Notes from Windward: #67


Winter Bunnies

our first cold weather births

  January 30:

     While Vermadise is a structure that's been optimized for the growing of earthworms, the worms are sharing their world with other systems we're working to weave together in an effort to see just how many different life systems we can get going in one space. In order for high cellulose content materials--shredded paper, wood chips and such--to break down into worm food, nitrogen needs to be added. We're using rabbits to do that through the use of portable rabbit cages that were custom built to fit over the worm beds.

Jillian and Virgil take a doe to pay a call on one of the bucks

     By being able to move the rabbits from bed to bed, we can get the manure, and more importantly the urine, to the material that needs it. One of the things we figured out early on was that if you could bet the animals to put the manure where you wanted it, that made the system much more sustainable. That's why the sheep spent the winter in the main garden--that way their manure is worked into the ground by their hooves as it breaks down.

     Our primary husbandry experience is with goats and sheep who give birth in the spring; indeed, we carefully keep the males separate until well into the fall so that we don't have to deal with babies being born in the dead of winter. That's a bit of a trade-off since lambs and kids born earlier, assuming that they survive the cold, will be ready to make their best gains when the spring grass is most abundant, but doing it this way works for us for now even if it is slightly less efficient. Arriving in late March is a lot less stress for a new born, so we're willing to accept a less efficiency in the sense of conversion efficiency in exchange for more efficiency in the percentage of births that make it to weaning.

a ewe checking on her lamb

     Rabbits are a somewhat different proposition. One of our basic principles is that we don't grow meat for the sake of producing meat; all our meat production is ancillary to some other aspect of sustainability such as turning grass into milk, cheese and yogurt. In order for that to happen, does and ewes have to give birth each year, and half of those births are going to be males who'll add their weight to the larder each fall.

     Nothing new there, but what is more of a consideration are the various processes used to store meat until it's ready to be consumed--everything from making jerkey and sausage to canning and freezing--and that does involve a good deal of time and energy. One of the advantages of using rabbits to convert waste hay into meat is that there's no storage needed in that the entire animal is consumed immediately after slaughter. Moreover, the production of rabbit can be adjusted-over a relatively short period of time--to meet the kitchen's needs.

     Anyway, unlike most everything else we grow, rabbits will keep producing right through the winter, or at least that's what the books say. Since one of Vermadise's design concepts is that we aren't going to be adding additional heat to that structure during the cold months, we were concerned as to how the rabbits would do when the temp in Vermadis got close to freezing. I'm pleased to report that right through this most recent cold snap, the rabbits were able to give birth just fine, and didn't lose any kitts to the cold.

babby rabbits (the tiny pink things) swaddled in fur

     One thing we are doing on the really cold days is to put three or four rabbits together in a cage so that they can help keep each other warm. That's working just fine so long as we remember to separate out the does after three weeks of togetherness--they need to be alone when they kindle and will abandon their kitts if they don't have a private place to give birth.

bunnies cuddling up on a cold day

  February 1:

     As the days continue to be overcast, grey and below freezing, we're continuing to keep a close eye on the bunnies to see how the cold is affecting them.

Nine day old bunnies

     As you can see, they're coming along just fine-eyes aren't open yet, but they're looking more like white bunnies now than little pink sausages.

  February 18:

Lots of eyes peeking out of the nest box

     The bunnies are really growing fast, and as they get bigger, they get more adventuresome. It's a hoot to watch them jump out of the nest box, hop over to the water bottles to get a drink, grab a mouthful of pellets and hop back into the nest box

helping themselves to water and feed

  March 17:

     Time to wean the winter bunnies.


Notes From Windward - Index - Vol. 67