Hard Lessons

Your friendly neighborhood farmer has learned some hard lessons in animal husbandry over the past three weeks. Since I last posted, all of my ewes have delivered with varying degrees of success. Of the fifteen lambs born to Runamuk this season, two lambs perished, and I have two in the house at this very moment. All of the others are strong and healthy, growing just as they should, without care or concern. I invite you to join me on the farm now, as I share the story of this farm’s 2022 lambing season with all it’s highs and lows.

I Love My Finnsheep!

Let me start off by saying how much I love my Finnsheep! I thank my friend, Kamala Hahn at Johnny’s Selected Seeds, for indoctrinating me into the Finn fan-club. A hardy breed, originating from Finland, Finns are not the largest of sheep, making them easier to handle. Their wool is next-to-skin quality, oh-so-soft, in a wide variety of colors, and their meat is reknown for being some of the most flavorful lamb you can get. Finns are relatively easy keepers, friendly and personable, with lots of character. The ewes are generally good mothers, known for producing litters of multiple lambs without fuss. After two easy lambing seasons, I felt fairly confident as I came into my third year as flock-keeper.

Up til this year, my ewes had thrown only twins and single lambs. I was looking forward to a larger set, and hoped this would be the year. In that regard, I was not disappointed. On a Saturday night, two weeks back, one of my ewes by the name of Maleficent, gave me my first-ever set of triplets. An hour later, Fiona produced a whopping set of four lambs! The following morning upon waking, a visit to the Ewe-Shed found a third mum had produced a set of twins in the wee-hours of the morning. What a night! I was beside myself─overjoyed with the productivity of my flock.

Everyone looked good to this novice’s eyes. Mums all came through with flying colors. Babies were all in tact. Though the lambs of the litters of three and four were all very tiny, I’d had some smaller ewes produce very tiny lambs before, so I didn’t think much of it. I made sure each lamb got latched onto it’s mum’s teat for a good feed of the critically important colostrum, and checked on them frequently throughout the day.

This particular weekend happened to be the first in two years that my sweetheart, Deron, could not be with me for our regular visit due to a family crisis. Typically he spends Friday and Saturday nights at the farm. Then, on Sundays, I join him at his parent’s home for a family supper, then spend the night at his place in Solon. Since everyone seemed to be doing well, and with the lamb-cam to spy on any new deliveries, I caved to my longing to spend just one night with my huny. I left the farm late that Sunday afternoon.

Hard Lessons

Of course I checked the lamb-cam while I was off the farm that Sunday evening─repeatedly. I even woke periodically during the night, pulling the app up on my phone to make sure all was well. Unfortunately, with so many little lambs, it’s hard to see some of the finer details from a distance like that. It wasn’t until I was back on the farm the next morning that I realized one of Maleficent’s three babies was missing. I released the ewe from the confines of the lambing pen, and only two lambs tottered out after her. Where was the third???

I checked behind the water bucket, and under the hay-net, to see if the poor thing had gotten trapped there. No lamb. Panic welled in my throat─where could it be? What could have happened?

When I spied a telltale tuft of white fuzz peeking above the litter of the lambing pen, I felt sick to my stomach. What had I done?

The ewes will often kick up the bedding material in the shed, and in their lambing pens too, to make a sort of nest for themselves to lay in. This tiny, little lamb had gotten buried in the litter. Whether or not it was intentional on Maleficent’s part, I cannot say. Sometimes, ewes will reject a lamb if there is something wrong with it, or if they feel instinctively that they cannot provide for that mouth. Even if the lamb was destined to be rejected by her mum, I feel fairly certain that if I had been on the farm to check on the lambs in person, I could have at least saved it to be a bottle baby.

To make matters worse, another of Maleficent’s babies took a chill that night. Concerned, and not wanting to lose any more precious babies, I corralled the ewe back into a lambing pen with her two remaining lambs. Thanks to my two previous “easy seasons”, though I diligently monitored the situation, I did not recognize the danger the poor fellow was in. He was nursing periodically, but sleeping more and more. The following morning when I went out at sunrise, the lamb lay sprawled, all but lifeless, on the floor of the lambing pen.

Near to tears with the shame of my failures, I immediately took the lamb into the house. I made every attempt to rescue him, but it was already too late. He slipped away from us. It took a few days before Maleficent finally stopped crying for her lost babies, her eyes pleading with me to return her lambs to her.

Maleficent and her remaining baby are doing well now.

I know that it’s entirely possible those two lambs might have been doomed with or without me, yet the pain of those losses lingers in my heart. I blame myself. You can be sure, the hard lessons those two babies taught me will not be forgotten. Larger litters of multiple lambs are a wonderful thing, but just as triplets and quadruplets born to humans, multiples of sheep are so much smaller and frailer than a single baby, or even twins. They require much more diligence from the farmer. Finnsheep may be fantastic mothers, but that many mouths are harder for them to keep track of. Perhaps most importantly, newborns require my vigilance for the first forty-eight hours─minimum. I can’t be caving to the longings of my heart for the nearness of my boyfriend. No matter how sweet he is to me, nor how much I miss him. Farmers do not have that privilege.

Rejected

It was a little over a week following the loss of Maleficent’s two babies that my last ewe finally went into labor. “Baby” was last year’s bottle baby, whom I never really gave a name. Laughingly, I tell people that she was named after the main character from the movie Dirty Dancing (“nobody puts Baby in the corner”), but the truth is─she was my baby, and I’ve just always called her Baby, lol. She is a very small ewe, from a very small mother. I hadn’t intended for her to be bred, but I guess my ram had other ideas…

I worried about Baby’s birthing prospects, and stayed with her through the entire ordeal. Indeed, she did struggle to bring forth the single lamb she carried. It was a long labor, and the lamb’s legs were not in the right position. Once the little guy had emerged, Baby was less than impressed. It was hard to watch as she head-butted the tiny lamb, pawing at him with her front hooves, and attempting to cover him over with the litter at the bottom of the lambing pen. I toweled him off and tried to get Baby to allow the newborn to suckle at her teats. Unfortunately, Baby wanted no part of this creature that had caused her so much pain and difficulty. She was still very young, and not ready to be a mother.

The shenanigans start at an early age…

Fearing for the lamb’s life, I made the call to take the rejected lamb from the ewe. I refused to allow another lamb to perish on my watch. For the last week and a half, the little ram has been living inside the farmhouse. He eats from a bottle, and sleeps in a playpen I scored for $5 last year at the Embden Community Center’s thrift shop. After such an awful entrance into the world, I thought the little guy needed some kind of empowering name, so BraeTek dubbed him “Big Man”. Mercifully, this little lamb is thriving under the care of his farmer.

Perks of the Job

Our young CSA member, Saffron (in pink), shares her farm with her friends.

One of the perks of the job is being able to share bits and pieces of farm-life with the public. Initially, the lamb was eating every two hours, so when I left the farm last Friday to make my CSA deliveries, I couldn’t just leave the infant at home alone. I put him on a towel in a wooden apple crate and placed him on the passenger seat of my Subaru. He traveled that way, making the Madison-Solon loop with me, pausing at Deron’s long enough to feed him another bottle before we continued on to Harmony to make our final delivery. On our way back to New Portland, I stopped by the Solon Corner Store to pick up some weekend provisions. Reluctant to leave Big Man alone in the car, I tucked the four-day old lamb under an arm, and took him into the store with me.

