May 30, 2012

5 things not to do with your pet angora rabbit

This is a very difficult post to write - that's why I've put it off for a while.

Our little French Angora bunny, Mr. Hodge, died a couple of weeks ago.

The night before I'd caught him and put him in the chicken house (like usual).  He seemed to be just fine.  I kissed his head and set him down in the hay, and after evening chores, came in and told Marmy that "it was like a storybook putting the animals away... all of the young hens were already in the house bedding down for the night and peeping sweetly; I put Mr. Hodge down, and he just snuggled down and went to sleep."

Me and Mr. Hodge
The next morning, when I was out training my little cousin to do the chicken chores, I opened the house and to my horror, Mr. Hodge was stretched out and not breathing.  When I picked him up, my suspicious were confirmed.  He wasn't just sick.  He was gone.

I didn't realize just how attached I was to the little bunny until that point.  I even cried.  I haven't cried about an animal dying since my younger sister's dog died several years ago -- and that was more out of pity for my sister.

I immediately went on a hunt for the reason.  He had enough water.  He wasn't hen pecked or anything awful.  He wasn't bloated and he didn't look diseased (though, I admit, at the time I knew next to nothing about rabbit disease).  He had plenty of pellets and water available to him.  It was warm, but not that warm... our rabbits hadn't ever struggled with the heat in the past - especially as low as the 90s!

Could it possibly be his breed?  We'd never had an "Angora" rabbit before.  His fur did seem a little long to do well in South East Texas heat and humidity.  But my brother had purchased him from a local feed store and they never said anything about him needing special care.

I was assured by my dear mother that it wasn't my fault.  But I had a sneaking suspicion that there was something, something wrong.  I felt sick to my stomach - he was currently my responsibility and I knew that somehow I neglected his care.

So, then, I began to research... and I discovered:

5 Things NOT to Do with Your Pet Angora Rabbit

#1 - Don't think "it's just another rabbit".
We like to buy a rabbit or two in the Spring.  We've lost every one of our rabbits to one extraordinary thing or another.  Our first two were released when we had to evacuate during a hurricane.  Another one got loose and ran away and his brother stopped eating or allowing us to hold him shortly thereafter - we think he died of loneliness.  The rabbit right before Mr. Hodge was chased and killed by a visiting dog who went into instinct mode before his owner could stop him.  

But our rabbits have never died mysteriously (except for the one whose brother ran away) and have always seemed to do well on a diet of rabbit pellets from the local feed store and a regular hutch under the shade of a tree. 

All of our previous rabbits were meat breeds.  We didn't raise them for that purpose - we just enjoyed having them as pets and using their compost in the garden.  But these short-haired, big-eared, easy-to-find-hares seemed to do just peachy in our little yard on the coast of south east Texas.

However, all to late, I discovered that Angoras aren't meat rabbits produced by breeders who are keeping in mind the outdoor conditions those rabbits are likely to face in our hot and humid Summers.

Angora rabbits have been bred for a specific purpose: to produce Angora Wool.

Softer than cashmere, seven times warmer than sheep wool and arguably able to retain dye colors longer than any other fiber known, Angora Wool is a fiber sought after by spinners and yarn artists for it's significantly high quality and notable halo.  I was researching Etsy, and I found that 1 oz. of this fluffy white shedding can cost a pretty penny.  A skein of hand spun white Angora yarn was listed for $57!

The Angora rabbits that produce thick and unbelievably fluffy coats of this beautiful wool require a lot of special care.

#2 - Don't expose him to Texas heat.
We don't typically worry about our rabbits in the heat until we start bumping the 100s.  Then we take measures like providing frozen water bottles and making sure the hutch is in full shade and positioned carefully to take the most advantage of coastal winds.  When blustering temperatures begin threatening to reach 110°, we bring them into laundry room or bathroom.

However, Angora rabbits are particularly susceptible to heat.  Angoras, as internal heat producers, are happiest when kept in temperatures around 65°.  I was researching and read that they can be negatively affected by "extreme heat".  I clicked the link and learned that Angora rabbits can easily die if the temperatures reach a mere 92°.  If I wasn't so horrified, I would have laughed.  92° is nothing for our area -- considered "cooler temperatures" in the dead of Summer.  I checked archived weather reports for the week Mr. Hodge died -- 93°, both the morning I found him and the day before.

I felt awful.  My poor bunny probably died of heat exhaustion.  With a coat seven times warmer than sheep wool, he was probably miserable.

#3 - Don't be ignorant of potentially fatal diseases.
Another possible cause of Mr. Hodge's death was Wool Block, the No. 1 Killer in Angora Rabbits.  Bunnies groom themselves like a cat - they lick their coats.  Naturally, they end up ingesting the loose fur.  Unlike cats, however, rabbits do not have the ability to regurgitate hairballs.  Therefore, they can develop a condition known as Wool Block.

Because of their thick long coats, Angoras are especially susceptible to Wool Block.  The hair they swallow ends up tangling in their digestive system and cannot pass through, causing them to feel too full to eat.  Thus, they lose their appetite and might even stop drinking water.  If they are left untreated, they usually starve to death.  Isn't that terrible?!

It's highly possible that Mr. Hodge died from Wool Block.  I remember noticing, without too much concern, that the level of water in his bottle never seemed to go down and his pellets were often half-eaten.  I even tried to feed him some treats from the garden a couple of times and he didn't gobble them up like I was expecting.  I don't know why that didn't alarm me - I'd supposed he was getting enough nutrition from grazing, I guess.

