do when you open a cage), and so they don’t anticipate or fear trouble as much.  Pelham, our AC buck, has been running free in this pen for about 8 months now, and he is the friendliest rabbit I have ever seen.  He will greet us at the gate, run along the fence with us if we are walking outside of it, sit there and allow anyone to pet him, eat from your hand, crawl on you, stand up on your legs, and so on.  At first I thought it was just him, but every other rabbit put in there has done similarly over time.  Visiting children love our rabbit hare-pen!!

Behavior:

It has been a blast watching the rabbits interact with each other.  They romp, play, leap, chase, dig, explore, hide, and lounge.  Pelham often tries to breed the does, and they are easily able to escape his advances if they aren’t ready.  If they are ready, they just sit there and allow it.  Growing kits love the extra space to be…well…like little kids running around or playing hide-and-seek in the tunnels all the time.  By having an assortment of obstacles, tunnels, lounging surfaces, and different heights, all rabbits seem to find a space they can claim as their own, and preferences are as individual as the rabbit.  Preferences also vary with the weather and temperature.

Health:

I have had few health problems with rabbits in the hare-pen.  I have had a couple of new rabbits that developed “snuffles,” a highly contagious respiratory infection, or other mysterious conditions, shortly after arriving.  Most were caged and in quarantine at the time.  Still, I feared my hare-pen rabbits might catch it, but they never did.  They are just healthy, happy, and seem resistant to common diseases.  I certainly don’t go looking for things to expose them to, but overall, they just haven’t had health problems.  It is possible that it is breed-based, as Pelham is the only surviving AC rabbit we have (after 9 tries), and I have only lost one of our Harlequin hybrids.  I know AC’s are weaker as a whole anyway.  Nonetheless, I also have to imagine that fresh air, being exposed to things on the ground, a cleaner environment sterilized by the sun, and a lack of intense smells caused by urine and feces collecting under the cages contributes to their health.

Breeding and Kindling:

Breeding takes place as nature intended.  The buck doesn’t require much to get in the mood.  A fluffy doe tail hopping by is about all it takes, and he’s ready.  If she isn’t ready, she runs or refuses to raise her haunches for him, and the pen allows plenty of space to escape. When she is ready, she allows him to do his thing and cooperates.

We have had three litters born in the Hare-pen so far.  The first was a pregnant doe we added, and shortly after noticed her waistline had shrunk a bit.  JR found a bit of plucked hair under the cages, so we went searching for her kindle.  We found her kindle neatly situated in one of the underground nest boxes we had designed.  At that time, our tunnel system was not completed, so there was a hole in the ground that went right to the entrance to the nest box, and we found she had filled this hole with dirt.  As we watched her, a couple times a day, we found she would dig the loose dirt out of the hole, go in the nest box, tend to her kits, then exit and re-bury the hole.  It was clear she was hiding her nest, and quite effectively at that.  Before the kits got too old, we actually sold the doe and her kindle to an individual trying to start a meat rabbitry of their own.

The second was more recent.  We were expecting the doe to kindle, again noticed the smaller waistline, found tufts of hair throughout the Hare-pen, but couldn’t find the kindle anywhere.  We searched all nest boxes, corners, dark areas, the community shelter, and even did our best to look in the tunnels, all to no avail.  After several days, we were puzzled.  She has proven to be a great mother in the past, but we finally concluded that she had either eaten them, or they were tucked away deep in a tunnel.  Either way, there was nothing we could do about it.  Then, S and I were out doing some work in the pen about a week later, and suddenly, the ground gave way under S’s foot.  As it turns out, she had created a perfectly hidden little den of her own in the center area of ground not covered by the fencing.  His foot had landed on the entry space, which she neatly back-filled with dirt.

This area looks just like the rest of the dirt ground, with the exception of bits of straw and slightly looser dirt. In fact, it contains the hidden entrance to the den.

It led down to a slightly deeper, perfectly dug little cove, full of a kindle of perfectly healthy kits which appeared to be about 4-5 days old.

With a bit of loose dirt dug away, you can see the entrance to the den.

With the camera stuck down in the entry-way, and the flash on, you get to see the hidden treasures. I haven’t counted them yet, but it appears to be a good-sized kindle.

With this kindle, my first question was “Why did she not use the nest boxes?”  My theory is that all the older, weaned kits use the tunnels and nest boxes frequently, so perhaps she sensed it wasn’t safe?  Or, perhaps she didn’t like the length of the tunnels, and felt she couldn’t bury the kits as tightly as she’d like.  The den she dug is very tight, so perhaps the small space holds in heat to protect them, and the tunnels don’t allow that.  Certainly worth considering.  I really didn’t know the answer at that point, but we decided to leave it and see what happened.  Unfortunately, before they were 2 weeks old, we lost 4.  As you could see in the photos above, the den wasn’t very deep, so when she would back fill the dirt into the opening, she would accidentally bury any kits that had followed her out a bit.  As a result, we finally removed them and placed the kits and mom into a cage with a nest box to try to keep the rest alive. They are still doing great as best we can tell.

Look closely and you might see a couple of kits around her.

The third happened just this week, with an expecting doe delivering in another nest box.  Again, we have decided to leave them, although JR, our resident rabbit manager, decided he’d had enough excitement and put Pelham (the buck) in a cage temporarily to see if that could decrease the stress of the does at all.  ( I don’t think Pelham causes any, but it isn’t worth arguing right now).  I have caught one of the older kits napping with the nest, so I’m not sure how long it will last, but for now, we’ll watch and see.

 

Nonetheless, I think we are going to make a few improvements to some issues that we have discovered because of this whole experience.  I’ll keep you posted.

Meat Production:

A few weeks ago, we decided to do some experimenting in regards to meat production.  I had two does, each with weaning-age kits that were born on the same day and within hours of each other.  I separated one doe from her kits, and put her in a separate cage, leaving her kits in their cage for typical weaning by separation.  The other doe and her 9 weaning-age kits were turned loose in the hare-pen.  It has been quite fascinating comparing the two groups of kits.  It’s a highly scientific experiment, don’t you think?! LOL!

