Enjoying a New Buck

Anyone who knows me knows that I’m quite careful with my breeder rabbits. They become pets, for one thing, so the older bunnies go to the retirement home when they’re past their prime. Of course, everyone gets a hug every day. However, I also realize that my rabbits are animals with particular needs and that I need to exercise care when they have specific requirements. One of those requirements is ensuring the breeding rabbits are actually healthy enough to do the job. So, it was with heavy heart that I bid adieu to my buck, Spartacus, this past winter. He’s just too old to get the job done anymore.

I obtain my new does from my stock. When the kits are old enough, I start monitoring the does for good potential. The doe of choice is alert, quite active, robust in protecting her territory against the other kits, and large. I’m always looking for the best possible breeding stock to ensure that future kits have the best possible chance of succeeding. I tend to prefer does that are a bit on the aggressive side so that I can be sure she’ll protect her kits, but I don’t want a doe who is overly aggressive. I learned that lesson the hard way with a doe that would actually charge me when I tried to provide food and water. She’d actually bite. Yet, she was pretty mellow once her kits were fully grown.

My new buck, Oreo, is a gift from a friend. He’s friendly, but slightly aggressive. His markings really do suggest an Oreo cookie—black and white. He’s a well built buck and loves his morning hug. The reason I don’t get bucks from my own stock is that I want to prevent inbreeding. Inbred rabbits exhibit horrid behaviors (including cannibalism) that are best left to the imagination. The point is that you need an outside source of DNA, so trading with other breeders and ensuring you get from a variety of sources is one hedge against the problem.

I normally try for a buck that’s slightly smaller than my does. The reason is that a really large buck can cause the doe to have babies that are too large and she might not be able to have them normally. Even if you manage to get to the doe in time, she often dies if she can’t get the babies out. Oreo is just the right size. He’s just slightly smaller than my does.

Breeding season will arrive soon. Normally I try to breed the rabbits the first time in late March or early April so that the chances of frost at the time the babies are born is minimal. Breeding early in spring also lets me breed the does more than once (normally I go for three breeding sessions during the year unless the summer is especially hot).

Getting just the right buck for your does can take time and effort, but it’s well worth it to have healthy kits. Let me know your thoughts on choosing a new buck at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Predicting Processed Rabbit Weight

One of the issues that faces someone who raises meat rabbits is how to predict the dressed or processed weight of the rabbit based on the live weight. After all, you can’t add more weight after the fact. First of all, you need to weigh the rabbit before you feed it, rather than after. Using the before feeding weight seems to provide more predictable results. I’ve found that rabbits can be picky eaters at times, so using this baseline ensures I’m not weighing different amounts of ingested food. Couple the before feeding weigh-in with a same time of day feeding time to ensure you get predictable results. (I also feed right before sundown because rabbits are nocturnal and will feed better at night.) However, there is always some variance, so you need to expect some range in the dressed weight of the rabbit.

Younger rabbits tend to dress out at a higher percentage of their live weight. Most people wait at least eight weeks before attempting to process rabbits. However, these younger rabbits are also considerably smaller than a more mature rabbit. Waiting until thirteen to fifteen weeks often produces a nicer rabbit even if the live weight to processed weight ratio is smaller.

What you feed the rabbit will also make a difference in the ratio because some types of food tend to produce more fat, than lean meat. Adding corn or other grains to the feed will cause the rabbit to be more tender and grow faster, but at a lower ratio and with more inner fat (the fat that isn’t removed with the skin). When you feed anything other than alfalfa pellets, you change the texture of the rabbit and its fat content, and therefore the ratio of live weight to processed weight. For example, feeding the rabbit grass will tend to make it leaner.

The kind of rabbit can also make a big difference. A New Zealand rabbit may only provide a ratio of 55% live weight to processed weight, while a Dutch can provide a ratio as high as 60%. Mixed breed rabbits increase the uncertainty of yield, but do provide advantages in genetic diversity, which can improve the taste of the meat and reduce the need to use medications that pure bred rabbits could require. In short, you need to consider the trade-offs of various decisions you make during the entire process.