Another important way to monitor your Angora's health and stay alert for symptoms of Wool Block is to begin "Marble Watching".  Betty Chu says --
"Droppings tell you the condition of the rabbit's health. Watching these marbles is another task for a conscientious breeder. If the droppings are round, moist, dark-brown and evenly large, the rabbit is in good health. If the droppings start to look like a "necklace", droppings being connected by strings of wool, you should pay more attention to the rabbit. If he is still eating the normal amount of feed and drinking normal amount of water, he probably is still healthy. If not, he may be blocked. If the droppings start to be of uneven size, some big and some small, irregularly shaped, with light color and a dry look, this is a sign of wool in the system. If the rabbit is not eating well, that provides further evidence he is blocked. If the rabbit stops eating, excretes few droppings, and these droppings look oily and gluey or totally dry, he may be near the end of the rope."
I wasn't monitoring Mr. Hodge's droppings at all.  While he did seem to lose his appetite toward the end of his short life, I cannot be sure that he was suffering from Wool Block.  But it's possible.  It also may have been a compounded problem: if wasn't drinking water because of the Wool Block, then he would have been even more susceptible to our heat.

Other important diseases to research before purchasing your own Angora include:
  • Ear Mites
  • Myxomatosis (carried by mosquitoes & rabbit fleas)
  • Rabbit Hemorrhagic Disease (calicivirus - a viral infection)
  • Snuffles (pasteurella multocida - a respiratory infection)
  • Coccidiosis (a parasite in the liver or intestine)
  • Enteritis (a potentially fatal condition caused by extreme diet changes)
  • Fly Strike (dirty tail-areas attract flies, which lay eggs, which hatch maggots, which burrow into the rabbit's tissues - awful, I know) 

#4 - Don't neglect grooming.
We had Mr. Hodge for several weeks and didn't groom him once.  We didn't know that it was important - even recommended!  Isn't that terrible?

Proper grooming is crucial to preventing Wool Block in Angoras, especially when they're molting.
 Mr. Hodge was probably molting - or getting close.  Every time I'd hold him, he always left hairy evidence behind.  When I'd run my fingers through his coat, I could easily pull out largish patches of fur.

Breeders and raisers recommend grooming your pet Angora regularly - even daily - to prevent loose wool from staying caught in their coat.  When rabbits bathe themselves, they end up ingesting what they've shed; just imagine what that means for a fluffy, long-haired Angora!  It is for this reason that Angora rabbits are particularly susceptible to Wool Block.

This is quite a commitment - but one that an Angora owner must take seriously.  (sad sigh)

Grooming tools:

a soft slicker brush (hard slicker brushes pull out more hair than necessary)
a flea comb
an apron (to keep your clothes from getting hairy!)
sharp round-tip scissors (to avoid nicking bunny's very thin skin!)
optional: a hair dryer (some who show their's invest in expensive pet blowers!)

Step-by-Step Grooming:
  1. Don your apron and catch your bunny.
  2. Some people begin grooming by blowing the loose hairs from their bunny's fur.  There are fancy-smancy expensive "pet blowers" out there - but often people substitute such a gizmo with a hair dryer set to LOW.  You don't want to dry out the bunny's skin and cause dander!  Those who show their rabbits choose to blow the loose fur out before grooming so their rabbit will lose less fur during the grooming process.  Angoras with denser fur usually receive a higher grade.
  3. It's time to brush! Speak calmly and sweetly to him as you cradle him like a baby, exposing his belly.
  4. Groom his belly and hind legs with the soft slicker brush.
  5. If the fur is matted:
    1. Hold the clump at the base of the skin.  Rabbit skin is very thin and surprisingly easy to damage.
    2. Snip into the mat very carefully with your, holding the scissors pointed away from your bunny to avoid injury.
    3. Try to gently pull apart the tangled mess with your hands.
    4. Hold the clump at the base of the skin again, and comb out what you can with the flea comb.
    5. As long hairs are being combed out at the base, you can carefully clip them. 
    6. Continue to repeat the above steps until the mat is thin enough to be cut out completely.
    7. If the mat is too close to the skin to make a safe cut - WAIT for it to grow out some.  Remember, if you nick the rabbit's thin, elastic skin, it will expand and create a larger wound.
  6. Lay him down on your lap, belly up, and tuck his ears gently between your knees.
  7. Groom his chest, front legs, neck and face with the soft slicker brush.
  8. Use the flea comb to groom his cheeks.
  9. Finish by setting him belly-down on your lap and grooming his sides and back.
Has your rabbit begun to loose large amounts of wool in the brush?  This is an indication of molting.  An Angora Rabbit will molt (shed his coat) three times a year -- that's every four months.  However, there are some exceptions to this rule.  For instance, German Angoras do not molt.

So, what do you do with a molting Angora?  Depends:
  1. Do you want to harvest the wool either for personal use or to sell to fiber artists?  Or,
  2. Do you just want to make your pet Angora comfortable... and dispose of all of the loose wool before it disposes of itself -- all over the house?! 
Some people keep Angora rabbits as house pets because of their sweet docile nature, and they don't care to commit to the intensive grooming one must do in order to keep the coat clean and mat free for harvesting.  

In an effort to reduce shedding and the risk of Wool Block, many times they will keep their pet Angora rabbit's coat clipped short.

This also keeps the rabbit cool, clean and comfortable while keeping grooming time minimal.

Click here to learn helpful tips on how to simply shear your Angora rabbit when you're not interested in preserving wool quality for harvesting.