What we noticed first was the behavior and development of the weaned kits.  In the past, I have found that kits will pester their dam (mother) trying to nurse even after she is ready to wean.  In a cage, she has nowhere to escape and either gives up and lets them nurse or runs herself crazy trying to avoid it.  Separating the kits from the dam has proven to be the least stressful way to do it, for her at least.  The family we turned out in the colony, however, weaned totally naturally.  From the moment I put them out, the kits were so busy running around, playing, digging, exploring the tunnels, and sampling all the hay and feed, that I never saw them try to nurse again.  The dam, on the the other hand, was almost as playful, and certainly more relaxed.  She just lounged wherever she pleased, and didn’t seem at all concerned about her kits playing nearby.

Now, you may think that’s a perfect solution for all, but as it turned out, there is a definite downside.  We found all that playing and running has resulted in beautiful, fit, lean kits as we approach harvest, and that isn’t necessarily a good thing when it comes to meat production.  As a result of the calories they burn, they weigh about 2/3 the weight of the kits we left in the cage, who ate more out of boredom and activity was limited.

A bit hard to tell in the photo, but the rabbit on the left is one of the hare-pen kits, and you can see the caged-kit on the right is at least 30% larger. Sorry, you try to get two rambunctious babies to sit still and smile for the camera!

Now, for the most part, I would rather have leaner and lower-weight, but happier, healthier kits at harvest than fatter, less hardy, happy ones.  However, we haven’t tasted the meat yet.  I am interested to compare the tenderness of the meat when we harvest both kindles, as it is also very likely the hare-pen kits’s meat will be tougher due to the intense use of their muscles with their higher activity level.  We’ll have to see how that goes and decide how we want to handle meat in the future.

Effort Involved:

Colony raising in the Hare-pen requires, by far, the LEAST amount of work to raise rabbits.  We have all our cages full, plus this experimental group in the pen.  The cages require twice the effort and time, at the least.  Because of the colony set-up, we have multiple food and water spaces, all of which are checked twice a day just like the caged rabbits.  Unlike the caged rabbits, however, the multiple sources mean they rarely run out of food or water.  The caged rabbits do on occasion.  If you have a leaky bottle on a cage, and it runs dry, the rabbit is really thirsty before you discover it.  If that were to happen in the pen, they just use the other sources.  No big deal.  There is far less time involved in clean up, and the pen just looks neater than the cages as well.  Although rabbit pellets do get scattered all around the pen, for the most part, rabbits are quite clean, and choose a certain far-off corner to do their business.  The nest boxes, community shelter, and tunnels stay surprisingly free of excrement. Cages, on the other hand, build up waste quickly, and we find all our rabbit smells derive from the cages rather than the pen.

Well, I guess that’s it for Colony-Raising 101.  I am contemplating doing a few things differently in the next one we build (after moving to Red Gate), but we love it so much, we will absolutely have one there!  To give you an idea, we are considering not having large tunnels like this one, but rather having the entrance to the nest boxes go right to the box (thereby allowing the doe to backfill it more easily).  I still want to improve on our food an water set-up, as there currently seems to be a lot of waste of food.  I love the sifter-feeders, so I think we are going to implement those into the plan.  Then, I want to fence the entire ground and add a larger pile of dirt on top of the fence where they can dig.  Finally, I think I will have a few short (less than 18 inches) tunnels scattered around and/or partially build to be used more as hiding areas and fulfill their burrowing instinct, yet eliminate some of the difficulties our current ones cause.  I’ll let you know as we continue to develop it.

We believe we have finally finished the so-called “Hare-pen,” or our colony rabbitry.  For any of you who may be new to my blog, we have spent the last 8 months or longer designing an outdoor, fenced-in yard, where several of our breeding rabbits could run free and act as natural as possible.  Read this post for more information on that, as well as details on how we first constructed it.  To try to lay it out more smoothly, though, I will summarize all past posts here.

Like with other rabbitries, first we built the cages, or in our case, the bunny-condos.  Read this post for more info on the cage system we custom-built.  We planned to use the cages to gradually wean the rabbits out into the yard, and then later to separate breeding animals, quarantine new rabbits, confine rabbits scheduled for harvesting, etc.

Stage 1 involved building a large fenced yard, with the main fence being 5 foot tall 2×4 welded wire (aka horse fence), and lining the lower portion of the fence with chicken wire to prevent escapes by smaller kits.

Next, we built some nest boxes to simulate natural dens, and designed tunnels to simulate underground burrows leading to the nest box-dens.  Our first attempt at this failed miserably (read here for details on that), but we believe our most recent attempt will be better.  The same basic idea was used, but we designed a total of 4 nest boxes set up in a square (of sorts).  One nest box was located at each corner of the square.

 

 

Then, instead of using ducting this time, he used a bunch of scrap lumber to build 3-sided boxes (2 sides and a top), and then laid wire on the bottom.  The wire prevented digging and offered good traction, while the wood supported the dirt and weight of people walking over it while still simulating the tunnel.  Each box had a separate tunnel leading from it to join another tunnel, then both were joined to save time on digging.

 

For the record, after we move to Red Gate and re-make this, all tunnels will be made from 7″ PVC, with grooves cut on the bottom side and filled with dirt for traction.  We couldn’t find any in our local area, so we had to improvise.  Menards in the midwest carries the correct size PVC, however–in the event you happen to live in the midwest and shop at Menards.

Finally, all tunnels were designed to come up in the center of the square, into a community shelter.  The shelter was also recycled from an old shipping crate, so we simply found a way to make it work.  The shelter has a little opening on each end for the rabbits to get in and out.  It also has a water bottle hanging on the outside of each end, with the nipple going through a hole to the inside, and a food dish inside.

 

Because rabbits can be territorial and fight viciously if they feel crowded, we decided to divide the box into two sections, with each half basically mirroring the other.  So, the box was divided in the middle, and a shelf installed over the divider, covering half of each side.  This is simply to give the bunnies an area to lay off the ground (and they use it all the time, by the way!!).

 

The shelf on each side is located over the entrance to the tunnels for that side of the pen, with each hole accessing two separate tunnels.  In the photo below, you can see a couple of older kits resting in the cool dirt entrance of the tunnels for that side.

