Rabbits

Where we’re coming from…an overview of our homestead

We expect that a common theme on our site will be the things going on around our homestead.  Before jumping into our day-day happenings, our future plans, and what we are working on improving, we thought that it might help to give you a broader feel for our property as it is today, and what things we have already put in place here.

Goals: The three primary goals for our homestead are for it to 1) produce more than it consumes (ideally both financially and in terms of yield), 2) provide for >50% of our food needs, and 3) to achieve this in a way that is as organically and sustainably as possible.

Property:  At 1.6 acres, our property is fairly small compared with what one would normally envision when thinking about a  homestead.  The land is heavily wooded, sloping slightly to the southwest.  Most of the southern sun exposure is blocked by a large stand of hardwoods, with only a very small portion of our land cleared out/available for planting (maybe 0.3 acres?).  Geographically, we are in a USDA Zone 6a/6b, but at an elevation of nearly 900 feet, it can be closer to a zone 5 climate in some years.  The soil is mostly clay and rock, with a relatively low pH.  Overall, this land profile has presented us with numerous challenges, but it also has some unique opportunities that we will discuss in later posts.

Annual gardens: Over the last 3 years, we put in 15 raised beds.  Most are ~4′ x 8′ with walls made from fallen timbers found around the property.  And all are built with a wood core to promote moisture retention and build fungal activity in the soil.  2 beds are planted in perennials (asparagus, rhubarb), with the rest dedicated to annual plantings.  We also put in a small greenhouse (8′ x 12′) in 2013 that we plan to use for seed starting and overwintering some greens, but haven’t quite perfected its use yet so it is currently sitting idle.  In the area of gardening, we are still on a steep learning curve with only limited success in most of our crops, but we have had a few successes and continue to hone our skills every year.

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Garden beds in bloom

Perennial plants:  One thing that we are really excited about is expanding our plantings outside of the “garden”.  This has allowed us to take advantage of the “edges” of our property with lower maintenance plants that will provide for us year after year.  These include raspberries and blackberries (mostly native and already growing here), strawberries (planted in 2012), blueberries, gooseberries, currants and goji berries (all planted in 2013).  The plants that we put in this year have not really started producing yet, but most have taken hold and seem to be showing healthy growth going into the 2014 growing season.

Small livestock: These animals are the heart of our system, effectively processing most of our kitchen scraps and garden waste into a great protein yield and free organic manure.  We have  a flock of 12 laying hens (Rhode Island Reds, 8 from 2012, 4 from 2013) that provide between 6-12 eggs a day depending on the season.  We also added 4 rabbits in 2013 (California Giant/New Zealand crosses, 2 male, 2 female) that we plan to breed this spring for a meat yield.  In the meantime, they are pumping out piles and piles of some great organic manure that are helping to fertilize our gardens and plants.

Free ranging the kids and the birds

Free ranging the birds…and the kids!

The Forest: Not actively managed on our part, but also not to be discounted, is the hardwood forest that we live in.  The forest is fairly mature (some trees estimated at 60-90 yrs old), consisting mostly of red oak, maple, cherry, sassafras and silver beech.  Harvested sustainably, these woods will provide for us over our lifetime with firewood that we use to heat the home (2-3 cord/year), leaves that we use for mulch and compost, logs that we can use to inoculate for mushroom growth, and sticks/twigs that we use for mulch and for the cores for our garden beds.  Also, with some strategic harvesting and the “help” of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, we are opening up some more pockets of land/sun for us to expand our food production in the coming years.

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Beautiful morning in the woods

Water: Being in a semi-rural area, most houses in our neighborhood (including ours) are on well water.  This is a blessing in some ways (don’t have to worry about chemical additives in city water), but can be a curse in others.  Specifically, power outages pose some interesting problems that we have addressed with the addition of a hand-pump and a generator.  The water is quite “hard” (high in mineral content) and has some sediment coming directly from the well that requires a clarifying filter prior to use.  We also supplement our limited irrigation water needs with two 50-60 gallon rain barrels which we use for drip irrigation and greenhouse “plumbing”.

