Rabbits

April snow showers

April Snow Showers

Spring is (supposedly) in full swing now, even though it is snowing outside as I type this post (does this sound familiar?).  I had the opportunity to attend a Native American storytelling session at my son’s kindergarten class this past week and one of the stories was about the annual battle between Old Man Winter and Young Man Spring.  The moral of the story was that these two mythical creatures have a hard-fought battle at this time every year and, although we never know how long the battle will last, we do know that Young Man Spring will always eventually defeat Old Man Winter.  This year, it seemed that Young Man Spring was set to have an early win back in March.  But, right about now, it is apparent that Old Man Winter is fighting hard and holding on longer than usual.  Come on, Spring!  We are all routing for you down here under this blanket of snow!  Don’t let us down!

 

But, regardless of April snow showers, our little homestead is marching forward with our annual spring activities, as well as a new one for us – baby chicks! 

baby Barred Plymouth Rock chicks

We have had layer chickens (Rhode Island Reds from a local place called Moyers Chicks) for the past 4 years but we have always gotten them as pullets, which are like teenage chickens – typically about 18-20 weeks old at the time you get them and should start laying eggs within the next 4-6 weeks after arrival.  While that has worked out well in the past, we thought it might be fun to try something new this year.  So we went online to a website called mypetchicken.com and ordered 9 female chicks of the Barred Plymouth Rock breed to be delivered to us in the mail when they were only one day old.  This particular breed is known to be tolerant of the cold weather and fairly docile around little humans and also a productive egg layer.  Perfect for us!  Also, they are super cute!  Right now, they look like little black fluff balls and will grow up to be pretty good looking as well, with a black and white checkered look.  So we have the 9 of those little gals set up in a cardboard box in the living room for now – with access to chick starter feed and water, and a heat lamp to keep it at about 95 degrees. (And I’d just like to point out that these new additions to our flock bring the female-to-male ratio on our homestead up to 23-to-5.  Yay for the girls!  If only one of the other females around here were interested in curling up on the sofa with a glass of wine and talking through our problems together…)

 

In addition to the baby chicks, the kids are also keeping a close eye on their Easter caterpillars that have gorged themselves for the past 2 weeks and are now all tucked away in their chrysalis and awaiting the moment when they will emerge as beautiful Painted Lady butterflies. 

painted lady caterpillars in chrysalis form

 

Another fun spring activity is planting seeds that will eventually be transferred outside when (if?) it ever gets warm enough to support plant life!  This year, the kids planted seeds for tomatoes, peppers, basil, and parsley and have been monitoring the tiny plots of soil daily to check the soil for water and to thin out the sprouts as they overcrowd the egg cartons where they are growing and competing for water and sunshine.  They also helped Joe to plant a bunch of flower seeds indoors in the hopes that we can transfer them outside and attract more beneficial pollinators to our little corner of the woods. 

 April 2016 sowing flower seeds indoors

 

Lastly, we bred the rabbits on March 16 and so are expecting two kits of bunnies to arrive around April 15.  Hopefully we will have news of them soon.  I don’t know about you but I find this time of year so exciting and encouraging when I look around to hunt for signs of spring and new life and am happily rewarded with splashes of color in our otherwise drab and dreary looking forest and the sound of songbirds returning to the trees and the anticipation of new babies on the way!  Life is good!

 

Grilled Lemon-Garlic Rabbit Wrapped in Bacon with Acorn Squash and Peas

Grilled Lemon-Garlic Rabbit Wrapped in Bacon

We have been experiencing some unseasonably warm temperatures in Eastern PA, with the high reaching 68°F just last weekend.  It’s amazing!!  The past few winters have been really rough so this is a nice break and we are trying our best to take full advantage of the mild weather.  This past weekend, we went for a family hike on the trails at South Mountain in Emmaus and then grilled some of our home-grown rabbit meat for dinner.  The last time we had this meal was in the summer and I didn’t expect to be able to break it out again until next summer.  But since we just harvested the last of our rabbits for the year, I thought I would take this chance to marinate two of them, wrap them in bacon, and grill them up.  Yum! 

 

For those of you who don’t know, we raise meat rabbits on our little homestead.  We started two seasons ago and have averaged about 12 rabbits – or 35-40lbs of meat – per season each of those years.  We’ve had a lot of learning experiences over this period and hope to be able to yield even more next year.  For example, a fun fact…I learned that a female rabbit actually has two uteruses (or uteri?) and…get this…she can be pregnant with a full kit (which usually yields about 6-8 baby bunnies) and then get pregnant AGAIN – as in AT THE SAME TIME – using the second uterus!  Crazy!  Talk about a Super Mom!  So it’s true what they say about “reproducing like rabbits”.  These things are nuts.  We have never made use of this back-up uterus because, first of all, it seems a little bit cruel and, also, we’re working on getting good at single uterus production first.  One thing at a time, please.  Even so, the same Mama rabbit can get pregnant, deliver the bunnies, and then go through the whole process again in the same season and all of the bunnies will still be full grown by harvest time in the fall.  So, we could potentially get 12 rabbits or more from each of our two female rabbits in a season.  Like I said, we’re working our way up to this…hopefully next year.  We currently have one male and two female rabbits and these are considered our breeding rabbits.  We keep these around from year to year.  We breed them in the very early spring to try and time the delivery around mid-to-late April when the temperatures are starting to warm up.  The mommies are pregnant for 30-31 days.  When the bunnies are born, their eyes are closed and they don’t have much fur to speak of so they just sort of huddle together in a big clump in the nesting box for a week or so.  In the beginning, they nurse from their mother.  Eventually, they will start to eat on their own and grow like crazy.  In just 14-16 weeks, they will be full grown and ready to harvest.  (You can continue to keep and feed them after this point and they will gain a little more weight but will also consume a lot more feed at a lower conversion ratio.)  Since we raise meat rabbits, their full grown weight will be around 5-7lbs at harvest time and will yield about 2-4lbs of meat each.  Our biggest rabbit was around 5lbs dressed, but that was an 18-month old male who we thought was a female and bit Joe’s finger when he tried to separate it from another male, earning it a one-way ticket to the freezer!