However, unless I suspect any of my future Angoras are struggling with Wool Block, I don't think I'll ever employ the shearing method.

If I ever adopt another Angora, I will do so in hopes of harvesting his wool.  Premium Grade Angora Fiber has very specific attributes that make it... well... Premium.  One is that the hairs are of similar length.  If you shear your Angora rabbit, the wool will be composed of hairs of odd lengths.  

Properly Harvesting Premium Grade Angora Fiber:
  1. Premium Grade Angora Fiber is harvested from the back and sides of the rabbit where the fur is consistently 4 - 8" long. 
  2. During regular grooming sessions, I'm pretty sure you can harvest the fur on the brush from these areas and store them neatly.
  3. During the molt, some will brush and gently pluck the fur from the rabbit.  It doesn't hurt the rabbit at all -- it just helps the rabbit shed faster.  CAUTION: Only some breeds of Angora rabbits can be plucked.  For instance, German Angoras have been bred not to molt.  Therefore, to try to pluck your German Angora's wool could be very painful for him.  Before you attempt to pluck, make sure to research your breed -- and make sure your bunny is actually molting!
  4. It's important to note that Premium Grade Angora Fiber is mat free. 
There are more factors to insuring a harvest of Premium Grade wool, but these are the basics of proper grooming.

#5 - Don't just feed him pellets.
The routine has always been to run down to the local feed store and grab the first sack that had a picture of a rabbit on it.  Feeding the rabbits was just a matter of making sure that the metal feeder didn't go empty and the little crock didn't go dry.  Every once in a while we'd toss in some green stuff, replenish the hay with a bale of who-knows-what from the feed store and let the bunny take a little run around the yard.

Turns out, Angora's have special needs in this area too.  In fact, I've read numerous times that diet is the most crucial factor of maintaining good health in your Angora rabbit.

Of course, I was immediately concerned upon reading this.  Another way I failed in my care for Mr. Hodge.  So, I went on a hunt for "THE Recommended French Angora Diet".

Turns out, it's not that simple.  Breeders, owners and vets all have different ideas of what regimen is best for Angora Bunny health.  But they all seem to have a united opinion on this point: pellets alone are not enough to support good digestive health.

Which means this -- feeding your Angora Rabbit only pellets increases his chances for developing Wool Block.

Strike one hundred and three.

Here's how it works.  Commercial pellets do not have enough of the fiber roughage needed to help push any wool through the digestive system.  The wool collects over a period of time and just forms a big ball.  When water is ingested, the pellets swell and trap the wool in the stomach -- Wool Block.  A diet of pellets MUST be supplemented with a significant amount of fiber roughage to keep things moving.

The answer?

Breeders, raisers and vets unanimously recommend that your Angora rabbit must be fed quality hay -- and lots of it!  So, what is "quality hay"?

I've done a lot of reading, and I've consistently come across these names:

  • Timothy Hay - Many people recommend this hay and use it exclusively.  It is high in fiber and of superior quality.  It also seems to be a bit pricey as well.  I've read that the 2nd cutting is sweeter, more tender and definitely preferred by the pickier bunnies, but that it is also lower in fiber.  Many people chose to feed it to their picky rabbits with the idea that "a little fiber is better than no fiber".
  • Alfalfa Hay - While this hay doesn't provide all the fiber Angoras need, it is very high in protein, a benefit that some owners claim promotes long and lustrous fur growth.  However, I've seen the use of this hay disputed. Some use alfalfa hay exclusively.  Some only feed alfalfa hay to young or pregnant bunnies who benefit from the extra calcium and calories.  Others use only sparingly (or not at all) for various reasons.  
  • Oat hay & Grass hay - These hays provide the roughage needed to help prevent Wool Block.   

An Angora's access to hay should be unlimited.  But this can pose a problem for fiber artists - one qualification of Premium Grade Angora Fiber is that it doesn't contain any "Vegetable Matter" (VM).  Some fiber sellers claim that traces of "VM" is inevitable -- the wool is sourced from an animal.

Solutions to this problem include daily grooming to insure any VM is promptly removed,  as well as keeping the hay off the floor of the hutch.  Budget Bunny has a very frugal DIY tutorial for making your own hay keeper.

There are plenty of products designed to keep the hay nice and tidy...

What about rabbit pellets?

I've read a wide variety of opinions.  Pellets are included in most preferred diets for Angoras because it is a source of trace nutrients, vitamins and minerals that may not be provided with just a diet of hay and greens.  Some owners are adamant about not buying commercial pellets.  Some warn you to make sure that it's Timothy Hay based and not Alfalfa based.  Others just recommend going to the local feed store and purchasing a feed sack with 18% protein rabbit pellets.

Then there's the question of how much?  It depends on the breed and age.  Most people recommend 3/4 - 1 cup of pellets daily for French Angoras older than 6 months.  Younger bunnies can be given unlimited pellets to support their formative growth.  However, feeding an adult Angora unlimited pellets can cause problems such as obesity, as well as a loss of appetite for the hay that is so crucial to preventing Wool Block.

