Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

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Another year has come to an end. The seed catalogs are rolling in, and as I sit here drooling over them, I keep coming across new, exciting vegetable varieties that I just have to try.

There's a part of my brain that's screaming at the rest of it: "Don't fix what isn't broken!" Year after year, I post about what I've learned, and one of the recurring themes is to stick with the things I know work for our area—not to risk losing productivity because I'm feeling adventurous. But really, what fun is that?

Tomatoes come in all shapes and sizes. Choose wisely!

There are some things I'm set on keeping the same. The Orangeglo watermelon and Bidwell Casaba have been very kind to me, unlike most other watermelon and melon varieties, so those are here to stay for the long haul. Catskill Brussels Sprouts will also probably stick around. There seem to be so few varieties of heirloom sprouts, and these do the best.

I always say not to mess around with our corn selection. We grow Bloody Butcher corn, which has served us well. It gets HUGE and gives us multiple relatively long ears on each stalk. The corn can be used fresh, or you can let it mature into a dent corn. After a failed attempt at saving seed from it and coming to the realization that we just don't have enough space to save corn seed and avoid inbreeding depression, I've decided to expand my corn-growing horizons to include a flour corn, a sweet corn, and a popcorn.

Unfortunately, there's no fast way to determine which varieties you should grow for all vegetables. Your best bet is to find varieties that were developed in areas that have a similar climate to where you live. For instance, Italian varieties will probably do best in coastal California, where we have the same basic climate. Russian varieties might serve you well if you live in colder areas. If you have a short season, choose varieties that mature quickly. This, of course, can take some research to figure out. For cool season crops, you'll want to make sure they have enough time to develop before warm weather hits. For warm season crops, you want to give them time before the frosts come. Seed packets and catalogs include a number, usually next to the name or after the description, denoting that variety's average number of days to maturity.

When it comes to latitude, rather than season length, onions are much more specific than most other vegetables about where they can grow. Varieties will either be long day, short day, or intermediate. If you live north of 35 degrees latitude (draw a line from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. to approximate), you'll want to grow long-day onions. South of that, grow short-day onions. If you're just on either side of that latitude, you can grow intermediate onions. I've also had good luck with long-day onions here on the 35th parallel.

Besides climate, you'll also want to look at the size, yield, and disease resistance. If late blight is a problem in your area, choose vegetable varieties that have some resistance. If you have a small garden, choose compact or high-yielding varieties to make the most of your space.

Or you can do what I like to do and just pick a bunch of varieties to try and see which ones do best. Good luck!

More Homegrown Seed Assistance

• The Selecting Seeds 101 includes tips on seed catalogs, what to plant, seed testing and viability, and seed saving.
• Want to find out if your seeds are still viable? Check out this seed viability chart.
• Still not sure? Try a quick at-home germination test.
• Ready to get growing? Don't miss the Seed Starting 101 or Rachel's post on growing, curing, and storing onions.

Rachel’s friends in college used to call her a Renaissance woman. She was always doing something crafty, creative, or utilitarian. She still is. Instead of crafts, her focus these days has been farming as much of her urban quarter-acre as humanly possible. Along with her husband, she runs Dog Island Farm, in the San Francisco Bay Area. They raise chickens, goats, rabbits, dogs, cats, and a kid. They’re always keeping busy. If Rachel isn’t out in the yard, she’s in the kitchen making something from scratch. Homemade always tastes better!

This post first appeared on

By Rachel of Dog Island Farm/

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If you've read my blog for very long, you know that I think keeping bees is a great idea. I think people should keep bees in the city, in the country, in the suburbs, on the rooftops, wherever they can fit a hive. In my blogs, I've extolled all the good reasons for keeping bees: helping the bees to survive when the rest of the world seems hellbent on poisoning and starving them, pollination for your garden, honey for your table.

Despite all these good reasons for keeping bees, some very good reasons exist for not keeping bees. I'll list a few.

1. You want a hobby that makes money. Bees are expensive! The woodenware to put them in, the protective clothing, the tools, the actual bees, the vehicle to carry the equipment around in, a honey house and equipment for harvesting the honey, not to mention continually replacing all of the aforementioned. I kept bees for 6 years before I ever made a penny in profit. Since then, it's been hit or miss, like any other kind of agriculture only without the subsidies!