In general, you can expect a ratio as low as 50% for a mixed breed rabbit and somewhere around 65% for a Californian/New Zealand mix. However, you must take all sorts of other factors into consideration as previously mentioned. To help me calculate the processed weight better, I started to keep records of live weight to processed weight ratios, ensure I fed the rabbits the same diet, and kept my stock as close as possible to the same mix. Even so, I find that each processing session provides slightly different ratios. Let me know about your live weight to processed weight insights at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Kits Moving Toward Adulthood

The kits are moving ever closer to adulthood. At this point, they’re weened and join mom at the dinner table each day. They also don’t run and hide every time they seem me. In fact, they’re downright curious about me at times.

The young adult rabbits join mom for dinner.
The young adult rabbits join mom for dinner.

It’s amazing to see how fast they’re growing. Of course, rabbits don’t grow at nearly the same rate as meat chickens do and the feed a bit more expensive. These rabbits will leave the cage soon and go to a gender segregated cage where they can grow to full size. In the meantime, they love to hop about during the day and play with each other and mom. For the most part, Moonbeam tries to ignore the playfulness, but there are times when she has had enough and does something about it. A grunt or a bit of a nip is usually all it takes to get the youngster back on its best behavior.

Meat rabbits aren’t as tame as you might think, however. Right before I took this picture, Moonbeam took a nip out of my hand. It wasn’t anything serious, but she did draw blood. She was irritated that I reached inside the cage to get the food containers. It isn’t something that happens every day, but it’s important to realize that these animals might look cuddly, can be cuddly, but they’re also animals with a set of instincts that you need to respect. Certainly, Moonbeam got mine. I usually keep the most aggressive rabbits for breeding purposes because they do make better parents and have stronger offspring. Even through several heat waves that might have caused problems for other rabbits, six out of Moonbeam’s eight kits survived without problem (and one of the two that died was a runt that had problems feeding from the outset).

After Moonbeam’s kits leave the cage, I’ll give her a little time to rest, and then breed her again for the fall season. In most years, I normally breed the rabbits twice—once in the spring and again in late summer. Because I lack a heated rabbitry, I never breed the rabbits more than twice to ensure I don’t need to overwinter them. The rabbits that are higher off the ground and have a cozy nest box to live in do just fine, but the larger cages are on the ground and don’t offer enough protection. Let me know about your hare raising experiences at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

An Update on the Kits

The kits continue to grow. They’re starting to become more cautious. However, most important of all, they can get in and out of the nest box whenever they like. Instead of seeing out of the nest box (unless I sneak up on them), I normally see them peering out at me from the next box.

 

Four of the kits look out from the nest box.
The kits peer out from the nest box at me most of the time now.

This is a natural behavior. The kits will run for safety most of the time until they get a bit older. Of course, there always has to be an exception to the rule. One of the kits just ignores me and continues to do whatever he feels like doing at the moment.

 

One kit stays outside the nest box with its mother.
One kit always seems to have a mind of its own.

The kits are now starting to eat solid food. I see Moonbeam go into the nest box at times, so I think she still feeds them a little, but the kits are starting to consume more food on their own. This means that I need to keep a watch on both food and water in the cage to ensure that the doe and her kits have enough to eat. The doe won’t hog the food, but she doesn’t encourage the kits to eat either. Everyone seems to fend for themselves when it comes to rabbits.

Play is becoming a lot more important for the kits as well. There is a shelf in the cage and the kits will often jump on top of it. They seem to like looking down on the others in the cage. Only one kit can fit on the self at a time, so I was a bit surprised to find three of them up there the other day piled on top of each other. The bottom kit must have felt quite a burden. All these views of playtime come surreptitiously—I must peer at them from a distance and without them seeing me. Otherwise, into the nest box they go (well, except for the brave kit who really doesn’t care about hiding from anyone).