Dana Krempels, PhD., who seemed to lean more toward doing things as naturally as possible, recommended a unique diet for rabbits.  While not specifically focused on Angoras, she argues that rabbits only need 1/8 cup of pellets for every 5lbs. of bunny.  In addition to this, she recommends feeding adult rabbits at least four heaping cups of fresh veggies every day.  She says:
You may have heard it from a breeder, pet store owner, or even a veterinarian who is not as familiar with recent rabbit health information as one might hope: Fresh vegetables will give your rabbit "diarrhea." Nothing could be further from the truth than this old myth. In fact, fresh greens help keep intestinal contents hydrated, which makes them easier for the bunny to pass. Trace nutrients, fiber, and just plain old tastiness are other benefits of fresh greens. After all, what do you suppose wild rabbits eat?
Fresh, moist greens are about as important as hay in maintaining a healthy intestine. Try broccoli, dark leaf lettuces, kale, parsley, carrots (with tops!), endive, escarole, dill, basil, mint, cilantro, culantro, spinach, tomato, celery (cut up into 1" pieces, to avoid problems with the tough strings getting stuck on the molars!). Almost any green, leafy vegetable that's good for you (including fresh-grown garden herbs such as tarragon and various mints, with the exception of Pennyroyal) are good for a rabbit.
As confident as she seems, I would still balance this recommendation with multiple sites I've read which testify that some rabbits react adversely to too many greens in their diet.  Research and introduce this regimen gradually.  I will probably do something similar for my future rabbits.

Betty Chu has her own nutritious feed recipe designed to help prevent Wool Block:
~ 4 parts of l7% - l8% protein rabbit pellets,
~ l part of Calf-Manna + barley + milo + wheat + sunflower seed with shell,
~ l part of whole oats,
~ l part of 14% textured horse feed or sweet feed if your can find good fresh supply, otherwise skip.  
I feed each rabbit l/3 cup of the above mixture in the morning and l/3 cup in the evening.
Betty Chu also treats her bunnies to wild bird seed (yep - the stuff you can buy in Walmart!) occasionally to help their digestive health.

One owner recommends implementing a "Nuts & Berries Day" into your weekly feeding routine in order to help cleanse the digestive tract.  The idea is to take the bunny off of pellets one day a week and only feed him hay and foraged food such as herbs, oak leaves, apple twigs, seeds and weeds. You may want to visit The House Rabbit Society's list of common plants that are toxic to rabbits before foraging.

However, there is one warning I've come across consistently.  Don't be duped into buying expensive colorful mixed feed for your rabbit -- it's an unhealthy and unnatural diet.  Rabbit food looks nothing like gerbil or hamster food.  Rabbits have a very different digestive system.

Another common myth is that rabbits should primarily eat carrots.

Thanks Bugs.

But this isn't the case.  Carrots should be given as a treat, just like other fruits and roots that have a high sugar content.

As you can see, diet can be crucial to preventing Wool Block.  It is unanimously recommended that owners feed on a routine so they can watch to see whether their rabbit is eating.  Loss of appetite is a sign and symptom of the dreaded Wool Block, and catching it early can mean life or death for your bunny.

Three more ways to prevent Wool Block with a good diet:

  1. As before mentioned, hay is crucial to preventing Wool Block.  If your rabbit is not eating enough hay, owners recommend going the "tough love" route -- take away all other sources of food until he starts eating enough hay.
  2. Make sure your rabbit has unlimited access to water.  Some people use traditional water bottles - others use automatic watering systems or crocks.  Proper hydration is another key to Wool Block prevention.  Purchasing a salt lick will encourage your bunny to drink more water.  Also, consider serving greens wet for added water consumption.
  3. I've repeatedly read that dandelions are excellent for preventing Wool Block.  Go out to a field and harvest some for your rabbit.  One owner has a "Fresh Feed Pasture"; she dries and stores plenty of dandelion for off-season feeding.  

A diligent homesteader will understand that we have been given stewardship of God's creation - not to expend merely for short term gain, slothful neglect or selfish luxury.

We are warned:

"He also that is slothful in his work is brother to him that is a great waster."
(Proverbs 18:9)

We are commanded:

"Be thou diligent to know the state of thy flocks, and look well to thy herds."
(Proverbs 27:23)

We must understand:

"A righteous man regardeth the life of his beast: but the tender mercies of the wicked are cruel."
(Proverbs 12:10)

We must respect:

"Thou shalt not muzzle the ox when he treadeth out the corn"
(Deuteronomy 25:4)

I do not worship the creation... While I definitely regret his necessarily premature death, I do not grieve Mr. Hodge like I would the passing of one created in the image of God.  But I do take seriously my responsibility to be a good steward of God's creation.  We must use our backyard barnyard animals to further God's Kingdom -- and sometimes that means serving them to a hungry family for dinner.

Even so, we should have a Biblical Worldview of our animals and be sure to diligently understand, monitor, regard, and reward the creatures in our care -- because God commands it.

So, it is with these thoughts, that I consider purchasing another French Angora bunny.  With my parents' permission, I would like to raise him (or her) indoors, groom him frequently, watch him carefully and provide him an extra special diet.  I would harvest his wool and either invest in a spinner or sell the fiber online to help support his expenses.

I enjoy the idea of specifically having an indoor Angora rabbit because they do not usually cause allergies like other pets - which is great because I have issues with that.  They're also sweet, docile, and supposedly easy to house train.  I could toss his litter box refuse in the compost.  The more I consider it, the more I desire to bring home another fluffy friend.

I'd name him (or her) Mahiyr.  It's a Biblical Hebrew word that means "diligent".  It also sounds alot like a Hebrew name which means "enlightened".

Pretty neat, huh?

I'll miss Mr. Hodge a bunch - and I know I've learned a good many lessons from this.  I hope one day I'll have a chance to raise a French Angora into his twelfth year - providing him a happy and comfortable life.