2. You want a hobby that requires very little work. Keeping bees is hot, hard, heavy work, especially south of the Mason-Dixon line. Harvesting occurs on the hottest days of the year, when you will be sweating inside 2 sets of clothing to lift heavy honey-filled supers from hives of ill-tempered bees.

Beekeeping requires continual study and learning to stay ahead of whatever is trying to kill them: honey and larva predation, mites, fungus, bacterial and viral diseases, pesticides, to name a few. The many things you will have to learn will include bee and honey plant biology, crude carpentry, and your local weather and seasonal patterns.

3. You think you won't get stung. For some reason, a lot of people think that if they're nice to their bees and handle them just right, the bees will like them and not sting them. This is crazy-thinking! Bees are insects, a super organism. They are intent on their purposes, not yours. If it's a nice warm and sunny day when the world is in bloom, they will fly to and from the hive and probably totally ignore you. However, if you are tearing into their hive on day when they are all home with nothing much else to do, they are going to defend their stores and brood nest! That's why they have those little barbed stingers on their butts--to keep critters like you out of their business. You will get stung from time to time.

If you've read these reasons not to keep bees, and you're still thinking, "Yes, but..." get yourself some bees! I can't image not having hives of these wonderful creatures around my place. They are a source of continual learning, challenge, wonder, and sheer joy (when they aren't making me crazy). Keeping bees will teach you not just about bees, but about the plants they forage on and how bees and wild plants fit into the rest of the natural world. If you're lucky and take the time to be very observant, they will even teach you how you fit into that world! If everyone kept a box of bees, maybe we'd all become humble stewards who care for and try to fit into the world around us rather than arrogant masters who try to control and enslave the natural world and only end up poisoning it and us.

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Buyer Beware

When we were having the shell of our present home built the builder called us and said it was hard to work because of the cold weather. He told us he had an air tight wood stove he would install for a price so he could continue to work on the house. We agreed to the offer and later when we drove the three days to inspect the construction progress we found the wood stove in the photo. It was a home made plate steel stove and anything but air tight. We subsequently had a quality cast iron wood stove installed inside the house and put this stove into storage down under the house not knowing what else to do with the old wood stove. Several years later some friends came to hunt elk and visit us and saw the old wood stove sitting there under the house. They asked if they could borrow it to cook on in their camp while they were hunting. I was happy to loan it to them and even threw in a half of a cord of split firewood for them to use in the stove.

cowboy breakfast

Later when their hunting was over and they brought the old wood stove back they commented on how good it was for cooking. That got me to thinking and I set the stove up outdoors and leveled it up and have been using it for several years to cook breakfast on occasionally. It was re-purposed to have a far more functional use, especially since it leaked smoke so badly that it was not safe to use inside. I have cooked many delicious breakfasts for ourselves and our visitors and friends over the years. An old wood stove that had no other use but scrap iron because it was so leaky and didn’t put out heat like a cast iron stove does and it ended up being the best thing since sliced bread for us. Taking something of virtually no value and re-purposing it to something useful is rewarding.

The old wood stove gives me a chance to use lumber ends from projects also obtaining derivative value from them and not having to throw them away. I found a large flat rock and pulled, dragged and inched it over where I could place it in front of the stove to serve as a version of a hearth. The draft ability of the stove is so poor that most of the time I have the loading door partly open to keep the fire inside going strong and now the large rock keeps any sparks from landing on the ground. I made a spark arrester for the top of the chimney by using three layers of 1/8 inch hardware screen. The wind cap improves the draft of the stove slightly and makes it is safe to use outside with virtually no chance of emitting any dangerous sparks.

Our normal breakfast are eggs over easy and a slice of fried spam which is enhanced by additional seasoning and tastes delicious done this way. We also slice up potatoes and they are seasoned with some spicy seasoning we obtain from a BBQ place in Rochester, New York. We also like cream cheese grits and sometimes have biscuits and jam or fresh fruit that is in season. Coffee that has cooked for a while on the stove then tops off what we consider an excellent breakfast and all from an old wood stove that had no other useful or functional purpose. We use cast iron cook wear which coupled with cooking outside gives the breakfast a special taste and ambience. It seems that eating food cooked outside always seems to taste better than when cooked inside. The temperature of the stove is regulated by adding firewood or adjustment of the loading door of the stove which results in the slow even cooking of the food.