My friend, Trin, finds spending time with the lambs to be very healing.

Since Deron’s home is located in Solon, I am frequently in and out of the Solon Corner Store when I go to visit my sweetie. The clerks there have come to recognize me, and know something of my farm. They all knew I’d been welcoming new lambs to the farm, yet these ladies fairly melted at the sight of Big Man! I wish I could have gotten it on video to share with you.

Heedless of the other customers waiting to check out, Gayle came around from behind the counter to get a closer look. I placed that bundle of legs and wool in her arms for a few moments, allowing the cashier to gush over the lamb. She brought him close for a handful of other shoppers to pet him, before relinquishing Big Man back to my care. Needless to say, there was quite a line behind me once I’d finally checked out with my things, lol. And then Gayle offered to carry my bags out for me hahaha!

No one complained though…it’s not every day you get to see a teeny tiny baby lamb in the grocery store.

Quasimodo

It was the day following the grocery store scene that I realized something was not right with one of Fiona’s quadruplets. Again, with so many mouths to feed, it’s harder for the ewes to care for their offspring appropriately. Concerned about the runt of the litter, who was all hunched over and pitiful looking, I’d taken to bottle feeding him in the Ewe-Shed. Over the course of the week, I was trucking out there several times a day with a bottle for the lamb I called Quasimodo, the hunchback of Runamuk Acres (I know─not funny, but funny. What can I say, lol, I have a perverse sense of humor.). I had hoped that the bottle feedings would bring an improvement in the little guy. Unfortunately, on that Saturday morning Quasi was looking particularly cold and pathetic, so I made the calldecided to bring him inside for some extra attention.

That’s when I realized just how much Quasimodo struggles to move around. I did some research and found that sometimes babies of large litters can be born with under-developed hind legs. This can be due to a nutrient deficiency, or because of the cramped quarters in-utero. I believe that is what is going on in Quasimodo’s case, and have given him a selenium/vitamin E supplement, as well as an injection of vitamin B. Though I have seen some improvement, and overall he is content enough to keep Big Man company here inside the farmhouse, it will take time and exercise for his muscles to develop properly─if at all. Another of Mother Nature’s hard lessons in animal husbandry this year.

New Donate Button!

Pan, the Lamb.

On a completely separate note, I would like to take this opportunity to point out to followers the new Donate button in my website’s sidebar. I’ve fielded a number of requests for a Wish List on Runamuk’s website. Folks want to know what it is we are needing here, so they can donate items if they have something they’re no longer using that might help our cause. I have had one listed, but it’s rather buried amid the other pages listed on the drop-down menu under the “About Us” tab. This Donate button will now take visitors directly to that page. Woot woot!

Donations have come to Runamuk in many forms─monetary donations, yes, but also donations of materials, equipment, and supplies. I’ve even had folks volunteer their time and energy to lend a hand on the farm for a day. I also barter for the things we need, trading farm-goods at a fair market value for the item being traded to the farm. There is a PayPal button on that page for those who are able and inclined to donate funds to this farm, but donations come in many forms, and cash is not the only means of greasing the wheels here. Every donation makes a big difference in this mother-and-son driven farm. I am always grateful for every gift or trade, small or large, because they allow me to keep doing what I do─nourishing and educating my family, and my community. That’s what it’s all about, my friends.

The Life of a Farmer

Mother Nature is a beautiful─but sometimes ruthless─mistress. With these hard lessons, She’s reminded me this year that it does not do to grow complacent in Her presence. As a farmer, I must always be vigilant for the lives I am responsible for: human, plant or animal, vertebrate or invertebrate, fungal or microbial, wild or domesticated. This is the life I have chosen to live─the life of a farmer. While there are certainly a great many blessings to be thankful for, there are equally as many burdens associated with it, and I must bear them. Come hell or high water, this farm must thrive.

Thank you for following along with the journey of this female-farmer! It is truly my privilege to be able to live this life, serve my family and community, and to protect wildlife through agricultural conservation. Check back soon for more updates from the farm, and be sure to follow @RunamukAcres on Instagram or Facebook! Much love to you and yours, my friends!

Runamuk’s First-Ever Lambing Season!

This was Runamuk’s first-ever lambing season, and I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to sheep-breeding. I’ve more than doubled the size of my flock this spring, going from 4 sheep to 10, my ideal flock-size. This means that next year Runamuk will be able to offer our grass-fed lamb-meat to local patrons. I am one happy farmer.

Lilian’s Birthing

While I’ve kept chickens and bees for well over a decade, I’ve never raised anything larger. Breeding and birthing critters is still new to this farmer. Since the fall of 2018, when a pair of Romneys were first donated to Runamuk, I’ve learned a tremendous amount about sheep. Like: they can (and will) jump a fence, how to treat bloat, and─consequently─how to prevent bloat in the first place lol.

Those donated romneys are no longer with me, but they spurred in me a love for ruminants and sheep in particular, and last spring I invested in a starter flock of finnsheep. The goal is to use the sheep for pasture management and soil remediation. With that comes the additional benefit of grass-fed meat to feed my own family, as well as other local households.

Aside from the sheep-shenanigans leading up to breeding season (for details on that story check out: Lilian’s Temper Tantrum) and difficulties keeping my rams separated from the ewes, my first-ever lambing season was a wonderful success. There were no calamities or disasters. I did not have to intervene in the birthing or resort to calling a vet. Everyone is happy and healthy here at Runamuk and that is a beautiful thing.

Making the decision to invest in an older ewe was a good move on my part, I think. Lilian was 2 years old last summer when I picked her out at Olde Haven Farm in Chelsea, Maine. She’d already been through a pregnancy and was a good mother to her previous lambs. Being a novice to sheep, I’d never been through the birthing process and it was my hope that Lilian’s experience would carry us all through it without any issues. And she did, too.

I watched my ewes growing broader around the middle, anxiously awaiting lambing-day (or night), and even installed a security camera to better monitor the situation. I dubbed it the “Lamb-Cam”.

Somehow the lambing still came as a surprise. It was March 17th, St. Patrick’s Day. My 13yo son, BraeTek, and I, had just settled onto the couch for a movie night. I used an app on my phone to check the security camera just as the movie was starting, and there it was! A tiny white squirming lamb that Lilian was busy cleaning! I showed the video to my son and then had to practically race him out to the sheep-shed, so eager to see this new addition was he that he could scarcely contain himself.

While we were there in the shed admiring the newborn, Lilian flopped herself down and gave birth to a second lamb. It was astounding to me that BraeTek was so ga-ga for the whole experience. I’d once teased him about his own birthing process, and he’d become so upset that he was nearly in tears because the thought of it was so utterly repulsive to him. His enthusiasm for the event was a precious thing for this farmer/mom.

Lilian gave birth that day to 1 male lamb, and 1 ewe lamb, which was exactly what I’d hoped for out of this breeding season. Of course I want more ewes, but I need enough rams too, that when I put one with the ewes for breeding, there’s not just one ram left all lonely by himself. Sheep are gregarious creatures and always need a buddy for company.

Lilian’s ram lamb: Hakurei Turnip-Head.
Lilian’s little ewe lamb made the front page of The Irregular newspaper in Kingfield!