So, what do you think? 
What kind of rabbit do you have, and how do you care for him?

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May 16, 2012

our very own backyard barnyard... at last!

...continuation of in this post...
The coffee sloshes gently as I change hands in order to pull the drapes that hide the sliding door. Joy floods as lacey curtains rustle out of the way to reveal blushing clouds against the deep violet hues of morning. Not enough light yet, I note, carelessly flipping the switch to the light in the outdoor room. I step out and it's warm enough to leave the blanket behind despite the crisp, sweet scented dew that's clinging to everything. I toss my Bible bag and it lands easy on the plush swing, and I go in again for my toast and honey. I am careful to move quietly in the kitchen, not wanting to disturb the family who still sleeps soundly, but as I step again out into the stillness I am free to sing out the hymn that had been stirring within since waking. The cardinal, the blue jay, and the mocking bird join in – all swooping down from the wooden fence to dance along the clothesline and among the branches of a nearby tree. The aroma of the coffee, the brilliant sunrise, the birds in harmony with my heartsong... everything about this moment seems to resonate the greeting: 'Arise, my child! Be still, for I am your God. This is the day that I have made. Rejoice, my child, and be glad in it!' My eyes begin to fill with tears of thanksgiving for the simple blessing of a glorious morning when... it happens.

Our rooster crows.

Red's old kennel had hardly been abandoned an hour before Daddy announced his plans of how to fill it.

“If Red doesn't come back by tomorrow, I want you to go get some chickens. That'll cheer Jasco right up.”

“Chickens?” I breathed. “Real chickens. In our yard?”

Daddy kinda chuckled and sent me a quizzical look. “That's what we've always said we'd do with his kennel, if we ever found Red another home.”

“I know – it's just. I never thought it would actually... you know... happen!”

My father laughed and put his hands in his pockets. “We oughtta get us a rabbit or two; keep the snakes away.”

My dreams were coming true – right then. We were going to have barnyard animals. We were going to have a real mini-homestead, complete with going out every morning to fetch eggs for breakfast. I could hardly believe it.

The next afternoon, my brother was impatient to get to the feed store. “A dozen chickens today, a herd of milk goats tomorrow!” The aspiring farmer exclaimed, catapulting himself onto my bed. “I wonder if I could get Philip to put my goat on a plane... I'd buy the ticket.”

I smiled from my desk, shaking my head at his incredible suggestion.

“I'll dig a small pond, and we can have ducks too! Duck eggs are good.”

“Mmm... the Dervaes are getting a lot of eggs from their ducks right now.” I offered in agreement.

“Oh – and I can breed rabbits. Those things sell for $25 a piece 'round here in the Spring time.”

“Sounds fantastic.” I answered, imagining a bustling maze of pens. “Too bad a milk cow wouldn't fit too!”

He grinned. “Someday. When we move out to our sheep farm, you can have your milk cow.”

We were both silent for a while, just thinking about how wonderful our backyard was about to become.

“Well, let's go get them!” He suddenly broke the silence, leaping to the floor.

"We have barnyard animals!"

Gracey is excited about the bunny.
It's pretty sad to look at the above photo, though.  Shortly after we purchased our animals, my brother was sitting my aunt and uncle's dog at our house, and this rabbit got out.  Instinctively, the hunt began... and ended in a victory for the dog.  We couldn't punish Scooter for doing what he was made to do... but we sure do miss our first baby bunny.  I don't think anyone told Gracey.  (See, canines are troublesome!)

Daddy does a quality check on the chick.
"What do you think, Dad?"
"Yep.... it's a chicken."
Ha ha!  That's Daddy!

10 Golden Sexlings
I'm hoping to get the chance soon to snap a picture of each of our soon-to-be-egg-laying hens (they're getting big, fast!) and name them all.  (Although, I have had some friends not recommend this, as eventually one or two are destined to be broilers, I'm sure.)  

My brother's already named the one all the way to the right, with the white wings and tail feathers.  Her name is "Ninja" because he testifies that the moves she does in her many escape attempts are pretty impressive!  

McCauley adds hay to the "barn" floor.
The kennel that my Dad and brother built for Red last year was the perfect range and his dog house became the "barn" and roost, both.  Not only good shelter from the wind and rain, but the doors Jasco added to the house also provided a place to put the chicks up at night until we were able to cover the range to protect our flock from the native owls and hawks.  Jasco and Daddy added chicken wire around the bottom of the chain link kennel to keep the tiny birds (and very talented bunny) from slipping out!

We have a rooster!!!
A friend is moving soon, so she blessed us by giving us two of her chickens: a Banty rooster named King, and a hen named Amber.  I don't know what breed Amber is... or how to figure it out.  Her eggs have a slightly blueish tint, but the only breed that lays blue eggs is Americana... but she looks nothing like the pictures on the internet... no crazy tufts near her ears!

This egg came from OUR backyard.
We're getting about an egg a day from Amber... although she laid two yesterday.  Delicious, fresh, huge, rich yard eggs.  Store bought eggs don't even come close!

McCauley holds Amber, our only mature egger (currently)
Thank you Amber!  Her reward is a daily walk through the garden, where she gets to hunt bugs to her little feathered-heart's delight!

Jasco and I having some good fun.
King is surprisingly very docile... a big contrast from the roosters in Alabama!  I was expecting to have to carry a stick to defend myself every time I did chores, like the kiddos do when they go around the territorial roosters at the Nelson's farm, but King doesn't scare me at all!  He'll even come when you call him (sometimes) and while he offers quite a chase when he doesn't decide to come, I'm not a bit afraid to gather him in my arms when I do finally get him in a corner!  I'm sure this is because our friend, "Aunt Cat", had coffee with him every morning... 