Overheating is a real issue at times. The kits could remain cool by staying outside of the nest box. However, during the heat of the day I often find them piled on top of each other in the next box. Because the kits are almost weaned and able to eat solid food, I now move them around and get them out of the nest box on warmer days. On some days I put an insert into the nest box so they can’t get inside and instead stay outside where it’s cooler. In times past, I’ve actually lost kits to heat simply because they insist on piling on top of each other.

In a few more weeks I’ll sex the kits and move the boys to one cage and the girls to another so they have a place to continue growing without the potential for inbreeding. Males can start breeding in as little as 14 weeks—females become fertile in about 16 to 18 weeks. It’s essential that you separate the rabbits before this time or you can end up with some unfortunate results (mothers made pregnant by their sons). Inbreeding can produce all sorts of terrible behaviors. In the meantime, the kits can look forward to spending a bit more time with mom. Let me know your thoughts about the growing stages of kits at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Cooling Your Animals in Summer

Now that the summer weather is truly come to stay, I’ve turned my attention more fully to keeping my animals cool. I’ve talked about this issue before as part of my Keeping Your Animals Healthy in Hot Weather post. However, over the years I’ve learned a few more tricks of the trade. The first is to keep the house at the same temperature as the outside as long as practical and rely on ceiling fans as much as possible. The approach saves money, of course, and makes my house more environmentally friendly as well, but it also seems to spare my animals some level of shock. This is especially the case with my dogs, who must go outside at various times during the day. I was actually finding that my dogs weren’t doing as well as they could when they got back in from outside and I think it was due to the shock of temperature change they felt.

Of course, I also run my business out of the house, which means computers generating lots of heat and not liking to be overly hot. All of my computers have temperature sensors that monitor motherboard and chip temperatures as needed. I actually found that most systems today can run in higher temperatures as long as you keep the air circulated in the room. So, I now keep my house between 75 and 80 on hot days and rely on ceiling fans to keep the air circulating in my office. Because the office is where I’m generating the most heat, I monitor the temperature there, rather than the dining room (which contains the air conditioner thermostat). An office temperature of 80 can actually equate to a house temperature of about 75, which is quite comfortable. I adjust the thermostat as needed to keep the office at 80, rather than trying to keep the rest of the house at a specific temperature.

Everyone gets shade during the summer months. However, I’ve been smart in the way I’ve provided shade. The shade is at the back of the cages and coop. The shade elements (mostly trees), hang slightly over the cages, coop, and run area. The front of the cages and coop are left as open as is possible so any breeze whatsoever can help keep the animals cool. Even so, I must still bring some of the rabbits in during really hot days and the chickens get their bucket of cooling water (they wade in it). It’s absolutely essential that the animals all have clean, cool water to drink, which means going out to change the water several times each day. I usually go out three times daily to check on everyone and make sure they’re doing well.

The cats are always the easiest to please. Smucker still loves to sleep in the bathtub on hot summer days. Sugar Plum likes the floor in the other bathroom. I tend to leave them alone except for the checks I make on them.

Animals still need hugs during the summer months and they still need play time. I’ve been getting out at 5:00 to ensure that I take care of these needs when it’s still cool. During the day I leave the animals completely alone and do everything I can to help them rest comfortably. Making sure you keep track of your animals and address their needs is one certain way to keep them around longer and to enjoy your time with them more. Let me know your thoughts about keeping animals cool at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Poppers!

The first set of kits have been growing like crazy. In fact, they have begun popping out of the nest box, which is why they’re now called poppers. Several times a day now I need to check the cage and put the poppers back into the nest box. They’re getting old enough to get out, but they aren’t really old enough to be out. It’s still possible to lose the kits at this point if they get too cool, wet, or simply aren’t able to get milk from mom.

Five white kits have gotten out of the nest box and need to be put back in.
The kits are getting incredibly cute.

In this case, all five of the white kits have gotten out of the nest box. Immediately after I took this picture, I put them back in because they aren’t able to get into the nest box on their own. Notice that their eyes are open and they have a full covering of fur, but the fur is so downy and light that it really doesn’t help keep the kits warm. In most cases, the kits simply huddle in the corner of the cage for warmth when they get out like this.

