Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Calm Before Spring

We're beginning to feel the rumblings of Spring as the quiet of Winter is slowly winding down.  From the holiday's until about the middle of February is my calm, reflective time of the year, with the ground frozen and snow there's not much to do, and I thoroughly enjoy it.  Before I know it the pace will begin to pick up, and this year with 4 goats kidding, rabbits kindling, puppies being born, a garden to plant, and flower beds to weed, we'll be in the thick of it come April and May, and I'll  be happy and loving it all.   I sure am looking forward to the warmth of the sun again, and for the flowers and leaves to come back after their long winter's nap

Two weeks ago I finished milking Zolena, it was 2 months before her due date.  For a year and a half, she was milked daily, usually giving us about a gallon a day in the Summer and half a gallon of milk through the winter.  This one goat made all the milk our family needed.  Being fairly new to goats when we purchased her in milk, she continually amazed all of us, and her milk is so delicious and creamy, we all miss it now, alot.   Last winter I milked her through and didn't breed her, and my plan is to do that with both Jersey and her this next winter. Jersey our Nubian that I couldn't get bred last year is pregnant and due in about 2 weeks.  Her udder is forming and I am thrilled that I'll finally be able to milk her.  I'm also excited to see the kids that she will have, they'll be miniature Nubian's and can be registered as Miniatures.  Joon is due in a month and as you can see in the picture above, she's getting bigger.  The one I've been concerned about is Zolena, she didn't look pregnant, she's always been lean, but the last week I've been feeling better about her being pregnant as she seems to be growing.  Maybe she only has one kid inside of her.  Joon and Jersey both look like they'll have twins.  Our little Snowdrop was bred on the Winter Soltice Dec. 21, so she'll be later than everyone else and will kid in May.

We have 30 chickens right now, 27 hens and 3 roosters, the two young roosters were hatched out by Henrietta last Fall.  They began to crow a month ago, which is our signal that we need to process them and into the freezer they'll go.  This is just part of farm life.  An interesting tidbit of chicken information came to me last summer while I was at a small animal swap meet, I  met a woman who told me how to tell by the shape of an egg whether it would be a rooster or hen.  If the egg is long and pointy it is a rooster, short, squat and round it is a hen.  I'll be trying it this year with the setting hens, ideally I only want them to hatch out hens, so, this will be an interesting experiment to try this year.  I'm also planning to set up my egg selling stand in about a week.  We're up to 9-14 eggs per day and will be increasing as the days lengthen.

A week ago my fruit trees arrived from Raintree Nursery, I heeled them in right away and have been planting one or two per day.  Over the next 10 days I'll be pruning the apple and pear trees, as well as spreading compost on all the fruit trees.  It involves hauling wheelbarrow load after wheelbarrow load to each tree.  I also enlisted my husband to help me dig and plant a large old lilac that I wanted in a new bed.   I've been scrambling to move plants that need to be moved while they're still dormant.  Most are berry bushes that are getting huge and outgrowing the vegetable garden where I originally planted them.  I moved the Aronia berry bush, two Serviceberry bushes, a Highbush Cranberry shrub and I still need to move the Elderberry, it has turned into a tree!  I'm also moving out all the raspberries that had to be in there because of the deer, and forming to large rows behind the garden.  I have a lot of raspberries to move while they're still dormant.  Everything is beginning to show signs of life, thus the scramble. 

As you know a couple weeks ago we went from 12 rabbits, down to 4 in one day.  Our feed bill went way down, not that rabbits eat all that much, but when they're growing they have large appetites, which is normal of any young animal.  I was cleaning cages every other day, now I'm doing them once per week.  Right now I have 3 American Chinchilla's, 2 does and 1 buck, and 1 Champagne d' Argent doe.  A couple weeks ago I contacted a friend who I know that raises Champagnes and asked her if she had any bucks, or would she consider a breeding for Hazel.  She offered for me to buy a mature buck and doe, both pedigreed with cages.  We're going to look at them this weekend.  That would round out my rabbitry, with both breeds, and give me a couple extra large cages.  Then for each breed I'd have 2 mature does and one buck, all of them pedigreed except one, Serendipity.  I'm planning to start their breeding year this weekend, for kits due the first of April.  I'm also planning to set up a website just for my rabbits to help sell them, and will be joining both clubs and the American Heritage Livestock Breeds Conservancy, which has American Chinchilla's on the critical list.  Once I'm on the list people can find me to buy breeding stock. 

It's been an unusually mild winter for us, we did have snow on the ground for several weeks in January, but we do every year.  I know there's still a possibility of snow in March, but I'm hoping we're on the way to Spring!  