Before using an otherwise useless old wood stove for scrap metal or a planter it might be wise to consider using it (if properly designed) for an outdoor cook stove. Our particular stove has a much greater value as a cook stove than it ever had as something to keep us warm indoors. Over the years it has cooked some very delicious meals for us and our visitors and has been a perfect cook stove. Visitors look forward to having a meal slow cooked out on that old stove. Being able to re-purpose something that previously had little or no value is an excellent way to reuse old worthless equipment and the best part is that I didn’t have to make a single change to the stove except level it.

For more on Bruce and Carol McElmurray and mountain living go to:

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A few weeks ago I was house sitting for some neighbors just up the road from us. It was a big house, with all the modern conveniences: kitchen appliances, running water, several bathrooms and oil furnace heating. These were also selling points when they asked if I could spend a week there – I could do my laundry, each room had a separate thermostat, they had wi-fi, TV and a freezer full of food I could eat.

And on a day to day level, it was easy living over there, in the sense that most of my needs were taken care of by merely pushing or turning a switch or tap. Unlike at home it was no going out to get water or wood and no wood stove to tend. I could shower in two minutes and pile up the dishes in the dishwasher; chores were carried out swiftly with the least physical resistance and with little need for any thoughts beyond the pushing or turning.

It was easy, but not simple since all of these so called conveniences depended entirely on sources I had no control over and the easy actions most always set off a chain effect: every time I turned the thermostat in that house, an easy way to stay warm set off a complex reaction far past my bedroom – through the lines and posts in power grid that needs regular maintenance, through the clearing in the woods where the lines to come in, to the dam or plant where the power is generated. The effects of my action also rippled through the oil furnace in the basement to the local delivery truck and its driver and on to the previous delivery truck and its share of increased traffic on our rural roads. On and on through landscapes and communities to an oil field or a tar sand location somewhere, touching on hundreds if not thousands of human lives who are in some ways affected by the oil infrastructure. Billowing over all this is the exhaust, not only from the furnace in this particular house, but from the trucks, the factories who built the furnace, the pipes, the plants, the heavy machinery involved in pumping or fracking the oil. And someone has to pay the bill, which will yet again set off a complex chain of actions – the house owner made its money somewhere, probably by providing a service or a product. That service or product, whatever it was, most likely set off another chain through materials, transport, buildings, fossil fuel, investments, tax money, corporations, interests, stocks. It did seem easy right there and then, didn't it, to turn the heat up just a little bit?

Here at the homestead we face the difference between easy and simple on an almost daily basis. So many times the lumberyard seems like such an easy option – we need a few boards to finish a project, rafters for a roof or a few studs just to fix something fast. If we would choose a narrow view and look only at what we want to accomplish today, with the least resistance, we would ignore the many processes the lumberyard would involve: clear cuts done with heavy machinery on land unknown to us; the transportation of the lumber onto the island and that we'd have to make the money somewhere, money that before it came to us was made somewhere, somehow, and before that, somewhere, somehow.

But when we look at the situation out of a desire to live in simplicity, our choice is to go to our own lot to find the trees we need and mill the lumber on our own mill. The ripples that this option set off into the mainstream economy and larger environment, from the small amount of gas and some wear on our machinery, are small compared to the alternatives. In this way, we can instead alter the effects of our actions to have a positive impact that we can stay in control over, like the enhancement of our woodlot when we carefully select which trees to fell, the mounds of brush we leave for critters to live in and the sawdust we get as a byproduct to use in our composting toilets and to pack our root crops in for the winter – positive effects we'd miss if we choose the seemingly quick fixes and easy options.

This difference in easy vs. simple is where some people get confused over how much work it is to provide for your own needs. At a first glance, cutting firewood or milling lumber might seem as a lot of work, but when adding up the accumulated input (all human labor, fossil fuel expended, negative environmental impact and the efforts needed to reverse that impact) that's needed for a furnace or commercial lumber production to function, simply turning the knob suddenly seems like a lot of work. For any given individual with the “right” profession and in the “right” socioeconomic context it could indeed, measured in time, be less work to for example make the money and buy the food as opposed to growing it on their own. But once again, with all the consequences and ripple effects considered, I dare to say that very few effortless ways of providing conventional food is actually easier than the simplistic home-based food production.

