Thursday, January 23, 2014

Changes in the Rabbitry

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. ~Ecclesiastes 3:3

I am reminded of a folk song that I learn to sing in elementary school, Mr. Rabbit. Because it was a folk and not written down until long after it had been passed around and every folk artist had his own rendition. I remember loving the song except for one morbid verse in the version of our song books (in some other versions the eyes are red):

Mister Rabbit, Mister Rabbit, your foot's mighty red.
Yes, kind Sir, I'm almost dead.

I could only imagine the foot being red from bleeding after being caught in a trap. Not something I liked to sing, but it made such an impression that I still remember the song today. I never imagined myself raising rabbits for meat, in fact I doubt if I even knew that people ate rabbits in elementary school, oddly, because I lived in a small town surrounded by farms most of my childhood. The truth is that we humans outlive most animals and livestock animals have a purpose in our food chain, at least for those of us who eat meat.

It has been three years ago since we purchased our rabbits from a larger breeding facility certified for laboratory animals, so their rabbits were kept in highly sanitary conditions and healthy. They had so many with such good records that inbreeding was not a concern. However, we did not go to the facility as the owner was coming our way, so she picked the rabbits for us according to our specifications and met with us while she was visiting family for the holidays.

We knew the age of Sugar when we got her because she was about half grown and we had to wait a few months before breeding her. Mr. Buck was young, but nearly fully grown and a capable breeder. Miss Doe was full grown and had kindled at least once, so we were told, so she was a proven breeder as we wanted. It stands to reason we did not get a proven doe they wanted to keep, but she was healthy...and fat. Having raised rabbits all this time and seeing how they develop, Doe probably was more like a two to three year old rabbit at that time. Generally speaking, it is recommended that rabbit does retire from breeding around the age of six, which is the age we judged her to be. Typically she had kindles of seven to thirteen but she only had two super-sized kits the last time.

In addition, she was getting more and more aggressive with me. (Yeah, rabbits are not really as docile as people tend to think.) I would mess with the kits more because of her larger kindles and the smaller ones needing milk supplements; I expected her to be a little disturbed by this. I always wear a jacket of some sort and gloves as a precaution, even in summer, when I have to do anything inside their cages because they have sharp long nails. However, the only one I really had trouble with aggression was Doe. She often would grunt at me and turn her head as if she would like to bite me...she never did, but it seems I am very good with animals, even troubled, unpredictable, and aggressive ones, as I noticed when I worked at the 4-H horse barn—I am very calm, gentle but firm, and I rarely get injuries from animals because I seem to know how they are feeling and how I handle them. (One of the benefits of being empathic, I suppose.)

My husband told me that Doe did not treat him the same way—well, not until the last few months, at least. The last few weeks she became very aggressive with him as well. Doe has always been a big eater. She always seems to be starving, but actually she was fat and she was that way when we first got her. She was so fat that we could not tell if her first breeding had taken! We cut down her feed and got her to a healthier weight, but she definitely did not like it.

Considering the amount of food she was eating, her large size, her probable age being time to retire her from breeding, her aggression, and the space we have, it was obvious that she was not a good candidate to be a pet for anyone, so she was processed this weekend. My daughter just asked that that meat would not be served to her, but she would not know it even if we did, but since it would be a tougher meat, it will most likely be ground to mix with ground beef for hamburgers (because rabbit has no fat, the fat of the beef makes the meat hold together) or dog food.

Now we need at least another breeding doe, but we would like to get two. Actually, we would like to get another New Zealand White (NZW) doe and get an unrelated breeding pair of Californians, but we have found that pure bred Californians are difficult to find. We plan on cross breeding the NZWs with the Californians for our meat rabbits, but since Californians are hard to find and are in demand, we would like to have pure Californians to sell now and then as breeders. All breeders for Californians we are finding are a two-hour drive for us in differing directions. My husband is also seriously considering a couple of heritage breeds that are the same size, like American and Silver Fox; they both have pretty coats, are hardier, calmer in nature, better mothers, and there are nearby breeders. The nearest breeder for a Californian will have a weaned one ready in about three months and then we have to wait a few more months before she is mature enough to breed, because we are careful and responsible with our breeding program.

Last summer my husband built a breeding hutch for our expecting does and plans to build another. We had one kindling in it so far and we still lost a few, but none of them got out of the cage. My husband since has added a larger heating pad in the enclosed nesting area so that if a kit gets out of the nest it will be able to stay warm and possibly improve its chances to survive until we find it. We still had one dragged out into the open cage area and being winter it did not survive. However, the hutch is larger so when as the kits grow there is less crowding also. We usually keep them with the mother until they should naturally be weaned, about eight weeks. At which time they are separated by gender and placed in cages with no more than four to a cage and the doe is returned to her own cage for about a month to rest and restore before we breed her again. In the wild, does can be impregnated the day after they give birth, but we breed then about every three months in rotation.

Once the second breeding hutch is ready, we can rotate the breeding of three does easily, because we give each a resting period, but we have to expand our fencing and gate to be sure that they are not disturbed nor can get out of the fenced area, which happened once. We plan to do most of this work after we have the house resided.

So, it may be that we will not have another breeding doe for a few months, which is disappointing because I have gotten the hang of cooking rabbit meat, which is the highest in protein and we give rabbit meat to friends now and then. Rabbit can be substituted in chicken recipes, but difference in the meaty parts was something I had to get used to, just because I did not have rabbit before we began raising them. For chickens, it is the breast, but for rabbits, the hind quarters. Deboned and cut up, no one knows the difference, but the meat is higher nutrition, like protein and vitamin B-12, than chicken. At the New Year's Eve stew jam, our rabbit stew was the favorite and a couple of members talking to us were interested in raising rabbits also.

~ My Lord, thank you for Your provisions, for our food and healthy rabbits. Guide us to find good ones for breeding. ~

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Thank you fellow travelers for walking and talking with me along this journey.