Runamuk was also featured recently in the Irregular’s Spring Guide! Check out the article: Local Eating and Agriculture

Lucy’s Birthing

Because of her diminutive size, I had intended to wait til next year to breed Lucy. Mid-winter sheep-shenanigans, however, resulted in Lucy’s impregnation, and on May 5th she gave birth to a tiny, but very strong and healthy, ewe lamb. Thankfully there were no complications and everyone is doing fine.

Lucy and her tiny baby, Thumbellina.

Investment Lambs

Before I realized that Lucy was expecting, I’d sent part of this year’s tax return to Pam and Kelby Young at Olde Haven Farm for investment into another breeding ewe. My ideal flock size is a 10 sheep. 10 chosen breeders will live here at Runamuk. Every spring the flock will grow with lambing season, but every fall the extra animals will be turned into food. It may seem cold or harsh, but this is the reality of farm-life. I believe that 10 is a comfortable number for this small farm to support.

So when Olde Haven reached out to say that the lambs were ready, I gladly made my way southward to Chelsea, ME. Bringing new animals to the farm is always a treat.

This was my third visit to Olde Haven Farm for critters. Breeding stock is a big investment, and not to be taken lightly, I think. The animals at Olde Haven are high quality: happy, healthy, friendly, and they come from good people doing good work for their family and for their community. It makes me feel really good to support a fellow farmer.

Pam met me at the busy farmstand and led me to the backside of their farm’s property. The pastures at Olde Haven stretch out behind their high-tunnels, all surrounded by the Maine forest. The newly weaned lambs sprawled en masse in the shade under a tall tree, and Jack, the Great Pyrenees, monitored the situation. A trio of small lambs came crying to the fence at the sight of us.

“Can you tell which ones are the bottle-babies?” Pam asked.

Kelby joined us on-site, and I relayed my 3 specifications for this year’s investment: it needs to be a girl, needs to be friendly, and not too small. Coloring was less of a consideration now that I have a fairly well-rounded palette in my flock.

I really admire the way Pam and Kelby work together as a team to help me select the animal that will best meet my needs. They know their flock well, so they know who is more friendly, which lambs came from good mothers, and which ones will make good breeding stock.

At length we selected a sturdy white ewe lamb and tucked her into the dog crate I’d brought with me. Then, as we were preparing to depart, Kelby gestured to the little black bottle-fed lamb and asked, “Are you sure you don’t want one more?” I think he was seeking to reduce some of the burden on the farm-staff. Bottle-feeding babies is a huge time-commitment and Olde Haven is a diverse operation; the Youngs have a lot going on there.

Half-joking I retorted, “Is it free?” At this point in the season I’ve already made my annual farm-investments and the funds are not there for Runamuk to make any large purchases.

Kelby looked to his wife, Pam, “Fifty bucks?”

Pam agreed and so I gratefully accepted the animal. I would have to feed the lamb a bottle every morning and night for the next 3 weeks, but $50 for a breeding ewe was an offer I couldn’t turn down.

I managed to get outside the fence this time, making my departure, when those farmers petitioned me to take a third ewe. A little white lamb, another of the bottle-babies, was crying pitifully as I took the black lamb away─they were sisters. Pam and Kelby didn’t want to split them up, so of course I said yes. I came home that day with 3 new ewe lambs, paying just an additional $50 for the pair of bottle-fed lambs.

New ewe lamb: Fiona.
Bottle-babies Maleficent (left), and her sister Aurora (right).

First-Ever Lambing Season a Success

And just like that I now have 10 sheep in my flock!

It’s a relief to be able to say that Runamuk’s first-ever lambing season was a success. I’m not too proud to admit that I still have a lot to learn about sheep husbandry. However, there were no major calamities or tragedies, and for that, this farmer is extremely grateful.

Thanks for following along with the story of this female farmer! Be sure to subscribe by email to receive the latest posts directly to your inbox; OR follow us on Instagram for a behind-the-scenes glimpse at life on this bee-friendly Maine farm.

Fermenting Chicken Feed in Winter

fermenting chicken feed in winter

It’s going on 3 years now, that I’ve been fermenting chicken feed in winter. Each morning I take a bucket of “porridge” to the coop for the Runamuk laying flock. The ladies absolutely love the sloppy feed, and I like knowing that they’re getting the best diet I can give them─producing superior eggs for my customers.

Why Bother With Fermenting Chicken Feed in Winter?

Fermented foods provide our bodies with additional probiotics─good bacteria that aids in digestion, strengthens our immune systems, and supplies us with vitamins we otherwise might not get in our diets.

Chickens receive the same benefits from fermented feed: increased immunity to illness, improved health through a more efficent and effective digestive system, and there are some who claim that fermented feed can also result in an increased egg-weight and improved shell-resistance. And there’s most definitely a reduction in the feed bill.

Seeds and grains have developed inhibitors that protect the seed’s vital proteins, minerals and fats in an effort to make it to germination. Those mechanisms can actually block our body’s ability to absorb the nutrition we’ve given ourselves. Soaking the seeds and grains softens their hard exterior, and makes their nutrients more readily available; it enables the body to process them much more easily─more effectively. With fermented chicken feed you’ll actually be feeding your birds less─partly because the seeds and grains swell up significantly during the soaking and fermentation process, but also because their bodies are able to make the most of the food you’re giving them.

How Do I Do It?

fermenting chicken feed in winterI don’t have a particular recipe, but I’ve found that filling a 5gal bucket half full with grain (if you don’t have 65 birds to feed, I’m sure you could use a smaller bucket), and then adding warm water til the grain is just-covered, seems to work well. It’s important to keep the bucket in a warmish location for the fermentation to happen. Also, you may need to add more water (the grains will absorb a LOT of water!) or more grain to get the right consistency. It should look like slightly soupy porridge. Stir it at least once a day.

The mix will smell sweet and slightly sour when the fermentation process kicks in─like beer or a sour-dough starter. Once you get the bucket going, you can take some “porridge” out every morning. Then, just add more grain and water as needed to keep your fermentation bucket going continuously.

What Goes Into the Bucket?

whole grains via maine grainsI’m using whole grains in my fermentation bucket. I buy “bi-product” grains from Maine Grains in Skowhegan: $8.50/40lbs. They use only certified organic grains sourced from Maine farmers in their milling, so the bi-product is organic, but not certified. What I get depends on what they’ve been processing recently; sometimes I get oats or wheat berries, sometimes they have spelt available─other times it’s a mixture.

Note: If you have a grist-mill within an hour’s drive, find out what they do with their milling waste; it’s worth it to make the trek once a month to stock up on grains for your livestock.

You can do the same thing however, with any whole grain: corn, wheat, etc. so even if you go to Tractor Supply and buy a bag of cracked corn, you’ll be able to provide your flock with beneficial probiotics.

Q: Can I do it with commercial pellets?
You could ferment the commercial pellets, but I feel like there’s way more nutritional benefit with the whole grains. Also, I wouldn’t necessarily advise you to completely do away with your commercial feed in favor of the fermented feed. The commercial feeds are designed to include all of the vitamins and minerals that a chicken needs; without it, you’ll end up having to buy supplemental minerals to offer your flock in order to ensure their health. I’ve priced those through Fedco and they were too expensive for my budget, so I’ve opted to feed my flock the fermented grains, in addition to a certified-organic pellet or crumble.