Oh, and I'm holding our new bunny!  It's an Angora... his fur is so long and soft.  Daddy's interested in the wool.  Jasco wants to breed them.  I'll post about the rabbit hutches and range he's building in the backyard soon.

Isn't he adorable?!
I'm notorious for not being a big fan of house pets, but I think I really like rabbits.  We have ours for the compost, and to help keep snakes away.  They're so sweet and mild (and quiet)... while this bunny is technically Jasco's (he bought it), I love to hold him to keep him tame, and I even got to name him Mr. Hodge, after one of my favorite theologians, A.A. Hodge. 

Gracey tries to feed the chickens weeds.
Everyone's pretty excited, but I think Gracey's the most thrilled of all.  Every day she goes on and on about the "bunny and chickens", and you should see the happy dance she does when you offer to let her come out and help do chores.  Precious. 

12 chickens and a bunny.  What a blessing.  That takes our "pet count" from the all-time low of one dog to an all-time high of 14 animals total.

Which will likely double as soon as Jasco gets permission to buy his breeding rabbits and egg-laying ducks.  He got on this shed-cleaning kick yesterday, convinced that we had enough room for a couple of milk goats.  Oh, and someone said something about tilapia.  

Guess we're getting as much farming experience in on this tiny plot of land as we can before we make the big move to the RV.  Preparing for a "real" homesteading life on the horizon?

Only the good Lord knows... isn't it such a blessing to be able to trust in His Sovereign plan?

Thank you for backyard barnyard, Abba.
And for waking me up to the rooster's crow this morning.  <3

Do you have a barnyard in your backyard?
Do you recognize the breed of our hen?

May 14, 2012

5 homesteading chores a 1 yr old can do

I just love it when my baby sister comes out to garden with me.

One of the most memorable days of the year thus far was the first Spring day that I brought Gracey out to train her to help me in the garden.  We planted pineapples out in the front landscaping and hauled fallen limbs and heaps of weeds to the backyard together.  Then we picked wildflowers to display on our kitchen table.  Sweet memories.

Since then she's come outside with me numerable times.  Each time, I've been trying to be diligent to think of ways to teach her to help and be productive while still making it a fun time for her.

And you know what?  

The more chores I add to her list, the more eager she is to don her little apron and come back out to help again.  Success!

I'm so excited about this because I'm a firm believer in the principle that the more industrious a person becomes, the more their sense of security and fulfillment will increase.

I want to bless my baby sister by encouraging her to be useful, constructive... industrious.  Starting now.

So, I've developed a list of 5 homesteading chores that my one-year-old sister can handle on her own - and I will strive to train her to cheerfully fulfill these chores day by day as we visit the garden together.  Each chore is actually very helpful to me, and doesn't slow down my work too much at all.  

Gracey has been a huge blessing to me in this area because she's helped me to be diligent to save the weeds instead of just chunking them over the fence like I had been in the habit of doing.  She simply grabs her red pail from the shed, follows me to the garden and holds the bucket out so I can have a convenient place to drop the weeds that I pull up.  While it's saving me time because I'm not having to continually switch positions to pile the weeds in one place, I do have to spend the difference training her to be attentive, patient and careful in her placement of the bucket.  I also try to be kind to her and be as focused and quick about weeding as possible so that she doesn't feel like she has to just stand around all day.  Her reward comes at the end when she gets to visit our backyard barnyard and feed the weeds to animals. 
"Here chickens!"

The same concept here applies to harvesting.  The other day she carried the little basket that we used to collect our Spring pea harvest.  I had to watch her carefully so that all of the pods made it safely to the kitchen and she didn't sling any out as she ran to proudly present that basket full of peas to Mama!

Caution:  After watching me weed once or twice, Gracey decided it looked fun to rip green things up. The result was a mildly damaged baby fig tree we have growing in a container in our garden.  I didn't scold her because how was she to know any better?  I used it as an opportunity to explain to her the difference between weeds and "good plants".  Then I told her to "be gentle" and "no touch" until she gets "bigger and bigger".  Remember that a toddler is not going to be able to remember and/or resist the temptation to copy your actions and "help" weed the garden, so never take your eyes off of them around the garden until you are confident that they have a solid understanding of careful weeding and harvesting.

We're big fans of mulch.  Gracey's is learning to be helpful here as well.  While her contribution to the effort isn't huge right now, I'm confident that as she grows and learns, she'll be able to help more and more.  As of right now, I just help her fill up her red pail with hay or wood chips and after gathering up a much larger quantity of mulch to carry myself, we head back out to the garden.  She just follows me right now and I do the mulching alone so as to protect the tender plants.  As I work, I make sure to talk to her about what I'm doing.  I know that right now she doesn't understand moisture retention, worm aeration, weed supression, etc., etc., but as we continue to discuss these concepts with her eventually she will begin to pick up a working knowledge of these things -- and at a much earlier age than I did, to boot!  It's also training me to be repetitive, teach in simple language and define words as I go.  Eventually, as she learns to be gentle, I'll begin to teach her how to mulch as well.  As she grows stronger, she'll be able to actually haul more considerable amounts of mulch with her wagon.