 

While we have no access to the tunnels themselves, all other structures have a lid to allow us to maintain and check on things.  This includes the community shelter and all 4 next boxes, with the nest box lids being the only part of the boxes you can see at ground level.   In addition, as a finishing touch, we laid a 4 foot section of 2×4 fencing on the ground around the entire perimeter.  We found early on that the rabbits truly love to dig, but for the most part, they tend to dig the largest tunnels near a upright structure like a fence, a building, or a box.  We have found that by installing the section of fence on the perimeter (which can just be seen in the next photo), the rabbits have mostly stopped tunneling with the exception of a small one that starts on the outside of the community shelter, and goes up under it.  We are currently monitoring the length of the tunnel to see what happens.

 

If tunneling begins to be a problem, we will simply cover the entire ground in the fencing, with cut-out areas for the openings to the tunnels and nest box lids only.   Again, we love the rabbits to be as happy and natural as possible, so because they do dig small holes in the unfenced dirt, should we cover the ground, we would put mounds of dirt here and there around the pen so they have a sand pile to play and dig in.

I realize it is very difficult to get the overall picture of this set-up, so I have tried to put together a sketch for you to show an arial view of sorts.  Unfortunately for you (but great for me!!), we just switched from the age-old Microsoft computer to an iMac, and I am still figuring it out.  In other words, no fancy semi-pro looking computer sketches, or even decent editing for that matter, for you this time.  You were lucky I figured out how to scan a document!  Had I not a had a few hours to spare on this day of rest, even that wouldn’t have happened!!

Well, that’s it for the new rabbitry.  We now have a regular colony of 2 does, 1 buck, and a litter of almost-harvest-ready kits, in addition to a week old litter (our 2nd hare-pen-born) that I will tell you about later.   Hope this all makes sense.  Just leave me a comment with your questions if not.

Things go wrong.  It’s a fact of life.  I have always found the rewards of farming–particularly livestock farming–to far outweigh the downsides of it, though.  I never could understand how easily people would give up and sell out.  Until now–and there’s nothing easy about it. 

This birthing season has been frustrating and discouraging, to say the least.  It is frustrating to see how “backyard” goat raisers, who often have ill-bred goats, give little thought to their goat’s nutrition or state of health, don’t make an effort to attend births, don’t necessarily even make an effort to know each goat.  I recently toured a lady’s farm who didn’t even know how many goats she had (over 90).  Yet, they often seem to have so few problems with their goats.  Now, granted, they wouldn’t know if they did have stillborns and such, but hopefully you see my point.  Then, there’s folks like us, who invest in quality, carefully bred goats, do their best to ensure good nutrition, excellent health, and timely maintenance care, personally know each goat and personality, and so forth.  Yet, despite our efforts, it sometimes seem we suffer problem after problem. 

I would never give it up, simply because I know the value of their milk for my family.  There have been days recently when that simple fact is what keeps me going.  We got into goats initially because it was so much cheaper than paying our monthly part of the cow milk share, which boiled down to $8 per gallon of milk.  By the end of last year’s milking season, we were valuing our milk at roughly $4/gallon, which was a huge savings–especially if you consider that raw goat milk shares around here are worth $16/gallon.  Then, having faith that this kidding and milking season would work out at least mostly as planned, I dried up Lilac and Sara in anticipation of this season.  For 3 months, we had to buy milk again (from a willing friend with goats).  Then Lilac kidded, which cost an unexpected vet bill.  Things got going well finally, and Onyx kidded, and though I had a few concerns, everything seemed to be going OK.  A few days before I started milking her, Lilac and Sara left for their new home.  And Onyx went downhill.  At first I got less than 2 lbs of milk each morning from her, despite her history of being an 8 lb/day producer.  Within a few days, the milk tasted horrible, and we determined she likely had sub-clinical mastitis, as well as the potential for clogged milk ducts due to her year of being dry (before I bought her).  Running out of time and ideas, I finally agreed to my mentors advice to use the antibiotic infusion “Today” to see if it would help.    In addition to a bunch of homeopathic treatments at the same time, we finally got her back up to par, but while it softened her udder, the amount she produces has not increased at all.

So, here we are, 6 months into not having a dependable supply of milk (I even had to bottle feed Onyx’s babies for several days during her treatment), over $3000 in the red in terms of goat expenses, and no clue what to expect next.  Thankfully, I had the foresight to freeze milk during our surplus time last year, and that is getting us through now, as long as we ration severely.  We have not had the luxury of yogurt or cheese in months, and miss it greatly.  Being dependant on your animals for your food items really gives you a whole new appreciation in times of plenty!

As if that wasn’t bad enough, of 3 rabbit kindles this season, only 1 survived.  I have no explanation other than they eat the same hay as the goats.  One was a first time mom, but not the other.  It is just aboslutely disheartening.

The good news is, we seem to have figured out that the problems are indeed nutritional based.  For some reason, the goats only want to eat kelp that is very fresh (as in, just put in their feeder).  Once it’s a day old, most of them would rather not eat it, therefore they were not getting the nutrition I thought they were.  Secondly, and more important, we have concluded that our hay is the main culprit of all these problems.  Thanks to the drought, we know the hay was of lower quality, but since they imported it from out of state, we couldn’t find exactly how they grew it and had to take the seller’s word for it.  The foremost theory we have come up with is that the fields were likely fertilized with some type of superphosphates, and the abscense of dead insects (unlike my last, much better batch), implies they used pesticides.  These can work together to bind up nutrients, making the nutrients inaccessible to the goats’ bodies for utilization.  As a result, we have added a few more supplements to the free-choice “buffet,” as an experiment to see if the girls can make up for the loss in nutrients from the hay.  We have added a selenium/vitE powder, yeast, and organic iodine, in addition to their kelp and minerals.  I have also started giving the pregnant girls periodic doses of Vit A,D,E, and B12 gel, all of which are water-soluble so any excess (which I doubt they have) will just be peed out.  So far, they have shown little interest in the supplements, except for the yeast, which they love (full of Vit B).  The frustrating thing is just not knowing.  Something is lacking, and they seem fine–sleek, glossy hair coat, good appetite, you name it, until they kid.  The stress of kidding seems to send them over the threshold, and they quickly go downhill.  In the mean time, I have learned a big lesson about buying hay!  Goats do not thrive on just any hay–even if they seem to like it–despite what folks tell you! 

Then, just when I start to feel like I can’t handle another stressful kidding, God blesses us with success.  More on that later.  The little successes though, and the knowledge that farm life does get better with experience, are the reward that keeps the farm going.