 Happy, Healthy Hens

Some folks feed their flocks fermented grains all year long and there’s nothing wrong with that. Personally I only do it in the winter months, when the Runamuk layers can’t be on pasture and are restricted to the coop. That’s the time of year when this farmer sees the highest feed bills; it’s also the time of year when pathogens are most prevalent, so it makes sense to feed this food that is super-charged with vitamins and nutrients. By fermenting chicken feed in winter I can keep happy, healthy hens through the season til springtime, when the grasses and insects are once again available to supplement their diets.

It’s very satisfying to this farmer to maintain top-notch birds, and to be able to provide them with a really great quality of life, and that’s something that is hugely important to me when it comes to my livestock. But you don’t have to take my word for it! Try fermenting your own chicken feed this winter and see for yourself!

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fermenting chicken feed

The Chickens Have Landed!

runamuk chicken tractors

Just over 2 weeks since Closing and I was finally able to bring the chicken flock to the Hive House. There was an unexpected kink in my moving plans that delayed their arrival and sent me prematurely into a construction project that I hadn’t entirely prepared for. The ending result was a pair of twin chicken tractors and the Runamuk flock set up on the garden at our new #foreverfarm location.

chicken tractors on pasture
The finished product: twin chicken tractors housing a total of 55 birds on the garden site.

Change in Plans

It was the nature of this particular real estate transaction that I did not have the opportunity to walk the property at leisure with an analytical eye before I bought it. Up until the day I came to the Hive House as it’s new owner, all I had to go by to prepare Runamuk and my family for the move were the pictures from the real estate listing, and Google Earth images. It wasn’t until I could tour the facilities and the land on my own that I could really take stock of the property’s assets and weaknesses.

Originally the plan had been to convert one of the barn stalls into a winter coop-space that would house the flock until after the dust settled on the #GreatFarmMove when I could then construct moveable chicken tractors to get the birds out on pasture. I had hoped to just put up a few roosts and cut a pop-hole in the back wall of the barn that would lead the chickens into a fenced yard. This space would house them through the winter, with the addition of a hoop-house off the back of the building. However, when I surveyed the barn at length for the first time I realized that was not going to work.

What I found in that back corner stall were the remnants of a dairy trough, and above that-on three walls were broad shelves where the previous owners had housed various sporting gear. It would have been challenging for me to try to take down the shelving to put up roosts and nesting boxes, but the real clincher was what lay on the outside of the back corner of the barn.

The first issue was that the entire back wall of the barn had been sheathed in sheet metal; I would have to cut into it if I intended to have a pop-hole. Secondly, the bug shack is right off that corner of the barn, with a very lovely spruce tree growing alongside it─directly in the path of my would-be hoop-house. And 3rd: there’s a pop-up garage sitting flush alongside the back of the barn.

Looking around for a more suitable spot, I decided upon the lean-to on the garage as winter coop housing for the chickens. It’s not completely enclosed, but there’s a back wall and a good roof, with solid posts and beams supporting it. Formerly this space had housed the previous owner’s snowblower and yard equipment. That would be a bigger project than the chicken tractors however, and since I want to be able to house the chickens on pasture through the remainder of the season anyway, I opted to focus on those first so I could get the birds moved over as soon as possible.

The Chicken Tractor Project

There are many different styles of chicken tractor out there; Joel Salatin has had great success with his set up, and I really like the chicksaw concept, but with my preference to use PVC in construction John Suscovich’s system was easier to adapt to meet Runamuk’s needs. With that in mind I set out to create a chicken tractor that would be small and light enough that I could move it across the pasture on my own, provides a minimum of 50-feet of roost space for Runamuk’s 50 birds, which would also offer maximum amount of nesting space without weighing the overall structure down too much.

chicken tractor twin construction
To have a moveable coop that was both small enough that I could move it alone, and could also house the entire flock comfortably, I needed not one, but TWO coops.

Striving to keep the overall structure as light as possible, I used 2x4s for the frame, 2x3s for the vertical roost supports, and 1x3s for the horizontal roosts as well as for the framing on the nesting boxes.

Half-inch schedule 40 grey PVC (which I prefer because it is UV resistant and does not degrade in the sun as quickly as the white PCV) made up my hoops, and I covered the exterior with chick-wire that was fastened to the hoops with zip-ties or stapled to the wooden frame with a light-duty staple gun.

chicken tractor nesting boxes
Nesting boxes along the length of the coop on either side allows 14 feet of nesting space per coop.

The nesting boxes hang off the sides of the coop, made up of quarter-inch exterior sheathing and this lightweight but weather-resistant material I found in the garden and cut up to serve as a flap for easy egg-collection.

chicken tractor backside
I’m using one set of wheels between the 2 coops.

The ending result was a pair of twin hoop-coop style moveable chicken tractors, each with 14 feet of nesting space and 35 feet of roost space. With tires on the back end I can use my utility dolly to hook onto the front and roll the coop forward to a new location.

Lessons in Preparation

Normally I’m extremely fastidious about preparation when it comes to construction projects, dedicating plenty of time to designing a plan and supply list. This time I was caught by surprise. When I realized I was going to have to stop everything two-thirds of the way through my #GreatFarmMove to construct housing for the flock, I merely put a sketch on paper with some dimensions and jotted down a supply list along the side of the page.

As a result of my lack of planning, there were a couple things I had overlooked and when I had to run for more supplies it was a bit of a trek from my new location in New Portland to the nearest lumber yard or hardware store in Madison. Having to run for materials or parts eats up a lot of time when living so remotely, and the chicken tractor project was a valuable lesson in preparation for life at the Hive House.

learning to use a power saw
I am now proficient with my Ryobi power saw!

I also had to learn how to use a power saw. I’ve traditionally used a simple handsaw for most construction, and asked the man in my life to do any bigger cuts that required the use of power saws. Big whirling blades of death frighten me and I’ve avoided confronting those fears, preferring smaller power tools like my drill, and my weed-whacker. However this was a bigger project with a lot of cuts and I am the man in my life now, so I decided it was time to learn this skill. I started small, with a battery-powered ryobi circular saw─it’s probably the smallest and cutest circular saw out there lol─so it was less threatening than most saws.

The Chickens Have Landed at the Hive House!

The chicken tractors are finished now, and the chickens have landed at the hive house. I have just a few more car loads this week to finish up the moving and then I think I can start unpacking lol. It feels really great to have the work-spaces that Runamuk needs─so far I’ve assembled bee equipment in the barn, wrapped soap in the upstairs craft room, and celebrated with friends in the Bug Shack. I wake up each day eager to get to the work that this farm provides me, and I go to bed each night sore, but happy. I am focused on the task at hand: growing this farm and ensuring it’s longevity. Every day is an adventure, and life is good.

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5 Reasons To Raise Chickens

Chickens are often the first livestock to be added to a homestead and have been laughingly referred to as the gateway livestock. However the benefits of adding a flock of chickens to your backyard, homestead, or beginning farm, are no laughing matter. Chickens bring some serious good ju-ju with them and open the door to a number of opportunities for the sustainably inclined.