For the short week I lived in that house overlooking the ocean, I did all right in the ready-steady-go easiness of pushing and turning and I even spent an evening on the couch flipping between news channels and soap operas. Nevertheless, was I happy to go back to my own house, with the interior and furniture made from natural materials, the wood stove, tight quarters and garden view. And mostly, to the peace of mind being able to clearly see the simple effects of my simple actions.

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The mountains are not just snowcapped, but are covered well down into the foothills. However, even here in the High Desert of Oregon we’ve had a few days in the low sixties and more are in the forecast for the next ten days. It’s given me a chance to take inventory of my hives without going deep into them. If there is no wind, this kind of weather allows you to have a quick peek inside without harming your bees and you should be trying to get an idea of each hives health when the weather allows.

For example, my biggest two hives and by that I mean these hives are full of bees, just as if it was midsummer, have stores but will likely run short. I have already taken one frame of honey from a deadout and placed it one of these hives. The hive had two frames of honey stores remaining, but they were to the outside of the box. I did not want to leave the hive open long enough to pull frames and rearrange them, so I simply slid a middle frame out and dropped in the new frame of honey. That way there will be food right in the middle of the cluster should we get a hard freeze again that prevents them from moving about.


A quick examination of all my hives was done by removing the lid and inner cover to gauge how many bees the hive had and what level of stores were present. We are approaching the time of year when bees are lost simply because they run out of food and starve. A responsible beekeeper should know the condition of his/her hives as soon as the weather allows. Remember, the bees that have made it this far are bees that have won the battle. They survived whatever mite load was in the hive and the diseases they bring, and they also survived our sub-zero temperatures. If your girls have enough feed or even if you need to feed them for a while, these bees are going to be what you enter the season with if they don’t starve before the first spring blooms arrive.

I began the winter with twelve hives on this side (east side) of the mountains. Those hives on the west side of the mountains will soon get their own inspection. Of the 12 on the east side I have lost only three and one of those was a nucleus I bought last spring that clearly came with a massive mite load. This only serves to reinforce my belief that you are your best source of bees. (We will discuss making splits and increase at another time.) Locally, one friend of mine lost all three of her hives this winter and another friend lost two of his three hives. So I feel pretty good about only losing three hives out of 12.

With only one exception, all the hives that remain have healthy numbers. The hive that does not was an experimental split I did late in the season. Two hives have huge numbers for this time of year. If you were to look at them you would think of summer time numbers. Both of these hives are Carniolan bees and they come from a split I made in mid-May. A split is your best natural mite control and these hives show it! As a result of the split, both of these hives have young queens and though my inspection did not take me deep into the hive I would not be surprised to find the first little bit of brood here.

We will discuss the benefit of making splits at a later date, but if you have not yet reached the point of making your own splits then this is the year to learn how to do it.

The next thing to be gained from making early inspections as soon as the weather allows is a chance to inspect and prepare equipment for the coming season. It can be hard to see your girls lifeless bodies, heads buried in the comb, all clustered up, but it’s going to happen and you just need to make the best of it. I have already taken my three deadouts back to the shed and gone through them. It’s a chance to scrape out propolis and otherwise clean them up. I also check the condition of the frames and remove old comb. The old dark brood comb should be removed after a few years. Each time a larva spins a cocoon it leaves another paper thin layer behind. This is what makes the comb dark. Even though the bees clean it out, this comb gets dirty after a while and it’s just plain healthier for the hive to remove it and allow the bees build new comb.

If you have wooden frames then this is easily done by popping out the old foundation and replacing it with new. If you use foundationless frames then all you have to do is cut away the old comb and you are set to go. I am in the process of getting rid of all my plastic frames as I rotate new frames and foundation into my hives. Sometimes the bees take right to plastic, other times they build on top of it. I’m moving more and more in the direction of foundationless frames as they allow the bees to build whatever kind of comb they like.

Another benefit of cycling out old foundation is that it often contains a little stored honey in the corners of each frame. I set this old foundation out in the beeyard for the bees to rob. It makes a great early season treat for them and none of the stored honey goes to waste.