In addition to all the medical appointments, we have been experiencing some big happenings and changes around the farm. 

First, there’s Shiloh, the increasingly pregnant donkey. 

Based on what we were told when we took her, her absolute earliest delivery date would be in March.  March is here, and she has been producing some unusual discharge in the last week or so.  I can’t really find any info about that though, and her udder is completely undeveloped at this point.  So, I still have no idea what to expect from her.  In the mean time, we have really lightened her work load and riding.  JR and M are about the only one who ride her, and only for short spells once or twice a week just to keep her going. 

Then there’s the goats.  Lilac’s little boys are doing great, and will be staying about 2 more weeks before heading to their new home. 

Lilac's twin boys, 8 weeks old

Onyx’s boys really took off after those first couple days and are doing equally well.   Soon, they will both be wethered and go to the same buyer of Lilac’s kids, where they will all be weedeaters and pets. 

Onyx has a history of being an over-8-lb-a-day producer, from excellent milk-star rated lines, and yet, since the first day or two, her udder always seems to be totally empty.  I have checked it a time or two to ensure there was food for the babies, and I’ve been lucky to get 1-2 squirts.  There’s no doubt she’s producing, though, as her twins are growing and gaining like little weeds!  I will begin seperating them at night later this week so I can start milking her, and am very interested to see how she produces and milks.  As if that all wasn’t enough excitement, Arabella, my Kinder doe is showing signs of very early labor, with relaxing ligaments, lots of discharge, and a nice udder.  This caught me off guard,  as she wasn’t officially due for another 2.5 weeks.  I looked over my records, though, and as it turns out, the seller bred her twice, 2.5 weeks apart, and then gave me the final date as the breeding date.  Looks like she may have conceived at the first breeding, though, as this would put her labor right on schedule.  Of course, there is always the risk of a 2nd conception at the 2nd breeding, so I will need to be present in the event of a preemie kid. 

Kinder doe Arabella, aka "Bell", 4.5-5 months pregnant

Along with hello’s, there are bound to eventually be goodbye’s too.  Lilac and Sara left for their new home Tuesday, while I was away at A’s appointments. 

Lilac, the day before she left.

I said my goodbye’s the evening before.  While I am very excited to be taking the step toward having a purebred herd, I will miss the girls!  Lilac was the best goat any newbie could ask for, and Sara was absolutely awesome for learning.  I wouldn’t know half what I do regarding the importance of nutrition without her as my driving force and guinea pig.  It was truly wonderful to see her progress over the last year.  Compare the next photo to those taken over the last year, as she improved, as seen in this post.

Sara, 4.5 months pregnant; photo taken the day before she left.

 Those 2 will be long remembered!

Finally, goat babies aren’t the only babies around.  JR was thrilled to finally have his first surviving litter of 9 kits since he took over our rabbit program. 

The proud mama doe, a Harlequin/Rhinelander cross

 As you may know, we started with a desire to focus on American Chinchillas, but that just didn’t work out.  Despite our attempts over 1.5 years, we have yet to have a purebred AC litter, and thanks to a sterile doe, we haven’t had any litters kindled since Lala’s last June.  Since the KS breeder admitted his line had proven to be weak, we finally decided to not invest anymore and give up the AC program, then bought a bunch of very hardy Harlequins and Harlequin/Rhinelander crosses from a breeder going out of business, and started over.  We harvested our sterile doe, but I just didn’t have the heart to harvest our AC buck yet.  I knew he was fertile, though he had little interest in breeding.  Then, we discovered the Harlequin doe we had chosen to keep him company in his large hare-pen was pregnant.  So, we knew he would breed–just in his own time.  The real reason behind keeping him, however, was that he was quite untame when we first got him, and JR had worked hard to tame him down.  Now, he LOVES people, loves attention, and loves to be petted.  Even JR was trying desperately to find a way to keep him. 

Pelham, our AC buck, saying hello as S enters his pen.

Then, with full cages, a new crossbred litter, and 3 other (hopefully) pregnant Harlequin does, I got a very unexpected e-mail from a lady right here in CO, not too far from us.  She was going through some hard times, and needed to find a home for her pedigreed AC buck and doe, both of which were just hitting breeding age.  She liked the principles and methods we raised our rabbits with, and wanted to GIVE us the rabbits, their hutches, and all remaining supplies!  We couldn’t turn it down.  So, we brought them home, let them acclimate to their surroundings, and then I introduced the doe to our AC buck, as he needed a new companion in the pen.  Within seconds, he had her bred.  Guess they liked each other. 

A playing with one of the new AC rabbits.

We will use the second AC buck to rotate the doe’s breeding with.  Since my buck was from a KS breeder breeding for strict breed characteristics, and these 2 were from a GA breeder breeding for hardiness, it will be nice to mix the two lines.  Hopefully, if all goes well, we will soon have our first purebred AC litter, and finally contribute toward preserving this amazing and beautiful, but critically endangered breed of rabbit.  In the mean time, though, it looks like Athena will have a nice supply of cross-bred and meat-quality Harlequin rabbits to supplement her diet.

Speaking of rabbits, here are a couple photos I took recently just for fun.  The “hare-pen” that the American Chinchilla rabbits live in is also occasionally used for other purposes.  Recently, we had to use the pen when I was weaning Lilac’s bucklings from her, and at night, we would put Athena, the LGD in with them for extra warmth and protection.  The dog and goats have their own shelter to go into, and the rabbits have underground nest boxes as well as an area off-limits to the goats and dog so they can escape if they want.  Typically, though, all hang out together. Certainly not a usual mix of friends!

 

Pelham, the AC rabbit, Athena, the LGD, and one of Lilac's little boys, all just hanging out.

…..

Athena, the LGD, and Pelham, the curious AC buck

 

After my recent adventures with a sick goat and layers roosting in the nest boxes, I finally got a break over the last few days.  In fact, things have really started looking up in several ways….

Lilac is doing great.  Her mouth is continuing to heal, I have not had to treat for anything, and her appetite has returned.  She still won’t eat as much grain as I would like, but I’m pretty sure it’s because she is always so intent on her babies.  As rambunctious as they are, they are a handful, and when they run in opposite directions, poor Lilac has a fit keeping track of both of them. 

