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Math is hard?

Yesterday was exciting in a bad way, as we discovered several baby rabbits born on the wire in their mother’s cage. This wasn’t her fault but mine, I had miscalculated her due date and didn’t have a nest box and hay waiting for her. Luckily all of them but one were still alive and kicking, so I tucked them in my shirt to warm them while we got a nest box set up, and then installed them. The mother went immediately to work putting the nest in order (humans are apparently very bad at making rabbit nests) and hopefully I’ll find them still in the land of the living when I check on them in the morning.

Normally, of course, baby rabbits would be born in the colony, but it’s severely in need of rehabilitation at the moment. Once the Christmas geese are harvested this weekend work on converting the former large poultry pen into rabbit spaces can begin in earnest, including putting down wire around the edges to prevent young rabbits from escaping via digging out. The trick will be to escape-proof the colony areas while simultaneously allowing rabbits to do things like dig, which make them very happy and also prevent losses to the ungodly warm and humid southern summers.

My incompetence aside, it’s nice to have baby rabbits around again. Rabbits are a faster and more reliable source of meat than poultry for us, most especially since to have chickens ready for harvest as quickly as rabbits are I’d end up raising mutant meat chickens and I refuse. I don’t want animals who can’t enjoy their lives while they’re here, and meat chickens most assuredly have problems doing much beyond eating and sleeping if you want them ready to go in 8-12 weeks.

In other news, the warm, mild winter continues. We’re sleeping with windows open to avoid overheating because it’s not quite warm enough to need air conditioning but not cool enough to keep heat from accumulating in our snug little house. The onions, garlic, peas, and other fall-planted crops that were meant to go dormant are instead having a grand old time with the rain and gentle sun. The one exception has been the einkorn wheat, which has gone surly and sleeping just as it’s supposed to.

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The rabbit colony still lives!

Many months ago we moved juvenile ducks outside into the large covered poultry pen, which turned out to be a terrible idea. Two of them promptly went through rabbit tunnels between the colony and the main section and proceeded to make a terrible mess of the colony, which meant that we got no rabbit meat at all this summer.

I was just beginning to ponder moving the last two rabbits, Nahadoth and Syenite, out of the colony and into cages when lo and behold, we spotted a tiny Naha look-alike hopping around in there. Hooray! Whatever the ducks did, the colony is recovering! If this little guy makes it to adulthood we’ll probably use it in the breeding program just on the general principal that as the first survivor, it’s a tough little booger.

Meanwhile the Christmas geese are the last feathery occupants of that pen, and one they’ve been slaughtered we’ll be converting it to a hybrid cage/colony set up for rabbits. I’ve found rabbits to be easier, cleaner, tastier, and more productive than poultry in general, so while we’ll continue to keep a free range flock to help with pest control and composting, rabbits will be responsible for the bulk of our protein production.

But I digress! Look carefully at the cinder block on the left side of the photo:

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You can see Naha, my black and white colony buck, catching some sun in the house. His lady Syenite is behind him but since she’s black and in shadow you’ll have to trust me on that. And there peeking out of the cinder block on the left is a tiny black and white rabbit, like a miniature version of Naha. Evidence of resurrection!

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Winter makes you laugh a little slower…

I’ve been remiss in blogging as winter settles in here in the piedmont. Part of that is starting on the hard part of work with my shrink and desensitizing myself to all the terrible memories I brought home from the war in the hopes of achieving something more like sanity. It’s tiring. Part of it is that, well, fall and winter don’t bring a heck of a lot of news, especially when compared to the dramas of spring and summer.

Still, there’s a few noteworthy things going on! For instance, we have Mr Piggy Bank the teeny tiny boar and Maggie the tiny pig staying. They may end up being here forever, or may go home if their previous person gets her fences pig-proofed by hiring the best Board On Board Fence Contractor. Whichever way it goes, they are delightful to have around, and also adorable, and some people also decide to bolster their roofs to prepare for the winters with companies as http://www.palmbeachroofingexpert.com/tequesta-roofing/.

Two small pigs cuddling in the sun. Closest to the camera is the tiny boar, who is about 10 inches tall standing, or half the size of the sow. He's golden with black spots, she is white with black spots.

The sheep are all getting woolier every day. I give them little pep talks about growing nice fleeces. Most interestingly, Jane the Soay ewe is growing in her fleece with a substantial amount of white sprinkled in it, like roaning on a horse or goat, so yarn spun from her wool will be naturally heathered.