One final note. If you are planning on buying bees this year and you have not yet ordered you had better do so soon. Many suppliers sell out and you may find it difficult to find bees if you don’t order early.

So in summary, get a look inside your hives as soon as the weather allows. It does not need to be a deep inspection, but just have a look inside the inner cover to gauge the health of your hive. You shouldn’t need to feed just yet, but it’s good to know if you will need to. If you do need to feed then feed a 1:1 mix of sugar to water and remember that once you start you can’t stop until your local nectar flow begins.

Use this time to bring in your deadouts for clean up and repair equipment. If you need additional equipment now is a good time to restock. The pussy willow is about to break bud and soon the season will be in full swing. If you have prepared your equipment early in the season you will be able to focus your attention on the care and management of your hives.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


Over the last several decades, many sustainable farmers have experimented with including chickens, particularly, laying hens into their rotational grazing system. Joel Salatin pioneered these efforts with his small broiler "chicken tractor" and later his hen mobile. Many variations have been made on these over the years.

When we decided to produce eggs, we began to research how to create the most efficient chicken tractor we could. The main flaw we saw with existing designs is the labor required to collect eggs and clean the nesting boxes. We wanted to be able to produce as much as possible with only our labor. So, we looked at the best practices of large commercial producers and looked for ways to incorporate these practices into a small pasture operation.


Adding commercial nesting boxes that would fit into a small building was the most time saving and affordable upgrade. We worked with SKA an Italian producer of center rolling communal nesting boxes (no USA producer would waste their time talking to us about such a small order) to fit their system to our building and use a hand-cranked wheel instead of a motor to run the collection belt. We also worked with Steel Masters engineers to design a skid that would be rigid enough to make their building portable.

chicken tractor

You can see more in our video at Building a Better Chicken Tractor.

chicken tractor

We are currently experimenting with raising all of our feed, including chickens and pigs, for on farm forage. See our Kickstarter video Forage Feed Project.

You can read more from us at Shaun's Farming Food Justice Blog or Heather's Homesteading Blog.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.



Let's face it, during the beginning process of adding meat rabbits to our homestead, I wasn't the happiest girl in the world. The thought of butchering little animals that I had hand raised as helpless little creatures just didn't appeal to me. But my mountain man husband talked me to into them, and I was immediately sold as we started on this journey. You can read more about the beginning and why we got into raising rabbits by reading The Fewell Homestead Blog. After getting through the various learning obstacles, raising meat rabbits eventually became a joy for me, and now I cannot suggest it enough to those who wish to live a more self-sustainable life.

If you know me personally, then you know that I love to research every single thing before diving headfirst into something. But with meat rabbits, I found that there really wasn't a lot of info out there — and the info that was there was very conflicting. All in all, I discovered that there really wasn't one single way to raise meat rabbits, and that we were just going to have to figure out what worked well for us.

So I've decided to share the basics with you — a post that you can reference very quickly and easily. I wish someone would have put this together for me when I first got started, but alas, here I am almost two years later, pounding it out myself. Please keep in mind that these are the things we have found that work for us. As you get further into your meat rabbit projects, you're going to find things that suit you better. But as a newbie, these were the things I wish I would have known.

Choosing the Breed + Buying Rabbits

On our homestead we raise Standard Rex (above) and Flemish Giant rabbits. We've had our fair share of learning the hard way when it comes to buying rabbits, so I cannot stress enough to do your research on the breed and the previous owner. Typical meat rabbits are New Zealand, Californian, Standard Rex, Silver Fox, American Chinchilla and Flemish Giant. The larger boned breeds, such as the Flemish, should be bred with a different, less boney breed (such as we do with our Rex). Otherwise, you'll have more bone than meat on your processed rabbits. We breed our Flemish giant does to our Rex bucks. This allows for a large meat rabbit, but with less bone and more meat. We also breed purebred Rex rabbits for meat and pelts.

It's easy to get on craigslist and find a rabbit breeder, but just as with any other livestock or product you're buying, you need to make sure that you're getting what you're paying for, and that the animals are healthy./

Check for the Following:

1. Is it the breed that they say it is? There are a lot of nice people out here who are dishonest or simply don't know what they have. You could have a rabbit that looks like that particular breed, but could very well be a mix. Make sure they know their stuff about what they are selling.

