Thursday, December 8, 2011

Visiting Michelle Chandler's Farm Pt. 1

This past Friday the lady of the house and I went to see Michelle Chandler's farm, ask a few questions, and see a successful homestead operation firsthand. While we were there the lady of the house took a good number of pictures, and we got to see more than just the rabbits, we also talked about the chickens and goats she had as well. In a lot of ways we found her farm to be a vision of where we wanted to be in a few years.

The rabbit in the picture is Bianca, an American White who is one of Michelle Chandler's breeders. She was a very solidly build animal, and substantially harder to keep calm as I held her than I expected given how calm she was for Michelle.

 First Impressions:
My first impression of the place the first time I went, and indeed it was repeated this visit was that from the front yard it for the most part appeared to be a normal house with some raised garden beds. Looking into the back yard you can see some of the animals, and the chicken run off in the woods bedside her yard is relatively clear when you're looking. Still, over all it looks like a fairly average rural home. Michelle welcomed us in, and explained that one of her goats was unwell, and that she was expecting the vet to be coming by to look at it. While we were there she was also dealing with normal life of being a parent as one of her children was home. The very normalcy of it was in some ways comforting to me, a reminder that just because one was raising animals didn't mean the total change of everything else about life. The lady of the house notes that one of her first impressions was that the place was clean and did not have the distinctive farm smell to it which had been one of our concerns. Also that Michelle's dogs were very cute.

The Rabbits:
Our expected focus of the visit was of course the rabbits given that Michelle is relatively well known for her rabbit breeding, and has at least one article written about her. The rabbits are also key in our homestead plans, and something we have put a lot of thought into. Being able to see a functioning operation and the health of the animals in it was important to us.

A group of Creme D'Argent juveniles that Michelle has growing up together. As you can see, they were very alert and interested in what was going on around them.

Michelle Chandler's operation has a variety of cages and cage sizes. I didn't bring a measuring tape to get specific measurements of the cages, but most of them were 2' by 3', and her preferred enclosures were 3' by 3'.  She also had a few substantially larger grow out cages. It made me appreciate how much room a rabbit actually needs to be healthy and happy, given that hers did indeed seem both healthy, and for the most part happy.

On the left, I believe is a Thrianta that Michelle Chandler is using to help work towards an American Red Rabbit, and on the right a Californian mother with one of her kits. We didn't manage to get any good pictures of one of her kits trying to jam itself under her to nurse much to the mother's annoyance.

Given our research and trying to find a good balance between production space, and happy living space for rabbits, I think that the 3' by 4' designs I have worked up will work quite well. Especially with a second level shelf. It did seem though that the smaller cages were sufficient for them to move around fairly well, even for mothers with a litter of kits. Something that the lady of the house thought of important for our goal is to introduce toys and other intellectual stimulation into the cages of our rabbits. Obviously as an idea that is still an in-process one, but stimulation seemed to be something we could introduce easily.

While we were there we asked about our idea of letting the rabbits out into the chicken run on an alternating schedule, and whether it sounded feasible. We were immediately confronted with what we had initially thought, which was that parasites and diseases from being around shared droppings would lead to a sick colony quickly. She instead suggested an alternative if we wanted for them to get out time and exercise space. She had used growing out cages modeled after, but distinctly different from the idea used by Polyface Farm. She showed us the approximately 4' by 4' movable enclosures she had with wire tops and bottoms that rabbits could get time out on grass to run around, and still be protected and secured. She freely admitted a few things she would have done differently, and gave us some ideas if we wanted to do something similar.

 This picture shows a black American Blue baby who was rather intensely curious about the camera, and leaping headlong from the cage to the ground. This particular baby made me appreciate that much like rats, rabbits are neither stupid, nor lacking in the enjoyment of playing games with their large keepers.

This is the mother of the American baby above. An alert and very solid mother, she watched us rather carefully, both before and after we handled some of her litter. The little one pictured there was a fosterling from a mother that had rejected her litter.

Edited To Correct: The single differently colored one is actually a singleton that Michelle had fostered because she was concerned about it being able to stay warm alone in the nest box alone.

On the left is an American buck who just moments before we had been told that he hadn't done major damage to the frame of the cage unlike a previous occupant. This is moment before he started chewing further into the already damaged corner of the cage around the door. The picture on the right is simply there because it is adorable.

Butchering and Health:
Baby rabbits are cute. Pure and simple, they are adorable, soft, with big ears, and huge eyes. With all of these juvenile mammal traits, added to being rabbits, they have the cute factor cranked up to 11. One of the concerns I came to this with was, how am I going to handle butchering the rabbits. In a lot of ways this is going to be on me to deal with, and the fact that the fryer age rabbits aren't as cute is going to make it a bit easier for me. The other thing is Michelle offered to teach us how to butcher, in fact when we were there she had instructed a few students from a sustainable agriculture class on how to butcher the day before. It was a bit disconcerting initially that she had a basket of rabbit heads and feet in the yard, but later on it actually became relevant.

One of the common ailments that is given as a reason to not keep rabbits solely on wire is sore hocks. In this ailment raw sores are rubbed in the feet of the rabbit causing it to be painful for the animal to move, and infection to set in. It is something one often reads about when looking into rabbit care, and Michelle offered to show us what it looked like. Instead of leading us towards either of her sets of rabbit cages, she led us over to the basket. She informed us that one of her favorites had gotten sore hocks so she had to cull him. While she was explaining this she sorted through the basket. "That's a front foot, a front foot, a back foot, there it is." And she showed us a long, wide rabbit foot with a sore in it. Given the size of it she must have caught the ailment very early on. She explained to us that she eliminated any rabbit from her breeding stock that got sore hocks, and through doing so was breeding for healthier rabbits that thrived on wire.

For me there were a few important things about this. One, she does have favorites. Indeed we found out during the tour so does at least one of her children. The second is that despite having favorites and indeed liking and enjoying her rabbits, she will cull them for the overall health of her colony and her stock. It is a mindset that we are going to have to come to accept and have I suspect. As animal lovers, the lady of the house and I will inevitably have favorites, and that is ok. We also just have to accept that sometimes for the health of our colony, they have to be culled.

Breeding Stock:
As we came to the end of the tour and visit with our many questions and observations of her operation, we arrived to the question of breeding stock. She asked what breeds we wanted to begin with, and explained that all of her rabbits were papered. Before we could even protest that papers weren't important to us --we aren't planning to show--she said that it was still important even if we just were intending to breed for meat. Ultimately, papers are important if we're ever considering selling any of the kits.  It makes a significant difference in value and usefulness to others, and it's possible we may want to show in the future. If we don't take the step of getting papered stock now, we will have to start over entirely in the future if we change our minds.

As for breeding stock, the only thing we knew was that we didn't want to have a buck that was bigger than the does for health reasons, and that we wanted a variety of breeds so we could get a feel for each. To that end we just asked her to give us her best advice. We agreed that she would be selling us a Cinnamon buck, and our does would be a Creme D'Argent, an American Blue that was black which is a show fault, but just fine for meat, and a Californian (see picture above). By doing that we get a good solid variety of meat breeds to evaluate the temperaments, and qualities of each for our own purposes. We are very lucky because she has some in right now that she is able to sell us, and she is willing to give us a little time while I finish the hutches so they can move in.

Chickens and Goats:
I had thought we'd be able to get all of the farm into one post, but this one has already gone a bit long and there is a lot more to say about the other animals, and the rest of her operation. To do it and her the justice they deserve, on Tuesday we will talk more about Michelle Chandler's farm, what we learned from it, and what it means for our decision making.

Here's a small preview =)

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