5 Five Reasons To Raise Chickens1. Improved soil condition & fertility

For a homesteader or farmer, one of the greatest benefits (aside from egg-production) of keeping chickens is the remarkable improvement to your soil. Wherever chickens go they’re forever scratching and digging as they hunt for food, pooping as they go. The poop is then worked into the soil via that same scratching and digging. Chickens are experts at mixing manure with mulch; they’re gas-free, noise-free tillers (and the noise they do make you won’t mind!), and they do a great job of cleaning up the garden after the growing season is done.

2. Pest and disease prevention

Chickens are natural foragers: they’re always on the hunt for spiders, ticks, beetles, grubs, worms, grasshoppers, etc. They’ll keep the pest population down for your family and your livestock by grazing on weeds and insects; homesteaders and farmers can take advantage of this by rotating chickens on pasture following other livestock to control fly and parasite problems.

3. Increased self-sufficiency & sustainability

raise chickens for sustainability
You can get started with chickens without too much investment.

With a minimal investment in time and money, chickens allow us to operate a closed-loop system for each and every household, homestead, or farm. Through the recycling of food and yard waste, we can keep more waste out of landfills; one city in Belgium even gave their residents chickens in an effort to save money on waste disposal! Not only can we produce our own eggs─but when the chickens begin to age we can put those birds in the freezer for meat and further reduce, possibly even eliminate our dependence on the industrialized food system.

 

4. Knowing how your food was produced

grow your own chicken for food
I keep my birds for 2 years as layers, then in the fall they go to freezer camp and become food to feed my family.

raise chickens for egg productionWhen you raise or grow your own food you have control over exactly what goes into producing that food. You’ll know what went into those eggs─whether it’s organic or non-GMO feed, whether those birds were kept in cages or raised on pasture─and you won’t feel guilty because you’ll know the quality of life your oven-roasted chicken had. You can raise your flock according your own specific priorities and adhere to your own unique principles in the production of your own food.

5. Income for your budding farm-business

raise chickens for farm income
The sales my farm makes from egg-production pays the feed bill for all of the critters on my farm.

If you’re a beginning farmer, or even just a homesteader looking to earn a little money on the side, adding chickens to your operation is a relatively quick and easy way to generate some income. Chickens require a minimal investment since you can house them in all sorts of creative ways to cut costs on infrastructure, and they require very little of your time each day to keep the birds healthy and happy. Many folks like to start with chicks which are cute and fluffy and cost about $3/bird, but if you’re willing to spend a little more money you could get established layers and an immediate source of income.

 

 

 

Open the gate!

Not everyone can grow their own vegetables or raise their own livestock for eggs or meat, but for those who not only have the space and time, but also the inclination to live and work toward a more sustainable lifestyle─chickens are the ideal place to start. Chickens really are the gateway livestock for the simple reason that they are the perfect first step for the new homesteader or beginning farmer. With their low-cost set up and easy maintenance chickens allow the farmer to learn as they grow, becoming comfortable handling livestock and becoming familiar with the ebb and flow of life in tandem with animals and nature. What’s more, in addition to the farm-fresh eggs are the added benefits of soil-conditioning, a ready source of fertilizer, pest and disease prevention, and when the birds have outlived their usefulness they become food for the farmer. Chickens are a no-brainer for the backyard and homestead, and an important cog in a diversified farming operation. I say open that gate!

Do you raise chickens too? What’s your favorite reason to keep them?

 

Mink!

mink-in-a-trap

WARNING: This post contains images that might be too graphic from some readers…

When I constructed my hoop-coop I neglected to protect the foundation of the coop from predators. With the Great Farm Move putting pressure on me to get the thing constructed and birds moved in, at the time I felt like I just didn’t have time to dig a ditch all the way around the base of the coop to lay wire mesh down. I said to myself, “I’ll come back, kick the birds out some morning after the move─when things settle down again─and knock it out.”

But I never made it back to that project. It was a mistake and the Runamuk flock has paid for it….

The oak forest at Paul’s place abounds with all sorts of wildlife who love to feed on the acorns dropped every fall. There are a plethora of rodents: squirrels, chipmunks, mice, rats─as well as deer and wild turkey. But where there are bountiful rodent life, there’s bound to be predators: weasels, owls, foxes, and coyotes. In early January we experienced the first in a series of raids on the ill-prepared chicken coop.

I was home at the time, in the house, and I could hear the raucous sounds of terrified chickens squawking in the dark of the night. With heart pounding I went out with my headlamp into the dark, calling Murphy to come with me. I wasn’t sure what I would meet, but I knew I had to go see what was causing all the commotion.

This is the site that met my eyes….

mink-killed-chicken
It looked as though he came in under the feeder, snatched one of the birds off her roost, and was in the process of trying to haul her fat carcass out under the coop when I arrived on the scene.

The creature had killed the bird─beheaded it─and was trying to haul the carcass out under the frame of the hoop-coop. It was still tugging on the dead bird when I got there and I moved the bird to glimpse a blackish face and beady eyes. And then he was gone.

I didn’t know what it was, but judging from the kill and the size of the hole the critter had dug, I guessed it might be some variety of weasel (we have several here in Maine).

predator-proofing-the-chicken-coop
We had a roll of 1×2-inch wire mesh on hand from a previous project, so Paul used that to beef up defenses in the coop.

In an attempt to protect the rest of the flock while we tried to catch the predator, Paul dug an 18-inch trench along that side of the coop and laid 1×2 wire mesh. Because the roosts run the length of the coop on the opposite side, it would have been much more difficult to lay mesh there, so we left it as it was and hoped for the best.

In the meanwhile we set up the havaheart trap and baited it with one of the dead and discarded chicken carcasses in hopes of catching the beast.

The wire mesh kept the “weasel” at bay for a while, but we could see a tunnel on the outside of the fencing which grew longer as the predator returned again and again digging to find a way in. One day while we were both away at our off-farm jobs, the “weasel” came back and went right in through the door that I had left open for ventilation. We lost another 2 birds that day.

Then─just last week─I returned home from Johnny’s to find utter carnage. At this point the predator had a tunnel running all the way around the perimeter of the coop, and he’d finally gained access. Post work-day critter checks revealed 4 dead birds and a hole that went under the frame which looked big enough that a bird could have been hauled out and away.

We were determined to catch the beast, so I scheduled to pick up an arsenal of rat-traps at Tractor Supply on my way home from work Tuesday. What a surprise while I was sitting in my cubicle when Paul (who was on the farm this day) sent me this image via text….

mink-in-a-trap
With a legs off one of the discarded chicken carcasses we were able to catch the predator in a havaheart trap.

I can’t tell you how elated I was to see that black face and those beady eyes! The weasel had been caught in the havaheart trap!

Before, when all we had was a black face and the aftermath to go on, we thought it was most likely a stoat weasel. But once we’d caught him it was clear that this predator was something else. He was too big to be a stoat, and he didn’t have the right coloring either. Research narrowed it down to mink.

Mink! Wow! I’ve lived in Maine all my life and had never seen a mink before. If it’s all the same, I’d rather not see one again either.

According to Maine laws governing wildlife, it’s legal to kill a nuisance animal such as this mink.

Except as provided in section 12404, the cultivator, owner, mortgagee or keeper of any orchard or growing crop, except all types of grasses, clover and grain fields, may take or kill wild animals or wild turkeys night or day when the wild animals or wild turkeys are located within the orchard or crop where substantial damage caused by the wild animal or wild turkey to the orchard or crop is occurring.