Little Monkey Lamancha

Who Me? You think I'm mischievous! 
Yes, you miss Zolena are the little monkey who plays with every gate latch, letting chickens and the other goats out to romp where you're not supposed to be if I forget for a minute to double latch the gate. When I find you, I can see you laugh, then run and leap with joy at your cleverness.  Running up to me you say "Hi Mom, we're all out and by the way the blueberry bushes are yummy, I'm helping you prune them!"
Sigh...I still love you though.

A Golden Romance

Last Friday I went to pick up Ace in the morning to bring him home for the day to hang out, it was a day of romance for Summer who was in full heat.   In the photo above you can see her flagging her tale and standing for him.   Ace was so excited to see her, he remembered her from a year and a half ago when we first bred them.  Back then we got them together 5 or 6 times, every couple days until it worked on day 14, and we only got in one breeding.  This time around we planned the visit to be in the good range of successful breeding, it was day 15, they got in two breeding's, one in the morning and one in the late afternoon, I felt lucky we only needed to get them together once this time.  During this time I'm there at a distance keeping a close eye on them, as soon as they connect, I make sure Summer stands still the 15-20 minutes they're tied, this is important for the safety of the male. 

Pictured below is Ace meeting Jesu for the first time, Father and Son, they loved playing for several hours in the middle of the day while Summer napped.  Josie wanted to get out and play with her Dad too but had to see him through the pasture fence because she was also in heat.  My Goldens will cycle the same time every year, the first week of February they go into heat until the end of the month, then again the first week of August until the end of the month.  Those 3 weeks we are extra careful with them, I'm thankful for our fences at times like these to keep roaming dogs out. 

Ace and Jesu, Father and Son, meeting for the first time!
Come the week of April 21 we should have puppies, the average pregnancy for dogs is 58-64 days.  Amazing isn't it, just 2 months is all it takes for them.  From our last breeding, our first ever, we had four puppies.  We kept two, one went as a pick of the litter for Ace's owner's, and one went to a good friend.  From that breeding we've had inquires from people wanting puppies, a neighbor of ours wants one, the other's puppies neighbors, and people who've taken our number down when my husband has taken them into town in the truck.  We let them know when our next planned breeding would be, it's nice to have people that we know or who will stay in touch with us be able to adopt our puppies.

By the end of the day both Summer and Ace were happy and tired.  The picture below is right before I took Ace home, if they could hold hands I know they'd be holding each other's hand as they walked together in the field!   

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Rabbit Fur Tanning

I am both surprised and amazed by my successful first attempts at rabbit fur tanning.  So far I have finished tanning 5 of the 8 furs that I have, and will work on the remaining 3 over the next few days.  The furs are turning out simply gorgeous!  I am excited because they have turned out better than I ever imagined they would.  I sure do have a whole new appreciation for the contribution of rabbits and their many benefits on the homestead.  Each rabbit produced about three and a half to four pounds of meat, we put about 27 pounds in the freezer, and now these beautiful furs!

Tanning is one part of the process, and now the fun part will be making some new things.  I want to make a hat first, then my husband wants me to make him one, we're both excited to try them out.  With one of the black furs I'm going to make a purse, and from there I'll see what is left, perhaps a pair of mittens or a scarf. 

After a week of soaking in a 5 gallon bucket of tanning solution, I pulled the furs out and washed and rinsed each one and proceeded to flesh them while sitting by the fire.  It took me about a half hour per hide and the thin layer of flesh and tissues would almost come off in one piece, with touch up around the edges.  I spent 4 hours one day and did all 8 of them, boy did my fingers hurt after that. 

The furs went back into the tanning solution for another week, then I pulled out three to start drying, a good idea is to lay them out to dry the night before you want to work them.  The furs need to dry slowly, when they're ready to start stretching and working you will see white patches, you can then begin to pull softly in different directions.  You can pull and stretch the furs carefully over the edge of a chair, over your knee or any other firm soft surface, you will begin to see how it stretches.  I had some tears occur both during the fleshing and stretching part on a few of the edges, you will notice the soft parts on the sides, the middle is thicker and stronger.  The idea is to get the hide to turn all white, as your pull it in different directions it turns white and softens. 

The rabbit fur tanning method I used is the sulfuric acid formula (battery acid is diluted sulfuric acid).  There are many sites that talk about tanning furs with this method, and I originally saw it in a book called , Raising Small Livestock, by Jerry Belanger.  Here's a great rabbit site that I found and they have written out the process to tan furs, Rise and Shine Rabbitry.    The furs turn out nice and soft with this method.  I was impressed with the size of the furs of the American Chinchilla's, they stretch and get bigger as you work them, it took about one and a half to two hours per fur to work them fully.  I worked them throughout the day at different times, I spent time to make sure each one was soft and supple.