2. Overall health. Make sure there aren't any ear mites (crusty, red ears), runny discharge from nose, eye discharge, sore hocks (missing fur and sores on feet), wheezing, or genital diseases (overly red or blistered). Also make sure that they aren't too thin and that their teeth look healthy and aren't overgrown. Ask the seller if they have ever had any health issues, have been bred before, and what kind of feed they were on. If you are going to the seller's property, inspect the rabbit's living conditions. Just because a rabbit doesn't look sick, doesn't mean they aren't sick or bringing parasites back home with you. Always quarantine new rabbits away from your other breeding stock for at least 3 weeks before introducing them to each other.

3. Pedigree and age. I always suggest buying a rabbit under the age of 18 months. Most rabbits start slowing down at the 2 year old range, and does can stop having efficient litters at 3-4 years of age. You want to get the most out of the rabbits that you are buying. Should you purchase a rabbit that comes with a pedigree, insist on getting the pedigree in-hand when you purchase the rabbit, rather than waiting for them to email it to you. A pedigree is simply a piece of paper that states their generational information for at least the past 3 generations. All of our Rex rabbits are pedigreed so that we can sell them more efficiently for people who purchase our rabbits for show. We sell kits whenever we have extra kits from a litter or whenever we have a beautiful litter that we know will do well at shows.

Prices range when purchasing a rabbit — it varies by age, breed, quality, and how many you buy at one time. But above all those things, remember that most of the time, you get what you pay for. After making sure all of the above things check out, then ask price and negotiate. Meat rabbits are an investment into your family's lives, don't try to take the cheap road out on this new adventure. You will certainly get back what you pay into them. At the same time, don't over pay either. Do your research on the breed and pricing in your area. Self research is the best research.



The Housing

Some people will tell you not to do wooden hutches. Others will tell you not to do wire hutches. While still others will tell you that raising rabbits in a colony is the only way to go. Ultimately, we rebelled against them all and combined the best of both worlds — I bet their OCD was on overload when they saw these photos. In the unfinished hutch above, we have wire flooring (hardware cloth) as flooring. Each floor has a 2x4 in the middle for support. For larger breeds, such as a Flemish Giant, you need to have an area in the hutch where they can rest their feet. They make special place mats that you can use, or you can stick a small piece of untreated plywood in the hutch. In the summertime, they enjoy ceramic tiles to lay on, as it helps cool them down. Should you choose to raise the larger breeds, their cage flooring must be sturdy, so make sure you find a very well-built wire cage for them, or do as we did with extra support. When our rabbits aren't in hutches, they are free ranging on the property in portable crates or pens.

We decided that wire flooring was best because it allows the feces to fall to the ground, so that our chickens stir it up and we can use it for manure in the garden. However, we also decided that wooden sides were best, to help deter predators and to block the wind and cold in the Winter time. Some of our hutches have removable wooden sides that expose wire so that they can get extra airflow in the Summer months.

Here is another hutch that my husband built. This particular hutch was built out of convenience, we have one other just like it. We built these so that we could place them on cinder block rather than having to worry about building hutches on stands — like the one you can see to the left of it. We have several hutches on stands. Those hutches are much smaller and house our breeding bucks (males). These ground hutches allow us to move the hutches around if we need to, and will also allow us to easily pick up and move them to another property whenever we sell our current property. We use these for breeding does and as grow out pens. Grow out pens are where we house weaned litters so that it allows them more room to grow and play.

Our nursery hutches, which are the hutches we have for our breeding does, are separated by a plywood wall, separating the hutch into two sections — one side (completely enclosed with vents) for the babies and nesting box, the other side for mom to eat and drink and lay around. There is a round or square hole cut in the plywood so that mom can go back and forth between sections. This also keeps the kit area dark and cool in the summer, and warmer in the winter.

The dimensions of your housing will vary by breed. For our larger breeds and nurseries we have larger hutches — between 3x3 and 4x6 ft. If you choose to raise smaller breeds, you can adjust the size to something smaller if necessary. Keep in mind that your rabbits need to have enough space to stretch out. A large breed rabbit can be 3 ft long when stretched. They also need a little extra space to roam — you can build your hutches bigger or you can have a "play area" for them on the ground. They especially love this if you allow them to eat on pasture.

