Butchering Meat Rabbits

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!

Saturday’s soap workshop

soap-making workshop

After a number of mornings last week up at 4am to work on a new power-point presentation for soap-making, Saturday’s workshop went off without a hitch. I am relieved and ecstatic.

soap-making workshop
Chatting while stirring ingredients on the stove.

2 women came to the farm Saturday morning to learn a new skill. We began with a tour of the farm and apiary, I introduced the ladies to the chickens and turkeys─and Michael the goose─and then we ventured inside to make ourselves comfortable at the dinning room table to go through what I refer to as “the book-work”.

We covered the hows and whys of soap-making, I passed out handouts for the ladies to take back home with them and answered their questions before we moved on to actually making a batch of soap.

It was a very relaxed atmosphere and we chatted as we measured out ingredients, adding them to the kettle on the stove.

I offered up lunch while we waited for the temperatures of the oils and the lye to come in range of each other. It was nothing fancy─ham sandwiches with lettuce on oatmeal bread from the Apple Tree Firehouse Bakery in Madison. Simple fare on this simple farm.

We made blueberry scented soap and added some Indigo powder that I happened to have on hand. I hoped to make blue soap, but because some of the oils I use in my recipe are yellow, along with the yellow beeswax, Runamuk soap is very difficult to color. Anything I add to the batch to color the soap is affected by the naturally yellow coloring, and so on Saturday we ended up making green blueberry-scented beeswax soap. Oh well.

So that I would be able to show these women how to cut and stamp the soap too, I’d made a batch ahead, and I pulled the soap-loaves out onto the kitchen table and proceeded to demonstrate the process once or twice before handing over the soap cutter. As she sliced the bars off a soap-loaf, one of these ladies said that it was “a very satisfying feeling”, and she’s quite right.

I let each of my guests pick a bar of cured soap off the shelves in the soap-room, and I’m sure they left feeling equally satisfied with their time spent at Runamuk Acres. One of them even posted this on her facebook page yesterday: “Thank you so much Samantha Burns for opening up your kitchen for a soap making workshop. Runamuk Farm is lovely.”

I think that’s a good indication of a job well-done. I’m very pleased with the workshops in general. I like teaching and sharing knowledge and experience. I like the format I’ve set up here on the farm, and I hope to bring more people to the farm in the future─to make it a place of learning. Sure it was just two people, but it’s a great start and I’m happy with it.

Runamuk’s first-ever on-farm workshop!

Saturday’s “Beekeeping 101” workshop was a success and I am enamored–ecstatic–and relieved, lol.

Okay, so there was only one student–but she was a very important guest on the farm. This woman traded me the new group of birds–the 18 laying hens, 4 heritage breed turkeys, and a goose named Michael–for 2 spots in Runamuk workshops. She was Runamuk VIP while she was here.

Because the morning started out gray and wet, we sat inside the farmhouse at the kitchen table with my laptop and went through a few of the slide shows that I also use for the bee-schools I teach. Over coffee we talked about bees, about how the relationship between plants and pollinators came to exist, how bees communicate, their life cycle and the life of the colony.

I shared with my VIP one of the double-apple muffins I’d made the day before─made with apples brought home from the orchard and applesauce made from the apples of the tree just outside the front door of this very farmhouse. They were topped with cinnamon streusel and they were delicious !

We trekked out to the barn to look at and talk about some of the different hive parts and equipment that make up an apiary–she said hi to all of the birds–and we looked at protective gear and some of the tools that beekeepers use. I mixed in some of the stories of my experiences (read “mishaps”) that I’ve had along my beekeeping-journey and we shared some laughs.

Since I needed to get inside the hives anyway to check their status, I invited my pupil to join me in the apiary. We went through 3 hives under a bright blue sky and a warm sun and she got to experience the intoxicating aroma of beeswax and honey that hangs in the air around the hives; she listened to the mesmerizing buzzing of tens of thousands of busy bees and saw up close and personal the crawling fuzzy bodies on the frames of honeycomb.

I demonstrated how to fire up the smoker and talked about the importance of remembering to keep the thing going while you’re in the hive. We looked at the difference in the appearance of capped honey in the combs versus the capped brood, looked at a few drones and compared them to the smaller female workers, and she even got to see a couple of lovely Queens. She watched me manipulate the frames–moving frames of brood from the second story brood box to the first-floor box, and moving heavy frames of capped honey upstairs in preparation for the on-coming winter.

After we’d closed the hives back up and put away our tools and gear, we shared a simple lunch of ham and cheese sandwiches. We talked about pests and diseases–about the dreaded varroa mite and IPM. We discussed honey production and  concluded the workshop by going over fall and winter management of hives here in Maine.

With the workshop I decided to also give participants a paperback manual to take home with them, and after some debate and research, I settled on Storey’s Guide to Keeping Honeybees. I’ve always found Storey’s reference books to be excellent compilations of information and I have every confidence that these books will serve new beekeepers well. I also included a sheaf of handouts–many of the handouts I would normally give to students of my bee-schools; with information about the various breeds of honeybees, gardening for pollinators, and more.

My VIP student seemed happy with the experience. She remarked on the old farmhouse and the barn and our updates for the coop areas. She commented too on the amount of material and the work I’ve put into the various slide shows. I’m confident that she left a happy woman.

There are 3 people signed up for the upcoming soap-making workshop, and so far just 1 person signed up for the salve-making workshop. There’s still time to sign up if you or someone you know might be interested in learning these skills. Soaps and salves are fun to make, they’re useful products to have on hand, and also make great gifts.

I suppose I could be bummed that this workshop only had one student; but I’m not. Instead I look at the one-participant just as I’ve portrayed it here–one lucky person got to come to this farm and receive special treatment and my undivided attention, along with gaining a better understanding of bees and beekeeping in Maine. I couldn’t have taken a class of 6 to the apiary and torn not one, but 3 different hives apart─but I happen to have an extra suit and veil, so one person is a different story. It was an excellent dry-run for me and Runamuk and this old farm–and gave me a better understanding of how to manage future workshops here.

I’m brainstorming possibilities for future workshops here at Runamuk─any suggestions?

Splits & nuc-making workshop at the Runamuk Apiary

I am excited to announce that Runamuk will be hosting it’s first-ever workshop!

kennebec open-hive

Sunday, May 19th

11am – 3pm

Splits & Nuc-Making Workshop

This Sunday I will be leading local beekeepers to the Runamuk apiary at Medicine Hill for a workshop on how to make splits and nucleus colonies (otherwise known as “Nucs”).  My only regret is that the workshop cannot be held at the Runamuk farm, but there’s always next year.

The workshop is free and open to the public.  It is designed to teach beekeepers more about how to manage their colonies for swarm-prevention, and also how to make apiary increases through splits and nuc-making.

At the Somerset Beekeepers, we like to leave our meetings open to the public so that anyone who is curious about beekeeping has the opportunity to watch and learn.  That’s what we’re all about–education.  Education of area beekeepers, and education of the public about the benefits of bees and other pollinators.

We will be meeting at my home in Anson, and from there I will lead the way to Medicine Hill.  If you’re at all interested in participating feel free to shoot me off an email (runamuk acres at gmail dot com –all one word) to pre-register.