There’s even a little excitement in the vegetable world. While the einkorn wheat has gone dormant for the winter, the pregnant onions that I’m getting established into a permanent onion patch are still growing like the blazes.

Onion tops ranging between two and six inches tall growing in thick, enthusiastic clumps.

I broke off the tips of some of the tallest greens for us to taste and they’re amazing, sweet and spicy and flavorful. I can’t wait to actually try a couple onions next summer, although large harvests will have to wait a while unless the onions go really nuts. Pregnant onions are an old, old variety grown before the advent of easy to purchase seeds. The large onions will spawn young onions, which will grow into large onions the next year and split off into their own children. They can be harvested at either stage, as long as you leave enough in the ground to propagate.

The garlic got planted a couple months later than onions, but is coming up anyway in its bed of composted rabbit manure.

Small, thick green shoots poking up through what looks like dark fine soil with a few recognizable globes of poo.

This is nothing fancy, just the California Early Soft Neck garlic you find in grocery stores. In fact, it’s cloves from a grocery store bulb, as I thought I should experiment with cheap garlic before I try growing one of the more fiddly heritage varieties. Still, freshness makes a serious difference, and a bulb of garlic dug five minutes ago has a far superior flavor to one that’s been stored, as we learned after managing to grow one bulb on our first try. As it turns out, the feed store was setting us up for failure selling seed garlic in spring. This really is a fall-planted crop, and in summer will be adding its deliciousness to home-cooked meals.

Things I don’t have pictures of include the expanded rabbitry. The colony is a no-go right now, having had ducks move in this past summer (long story, but not on purpose). Duck feces in the soil are not compatible with successfully raising litters of rabbits, so right now I’m working with a standard caged system and working on building tractors so rabbits can move around more and do a little grazing while the colony gets dug out and planted and rested in the hopes that I can return rabbits to it in spring or summer. Meanwhile two of my friends hooked me up with breeding stock, and there will be purebred Silver Foxes for pelts and meat starting this winter. Which means I need to get on tanning the hides I’ve already accumulated!

Meanwhile of course, late fall/early winter Virginia means the weather is all over the place and my mysterious chronic pain condition and migraines are complaining about it. I spend a lot of time sitting in the sun with the goats and sheep and pigs, soaking up the last of the warmth and enjoying my little peaceable kingdom.

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Chickens are not that fragile.

Ah, fall, when new livestock owners panic at the thought of cold weather and break out the heavy duty plastic. I was there a few years back, so I have some sympathy for you, but my learnings, let me show you them.

Chickens are not that fragile, y’all. Provided they can stay dry, they will do just fine roosting in the open air. Most of ours sleep in the barn rafters, a few go sleep in the trees. Before that they roosted in the run the geese currently occupy, which is open air except for the roof. We have never yet lost a chicken to winter cold, not even during the periodic polar vortices that swoop down from the north.

If you’re living way up north, windbreaks become necessary, but you still shouldn’t hermetically seal your barn or chicken house. Damp conditions arising from their own respiration will give chickens (and goats and sheep) pneumonia. If they’ve been living outside, your livestock are well-adapted to handling the weather. Make sure they have food, water, and a way to stay dry and they’ll be just fine. Honestly.

Remember that up until very, very recently nobody considered a chicken a pet. Their bodies are well adapted to outside conditions, and honestly if they can’t handle living like actual chickens you’re better off without them. Certainly don’t breed any bird that can’t deal with the very basics of chicken life. You aren’t doing its offspring or their future owners any favors.

But above all, remember: ventilation is more important than a totally sealed, draft-free chicken coop. Don’t make your comfort more important than the actual needs of your chickens. Sealing up their house is about what makes you feel good, not what keeps a chicken healthy and happy.

A good roof, lots of food, and available water are all you need to see chickens through the winter. They’ll be fine, I promise.

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Boom and bust cycles, or buy pigs now!

At least if you’re in Virginia between DC a and the south reaches of Richmond, from the mountains out to Fredericksburg, pork on the hoof is cheap as hell right now.

In fact, as the annual rush to secure winter hay supplies begins and the spring/summer breeding cycles come to an end, everything from pigeons to horses can be had at dirt cheap prices if not free. People often get lost in the optimism of lush summer pastures and the lure of higher livestock prices, only to discover that a horse eats a lot of hay, piglets are no longer selling for $150 each, and pigeons multiply like rodents given the opportunity. Looking to reduce feed bills they start dumping stock below cost, and the long plummet b of a market glut has begun.

