Pastured Rabbits

We moved to this farm two years ago with the intention of becoming as self-sufficient as possible. To us, the most obvious place to start was with food. We’ve been building our gardens year by year and preserving food as the gardens produce it, but it became apparent pretty quickly that we could never produce enough for our family with plants alone.¬† It also became apparent that for our farm to be sustainable, animals would need to be eliminated from time to time or we’d be overrun.

Our decades of vegetarianism came to an end when we began processing our chickens (which you can read about here and here), and now with another farm season stretching out ahead of us, we are looking for more ways to produce our own food. We’d like to sustain ourselves through the winter with as much farm food as possible.

Our front yard is covered in lush, green grass that is not really used for much at the moment. When I started thinking about how to turn that space into food, rabbits came to mind. The children had pet rabbits in the past, but I never felt very good about keeping them in a hutch with wire beneath their feet. I want my animals to live as naturally and comfortably and happily as possible, as close to what Nature intended as I can provide. It occurred to me that something similar to our chicken tractors might work well for rabbits – a rabbit tractor!

There were a few things that had to be addressed: could I bring myself to eat a rabbit, and is it possible to kill a rabbit without any undue stress or trauma to the animal? As it turns out, harvesting a rabbit is remarkably quick, easy and painless (you can watch the process in this YouTube video if you so desire). And when my father-in-law gave us a rabbit he had in the freezer, I did indeed bring myself to eat it – and I enjoyed it immensely!

I thought I was pretty original with this rabbit tractor idea, but low and behold, one of the farmers who has inspired me greatly raises pastured rabbits in a tractor system. Joel Salatin and his son have been doing it for years (check it out here), and a quick YouTube search revealed that plenty of other people are doing it too! Awesome!

Jae built the rabbit tractor very quickly with wood and chicken wire that we already had around the farm. I looked around for some inexpensive rabbits – which are in abundance, who knew? – and within a day we had ourselves some pastured rabbits.

We bought ten rabbits from two different farms, for a diversity of genes. Nine of them are 8 weeks old, and the tenth is a seasoned mama who we will breed later in the summer.

The tractor is 8′x4′ with an enclosed nesting box on one end to provide shelter from the elements and a snug place to sleep. The entire tractor is bottomless to allow the rabbits access to fresh grass all day. These bunnies aren’t hopping around in a small, wire enclosure!

Each morning, I move the tractor to a fresh patch of grass. The rabbits spend their days browsing on the greens growing under them – crab grass, plantain, dandelions, clover and much more – and our lawn is “mowed” in the process (you may recall that we don’t mow the grass around here!). By the end of the day, there is a neat rectangle of short lawn and the tractor is ready to be moved on to the next spot.

I love this system because the rabbits are hopping about on soft ground instead of wire, eating plants instead of pellets, and generally acting as rabbits were meant to act. After observing them quietly for several days, I’ve come to the conclusion that they are pretty darned happy in their tractor. They haven’t dug at the edges in attempts to escape, as some folks have suggested they might. The rabbits have shown no signs of stress whatsoever, and I’m pretty pleased with that.

I’m pretty impressed with the even cropping the rabbits give the grass. It’s not patchy as I had expected it might be – instead, it looks like a lawn mower went over it.

On the left of the photo above, you can see grass that has not yet had the tractor on it. On the right, grass that had the tractor on it yesterday (yes, there are dirt patches. Those are not from the rabbits, they were there prior to the tractor).

I’m pretty excited about this new venture in food production and sustainability. I can’t wait to see how it all pans out. I’m sure we’ll revise and tweak our system over the course of the summer as we see what works and what doesn’t, but for now everything is looking good!

Little Miracles

Wow, Spring sure does bring so many wonderful things to the farm! A few days ago we discovered that our Lionhead rabbits, Rosemary and BooBoo, had created five beautiful little babies together.

Aren’t they amazing? We are so very much in love with them. The kids have been holding them multiple times per day, singing to them, telling them stories, stroking their incredibly soft fur. We will be sad to see these sweet little things go to new homes.