An interesting thing that I'm experimenting with is tanning the leg part on the hide (pictured below), I left it on all the furs, thinking I may use it for the drawstring on the hat, I will turn it right side out, so it has the fur showing.  I'm not sure if I'll use it in my design, but left it on just in case it works for creating something.  I have looked at a hat design on one of my daughters hats, and will cut the pieces out to fit the size of my head, then baste it all together first to make sure the fit is just right before a final sewing.  I'm going to try and use my sewing machine for the final sewing, but may have to do some parts by hand.   
All in all it takes about two weeks of sitting in tanning solution, and a couple hours of work to tan a fur, you'll have some sore fingers, but in the end a luxurious fur to create truly one of a kind things.  It's also one more way to give honor to the remarkable rabbits that we raise, and to use every part they provide us with.  They truly are one of the best all around small livestock animals, I now know why people for hundreds of years have liked raising rabbits, they have simply loved both their meat and fur! 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Fruit Tree Order

This time of year one of my rituals is pouring over my Raintree catalog and marking the varieties of fruit trees I already have, and making lists and circling the trees I want this year.  I'll spend many days at various times stopping to look and read the fruit descriptions again in the catalog.  I'll cross check pollination charts and ripening orders, inevitably I'll change my mind a half dozen times, and some will simply get put onto next years list.  The final cut is usually made the night before I place my order.  By the time it's placed the catalog is worn and dog eared, marked up with the order form filled out, items scratched, notes made, shipping and tax calculated, and the total added up. 

Every year when asked what I want for my birthday, even though it's already known, I let it be know again, yes, I want fruit trees.  My birthday was last week, so I got a little money to indulge.  February and March are all about fruit trees and berry bushes in my gardening year.  I've tried to place an order every year since 2006, and have ordered everything from their berry bushes and fruit trees to their nut trees and my grafting supplies.  One year, rather than order from the catalog we made the drive down to Raintree Nursery which is about 4 hours away.  It was fun to pick out our order in person, and see all their trees and edible landscape surrounding their greenhouses.

This year the apple tree I picked out is call a "Kingston Black", it is a cider apple, and one I originally bought back in 2006, unfortunately it is also one the deer got and so I wanted to try again .  I have a "Foxwelp" cider apple tree and have plans to yearly increase my cider orchard.  I also ordered more grafting supplies that I needed, some Doc Farwell's Seal and Heal, for sealing the grafts,  grafting bands, and permanent labels.  This year I'll be using some rootstock for grafting that I've grown over the last three years, and will be taking cuttings of scion wood over the next couple weeks.

If you're new to fruit trees, the charts throughout the catalog really help with correct pollinization and choosing varieties that bloom at the same time to cross pollinate each other.  You may want to plant an early, mid, and late season variety for each type of fruit to extend your season. There are fruit ripening order charts, along with ones that tells you the size the tree will reach at maturity.  As I research the pages and make decisions about what to plant where, and next to who, I can spend countess hours dreaming of the orchard while sitting by the fire in the middle of winter.
This month is the time of year I prune the apple, and pear trees, I wait to prune the plum and Asian pear until it warms up and the buds swell.  This is the also the month for gathering scion wood, labeling, and storing it in the refrigerator for the next month or two until you're ready to graft onto rootstock.  You can buy all the grafting supplies right through the catalog, even rootstock for all different types of fruit trees.

The European Pear I got this year is called "Orcas"  it will cross pollinate with one I got several years ago called Rescue.  I will plant them close enough to pollinate each other.

After much deliberation I decided this year to get one of each type of fruit tree, and focused on the one's I needed for pollination.  Asian pears do well in the Northwest and so last year I bought one called "Chojuro" and this year I got one called "Atago".  Asian pears are crisp and crunchy and will last most of the winter in storage.
I'm planning to plant the dog pasture with  4 cherry trees.  I already have one that I planted several years ago called "Black Gold", and this year I got one called "Hartland".  I'm making sure they won't block any sunlight on the rest of the orchard, because they will get big.  We have one now that my husband planted 25 years ago and it is so big the birds get the cherries.  I'm going to try to keep these trees pruned with branches low enough to harvest with a ladder.