Eventually, the kits will be able to get in and out of the nest box by themselves.  About the same time they’ll start to eat a little solid food. However, they won’t be weaned for at least a month and it’s absolutely essential to keep them where they can access mom quite easily.

Rabbits have a bicornuate duplex uterus, which consists of two completely separate uterine horns and no uterine body. Each horn has its own cervix and the two cervices combine into a single vagina. The reason that this deeply medical knowledge is required is that experience has shown that about half of the kits mature faster and are stronger than the other half. I’ve read everything I can find on the topic online and haven’t been able to figure out why except that one horn apparently provides a better environment than the other. The other half of the kits haven’t popped out of the nest box yet because they’re smaller and weaker than the kits you see in the picture.

For some odd reason, it’s also not unusual to find the kits separated into two piles at birth. Eventually they combine into a single group, but the two piles appear regularly when the kits are first born. An assumption on my part is that the kits in one horn are born first, followed by those in the second horn. Carefully watching the doe shows that the nest box typically contains some kits, she comes out to eat or simply to wait, and then she goes back into the nest box to have the remaining kits.

It would be nice to find out more about the birth process and why things happen as they do. If you have additional input about rabbit births, please feel free to contact me at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Introducing the Baby Bunnies!

A number of people have asked me about how the rabbits are doing. It seems the chickens have been monopolizing the blog (and they have). About 30 days ago, Spartacus, my buck, made his rounds to the various cages with nest boxes. However, there wasn’t too much to report until Wednesday. Moonbeam, one of the does, had started pulling out her hair to make a nest. She had also gotten quite pudgy. On Wednesday she started having her babies. Now, she’s back to being a much thinner rabbit. (Because she’s feeding babies, I’ll give her nearly twice the normal amount of food and I’ll ensure her water dish is completely full.)

Moonbeam is a Rex and California Giant hybrid who just had a litter of eight kits.
Moonbeam and Her Special Treat

A friend had given me some strawberries and a few of them were getting a bit on the mushy side. So, all three of the new or expecting does received a special surprise with their food this morning. Moonbeam never eats her meal before I close the cage, so she’s just eying me right now.

Moonbeam is the best mom out of all the rabbits. She goes out of her way to keep her babies (kits) happy. To start out, she completely fills the nest box with her hair. Imagine having to pull out the amount of hair shown here.

Moonbeam uses her own hair to keep her babies warm after they're born.
Moonbeam Completely Fills the Nest Box with Hair

I’m always careful opening the top of the nest box. It’s important not to upset the mom. She could possibly choose to abandon her babies, so I open the lid carefully and then wait to see if she pokes her head in to watch me. Moonbeam trusts me, so she calmly sat outside the nest box and ate breakfast. She still watched me, but she wasn’t anxious about it. This view of the hair gives you an idea of just how much she pulled out (I shot her good side for the photograph).

Moonbeam made herself nearly bald in an attempt to provide enough hair for her kits.
Moonbeam Provides a Lot of Hair to Keep the Kits Warm

I never touch the hair or the kits. A number of texts that I’ve read say it’s permissible, but I’ve had does reject their babies because of the human scent on them, so I choose not to take the risk. I carefully moved the hair aside to count eight pudgy babies. The babies are born blind and hairless. They’re actually quite small at this point. It’s important to remove the hair just long enough to count (and take a picture in this case). Otherwise, the babies could get a chill.

This picture shows three of the kits, complete with the head of one of them.
Three of the Kits

You can only see three of the kits in this picture. There is so much hair that I can only move a small part of it at a time. I definitely don’t want to force poor Moonbeam to pull out any more. Notice that you can clearly see the head (with ears) of one of the kits. This one will likely be completely white. The other two kits have blotches that indicate they have black spots like their dad.