 

Here are some other fun facts (or “learning experiences”, as we like to call them) that came to light during our first two seasons of breeding and raising rabbits for meat:

 

  1. You should carefully monitor and limit the amount of breeding action, if you will, that a male rabbit experiences in a single day. Case in point…our very first attempt at breeding involved giving one of our Daddy rabbits a chance to spend some time with each of the Mama rabbits in a homemade mobile pen out in the yard.  Keep in mind that rabbits don’t care much for wooing and flowers and chocolates and making a girl feel special.  They just get right down to business and go at it over and over again for as long as you will let it continue.  So after many rounds of this breeding procedure that we came up with, we put the rabbits back into their separated sections of the main rabbit hutch.  Later that same night, the Daddy rabbit had a heart attack and died.  Whoops!  A little too much action for the big guy!  Lesson learned. 
  2. It is REALLY difficult to tell male and female rabbits apart. As young bunnies, it is nearly impossible.  But even after being full grown, it is still really hard to tell one from the other.  We had one case where we thought we had the male and female rabbits separated into their respective factions only to find that one of the “Daddy” rabbits turned up pregnant!  So either we got a really special rabbit or we messed up the sexing. 
  3. Rabbits can have a false pregnancy where they put on weight and pull out their fur to make a nest, just like they would if they were actually pregnant. But, alas, no bunnies will appear. 
  4. It’s not good to deliver babies in January, but rabbits don’t know that and will mate if you put them in the same cage in the greenhouse when trying to protect them from a -15°F polar vortex.
  5. As mentioned above, it is hard to tell male rabbits from female rabbits, and when you get that wrong and try to mate boy rabbits with other boy rabbits, they play what looks like a funny game of chase the tail, but really they are trying to castrate each other.  Yikes! They also bite really hard when you try to break them up (drawing blood through a leather glove).  And once you do break them up, they hold a grudge and will rip through wire mesh to get to their new nemesis.  Boys!  They cause such trouble!
  6. Their manure is like brown gold…full of nutrients and does not require any composting prior to adding to garden beds (unlike chicken manure, which is too “hot” with nitrogen to be directly added and requires “resting” prior to using as a fertilizer).  Also, their manure is apparently like candies to dogs…we are pretty sure this made up our dog’s primary diet for most of the summer.  Yuck.

 

So there…I hope I just told you all that you wanted (or didn’t even know that you wanted) to know about raising meat rabbits!  And, if you ever find yourself with some rabbit meat, here is our favorite way to prepare it…

 

ingredients for grilled lemon-garlic rabbit marinade marinade for lemon-garlic rabbitrabbit pieces in lemon-garlic marinade 

 

Grilled Lemon-Garlic Rabbit Wrapped in Bacon
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Ingredients
  1. 2 medium rabbits, cut into pieces (ours were about 3 lbs each)
  2. 1 handful fresh thyme and rosemary leaves
  3. 6 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
  4. Olive oil
  5. 1 lemon, zested and juiced
  6. 1 teaspoon honey
  7. 3/4 lb bacon
Instructions
  1. Using a mortar and pestle (because it’s fun) or a small food processor, grind up the fresh herbs with the garlic and lemon zest.
  2. Transfer to a small bowl and whisk in the olive oil, lemon juice, and honey.
  3. Place the rabbit pieces in a glass dish and pour the marinade over top. Cover and refrigerate all day (or as long as you have until dinner).
  4. About an hour before dinner, fire up the grill on medium heat and take the meat out of the refrigerator and remove from the marinade.
  5. Wrap one or two slices of bacon around as many pieces as you can and secure them with toothpicks. Try to at least wrap up the loin and back leg pieces. The front legs are very small and the belly doesn’t need it because it’s considered “rabbit bacon” all on its own.
  6. Grill over medium heat for about 10-20 minutes, turning often and removing the smaller pieces first as they are cooked through. The belly and front legs will cook rather quickly and the thicker pieces with bones will take a bit longer.
  7. Serve with your favorite seasonal veggies. (We used roasted acorn squash from our local CSA and some peas from a bag in the freezer section of our grocery store. Hey, we do our best but we sure love green peas and haven’t found a good way to buy, harvest, or preserve peas from a local source. It was our 4-year old’s idea to serve the peas inside of the acorn squash halves and everyone loved it!)
Notes
  1. You could also prepare this recipe in the oven at 400°F by roasting for the same amount of time. Be sure to keep an eye on the meat so that it doesn’t get overcooked. You may want to turn it a couple of times during the roasting process and you could even baste the meat with the leftover marinade.
  2. Serves: 6-8
Life From Scratch http://lifefromscratch.com/

P.S…you can find excellent instructions on how to cut up a rabbit here, if you find yourself in such a situation…

http://honest-food.net/2010/05/19/how-to-cut-up-a-rabbit/