Gracey diligently puts away her pail.
Tip: I want to be diligent to help teach Gracey an important principle in work ethic: "the job isn't done until the tools are cleaned and put away where they go".  Obviously, this principle applies in almost every conceivable chore one can do, but I was reminded to teach her this when I gave her her own little red pail to use.  I make an effort to say this phrase aloud to her every time I instruct her to put her pail in the shed.  Right now she only understands the word "away", but eventually the repetition in saying the full phrase aloud will help her to memorize the principle.  When she gets older, I plan to have her recite it every time we finish chores.  I also have to remember to recite the phrase with a cheerful voice, so as to represent diligence as a blessed character trait - not a burdensome one.

We try to keep the ground clear of sticks to make mowing easier on the guys, and Gracey's assistance in this has been valuable.  

Initially, I trained her by bending down to her level and talking about "sticks" in a very excited and animated voice.  Then I began to point them out in the yard, repeating the word "stick" several times.  Naturally she began to look around in earnest to discover what wonderful thing I was talking about.  So then I walked her over to a branch that was large enough to be noticeable but small enough for Gracey to carry, and exclaimed "I found a stick! Here it is!" and picked it up.  I made a big deal out of it, repeating words like "here's a stick!", "pick up a stick!", "Gracey find a stick!".  I let her "hold the stick" and told her to "be careful!"  Then, "Gracey, I know!  Let's put the stick away!"  Of course, she got all excited at the prospect.  So I set her down and grabbed a branch of my own and dragged it to the pile that we have by the back fence.  She followed me with "Gracey's stick" and then I showed her how fun it was to "put the stick away, hurry!"  She cheered, "away!" and then threw her branch into the pile.  "Let's find another stick, Gracey, another stick to put away!"

That Helpful Tot!
Pretty soon, I was able to just walk through the yard with her, point to a branch and say, "Gracey, go put that stick away, hurry!"  She'd scamper over to drag the stick to the pile, and I was able to continue what I was doing, confident that she'd complete the chore.  However, I learned to be kind about how often I asked her to pick up sticks, because after a while it began to become tedious.  Eventually she'll need to learn to persevere through monotony, but because she's only a year old I don't think she's ready for that yet.  So I limit myself on how often I ask her to put a stick away, and I try to take some time to help her with Stick Patrol and remind her how fun it is. 

She hasn't only helped pick up random fallen sticks under the shade trees in our backyard, but she's also assisted McCauley in the front when she was pruning hedges by picking up afterwards and piling in the wheelbarrow, as well as helped Daddy and Jasco around the yard when they were cutting back branches.  

Caution:  Obviously, sticks can sometimes be dangerous.  Surprisingly, I haven't had the problem lately of Gracey trying to put them in her mouth and she doesn't seem to run wildly with them yet, but I'm watching for those things.  I don't like to be over-protective, but one year olds are only one year wise.  Just watch.  And make sure that they are safely out of the way of falling branches when they're helping with cutting and pruning. 

Toys, trash and other random objects seem to grow like weeds in our backyard.  This is a perfect chore for Gracey, and she seems to really enjoy it!  We help her bring her wagon outside and sing the same little ditty that we sing when we have her clean up her toys in the house: "away, away, go put your toys away!"  She'll often spot things to put up herself, but we do have to point out a lot of things to her.  I can see this exercise broadening her vocabulary as she learns the names of the objects we're helping her to spy out.  

Gracey carts her toys "home".
Then, when she's finished, I say: "go home!"  She loves this part.  She grabs her wagon and runs as fast as she can to the house.  We have an outdoor room you have to go through to get to the back door, and she's already had the chance to develop problem-solving skills as she worked to get her wagon through the screen door that's built to spring shut.  She was so determined this morning that even after her wagon had hit a rut, turned over and caught her dress on the handle, she patiently freed herself, turned the wagon upright and put all of the spilled items back in.
I was so proud of her diligence!  Even still, I watch for signs of frustration and then cheerfully bend down to help her if she's unable to get the wagon where she's trying to go or clean-up is getting tedious.  

I also make sure to help her to be diligent about emptying the articles of trash into the garbage can we have in our outdoor room, setting items on the table and then bringing her wagon full of toys all the way into the house.  This entire chore takes my assistance every step of the way, but it's only a matter of time before she'll be able to do it all by herself and we'll only have to watch to make sure she doesn't throw away any tools!

Last, but not least, there's the age-old farmer child chore.  It's also Gracey's favorite.  She's an animal lover and you should have seen her face light up the first time I suggested she crawl into the little hut that currently houses our twelve chickens and a rabbit.  She made herself right at home, snuggling next to the bunny, petting everything that would let her and chattering sweetly.  So I taught her to look in the hens' nests for eggs - saves me crawling half way in!  She loves to do this and while I can't yet stay in the kitchen while she skips out to gather breakfast, it's only a matter of time.  For now, I'm content to let my baby sister have the thrill of hunting for treasures in the hay and presenting them to me at the door of the roost.  And she's content just to spend time with the animals.  Win-win.
"Sissy, look! Egg!"

Caution: As proud as I am of her, I do have to admit that she is still only a year old.  We had to watch her very closely with the eggs because she still doesn't understand that it's not just an oddly-shaped ball.  This morning I heard, "one... two..." and I realized just in time that she was about to throw the egg to me on "three".  We are in the process of patiently teaching her to be very gentle and to hand them to us.  

There you have it!  Five homesteading chores that my one year old sister does every morning that I take her to the garden.  

I am confident that this chore routine will bear much fruit: not only in helping to train Gracey to be a big help to our homesteading endeavors in the future, but also in opportunities to help build Gracey's work ethic, to practice child training techniques while I'm in "mommy-college", and to cultivate a beautiful and mutually edifying relationship with my baby sister.