The boys showing Uncle Marc how to pump the Bison

The boys showing Uncle Marc how to pump the Bison

When we moved onto this property, we had no intentions of taking up a homesteading lifestyle.  We just enjoyed the isolation of being back in the woods and closer to nature.  After our lives brought us further down our path and we decided that homesteading is something that we wanted to do, we were convinced that this property was not right for it.  Painfully, we had resigned to needing to move if we were to do this properly.  However, after much research (including a lot of inspiring examples in the urban gardening movement) and a little bit of creativity, we have found that this place might just have what we need to produce a thriving homestead.  We now find ourselves blessed to be in a place with so many natural resources.  This was a good lesson for us, and is consistent with our philosophy of “making do with what we have”.  We hope that you are also encouraged by this…instead of pining for the perfect property that you may or may not ever obtain, take small steps forward on the property that you do have.  You might be surprised by how much you can do!

Cold weather care for small livestock

Cold weather care for small livestock

Small livestock are a great choice for the backyard homesteader (chickens, rabbits, ducks, etc…).  With minimal inputs, they can provide excellent sources of protein, some of the best natural fertilizers that money can buy, and in some cases (especially poultry), they can even do some work for you with pest control, grazing, and light “tilling” of your soil.  They are exceedingly easy to care for in the summer time, but when winter rolls around, some special accommodations are needed to ensure that they stay happy and healthy.  Here are some of the things that we do for our chickens and rabbits over the winters of eastern Pennsylvania.

  1. Solid walled shelter: free-ranging is great for your animals and your soil (not always your plants though ;-), but in the winter time, your animals need some solid shelter to keep them out of the elements (especially water and wind).  We prefer wood structures for their stability, strength, and availability of building materials.  Here are some pics of a coop that we built for our chickens and a hutch that we built for our rabbits, both of which were made from mostly reclaimed decking and barn wood.
    Chicken coop

    Chicken coop

    Rabbit hutch

    Rabbit hutch

  2. Deep bedding – this is a great idea for most of the year as a means of keeping down smells and creating great fertilizer, but it is especially important in the winter for warmth.  Giving a nice buffer between your animal and the cold floor of the shelter will provide the great majority of insulation that your animals need in the winter.
    Deep bedding, happy birds

    Deep bedding, happy birds

    Cozy rabbit den with lots of straw

    Cozy rabbit den with lots of straw

  3. Fresh water – Clean, fresh water is critical to your animal’s health in the winter, as it plays an important role in helping most animals to stay warm and maintain proper body function.  In the summer, this is a breeze, easily accomplished with large containers and feeding nipples of some kind (we use Aqua Misers for our chickens).  In the wintertime though, this can become quite a challenge as most standard water containers will freeze quite easily, making the water inaccessible to the animals.  While options are available for electrically heated water containers for most small livestock, we instead prefer to keep multiple standard containers inside the garage and swap them out once or twice a day, depending on how cold it is.  This takes a bit of extra work, and is hard to get the motivation to do on bitterly cold days, but to us it is better than running electricity across the property and spending money on expensive units that seem to have a tendency to break/fail quite often.

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    Drink up before it freezes!

  4. Extra heat/insulation for “extreme” weather.  The coop and hutch that we built are good enough to keep our animals warm and cozy down to about 20°F without any additional help, especially with the deep bedding and tighter packing densities allowing the animals to keep each other warm.  When we get those few bitterly cold days every winter, and the temperature drops below 10°F or so, we like to give our animals a little extra comfort.  For our chickens, we run an extension cord to the coop and put in a small heat lamp which we turn on mostly at night.  For our rabbits, we wrap the exposed portion of the hutch in wool moving blankets, breaking the wind and giving a little more insulation.  In very extreme conditions (wind chills below -10°F), we have also moved the rabbits into an old dog cage inside of our greenhouse to completely break the wind and for a little extra warmth during the day.
    Brrrrr!!!

    Brrrrr!!!

    Heat lamp in chicken coop

    Hutch with wind break

    Hutch with wind break

We have heard that most animals native to northern climates can handle these low temperatures without special care, but it is not a chance that we have been willing to take yet.  With the measures described above, both our rabbits and chickens have thrived regardless of how cold it has gotten (including the recent “polar vortex” when we had wind-chills as low as -25°F), with the chickens still producing at a rate of ~3-4 eggs per bird per week and rabbits putting on weight and staying healthy.  Hopefully some of this is useful to you, and if you have any other tips, we’d love to hear them (especially for the water bit…)!

Winter eggs from 12 birds

Winter eggs…get ’em before they crack!

– Joe