No worries, though.  Faith seems to have taken on the role of big sis and playmate, and is always eager for a game of headbutting with the little guys.  Since we got her, she has proven to be our most playful, and still acts very much like a youngster herself.  Hopefully she will mature a bit in the next couple months, before she delivers her own kids!

"Aunt" Faith and the boys

This weekend, I seperated the babies and Lilac at night for the first time.  That was an adventure in itself as cold as it was, and trying to ensure they stayed warm!  In any case, Athena the LGD, has been assigned kid-duty, so after giving her some opportunity to get to know the babies, and vice versa, Athena now moves between pens each day and night.   Lilac proved to be an incredible milker.  I have never before seen her full potential since she had been milked through and almost dried up twice before I got her.  Now, though, the babies nurse all day, then I take them away at night to sleep on their own.  About 12 hours later, I milk Lilac, and return the babies to her.  Every morning milking, I get 3.5 lbs, which is about 6 cups!  Oh, I can’t express the relief to finally have our own milk supply again!!

The other goats are doing equally well.  Sara is looking gorgeous, and she is starting to look heavy in the belly as well.  She has her playful moments, but she has really matured and grown up a lot (in every way) in the last 4-5 months. 

Faith and Bell are best buds, and you rarely see one without the other.  They are about the same age, though I find it interesting since their personalities are so different.  Bell is a people-lover, and won’t leave my side when I’m out there.  She is calm, easy-going, and generally laid back.  Faith, on the other hand, is Miss Independent, only allowing pets when she wants them, and just goes non-stop.  She is also our trouble-instigator now that Stallion is gone.

Bell

Onyx is odd-woman out.  She hangs out with the other girls, but hasn’t really bonded to any one in particular.  She lets me pet her on her terms (usually around feeding time).  She is my next doe due to kid, and her belly is huge.  She is built wider than my other goats anyway, but with that baby belly, she just seems massive to me.  Hard to believe she has almost 5 weeks to go!

Athena is coming around and gradually earning her way back to pasture-guard duty.  Since we lost two chickens to her playfulness, she had lost that privilege, and was never turned out unsupervised.  She was also not obeying well when off leash.  The few days we had her in the house around her spaying proved highly beneficial in every way.  It encouraged me to give her some work on leash, and she bonded a little more to us.  As a result, she is listening and obeying sooo much better, and we can now trust her a lot more.  Her big problem now is simply the fact that she is a 6 month old pup, and gets bored very easily.  She is digging large holes all over the goat pen, and occasionally chases the goats or tries to play tug-of-war with one’s tail.  She has proven quite gentle though, and has never gone overboard.  All the goats except Bell will put Athena in her place when they have had enough, and though I haven’t witnessed it, I suspect the others stand up for Bell too.  She is better with the chickens, as long as we remove her from the pasture within about 2-3 hours.  Otherwise, she gets bored and tries to play with them.  She is a good pup most of the time, though, and we are truly enjoying her.  I figure another 6-12 months and she should calm down significantly, and be much more trustworthy.  In the mean time, good, dependable, ole’ Will gets to pick up her slack with pasture guardian duty.

Shiloh the donkey has become the single animal on our farm that does little to earn her keep.  Between the snow, ice (I haven’t seen my front yard in 8 weeks from the inches of ice on top), cold weather, and other priorities, we have not been riding her at all–even for therapy.  She has been getting a little more onery toward the other animals, though I don’t know whether it is the progressing pregnancy making her cranky, or what.  I learned she is absolutely NOT trustworthy around the baby goats when I made the mistake of turning all the goats and donkey out in the pasture one day.  We have done this regularly, but baby goats were never part of the mix before.  Somehow, one of the babies got seperated from mom, and before Lilac could get to it, Shiloh went after him.  Thank the Lord, I happened to be walking by the door when it happened or she no doubt would have killed him.  She was bucking, stomping, kicking, you name it.  I couldn’t believe my gentle donkey had turned into an attack animal!  He was so tiny, I think she had trouble keeping track of where he rolled to each time she hit him.  Thankfully, as soon as she heard me yell, she stopped, and I ran out and retrieved the baby who, amazingly, turned out to be just fine.  He ran off to mom and started nursing to calm himself. We have not allowed her out with them since.  So, now I have to rotate them through to make sure all get sufficient exercise.  She is still a sweetheart toward humans, though, and we tend to be optimistic.  Therefore, we are seeing her current use as a producer for our varied compost pile, an eater of our goat-waste hay, and an eater of the pasture grass that the goats don’t care for.  Once we get the pasture cleaned out and a bit safer for riding in, JR is planning to do a lot more riding since I won’t have to be there all the time if he is in a fence. 

The rabbits seem to be doing well.  We got part of phase 2 of the pen accomplished, in that we laid down some 2×4 welded wire fence along 2 edges of the pen to stop the tremendous amounts of burrowing they were doing in those areas.  We are still waiting for a bit more ground thaw and an opportunity to drive to the correct store to buy the type of pipe of we need to finish the rest of it.  In the mean time, we are hoping at least 2 are pregnant.  I arranged for a little date between a harlequin doe and buck, which proved a success, so she will hopefully deliver in about 10 days.  She has delivered before, but this was the little bucks first time, so we’ll see.  I am also hoping that Pelham, our AC buck has bred another of the harlequin cross does and/or the AC doe, both of which run loose in the hare-pen with him.  They have been together right about 4 weeks now, so it could, theoritically be any time that one of the girls delivers.  I hope. 

Phase 2 of the hare-pen construction

We aren’t sure how the bees are doing.  They only come out of their hives when temps are over 50*, and that has only happened about 3x this month.  One hive wakes up, but MANY dead bees have been tossed from the hive on those warm clean-up days, so we have no idea how many remain.  We think we observed life from the other 2 hives one day, though,  it also seems that the good hive bees are actually entering the other 2 hives and stealing the honey out.  I fear we may have lost both of those.  We are starting to think we got suckered into buying a batch of sick bees, in hindsight, but we are hoping this one will survive, and give us a good, hardy colony to go into the next season with.  Once the weather warms up, S is going to work on sterilizing all the hives, transplanting the live colony into a clean hive with more natural comb frames, and see what happens.  We aren’t expecting to harvest much honey this year, but we are hoping to learn a great deal from the experience. 