Moonbeam actually required 32 days to have her babies. The average time is about 30 days. That’s part of the reason that these kits are a bit bigger than normal. The kits will probably stay in the nest box for the first 30 days or so of their lives. It just depends on how fast they grow. During that time, Moonbeam will feed them each day. Let me know your thoughts about raising rabbits at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Hugging Your Animals

Hugs are the universal communication medium for most animals. It may surprise you to discover that I hug all my animals on a regular basis. The reasons for hugging my animals are many, but from the animal’s perspective, it’s a matter of knowing that I’m OK—that I’m not going to hurt them. To keep an animal tame and workable, you need to respect its need for contact with you. Often, people have problems working with their animals because the needed relationship simply isn’t there. Here’s a picture of me hugging one of my chickens, Daisy.

Daisy is an American chicken that loves to be hugged by John.
Daisy the Americana Chicken
Picture Courtesy of Micah Schlobohm

The chickens are actually quite interesting because they curtsey to attract attention and tell me that they want to be picked up. The curtsey is kind of a half bow where they spread their wings slightly as if lifting out a dress. The point is that the hens really do want (and need their hugs).

The rabbits also need hugs and have a different way of demonstrating the need. One of my rabbits, Twilight, will sit on her hind legs and raise her front legs in greeting when I open the cage in the morning. If I don’t pick her up and pet her, she stomps her back feet when I leave to show that she’s really quite unhappy. It doesn’t have to be a long hug, just as long as I tell her that she’s special in her own way.

My two dogs, Reese and Shelby, want their hugs first thing in the morning, when I let them in from going outside. Each dog has her own way of getting petted. Shelby is quite dignified about the whole thing and sits patiently waiting until I pet her. A little nuzzle often tells me that her patience is running out. Reese is quite crazy and runs about in circles until I invite her over for a hug. Of course, it’s not enough to simply pet her back, she wants her belly petted as well.

Every morning Sugar Plum wakes me up by meowing at me and patting my face. If that doesn’t work, she gets Smucker involved (he stomps all over me). Failing that, the two cats get the dogs stirred up. All that howling, baying, and barking is impossible to ignore. Obviously, Sugar Plum wants to be paid for her efforts, and her hug is a required part of the payment. Smucker usually comes in after breakfast, sits on my shoulder for a while, and then sort of slides down into my lap for his hug.

Of course, the hugs don’t just help the animals. Hugs come with serious health benefits for humans too. I’ve noted that my mood improves after my hugs each day. The results are measurable too. Taking my blood pressure before and after a hug shows that it goes down every time. Lower blood pressure and heart rate will help me stay healthy and all it takes is a simple hug.

Some people might question whether my animals really do require hugs, or whether I’m anthropomorphizing natural behaviors that mean something else. At one time, I might have thought that animals really didn’t need the hugs—that their behaviors really did mean something quite different, but time has taught me that they need love too and a hug is one of the best ways to give it to them. Let me know your thoughts on hugging your animals (or hugs in general) at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

Appreciating the Healing Powers of Animals

I’ve always appreciated the ability of animals to make bad feelings better. There always seems to be something interesting going on with animals that makes the day more pleasant and happy. Of course, there is an almost continuous array of bird song in our area during the daylight hours. Just the happy song of birds is enough to make me smile.

When the native birds add antics to the mix, I sometimes get a good laugh in as well. Such is the case with a little downy woodpecker that visits the feeder near our house. He never seems to arrive right side up. No, despite his best efforts, he always seems to hit the perch upside down and must fight his way to an upright position. The vibrant mix of colors doesn’t help the woodpecker’s cause—he looks a bit like a clown anyway. Our particular downy woodpecker seems to have a bit more head color than pictures I see online show, but far less than a red headed woodpecker.

Now, when you mix native birds with chickens, you really get a visual treat. In most cases, the chickens try their best to ignore the native birds because they’re obviously better (at least, as far as the chickens are concerned). However, the other day the chickens didn’t have much choice in the matter because some sparrows decided to have fun with them. Imagine this scene for a moment, chickens running madly about flapping their wings and clucking crazily while sparrows are dive bombing them. I laughed so hard that it took several minutes for me to compose myself enough to come to the chicken’s aid.

In a contrast to the antics of the chickens, our rabbits are lovers, not fighters. They often need a hug. At the top of the hugging list is Twilight. She always wants a hug whenever I open her cage to feed her. In fact, she actively pursues hugs every time I walk by. She does this odd sort of clapping motion to attract my attention by sitting on her hind feet and moving her front paws back and forth.