There are some exceptions to that law, such as bear, beaver, coyotes, deer and dogs. See the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife’s website for more on the laws regarding this subject.

I don’t believe in relocating nuisance animals because studies have found that those animals do not tend to fare well following relocation. It can be difficult for them to learn where to find food and shelter in this new location, often they have to fight existing inhabitants to reestablish themselves and many don’t make it. Personally, I feel it’s more humane to put the nuisance animal down.

That’s what we did with this mink. It’s not easy. Taking a life is never easy, and I know that this mink is only doing what minks do; I harbor no ill-feelings towards him. The blame for chickens lost falls squarely on my own shoulders. I should have taken the time to dig the ditch and lay the wire mesh; most likely it would have only taken a day’s worth of work.

We lost a total of 8 birds to the mink. This is the life of a farmer and homesteader and dealing with predators such as this mink is a natural part of that life. With winter winding down and the first day of spring just 11 days away, I’m thankful to still have the majority of the flock. I have replacement birds coming soon, and you can be sure that once the ground thaws this spring, action will be taken to modify the hoop-coop to defend the flock against such predators.

Have you ever had to deal with a weasel problem? Ever seen a mink in real life? Feel free to share your stories with us!

How to Build a Temporary Chicken Coop for a Maine Winter

Housing for the chickens was a big concern during Runamuk’s Great Farm Move. It had taken a full year to rebuild the Runamuk flock following my divorce, and I was up to nearly 90 birds in varying stages of production when I made the difficult decision to let go of Jim’s property in Starks. As we build up our apiary for honey production, selling eggs at the local farmers’ market has been a crucial stop-gap for Runamuk. Without honey we only have our beeswax soaps and salves available, but the rules of our market dictate that vendors can sell only a percentage of craft-items. So the eggs are important in order for my farm to continue to sell at the farmers’ market.

However, while Jim’s farm offered existing infrastructure─a huge asset in establishing a farm─Paul’s place does not. And with Paul busy trying to make the old mobile home there fit for habitation through the winter, he couldn’t spare the time to construct a coop for the birds. What was I going to do with my chickens?

I briefly considered selling and/or culling the entire flock; with the price of grain, selling eggs at $4 doesn’t really turn a profit. But again, not having eggs at market wasn’t really an option so I decided that it was imperative that at least half the flock make it through the move.

Enter the hoop-coop: a temporary chicken coop structure made from a hoop-house.

temporary-chicken-coop-for-winterWhat is a Hoop-House?

I’m a big fan of the hoop-structures: mini hoop-houses, low-tunnels, chicken tractors, cold-frames, high-tunnels─you name it! These are simple and inexpensive structures typically made up of a wooden frame, hooped EMT or plastic piping, and then covered with heavy greenhouse plastic. In many cases these are heated only by the sun and cooled by the wind.

diy-high-tunnel
Here are some of the high-tunnels at the Johnny’s Selected Seeds research farm in Albion, Maine.

hoop-house-how-to
Quick and dirty seedling hoop-house I made back in 2013 using rebar, PVC and 4mil contractor’s plastic.

A hoop-house allows the gardener or farmer to extend their growing season by 4 to 6 weeks in the spring and the fall, provides protection of crops from increment weather, and offers the ability to grow some superior crops. Here in the northeast many growers prefer to grow heat-loving crops inside their high-tunnels because they can keep more controlled conditions for high-revenue produce like tomatoes, peppers, squashes and melons.

Note: See my review of the Tufflite IV greenhouse film for more information about this useful tool for gardeners, homesteaders, and farmers!

Check out Runamuk’s Hoop-Coop in this video!

Features and Benefits of this Design

  • Simple construction
  • Can be built with hand-tools
  • Mostly a 1-person job
  • Relatively inexpensive to construct
  • Sheds snow well
  • Versatile structure for multiple uses
  • Space for 30-40 birds*
  • Tall enough to stand/work inside
  • Birds are under sunlight ALL DAY
  • Moveable**
  • Can attach other equipment to the wooden frame.

*The industry standard is 4 square-feet of space per bird, so I can fit 30 birds in this structure. In the winter however, here in Maine’s northern climate, farmers often crowd a few extra birds together for added warmth at night. I’ve had 37 birds in this coop since the move and so long as there has been adequate roosting space they seem to be fine.

This coop is moveable, however it’s rugged enough where most individuals aren’t going to be able to haul it off through the power of just their body. Probably 2-4 people could drag this coop across the ground, but I’m planning to sink some heavy duty eye-bolts into the base of the hoop-coop’s frame, and I could either use a sturdy rope or a tow-chain to hook it onto my Subaru and pull it where I want it─provided I can get my car to the desired location!

Constructing the Hoop-Coop

I constructed my temporary chicken coop in a series of phases; I’m pretty methodical when it comes to construction.

temporary-chicken-coop
I don’t have a truck at the moment, but Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Do what you can, where you’re at, right now.”

Phase 1:  I spent weeks leading up to the project researching to see what other farmers had done, and talking with my market peeps or colleagues at Johnny’s about the best way to do this. I put together a design that I liked and made up my materials list. Then I took myself off to Home Depot.

Phase 2:  The appointed day dawned and I set up early, putting my sawhorses in place and hauling out all of my equipment and materials. I’m very careful to measure twice before making any cuts, and I almost always pre-drill my screws. The frame of the coop, along with the hoops were all put together within a few hours.

hoop-house-infrastructure-beginning-farmersPhase 3:  I came back another day to put the door on. Framed in the ends and then added chicken wire.

Phase 4: I had to coordinate scheduling with Paul to get the plastic on over the top. Then I put plastic over the chicken wire to close it in for the winter.

putting-plastic-on-hoop-house
Here is the hoop-house chicken coop with plastic on.

Voila! Temporary chicken-coop durable enough to withstand a Maine winter!

For those who might like to construct their own hoop-coop I’ve created Free Chicken Coop Design Download for you! It has step-by-step instructions with plenty of pictures, a materials list with sourcing information. You’re welcome!

Problems Encountered During & Since Project Completion

Too Much Outside Input:

I have a lot of farming-friends and I asked many of them for their input as I was developing the design for my hoop-coop. I had so much advice that it was difficult for me to figure out which plan would work best for me-as a female farmer─and which method would best meet my skill level in construction. Ken and Kamala Hahn deserve special thanks for their input on the design of the hoop-coop; these farming friends even went so far as to send me pictures of their own temporary coop structure to help me formulate a design.

I really wanted to use the EMT metal conduit as they do in the construction of high-tunnels, but my friend Crymson Sullivan (aka – Krim) over at Sidehill Farm in Madison, reminded me that they use carriage bolts on those, and that there’s a lot of drilling and grinding when assembling the metal hoops of a high-tunnel to prevent sharp edges from cutting through the greenhouse film. He steered me in the grey electrical conduit, sharing that he has a buddy who uses the stuff to construct full-size high-tunnels for his operation, and since I already have an affinity for PVC-structures this option was right up my alley! Thanks Crym!