The Feed and Water

A lot of people have a misconception as to what rabbits should eat on a regular basis. We have found that our rabbits are happiest when they can be on the ground at some point during the day. This allows them to dig at the ground, eat seeds and grass, and romp around without being cooped up. Just make sure that whatever you place them in as a floor where they are unable to dig out of the ground hutch, should you choose to raise them on pasture. We've also tried to get our rabbits off of the dependency of feed from the farm store. Your rabbit should only be eating a tuna fish size can (per rabbit) of feed each day. The rest of your rabbits diet should consist of free feed hay (timothy hay or orchard grass), fodder that you can grow yourself, and veggies (carrots, kale, etc). There are also things that your rabbit shouldn't eat, such as lettuce, which is mostly water anyhow. These types of watery veggies can cause diarrhea and irritable bowel for your rabbit, and can even cause death.

I always highly encourage people to incorporate herbs into their rabbits feed as well (though some not daily). Things such as oregano, garlic, Echinacea and plantain weed from your yard. There are an abundance of herbal and all natural treats that you can give to your rabbit, which we'll speak more about in the coming weeks. The inclusion of these daily herbs and weeds also help boost immunity and prevent sickness.

Believe it or not, you can do a lot with a rabbit's water and it's equally as important as its feed. Adding organic Apple Cider Vinegar that still has the mother in it (ACV) to their water (1 tbs per gallon) will help make their bodies more alkaline, aide in digestion, de-worm, and make their bodies healthier overall. We do the same for our chickens Spring, Fall and Winter. ACV should not be given in the Summer months as it can cause the body more harm than good when the animal is trying to cool itself off.

Kits will start eating pellets and hay as early as 2 weeks old. Alfalfa hay is a good source of calcium, however, I never suggest it at such a young age as it can cause blockage if too much is eaten. Given in small amounts, it will help the bone development of your kits. Kits can eat everything mom eats, in moderation.

The Breeding and Gestation Process

You know that saying "breeding like rabbits"? It's a myth. Your rabbits aren't going to breed like rabbits, because quite honestly, domesticated rabbits do not breed nearly as often as you would think. I've written a more in-depth article about that, which you can read at The Fewell Homestead Blog.

Overall, once mastered, the breeding process is fairly quick and simple. The first rule of thumb is to always breed a larger doe to a smaller buck. This ensures that the kits are not too big for the doe to deliver. After a doe has been bred, it is up to you to make sure she remains healthy and happy. If spooked or suffering from malnutrition, she can be a victim of miscarriage, pre-mature labor, or even death. Does will eat a little more than normal, however, make sure not to overfeed. The one thing I've noticed more than anything is that they drink two to three times more water when they are bred. Add an extra water bottle if necessary to keep up with her demand. Water is so important, especially during the Summer and Winter.

Some choose to breed all year long, but it is personal preference. Ideally, you would breed Spring through Fall and then give your doe's a break in the Winter time. This helps them conserve body heat and is less harsh on your newborn kits. A rabbits typical gestation period is between 28 and 31 days. However, most rabbits deliver on or right around day 31. Rabbits can certainly go longer — we always give up to day 40 before breeding again. In an effort to limit wasted time, we always palpate our does two weeks after they have been bred. If we do not feel that she has been bred, we wait another week. If we still do not feel babies inside, we immediately re-breed. I will be posting a video on this in the coming weeks once the snow has passed.

One week before kindling (or on day 25), put a kindling nesting box in with your doe. You can create your own or purchase them online. Give your doe plenty of straw so that she can make a nest. In order to entice the doe to build her nest in the nesting box, I stuff straw in the box and allow her to then organize it. I put extra straw into the hutch the following day so that she can continue to put it in the nesting box herself. Does will pull fur for the nest, but our does usually only pull fur an hour or so before kindling. This is why whenever we see a lot of fur, we know to look and make sure there are or are not kits in the box. We handle kits the day they are born, but just briefly to make sure they are all healthy and none are dead. We remove any that have died and leave the rest alone for 24 hrs so that they can rest and stay warm. After that 24 hr period, we start handling them daily. It is a complete myth that a mother rabbit will not take her babies back if you handle them.