The plum variety I picked this year is called "Kirk's Blue"  it's an English plum and is considered to be one of the best tasting plums there is.  It is a mid season ripener, I got it to cross pollinate with a plum I got last year called "Early Laxton", they are both English plums.  I have 4 types of Japaneses plums that I planted back in 2006, and they began producing last year.  They are "Shiro", "Methley", "Beauty", and "Hollywood".  One type I was going back and forth on getting this year is the Mirabelle plums, varieties like "Nancy" and "Metz" make a wonderful plum brandy.  Like my husband says, plum anything we love!!  Plums like our climate and do unbelievable well here. 
At some point I'm going to have loads of fruit, along with many varieties for grafting new trees as well.  One of my goals is to have enough organic produce to help my children when they have families.  With the price of quality organic produce it makes sense if you have the room, to take the time to plant fruit trees and take care of them.    Feeding the trees with good compost and mulch, learning to prune them for fruit production, and learning to preserve the harvest will be a small yearly investment.  In time that investment will pay great rewards with fruit to eat, store, can, and make into delicious fruit juices, wines and eau di vie's.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Rabbit Harvest

We raise American Chinchilla and Champagne d' Argent rabbits, they are both meat and fur breeds of rabbits. It was inevitable that we would have meat and fur to harvest at some point.  Much as I'd like to just have rabbits as pets and sell their offspring for a little side money, economically speaking it only pencils if you sell them between 8-12 weeks of age, then you haven't put a lot of money into feeding them quite yet.  I went through so much rabbit food the last couple months that even I had to admit, at a certain point, it would be wiser for us to keep them in-house and enjoy the product rather than sell them.  Over the holidays I advertised them on Craigslist and sold a few, but realized it wasn't the best time to sell rabbits, the Spring, Summer, and early Fall are the best.  These two litters of rabbits were a little over 4 months old, they were not pedigreed rabbits like I will have this year.  We had a litter of purebred American Chinchilla's and a litter of half Champagne and half mini rex's.  I didn't realize the latter were not purebred until they had almost completed their growing and they didn't reach full size.   

After 2 weeks of agonizing over what to do I finally made a decision that we would do it (the night before I had a moment of madness and thought maybe I'd just let them all go free into the pasture...seriously, I thought about it) I also contemplated that if I didn't have it in me to do it, we'd just get out of rabbits all together.   But, last weekend I finally got up the courage to not feed them for the required 24 hours, then it was time...Ready or Not!  Thankfully my husband (who has as soft a heart as me with regard to animals) took the job seriously to assist me in the first part.  He used a gun for step one and a chisel and mallet for step two removing the head, and from that point on I did all the rest.   All of this was done with respect and reverence for each animal and the sacrifice they were making for us, may they be a blessing to us and may we show respect for them by using every part, including the fur.

This was not one of the  high points on this farm, but was a necessary lesson for me to know and understand the cost to feed and raise rabbits, you will have an abundance of them as a breeder.  The first one was hard on me, then I was committed and we did two batches of 4.  Once I got into the intricacy of cutting and processing them I went into a mode that is almost trance-like it is such detail work.  I saved the heart, kidneys, and liver, and of course the furs.  There was a considerable amount of meat on each one and I couldn't believe how heavy they were to lift them up and string them onto the limb for skinning.  Rabbits are considered the easiest animal on a farm to process.  I also did extensive research on curing the furs, the health and nutritional value of the meat, and what I could make with the furs once cured.  These are all different topics I will be writing more on. 

Now that I have a freezer full of delicious rabbit meat I am going to have fun trying some new recipes, the day after it all I made an absolutely delicious rabbit stew that lasted us several meals (Tessa wouldn't eat it) she has no intention of eating rabbit, but the rest of us are all thrilled to have some good fresh meat.  I baked the rabbit just like a chicken then proceeded with deboning and making the stock (boil the bones and carcass along with carrots, onions, and celery) for approximately 4 to 5 hours, this is where I included the heart, kidneys, and liver, I figured that would be a good way to get the nutrition of them into the soup.  Once I strained the stock, I added more carrots, onions, celery and potatoes from the garden.  I added the deboned meat 20 minutes before it was finished. 

The next meal I'm planning at the request of Jarin and Kaley is a rabbit pot pie.  The health benefits of rabbit are amazing, there is a high ratio of calcium and phosphorous, along with vitamins and minerals.  It is one of the highest protein meats with the lowest fat, it's easily digested and can be used just like chicken.  In many parts of the world rabbit is a gourmet meal, and served at the finest restaurants. 

The method I used to cure the furs is the sulfuric acid method.  Sulfuric acid is found in battery acid which is diluted sulfuric acid, it's easy to find and inexpensive.  It takes away some of the chore of fleshing the hides and it sounds easier than brain tanning.  I still have another week of it sitting in the tanning solution so we'll see how they turn out.  Here's a great tutorial and how I'm tanning the 8 furs that I have, Tanning rabbit furs

What will I make with the furs?  I'm planning to make myself a hat first to experiment, then I want to make mittens, a throw pillow, and maybe even a vest.  Looking online I found many cool things to make. 

The overall value of each product from a rabbit is worth raising them, from their compost to their meat and fur, as well as the ease of housing and feeding them.  They are right up there with chickens for their valuable contributions.