Extra Hands Needed for a Couple of Stages of Construction

Paul was busy finalizing necessities like plumbing in the trailer-homestead and time was of the essence so it was important that I complete this project on my own. I managed the frame and the hoops just fine, but when it came time to affix the supports for the door I found it tricky to put up the door frame alone. I strongly urge you to recruit another pair of hands to hold the 2x4s while you screw the bottom end to the frame of your structure. I did this by myself, but it was difficult to keep the 2×4 straight and upright with just one hand, while attempting to screw the 2×4 in place with the one other hand. The 2×4 wavered─I wavered─and I clonked myself in the head with the 2×4 so hard that I saw stars. Extra hands would have made this part a lot easier, but you don’t have to take my word for it!

Difficult to Protect Plastic From Chicken-Wire

Because this structure was initially intended for chickens I wrapped chicken wire around the lower third of the inside of the coop, and also used it to close in either end. We had to take extra care to cover the sharp ends of the chicken wire to protect the greenhouse film.

predator-proofing-modifications-hoop-house-chicken-coopPredator-Proofing Modifications Needed

One of the downsides to living in a forest of oak trees where nuts are abundant is that rodents are plentiful, and as a result, so are weasels. In hindsight, lining the bottom of the coop with the same 1×2 fencing material that I used for the fencing would have offered better protection from these chicken predators. Or I could have dug a trench all the way around the base of the coop and laid 1/2-inch wire mesh at least 12 inches down. As it was, we lost 3 birds and Paul spent an afternoon digging a deep trench inside the coop so that he could stretch a length of 1×2-inch wire mesh along the wall to keep out a determined weasel.

So far he has not been able to get back into the coop.

Hoop-Coop Does the Job!

egg-production-in-a-hoop-houseThere were a few hiccups along the way, but now that it’s done I’m very happy with my hoop-coop. The Runamuk flock are exposed to sunlight all day─as soon as the sun begins to lighten the sky, til the very end of the day when the darkness grows, my chickens are receiving 100% of the available light. I don’t need to add lights to stimulate their production and since I’m not going to market right now, I’m just allowing them to produce eggs at whatever rate comes naturally.

hoop-house-in-snowWe live in Maine. We experience serious winter conditions here. Just before New Years’ we received 18-inches of snow that put the hoop-coop to the test, followed by another good dose of snow a few days later and so far the coop remains standing there stolidly. It sheds the snow well, and as an added precaution we have a soft-bristled push-broom that we keep in the coop so that we can push up on the center of the coop-ceiling to make the snow slide off. Easy.

chicken-hoop-house
A deep layer of pine shavings and straw, mix with the chicken poo to create a mass of decomposing material that naturally lends heat to the coop.

The coop is warmed by the sun, in addition to the deep-litter bedding method we’re using, which generates additional heat as the decomposition process happens right beneath our feet. Even when it’s freeze-your-face-off cold outside, the chickens are relatively comfortable inside the sanctity of their hoop-coop. We’ve only turned on the heat lamp on the nights when temperatures are well below zero and we’ve had no frozen combs or wattles whatsoever.

Ventilation of the coop was a concern, but simply leaving the door open, or cracked─has (so far) provided sufficient ventilation for the birds and farmers.

A Great Asset

As we get closer to spring I have every intention of putting together another hoop-structure in order to have space for all the seedlings I’ll be growing for the 2017 growing season. The chickens will get moved from their current location and their winter hoop-coop will house my tomato plants this season. I envision yet another hoop-house for growing greens and carrots into the winter─just like Eliot Coleman, but on a smaller scale mainly meant to feed my family.

It cost me $310 to put this coop together. A third of that expense was in the greenhouse film, but I have enough of that left over to create several more such structures. I really see these hoop-structures as the key to the infrastructure issue many beginning farmers are coping with. Quick and easy to put together, with the biggest part of the expense in the tufflite greenhouse film, and able to be used for a wide variety of purposes on the farm or homestead. Cover it with a tarp instead and you’ve got a sheep-shed or a tool-shed. Hell, I’d even consider living in one if it meant I could continue farming!

Hoop-houses are a great asset, but you don’t have to take my word for it! Try it yourself!

Recommended Resources

Sam’s Hoop-Coop Step-by-Step Instructions – complimentary instructions for you to build your own versatile hoop-house structure for use as livestock shelter, growing space, or other creative uses on your farm or homestead.

Tufflite Greenhouse Film: Tuff Stuff! – Check out my review of the Tufflite IV greenhouse film.

Low-Cost, Versatile Hoop Houses – Mother Earth News

High Tunnels – a great pdf resource from the University of Vermont Center for Sustainable Agriculture.

Hoophouse & Quick hoops crops – Good information from GrowingforMarket.com listing the types of crops that perform best in hoop-house and season-extension conditions.

Winter Vegetables in Your Hoop House – more details about growing crops into the winter in your hoop-house. From Mother Earth News.

Make a Hoop-House to Extend Your Growing Season – via the HomesteadingHippy.com.

Butchering Meat Rabbits

**WARNING**
This article discusses the slaughtering and butchering of livestock.
The images below may not be appropriate for all audiences.

On principle I firmly believe that as a homesteader and farmer I need to know how to manage my livestock from beginning to end. When my chickens reach the end of their egg-laying life it only makes sense to me that those birds become dinner for my family. They’re not pets and they’re worth a lot more to me in the freezer then the few bucks I might make from the sale of an old ratty chicken. In all truth, those tough old hens have made some fine meals that have sustained my household through some tight financial times. I’ve come to rely on them for a source of meat.

butchering meat rabbits
Here are our bunnies on pasture. We’ve simply adapted a dog kennel to be utilized as a rabbit-tractor for the time being.

When my partner Paul came to Runamuk he brought with him a small group of meat rabbits: a buck and 3 does. Rabbits are new to me and we’re still working to perfect our systems for them. The concept is to house them in rabbit-tractors on pasture so provide the rabbits with a quality lifestyle, and in return we get their super-charged bunny-poop to fertilize and improve the soil, as well as the potential for meat to sustain our household. We haven’t successfully raised a litter yet for the freezer, but I want to know how to butcher them so that when the time comes I’ll be prepared.

As the summer winds down and we move into fall, many farmers are thinking about culling and thinning their flocks and herds. I have about a dozen older birds at Runamuk to process and get into the freezer before the move. At Hide & Go Peep Sonia had extra male bunnies that she did not need and did not want to continue feeding all winter; I had previously asked about the possibility of a tutorial so she seized the opportunity for this skill-sharing workshop and I made sure to clear my schedule.

So I took myself off to Hide & Go Peep with the knives and whetstones I have designated for processing critters, wearing grubby farm clothes that I did not care about getting blood and gore on. I met another of my market peeps at Sonia’s, along with one of our regular patrons of the Madison Farmers’ Market who had brought her son and a couple others who were interested in learning skills for a more sustainable living.

Setting Up a Work-Space

We started off by helping Sonia to prep the staging area, cleaning out a shed so that we could skin and gut the rabbits out of the sun. We sanitized all tables, equipment and knives to be used in the processing, sharpened knives and organized the space.

When everything was ready Sonia asked the group to suspend all conversation to avoid spooking and frightening the rabbit designated to be the “demo-dude”. Like most small organic farmers, Sonia strives to give her livestock the best possible life she can, she forms relationships with her critters, grows attached to them, and though we accept the fact that this is a necessary part of life and farming, it’s never an easy part and she wants their ending of life to be quick and humane.

Killing the Rabbit

Here’s where it gets tough.