If those little bunnies weren’t cute enough, Tuesday was chick day! Our day-old chicks arrived at the feed store around noon. When I went to the feed store to pick them up, I walked in to find boxes upon boxes of day-old chicks stacked all around the store. The cheeping was so loud that I could hardly hear the woman at the desk as she spoke. It was absolutely incredible, all these tiny new bundles of life. I’m happy to report that our six little chicks are home and in their brooder (which they are sharing with the children’s duckling, who loves on those little chicks pretty fierce). We brought home two White Leghorns, two Barred Rocks, a Rhode Island Red and an ISA Brown. They are the sweetest little bundles of fuzz. Pictures to come soon!

I tried my hand at building an egg incubator and seem to have met with success. I bought two Easter Egger eggs off a neighbour and have them in the incubator now. I love the blue-green egg shells – so beautiful! I have my fingers crossed that the eggs are fertile and will develop well. In all, there are 18 eggs from various hens in the incubator. From what I’ve read, there’s usually about a 70% success rate for hatching. This is our first time hatching our own eggs and I am so excited to experience this!

Witnessing all of these little creatures discovering the world fresh and new, and seeing new life coming into this world, fills me with such a feeling of wonder and awe. And as these new lives blossom, other lives are lost – a coyote has made off with a rabbit and laying duck, visiting us two nights in a row. Mama Earth and Her creatures are so amazing! How blessed we are to be part of this web of life, to take this journey through the great Circle of Life. I am filled with gratitude.

Time Flies (and so do Chickens!)

Our chicks are two weeks old today and growing so fast! They are feathering out beautifully, and changing noticeably each day. Our Barred Rock is starting to get the white markings on her feathers and our ISA Brown now has some brown feathers coming in (she was only growing white feathers until now).

Here they are, our girls at two weeks old. I love this photo – they totally look posed, but they did it on their own! From left to right we have Midnight (aka Sally), our Black Sex-linked; Star, our Barred Rock; Little Red, a Rhode Island Red; Henny Penny, our ISA Brown; and Rusty, another Rhode Island Red.

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The kids and I have taken the girls out into the yard to explore and let loose a few times. Today was a perfect day for scratching for bugs! The sun was out and the day was warm, but not stifling hot like last week. The chicks seemed elated to be outside in the grass, and spent the entire two hours scratching and pecking at the ground. An attempt was made at eating a worm, but the chicks are still too small and the worm proved to be too challenging. After a short struggle, the chicks gave up.

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Little Red may just be my favourite of the chicks. She is feisty but friendly, full of personality. She had “pasted vent” when she was three or four days old, and although my doctoring clearly hurt her (as gentle as I was), she held her head high and made barely a squawk. She likes to follow me around and eat from my hand. This little lady really struts her stuff. I can’t wait to see what she’s like when she grows up!!

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While Little Red is my favourite, Midnight and Star are the most beautiful. I love their inky black feathers & down, and the hint of red in Midnight’s wings when the sunlight hits her just so. I love Star’s white markings and the lovely white star (hence her name) on the top of her head. They are gorgeous little chicks, not quite as awkward and geeky looking as the other three.

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We had one more little critter join us in the garden today. Meet Cottontail, our newest little lionhead bunny, six weeks old. We picked him up this morning from the breeder, the one we went to for Sage and Rosemary. We’ve been waiting for him for a while now! He is being housed with Sage – the whole purpose behind purchasing him was to provide a companion for Sage, so poor Sage wouldn’ t be lonely without Rosemary. So far, the two are getting along smashingly. Cottontail is a cuddly little sweetheart, and of course Lynden is already in love with him. He’s a gorgeous little bunny with beautiful colouring that is not done justice by the photos I took today.

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Robin loves being outdoors. He sits so quietly and contentedly, watching the sunlight dance through the leaves, listening to the birds, smiling and then frowning and then smiling again. Today he is seven weeks old. The time is flying by!