Teacup pigs are a very striking example of the market cycle in my area right now, people are buying it from http://www.pamperedpiglets.com/. A year ago or more, a potbelly or American Guinea Hog piglet fetched around $150-$200 on the private market. Predictably, many people saw dollar signs and began pumping out litters of piglets, with the end result that starting late this summer some folks with young potbelly pigs were having trouble giving them away for free. Everyone in central Virginia who wanted a piglet had one, it seemed like. Prices are running from free to $50 each for potbelly pigs now, and $25-$75 for young American Guinea Hogs. These prices are well below the cost to raise a piglet to weaning age, leaving producers the prospect of either continuing to raise them to butcher age and then putting an entire litter in the freezer (who has that much freezer space??) or to take a loss just to get the animals off their property.

At least there’s little stigma attached to sending AGH to slaughter. The potbelly pigs, while also made of delicious pork, have been sold as pets so long that many of them wind up in bad situations receiving substandard care because of the novelty value. Rescues work hard to take them in but space is limited. Arguably it’s kinder to put an animal down and eat it than to keep it living alone, belly-deep in water and feces, because as it turns out many of a pig’s natural behaviors (like rooting) aren’t compatible with the house pet life. And while pigs are as smart as dogs, they haven’t had the benefit of 30,000 years of selective breeding to be enjoyable companions.

Pigs, goats, and sheep sold for below slaughter value are likely to wind up in slaughter channels no matter how many caps locked “NOT FOR FOOD” warnings the seller puts in an ad. Around here, those channels start with people who trawl craigslist for cheap livestock. They run them to the auctions, where they’re either bought directly by a few small local slaughterhouses that don’t have contacts with enough supplies to buy directly, or by bunchers who then take them to the New Holland auction in Pennsylvania. An animal raised as a cherished and cuddled pet will suddenly find itself in a world of shouting and cattle prods. It’s tough even on animals not socialized to enjoy human company. Dealers expect an animal to lose up to 25% of its weight as a result of the stress even if treated well.

Horses have it much wise since horse slaughter has been effectively ended in the US, meaning they have a long miserable trip to Canada or Mexico awaiting them. There just isn’t a market for pasture pets and half-wild horses that haven’t been ridden in a year beyond slaughter when so many steady, useful horses are also on the market.

In the end it’s much, much kinder for an animal to get a dish of grain and a well placed bullet in familiar surroundings, or one trip to the slaughterhouse. Even more ideally, small producers will limit their breeding to ensure a smaller surplus come fall. The large farms that have made names for themselves aren’t the ones glutting the market, they’re the ones that line up buyers before breeding season even begins, or have built a customer base for themselves at Farmers Markets and in local butcher shops.

Breed to feed yourself and your friends and family. It is nearly impossible to make money in small livestock without access to the economies of scale a large producer has. It sucks, but that’s the market.

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Nature’s bulldozers

Two potbelly pigs, heads down and snouts buried in the dirt as they forage. On the left is a barrow neutered male, all black except for dainty white feets. On the right is a gilt, a young sow who has never given birth, who is mostly black except for white feet and belly and a white stripe between her eyes.

Janus and Tethys root around for food.

After a week I’m pleased to report that Janus and Tethys the potbelly pigs are settled in beautifully. They’ve embraced their new jobs as tillers of compacted soil, disposal units for leftover grain from ruminants, and makers of adorable oinking noises. As predicted, they now know I’m the Food Lady and recognize the grain bucket, coming on the run to line up for breakfast.

They haven’t lost a whole lot of weight yet, but they HAVE built enough muscle in their backs to hold their bellies off the ground. They no longer move stiffly, but confidently and comfortably, and as far as I can tell they’re having a grand time rooting through the ruminant pen in search of grubs and roots or whatever it is pigs are after. In their constant foraging they turn over the top two to four inches of ground, and then the chickens and guineas come through and comb through the disturbed earth for whatever seeds and bugs the pigs missed, leaving a layer of loose, smooth soil behind. All of which tells me that my master plan is working and I probably won’t have to turn over garden beds myself unless I really want to.

Tethys is much more inclined to be social than her brother. Yesterday morning she even let me scratch her back while she ate breakfast, despite Janus’s insistence that I was not to be trusted. They’re blooming into lovely animals, bright-eyed and curious, and I’ve assured Janus that even if he never wants to cuddle he can still stick around to till the pastures.