Sonia cuddles the rabbit for a few moments, connecting with and calming the creature one last time. When she’s ready she crouches over the rabbit, using her knees and thighs to hold him in place since rabbits have strong hind legs and will kick and scratch. Then the rabbit is knocked unconscious using a hammer or other such blunt object. You could use a .22 gun if you had one. Immediately the rabbit’s throat is slit so that it bleeds out. Sonia recommends holding the rabbit in place until the final spasms and twitches are finished and the rabbit goes limp; this helps to keep the pelt clean and prevents bruising the meat or yourself.

Skin the Carcass

There are different ways to process rabbits. Sonia ties a slip knot at the ankles of the rabbit’s hind legs and suspends it for skinning.

learning to butcher rabbit
Here I am beginning to cut the hide along the inside of the rabbit’s leg.

To skin the rabbit we first cut through the skin all the way around the 4 ankles. Then cut a “V” along the inside of the rabbits’ hind legs with the center of the V meeting in the space between the anus and the tail. You have to work the hide away from the body using your hands. There’s a strong inclination for those new to skinning (like me) to want to use the knife to cut the skin away, but rabbits actually skin very easily just by using your fingers and hands to separate the hide from the carcass.

I was instructed to loosen the skin around the legs and tail then to cut that strip of hide between the anus and the tail. After that it’s very easy to pull the skin down over the body of the rabbit. It took quite a bit of muscle however to pull the skin off over the paws at the other end.

skinning rabbit
It wasn’t hard to pull the skin down over the carcass, but getting it over the paws required some muscle!

Remove the Innards

Once the skin was off we used sharp pruning shears to cut off the 4 feet and gutted the rabbit, which was easier than gutting a chicken (in my opinion) and reminded me very much of gutting a fish. You simply slice through the skin from sternum to crotch and scoop the insides out. Removing the anus was a little tricky and involved loosening the membranes around the bowels inside the pelvic bone.

how to butcher meat rabbits
Sonia demonstrated how to remove the bowels and anus from the rabbit carcass.

Apparently mammals differ from poultry in that there’s a distinct separation of the respiratory system from the digestive system by the diaphragm, so you have to pierce through that muscle lining to remove the lungs and heart.

Get it on Ice

Once the rabbit was skinned and gutted it was rinsed clean, bagged and put into the cooler to chill. Sonia stressed to our group that while we took our time with these rabbits, normally when she’s processing for customers she’s careful to keep all things clean, sanitize all surfaces, knives and equipment after each critter is processed, and she works quickly to get each carcass into the cooler as quickly as possible. These kinds of practices prevent contamination and ensures that bacteria does not have a chance to take hold in the meat so that no one gets sick.

It’s a Process

Jamie n her rabbit
Everyone was very proud of their new skills!

I admit I didn’t actually do the killing of any rabbits on this day. It’s not easy to take a life, even for most farmers and homesteaders. I had hoped I would be prepared to do the deed, but in the end I opted to watch, which was still difficult. I did however skin and gut a rabbit, so I’ve seen and experienced the entire process. I know now how it’s done and I’m confident that when the time comes I’ll be able to do it on my own.

These kinds of skillshare opportunities are a fantastic way for those who want to learn to connect with those who have the knowledge and experience to share. Sonia was gracious enough to invite a group of wannabes over to share with us what she has learned since she began keeping rabbis 5 years ago, and even sent us all home with a rabbit for dinner because she just did not need the meat.

Getting to know your local farmers is a great way to make friends and open the door to new and exciting opportunities. If you are a new or wannabe-homesteader or farmer, one of the best things you can do to increase your knowledge base is to get to know other homesteaders and farmers, ask questions and participate in the opportunities presented. Before you know it you’ll be up to your eyeballs in tomatoes to can, chickens to process for the freezer, and you’ll be throwing around terms like GMO and CSA like a pro!

There are more stories to come, so stay tuned folks!

Skunk situations

Imagine that you’ve finally settled down on the couch for the evening after a long day─I’ve been getting up at 4am to work on presentations for upcoming workshops before I head to the orchard. When I get home from work I usually try to spend another 2-3 hours working for Runamuk, so by 7pm I’m ready to chill for a bit before I crash for the night.

So I’ve just settled down on the couch when my partner comes running into the house telling me to “Come quick─there’s something in the garage!”

Instantly the new chicks in their brooder out in the garage came to mind and I leapt back up to investigate. All sorts of critters would love to sink their teeth into a defenseless baby chicken, but I have a sneaking suspicion that our local skunk is back.

We’ve had some dealings with this skunk earlier this summer, when I brought my chickens─including one broody hen with her clutch of 6 chicks─to this location. The chickens were housed in the hoop-coop with a welded-wire fence surrounding it, but this skunk managed to get past all our defenses to eat not only the chicken grain, but all of the chicks too.

He’s been across the street too, pestering the hives in the apiary. I know for a fact it’s him because when I went to put mouseguards onto the front of the hives the bees began boiling out of them angrily, and I was stung mercilessly. I noticed a defiant pile of skunk scat left in front of one hive, and we’ve seen his calling card in other locations around the farm too. He’s made himself very comfortable.

As we were standing in the relative safety of the mudroom and looking into the garage for any sign of the critter my partner described what he saw as “some kind of white caterpillar moving around over there”.

His description confirmed my suspicions, but I still did not SEE anything and I could hear the chicks peep-peeping across the way. Determined to protect lives and save my investment, I took a flashlight and padded in stocking-feet out into the garage. I shone the beam of light into all the possible hidding spots a skunk might use, glancing over plastic seedling pots, grow-trays, tools, my squash-harvest, the stack of firewood near the discarded woodstove that sits up against the back wall of the garage─right next to the space we have sectioned off with plywood and cardboard to create the chick brooder─and I see nothing.

Just as I was about to turn away, the gleam of white and black fur beneath the old woodstove caught my eye. There he was!

In an instant I knew what I had to do first. I snatched up the McMurray box, still laying nearby and I motioned for my partner to remain quiet and calm as I stepped carefully over the wall of the brooder (keep in mind that the skunk is just on the other side of the cardboard wall beneath the woodstove and any sudden noise or movement could startle the beast and possible cause him to spray inside the garage─or worse yet─ME!). I collected the chicks into the box as quietly and quickly as I could, and when they were all clustered together I took them in the house and closed the door behind us.

We set the chickens up in a large box in the house where a fire in the woodstove had already warmed the rooms, and once the birds were safe we went to see to the skunk.

Back in the garage the skunk had abandoned his spot beneath the defunct woodstove and after a few moments hunting, we realized he was upstairs in the room that sits above the garage─the room that I use for drying herbs and flowers.

It’s a very delicate process to scare a skunk out of a building without getting sprayed…but we began by removing any possible food sources from the garage. Belatedly we discovered that a bag of dog food had been torn into and a significant amount of kibble was missing; apparently this wasn’t his first visit to the garage.

Once all of the edibles had been removed to the house, we opened the door to the garage, shut the lights off and called it a night─hoping he would leave before sun-up.

During the summer we’ve typically left the garage door open during the day, closing it only when we go to bed at night. But we’ve decided with the shortening days, increasing cold, and now with these unwelcome skunk visits, it’s high time to keep the garage door closed!

This morning the skunk is gone from the garage, the chicks and my Runamuk-investment is safe, and we have the chance to improve conditions and prevail against this persistent pest. All is well on the farm.