See?  Toddlers and gardening do mix!

What homesteading chores do

you have your toddler do?

Linkin' up to...

Homemaking Wednesdays @ Raising Homemakers

May 10, 2012

one troublesome hound dog

I slip out of bed at the crack of dawn and tip toe down the hall to start the coffee.  As it brews, I gather my Bible bag and a plush blanket, reveling in the quietness of the morning.  Favorite yellow and green mug, the sound of coffee pouring, the pulling of the blanket tighter 'round my shoulders. I move to the sliding glass that leads to the outdoor room, and ever so quietly pull it.  The sound of shifting tracks, sliding door opening slowly.  I step out, turning carefully to close it.  Bam!  I freeze and listen carefully, casting an anxious glance over my shoulder.  I can hear my heart thumping... but there's no movement.  A grateful sigh escapes my lips and I make my way to the swing.  Mug on table, careful now.  Laying Bible bag gently on the swing.  I inhale deeply.  One last thing.  I send another nervous glance before carefully situating my blanket and mustering up the courage.  I bend my knees and catch the swing with calculated movement.  Holding my breath, I slowly move to sit lightly on the swing and... it creaks.


My shoulders fall and I slump over with a groan.  

He heard me.

Melodramatic?  Perhaps.

But for two hours that morning (and every morning) my brother's hound dog, Red, barked.  And barked.  And barked some more.  Until I would get so fed up that I would march out to his kennel and sternly demand him to hush.  He'd cower, hop into his dog house and sulk.  Then he'd begin to whine.

"Red, hush!"  This time it wasn't me scolding - it was the neighbor.  Embarrassing.

More whining.  Then another series of barks until I got up to scold him again.

I couldn't do this every morning.

Then, I'd go out to the garden.  There were deep holes along the rows I just sowed.  Tender vines would be broken.  Seedlings would be squashed.  Containers would be missing.  And a very ugly pile of muck (or two) would be left to identify the canine culprit.

One time I found a six inch long bone under a tomato plant.  Not under the shade of the limbs, mind you... under the tomato plant.  As if I planted the bush right on top of the bone.  Only, I hadn't.


But I really couldn't blame the poor thing.  He was just a big puppy living in a tiny yard with hardly a chance to exercise.  My brother had been running him every morning before a surgery and some breathing difficulties rendered him unable to handle Red.  I had the mind one morning to run him for my brother and was pulled over before we even left the yard.  The dog was all energy with no outlet.  I honestly felt sorry for him.

Red's Hobby
But, that hardly made it easier not to resent the garbage strewn around the yard, the chewed up tools, the howling at the moon outside my window all night, the stench of his kennel right next to one of my compost piles.

He got out, once, while my brother was doing school and I went out to chase him.  He ran me through the neighborhood, through the yards of perfect strangers and into the woods before jumping a muddy ditch and galloping deep into the brush.  Out of breath, I managed to squeak out his name.  He stopped and came to the edge of the ditch.

The crazy dog literally grinned when I demanded he come to me.  Seriously.  And then he lopped off into the woods.  I was done chasing him.  Jasco would be finished with school in a couple of hours anyway.

Things went on this way for months.  A year.  Longer.

Jasco decided to find him another home.  Our yard was just too small for Red's size and energy.

Another episode of dug up raised beds caused me to voice my agreement.  More than once.

If Brittney scolded me over the phone for "being mean to animals" one more time, I was going to hang up on her.  That troublesome hound dog deserved every name I called it, and then some.
"How will you ever live on a farm with that attitude toward animals?"  Brittney would quip.
"Easy for you to say!" I'd exclaim. "You have mousing meat chickens and a milk cow!  Those animals are useful - and they don't get into your garden!"
"I guess that's true.  When the neighbor's dog dug up and bedded down my herbs last year, I thought I was going to strangle him."
"Told ya so."
My friend Jordanne Dervaes,
author of Barnyards and Backyards.
Note her useful pet chicken and the
undamaged nasturstiums in the background.
You inspire me, Jordanne!
After hanging up with my best friend, I'd wistfully visit Barnyards and Backyards, yearning for those hazy "someday" plans of selling Red and enclosing his kennel... filling it up with egg-laying hens, compost-producing rabbits and maybe even a milk-giving miniature goat or two.

I prayed Red would find himself another home quickly.

And, one day... he was gone.

Jasco went immediately out to search for him.  Red's running off was normal, and I almost didn't think a thing about it.  He'd come back before nightfall and all would be the same.

"He's not coming back."  Daddy said to me quietly as Jasco hopped the fence to search for him.

"What do you mean?"  I asked, trying to mask the hope in my voice.  "Did you do something with him?"

"No."  Daddy answered.  "I just have a feeling he's moved on.  Probably went and found himself a ranch.  He's a good dog - a family will take him in in a heartbeat."

Daddy was right.  He didn't come back.  Jasco was a little sad, but seemed a bit relieved.  Later, we talked about how Red was probably chasing rabbits through the fields of his new country home, taking in huge gulps of fresh air and vowing never to return to neighborhood life.  Jasco theorized about what nearby town he may have run to.

I breathed a genuine prayer of thanksgiving.  The troublesome hound dog was gone - I had a feeling he really had found a good home - and my brother wasn't hurt.

And, you know what?

I haven't even gotten to the best part of the story yet. be continued...

Have you ever had a troublesome pet?