Entertainment isn’t something that happens just outside either. Our dog Reese is hysterical. For one thing, she can’t go anywhere in a straight line. She runs in circles every time she goes from one place to another. When she’s excited, she mixes the frantic circles with a mix of barking and baying. How any one dog can look so happy and absurd at the same time is amazing.

Whenever Shelby (our other dog) senses that I’m blue, she offers me a paw. She’s not really looking for a handshake. Instead, she wants me to hold the paw—possibly for as long as I need to do so. So, I hold her paw and she washes my hand. It’s therapeutic, even if it does get a bit wet.

Another washer is Smucker who offers kisses by the gross. He likes to lean into my side and then wash my arms, hands, or other exposed body parts. Of course, the bath comes complete with purring.

Finally, Sugar Plum is absolutely frantic about getting petted. She’ll keep nuzzling me until I pet her (and keep petting her until she’s satisfied that I’ve petted her enough). Her purr is a bit louder than Smucker’s purr (as is her meow).

All of these behaviors (and many others) serve to help keep my calm and feeling good. I can actually measure a change in both blood pressure and heart rate after interacting with the animals. Many medical studies have noted similar results with other people, so I’m definitely not alone. The point is that animals provide benefits far beyond companionship and laughter. They also make it easier for people to deal with a host of problems in their lives. Let me know about your health benefit experience with a pet at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.

 

Cleaning the Coop in December

It’s December and time to check on your outside animals to ensure they remain comfortable. The rabbits are relatively easy. All you really need to do is ensure the cages are remaining reasonably clean (wire brush those bunny pellets from the cage’s hardware cloth) and that any protective measures, such as the window plastic you put in place to keep the wind at bay, are still in place and in good condition. The entire process will likely take less than an hour (if that long—my six cages took about 15 minutes).

The chickens are another story. You need to check the weather carefully and try to find a day when the temperature will get above freezing, if possible. The manure in the coop will be a lot easier to get up if you can get it to defrost a little. You want to clean out all of the old hay and manure. Unlike your fall cleanup, you won’t wash the nest boxes. In fact, this is a really bad time to do anything with water in the coop (except for the chicken’s drinking water) because it won’t dry properly. The idea is to clean as much as possible by scraping up the manure and getting it out of the coop onto your compost heap. I find that a combination of a barn shovel and a wide bladed putty knife do the job quite well.

This is also the time to check for air leaks again. Your chickens can keep cozy if your coop is relatively air tight.  You don’t want to close it up so tight that the ammonia fumes build up and hurt the chickens, but you also don’t want anything like a strong breeze in the coop.  The chickens will normally keep warm by huddling together at night on top of their nest box or other roosting area you provide. So, it’s essential that you keep the air leaks under control.

When replacing the hay, make sure you pack each nest box a little more than you would in summer to give each chicken a nice place to lay her egg. I’ll use regular alfalfa hay during the summer months because it’s stiffer and breaths better. However, during the winter months I use grass hay. It’s softer and provides better warmth. You must make sure the hay you use is completely dry and mildew free because it absolutely won’t dry during the winter months and you don’t want your chickens to acquire respiratory diseases.

Because it is winter, the chickens are more likely to keep you entertained as you clean the coop. Remember that the coop is their home, so you need to be patient as you work with them. During the cleaning process, one chicken proceeded to scold me, but another pecked at my feet (apparently trying to get off all the snow). A third kept insisting that she needed to be held and petted (slowing my progress). All this attention is quite normal during the winter cleanup.

Keeping the coop clean is quite important if you want to maintain your chicken’s health. That means getting out in winter, when conditions for cleaning are less than ideal. Working on the one or two days during the winter when the temperatures get a little higher will make things a lot easier, but even so, you’ll be trying to clean the coop with a bulky jacket and gloves on, so it’s going to take more time than in the summer months. Let me know your thoughts about cage and coop cleaning at John@JohnMuellerBooks.com.