Finally, I am thrilled to report that I have not had a dirty nest box since I added the curtains last weekend!  I now get 6-8 clean eggs each day, and my nest boxes are nice and tidy.  Now, if I could just convince that old rooster to love on the hens equally, rather than singling out just the 2!  They are starting to loose too many feathers where he stands on the poor girls all the time. 

Guess that wraps up this farm report.  Thanks for reading!

In case you are wondering….we are still on baby watch!  And it’s making me very nervous since I will be gone most of the day on Wednesday. 

Now, back to our regularly scheduled post…

I wanted to update you on our community rabbit hare-pen burrows.  In the event you desire to construct such a thing, here’s a tip….don’t use aluminum ducting.  I know I sort of said that in my previous post about it, but this time, I’m really saving you money.  I knew the things were flexible, I knew the rabbits might try to crush them down and escape underneath or over the top.  I never considered the fact that the metal could be so much fun to pull apart!

The rabbits are loving their new burrows and underground nest boxes.  One of them loved absolutely shredding the ducting.  It won’t be long before they have only bare dirt tunnels left, as he has stripped about half the lining out at this point.  Looks like our search for large-diameter clay or concrete pipe is in full force now, before they start creating new burrows from these burrows.

With the addition of our new rabbits, we decided it was a good time to experiment with a new rabbit system we have wanted to try for a while now–a rabbit community, colony, or “hare-pen” as I like to call it.  It was also a good time, because we have more rabbits than cages.  On our recent butcher day, it was discovered that our little American Chinchilla doe who unexplicably died was about 2 weeks pregnant, meaning our AC buck had bred her.  Therefore, he and our remaining, seemingly infertile, doe won a reprieve for a few more months to see if anything will happen.  Anyway, the idea of a hare-pen at its most basic is, instead of having each rabbit in its own cage, several rabbits are run together.  But it isn’t necessarily that simple. 

N petting Pelham, our AC buck.  We are finding that, despite their freedom to run, they are not completely wild–as long as we don’t try to pick them up.  Otherwise, they are quite curious, frequently coming up to us, and even allow petting. 

Depending on how much control you want of the rabbit burrows and the gene pool, there are many ways to do the community run, including, but certainly not limited to the following:

  • Throw a bunch of rabbits in together and hope the hardiest survive the fighting, then start your community from there.
  • Put a pregnant doe in, allow her to deliver, and prevent most fighting, but then you must cull out the baby bucks before they start breeding all the little does.
  • Put a couple of does and a buck or two in, and just randomly go cull out rabbits for dinner/sale as needed.
  • Put a couple of does in, but keep bucks seperate (either in cages or their own pen), and bring the buck in only when babies are wanted.  Then, cull kits as needed.

Of course, it still isn’t that simple, necessarily.  You see, the biggest problems with community colonies are the facts that some does will kill off other doe’s babies, and rabbits like to dig.  If you research online, you will quickly find many stories about how quickly one little burrow and nest will turn into a whole colony of burrows and nests and tunnels, that can easily wind up going under the fencing, under your house, into the dog yard, into the nearby hidden fox den (not that you would ever find the evidence of that!), and so forth.  So, you have to prevent that problem.

While researching, I have come across a number of solutions and designs:

  • Dig a perimeter fenceline 18-24 inches below ground level, then fill the fence line with just fencing, or with straw bales that have fencing on the outer and under side of them.  The idea is that rabbit tunnels usually (but not always) don’t go more than about 24 inches down, so that will keep them in the pen, and the straw bales simply provide extra digging and nesting material.
  • Fence in a large enough area, add some play things, sand piles, and nest boxes, and hope for the best.
  • Put the rabbit run on a concrete slab covered in straw or dirt, and build the community from there.
  • Dig a pit 24 inches deep, the size of the pen, line the edge and bottom with fencing, fill the pit with straw bales, and let the rabbits have at it.  Of course, the big downside here is that you will never know where it’s safe to step, as there could be a burrow anywhere under the straw.

Finally, no matter what method you use, there are some common difficulties with community runs:

  • Catching the rabbits, who become experts at ducking into their burrows as soon as you approach or attempt to catch them.
  • Not being able to check on nests or kit welfare, and not being able to figure out which kit belongs to which doe, since you may not see them until they are independent enough to pop out of their burrow on their own.
  • Dens and burrows potentially flooding and killing whatever critter is in them.

Those ideas and problems are just a few of the common ones I have come across.  After hours and hours of research, however, we came up with a design I am really hoping will be a compromise of everything.  I want my rabbits to have some freedom in digging and tunneling, but not so much they get out or are impossible to catch.  I want to have some control of the gene pool so I know what doe or buck to cull if there is a problem, or if I decide to breed for specific characteristics.  I want to have the ability to check on babies, clean out nests, etc. because the simple fact is, the pen is not entirely the way nature would have it, and therefore letting them have complete freedom could create more negative issues than positive ones.  I also want/need the ability to catch the rabbits when necessary.  On the ground, we can use a fishing net, but once they go under, I wanted a way to open the nest to catch them.  So, here is our design, which is still in the making, but you’ll get the idea here…

Step one:  Build nest boxes/simulated dens.  We decided this was a great way to use up some scrap lumber, and when we needed more, I utilized the clearance lumber rack at Home Depot (I LOVE that, by the way.  Totally makes a trip to Home Depot with the hubby worthwhile!!).  Each box is roughly 14 inches wide by 24 inches long, give or take based on the wood we had.  I wanted plenty of room for a large doe and several growing kits.  The bottom is made of hardware cloth to help drain any water that might get in.  The front entrance is made of wood on one box and hardware cloth on the other, to see which works better in the long run.  It has a hole cut into it which the tunnel enters into.

The top is a plywood or OSB (again, based on what we had available) lid covered in aluminum flashing to help water roll off, and little handle to make lifting easier. 

Step two:  Dig.  Seeing as how our ground is frozen solid, S got to do this part (THANKFULLY!), and he decided to minimize the digging by digging one large area for both burrow pipes.

S dug holes for each nest box, and then he dug tunnels leading out from the box and up to ground level, with a gradual slope. 