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Hard choices

Last week my beloved Thea started getting violent with the other ruminants. Not in the usual way of a swing of the head or a light bump, but actively trying to harm the others, culminating in an earnest attempt to hurt or kill Ferrington.

There’s a lot I can cope with, and scuffles for rank in the herd are not unusual, but this was something beyond the usual scuffles. So I made the difficult decision to place Thea in a new home, and sent Frankie with her so she’d have a buddy.

I still feel like I need a good cry. I loved them both, and I can’t even stand to look at pictures of them right now. Luckily Gwyn has adapted to the loss of her mother just fine, because I think if she were crying I really would be, too.

There’s a little bit of happiness, though, in that two potbelly pigs have come to stay and be working pigs to till the gardens and learn tricks.

On the left, a solid black pig about two feet high. On the right, a black pig with a white stripe between her eyes, white trotters, and a white stripe on one side of her neck. They are VERY fat, and also frothing at the mouth.
Apparently stressed pigs foam at the mouth. I did not know this.

The pigs don’t have names yet (I need to consult with my animal naming crew on Patreon![1]) and need to lose some weight, but they’re settling in well and finding the shady places, food, and water. The solid black pig is a barrow, a male pig neutered before puberty. The one with white is a gilt, a female pig who has never had a litter of piglets. She may have one later (she’s only 8 months old) but for now they both need to lose some weight and settle in. Future piglets will be intended for food, but these two are here to be pets and garden tillers.

The goats and sheep, by the way, are horrified.
The entire herd of goats and sheep clumped up and staring off to the right of photo where two small inoffensive pigs are located off-screen.

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The Next Generation of Chickens

On Monday our black game hen, a native born resident of the Manor, brought eight little puffballs on legs out to see the world.

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A black hen with black skin and five little black and white chicks plus three little yellow chicks with brown stripes on their backs. They're kicking through waste hay in an area where I just planted fall wheat because of course they are.

We are happy to see these little guys, and hope a good chunk of them survive (free ranging leads to high mortality levels for baby chickens). Both their parents were hatched here, hardy survivors of everything the piedmont has thrown at them from foxes to parasites. They represent the next step in my quest to be the world’s laziest chicken keeper with a flock of hardy, wily birds who need very little from me to thrive and live as chickens are meant to live: roaming around eating seeds and bugs and greenery, dust bathing and sunbathing instead of penned up and dealing with commercial food and accumulations of their own waste. Furthermore, they’re integral parts of our soil improvement plan (as I’ve mentioned before).

Godspeed, little chickens. May you grow and thrive and hopefully at least one of you is a spare rooster we can eat.

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Answering Googled Questions: Why Are Purebred Livestock Important?

The quick answer to this question is “predictability”. A well-established breed will allow you to make educated guesses about things like milk production, feed efficiency, and even behavior. Nubian dairy goats, for instance, are known for being loud as well as good (but generally not phenomenal) producers of milk. Breeds of livestock selected for meat production build muscle and fat quickly. Leghorn chickens are flighty, spooky bastards but lay eggs like nobody’s business. In short, with purebred livestock you know pretty well what you’re getting.

A close up of a male goat's face, mostly white but with black horns and a black nose and dramatic mahogany brown stripes running from his horns, across his eyes, to the corners of his mouth. He has a short but luxurious beard and he's sticking his tongue out.
Sanglant is the product of a cross between a Nubian doe and a Baylis line Spanish buck.

This leads, of course, to the problem of shrinking gene pools. Closed herd books are a double-edged blade (or, hah, a mixed blessing). As the average coefficient of inbreeding increases in a given breed, individuals become more and more prone to inbreeding depression. You’ll get animals who just don’t thrive, who have weak immune systems. At that point, careful outcrossing may be the only way to save the breed. Done well, it will preserve the breed’s essential characteristics while revitalizing the dying gene pool.

But I digress. Purebred livestock are important because they offer farmers predictability in their stock and when carefully stewarded preserve genetic resources handed down to us by our own ancestors. Pure breeds can offer us a glimpse of what our forebears thought was valuable and important to preserve, and should the major commercial breeds of livestock be endangered by disease or environment, other breeds may step in to save them with a genetic contribution or indeed replace them. The lovely variety of livestock breeds also allows farmers to select animals that will be economical to raise under whatever system the farmer has decided to use, from organic pasture-raised gourmet foods to backyard food sources to industrial production destined for supermarket shelves.