If for some reason your doe has a miscarriage or has lost a litter, you can breed her back to a buck within the first month after miscarriage. A lot of people will tell you to breed her back immediately, however, we just don't practice that here. We allow our does time alone and to be back at their best before we re-breed them. This gives us time to make sure she is healthy and to reexamine why she may have miscarried. We have had 2 does miscarry during this journey. The first doe miscarried due to stress — we were moving the cages around and she just got too hyped up. The second doe miscarried due to unknown causes. We believe kits stay with mom for 7 to 8 weeks. Some of our rabbits wean at 4-5 weeks of age. The kits stay with mom until 7-8 weeks or until fully weaned (4-5 weeks), whichever comes first. They are then placed in a grow out pen together (without the doe). Again, we like to give our doe a break after she's weaned her babies so that she can get her health up to speed and has some alone time. We choose not to re-breed her until she has been without her babies for at least a week or two.

Time to Process

Depending on the breed, you can process your rabbits between 12 weeks and 20 weeks. We have processed 6 month old rabbits and they have tasted exactly the same. The younger the rabbit, the better. But in my honest opinion, I cannot tell a difference between a 12 week old rabbit and a 6 month old one. You start getting into tougher meat after the 6 month mark. Processing day is normally a family process here, however, the more we do it, the more I find myself doing it alone. Which is actually something that I, as a woman, am very excited about and take a lot of pride in.

Here is a quick rundown of the process:

The first step is the dispatching of the rabbit. We prefer the broomstick method, which is when you place a broomstick on the neck of the rabbit and pull their hind legs up so that it instantly snaps their neck. It is quick and painless, I promise. I prefer this method because it comforts me in knowing that I can feel the rabbits body instantly go limp, which means the kill is complete. There are involuntary jerks every now and then, but nothing like a chicken with its head cut off. After dispatching, you need to hang the rabbit and cut off the head to allow it to bleed out. However, you can start butchering right away after cutting the head off. You can leave the head on if you prefer to keep the entire skin. We created a board so that everything is easily accessible. There are hooks to hang the rabbit on, and hooks for the hose, a knife, and shears or butchering scissors.

We have found that hosing the rabbit down makes it easier to skin. You can even do this if you plan to save the pelts for tanning. This just enables you to work quicker without hair flying everywhere and getting on the meat. It is extremely hard to get hair off of rabbit meat. A rabbit skin is very easy to take off, and we often refer to it as "taking off a sweater". It truly is that easy after zipping around the legs. Once the rabbit is skinned, you'll need to gut it, making sure you do not hit the bladder or urinary tract. Be careful not to hit any of the organs either. You can keep the organs and use them as scraps for the dogs or chickens. Or you can save the livers, etc, for yourself. We toss them to the dog and the chickens. A word of advice, use latex gloves. Just my preference...

After the Processing

After your rabbit meat is completely cleaned and washed off, you can simply bag it and toss it in the freezer. If you want to keep one out for dinner the following day, you can place it in a salt brine and allow it to sit for 24-48 hours in the fridge. However, I simply just toss all of them in the freezer to discourage rigamortis, and then thaw the rabbit out the following day. Rabbit meat takes the place of chicken most of the time in our household. You can roast a whole rabbit the same way you roast a chicken, however, you must serve rabbit immediately, otherwise it will dry out quickly if left to "keep warm". Leftover rabbit meat can be tossed into soup, made into a pot-pie, or even made into rabbit enchiladas. There are endless possibilities, and we like to use them all.

Long story short, we love our meat rabbits, and we love to bring awareness of how simple it is to raise your own. The key is not allowing it to overwhelm you. Think with your mind, research constantly, and give it all you've got. Eventually it will be so familiar that you won't have to think about it. You may run into issues along the way, but you'll survive. Don't give up. Lean on the homesteading community that surrounds you. Ask questions, and don't feel bad for asking them. We're all on this journey together, some longer than others.

I am currently in the process of writing more in-depth about the Meat Rabbit process and hope to share more with you soon. Until then, I hope these basics help you!

Amy Fewell is a work-at-home mom, homesteader, blogger and writer. Her and her family live on a mini-homestead in Virginia where they raise Icelandic Chickens, standard Rex rabbits, ducks, and more! For more information about their homestead, visit them online at The Fewell Homestead, as well as their Facebook page.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.

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