In our area, “hardpan” is a big problem.  Instead of nice, rich soil that water easily percolates into, it’s almost like concrete in areas, which causes water to puddle very easily and rapidly.  So, to prevent pooling inside the nest boxes, each hole for the nest box/simulated den was dug deeper than it needed to be, with a slope toward the front (away from where newborn kits would likely be), dropping off into a deeper section for water collection.  This whole area was back filled with gravel, all intended to help keep water from pooling IN the nest itself. 

The nest box was then placed into the hole, resting on the leveled gravel.  See the nest box photos above for reference.

Step three:  Add tunnels/simulated burrows.  In this case, I decided to try using aluminum ducting first, because it was nice and flexible, and because the ridges in it added good grip and traction for the bunnies.  S drilled a few holes along the base of it for increased drainage. 

Side notes here….leave the pipes unstretched for added strength (which we didn’t do and wish we had), and/or drill holes AFTER you stretch the pipes (which we also didn’t do…as we stretched, the piping twisted slightly, causing these holes to not all be on the bottom). 

These pipes were placed down in the tunneled out sections S dug.

We did not actually attach the pipes to the nest boxes in this first experiment (mainly because we couldn’t figure out a good way to do so).  We are hoping the dirt on top will hold the pipes in place, and we are curious to see if the rabbits try to break through the cracks.  We will keep a check on it by simply viewing through the open lid of the nest box.

Finally, the pipes were carefully buried, leaving only the entrance at ground level visible.  This end was cut as vertically as we could manage, to create a roof of sorts over the tunnel, and help further prevent water from pouring into the tunnel.

Step four:  We bed the nest boxes with straw, and then introduced the rabbits.  

You may also notice a piece of scrap OSB board was laid over the burrow pipe area.  I will explain why later. 

We put each rabbit into a nest box, and placed the lid on top.  Then we waited.  After a couple moments, a little bunny rabbit would pop out of the end of the tunnel. 

One of the AC bunnies, Pelham, came out, looked around, turned, and went right back down, not to be seen again for about 1/2 hour.  I think he approved.  This morning, we found it appeared as though one of the 3 rabbits currently running free in the pen had bedded down for the night in a nest box.  I think it’s safe to say they like it!  For the record, yes, we have had 2-3 rabbits running free in the pen for about 3 weeks now, and yes, they dig and burrow like crazy (hence the reasoning behind the work we are doing).  For now, we inspect for holes daily, and fill them in as fast as we discover them.  One of our does can easily dig 4-5 feet down in less than 48 hours if we aren’t watchful!

Notice in the last 2 photos the size difference of the rabbits.  This is a 6 inch (exterior diameter) pipe.  The darker Harlequin cross bunny is about 5 pounds right now, and still growing.  Pelham, the silver AC rabbit is around 11 pounds.  Our future rabbit colony will likely have 7 inch pipes for the larger rabbits, but since we don’t yet know if the larger AC’s will work out, we settled on the 6 inch pipes.  They are plenty big enough for the 5-8 pound rabbits.  If you do this with standard meat breeds above 8 pounds though, I would definitely advise the larger (7-inch) pipes.

This is still a work in progress, but the eventual plan is to have a total of 4 of these boxes and tunnels.  Once they are completed, we will lay 2×4 fencing across the ground, completely covering the area inside the fenced sides, attaching the ground wire to the perimeter, vertical fence wire, and cutting out sections just for the openings to tunnels and nest boxes.  We will cover the wire with dirt, mulch, etc., add some dirt piles for digging, and then add a central feed/water station.  We also plan to build a couple climbing platforms and above ground hide-out boxes.  The idea is to give the platforms and dirt piles for play, chewing, and natural digging desires, but burrowing is limited by the fence laying on the ground.  The piped tunnels we create will simulate natural burrows, but prevent further digging or expanding.  Same with the underground nest boxes.  I am hoping we can allow the bunnies to exercise freely, exhibit all natural tendencies, but still contain them safely.  It will also prevent predators from digging under, so I won’t have to worry about hot wire on the outside of the pen (which is what we have done in the past, and it has effectively shocked more visiting children than predators).  Once it is completely finished, all our more aggressive rabbits will remain in their individual cages, but I currently have a mother/daughters trio that will be put in this pen.  They are currently caged together, are different colors meaning easier to identify, and I will rotate bucks through based on what I want at the time.  The idea is to maintain 3 does and, on occasion, one buck in the pen, so each rabbit has its own next box.  Kits will share their mom’s nest box until they are old enough for her to kick them out.  At that point, they have the option of using the above ground boxes we’ll make available, but around that time, we will round them up and seperate them by sex.  Bucks will go into cages, as will does as it gets closer to harvest time.  That’s the plan.  We’ll see if it works.

Update:  Remember that OSB covering the tunnels?  We have had the 2 boxes and tunnels in place for a whole 24 hours now, and have decided on a big change already for the next 2 we build.  After I stepped in the wrong spot and effectively crushed the aluminum pipe that created our tunnel, I realized it was a little too flexible.  Thankfully, I caught myself in time, before it was totally crushed, and we were able to fix it.  Next time, we will use PVC or concrete (depending on what we can find), using elbows to create the turns.  The other option to save money would be to lay plywood over the the entire tunnel, which is what we will do to these current ones for now.  The plywood can be buried for aesthetics.  It will eventually rot, but it will give us a chance to find out if the area will hold weight better once the soil settles into place, which should happen by the time the wood rots.  With a stiffer pipe though, you wouldn’t have to worry about it at all.

Stay tuned for Stage 2.  Not sure when it will happen, but our ground is so frozen, it may be a while.  In the mean time, I will be building some of the other items we plan to put in the pen so that once the holes are dug, we will be ready to move forward quickly.  We have been researching and planning this for so long, I can’t wait to see it all come together!!

Isn’t the idea of self-sufficiency so neat?  Think about it.  With a little extra work to feed animals and clean pens, you can have creamy, wholesome milk, fresh, healthy eggs, beautiful, clean, safe meat, and more to eat.  If you are baking and need an egg, there is no need to run to the store, rather, you just run out to the coop and get one.  You can use your surplus milk to make cheese, yogurt, kefir, and so much more.  Table and garden scraps, surplus eggs, milk, and other dairy products can all be recycled by feeding right back to the animals, increasing their nutrition.  Some surpluses like milk, eggs, and extra critters can be sold to bring in income, which in turn can keep the hubby home from work.  If the animals are raised using natural or organic methods, then prices can fetch a premium.  Male animals can be studded out, all the above can be used for bartering, and the list just goes on and on and on!  It’s a perfect world!

Or not.

You could also have a flock of laying hens that refuse to lay.  You can have a herd of goats and not a single one producing milk.  You could even have a colony of rabbits that don’t reproduce!  Which is exactly where we find ourselves at the moment.  Our layers don’t lay, our rabbits won’t breed, we think most of our bees may have died off, our goats don’t milk, our donkey is getting increasingly cranky in her pregnant state, our livestock guardian pup has hit a phase where she has far more fun chasing the chickens than guarding them, and there is so much snow outside that my work load, and the animals’ feed consumption has doubled. 

Amazing to think that, after 8 months of our new farm life, we have reached the point of…..umm….memorable adventures and purchasing our milk and eggs from friends whose herds and flocks are doing so much better!  No doubt it takes the idea of self-sufficient into a more meaningful and truthful realm of God-sufficient.  Truly, we pray daily right now that God would bless our efforts with production. 

Of course, the goats not milking were my choice.  I had 2, and chose to dry off both simultaneously–Lilac because she was due to kid in 8 weeks, and Sara because she was being bred and I wanted to improve her health.  Then, we bought our other 3, all of which are hopefully bred.  So, we have high hopes that Lilac will soon be supplying us with some delicious milk, as she is due to freshen in just 2 more weeks.  We are holding out faith right now that our other goats will have healthy pregnancies, produce healthy kids and an abundance of milk, and that we will be able to easily sell the surplus goats (Lilac, Sara, and most of the kids) for a price that will help us break even from this year, and possibly put us a bit ahead for next year. 

We have made lots of changes to our layer coop.  We have added artificial lighting to increase their “day” hours, I have increased the protein in their feed, we built a supplement feeder to ensure they are getting all the grit, calcium, and nutrition they could possibly need, and we are even considering insulating the coop somehow.  So far, we are getting 1-3 eggs each day, which, although an improvement over 2 weeks ago, still leaves us short of eggs.   It doesn’t help that one day the light works fine, and the next day something goes wrong and it refuses to turn on.  Nonetheless, we are praying that our layers will increase their laying soon, so they can earn their keep around here.  The good news is that, despite winter being in full throttle, we haven’t lost a single hen to the cold or to the fox.

We have also made a lot of changes to our little rabbitry.  One of our American Chinchilla does proved infertile (I even hired a proven buck to make sure), my buck decided to quit breeding, and my final hope for our AC breeding program, a little doe, up and died this week.  I have no clue why.  So, that’s it for the AC’s–at least until we move to Red Gate.  In the mean time, I was ready to throw in the towel, but S wanted to try again with a new set of rabbits.  I managed to buy out someone else’s rabbitry since they were moving.  We got a pile of crossbred Harlequin and Rhinelanders.  Although smaller than the AC’s, they are acclimated to our altitude and environment, seem to be very hardy and prolific around here, and the cross adds a good bit of hybrid vigor.  The smaller size will be better for JR to handle them.  We got a few too many (intentionally), including a mother/daughters set that get along really well, with which we are hoping to start our colony run soon.  So, as soon as we clear some space by harvesting a couple of excess rabbits, we are praying that our new rabbits will do the rabbit thing and start procreating. 

Athena is experiencing some big changes.  I have intensified her training quite a bit.  I had to take her to the vet for her rabies and distemper shot recently, where she proved to be 54 lbs at just 5 months old!!  She is growing so quickly, and becoming so independent, I decided it was time to introduce some basics.  We are working on not chasing chickens or chewing goat tails, walking on a leash, sitting, and coming when called.  We have also allowed her in the house a couple times just to expose her to something different.  In addition, I have been socializing her a bit, as she was starting to bark at any person that came around–even if we were with them, which we don’t want.  We are having to make changes to her diet as well.  As much as we love the BARF diet, she is currently eating around 5 lbs of meat each day, in addition to occasional bones, grains, fruits, veggies, eggs, and other raw foods.  And she is still on the lean side.  After we were blessed with an entire flock of chickens that S spent a total of 8 hours butchering, and will soon do a couple rabbits, all to feed the dog for about 2 weeks, we realized it is no longer sustainable.  Had she been a chihuahua, that would be one thing, but we can’t afford the time involved in keeping such a massive and fast-growing pup fed this way.  So, we are backing off.  In the hopes of being able to try again in the future, we are simply cutting her BARF diet in half.  She will get one meal of all-natural kibble each day, and the other will be some sort of raw food like she is accustomed to.  This will hopefully keep her system functioning well, and keep her healthy, but allow us to back off on the amount of meat we have to collect just for her. 

Finally, we aren’t sure what’s going on with our bees.  After almost 2 months, we finally had a day recently when the temps crept over 50* out, which meant the bees could come out of their hives.  I only saw activity around one hive though.  I fear the other 2 may not have survived the transition.  In the mean time, S has been doing a lot of research.  We fear we may have been sold hives that had some known problems (which explains the great deal we got!), so he has been researching what to do about it.  We are hoping to use some natural, chemical free methods that have been proven in several other countries to essentially sterilize all the empty hives, and then start fresh with new, clean trays for the bees to build on.  Once the bees wake up from their winter dormancy, and the pollen starts flowing, we hope to transplant the surviving bees into the sterilized hives, and then sterilize their old hives as well.  We figure it can’t hurt to try. 

Needless to say, we are holding out hope that this is just one of those dry slumps you hear about, and that, God willing, the new year will bring with it a great deal of production and success on our little farm.  I have to tell you, though, we are learning to trust and rely on God through all this.  Despite the slump in our own farm production, God has provided, and we haven’t had to inrease our trips to the grocery store at all.  We always seem to have a friend with surpus eggs or goat milk just when we needed it.  We have had goats, rabbits, and chickens donated to us almost as fast as we could take them.  Not once have we had any shortage of meat, and just when I start rationing the milk and eggs, it seems I encounter one of our friends with a surplus.  We have even had an offer to supply us with an entire batch of Araucana peepers in the spring, so we won’t have to buy any, and we will have some fresh ones to raise to replace our older and lazy layers next fall.  It’s a great reminder that we should never be discouraged, and that God will always provide for our needs!!

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