Monday, May 2, 2011

Rabbiting at Stone & Thistle Farm

Rabbit Rerun
Meat rabbits have been part of our farm family for nine years. When my children were young, we asked each of them to pick a “business” on the farm that they could manage independently. They were responsible for the whole project from daily animal care to recording revenue and expenses. We provided them with “seed” money and supervised their project. Katey picked rabbits to raise. We brought her to visit Charlie at Rabbit Tracks farm in Davenport and she chose two meat breeds: a New Zealand buck and three California Red does. Charlie showed her how to keep records for breeding, kindling and general care. We bought Raising Rabbits the Modern Way by Bob Bennett. Katey and Tom built rabbit hutches and bought feeders and water bottles.

Katey nine years old with her first breeding doe
Since Katey left home to be a working student at Welwyn Stable in Rhinebeck and abandoned her rabbits to lavish her love on horses, I have taken over her rabbit business.  The first thing I did was cull (slaughter – no waste; we ate them) any of the does (females) that were producing less than four kits (baby rabbits) per kindling (birth).  I kept young does out of two litters and bred them to the older buck. After several unsuccessful breedings and small litters of one, even two kits, I realized that the buck was too old.  In November, I culled the old buck (male) and bought a young, just old enough to breed buck.   Shane named him Bernard.

Winter is tough on rabbits so we provide the breeding does with cages in the barn and pack them tight with hay for warmth.  We wait until spring to breed them because the kits won’t survive in the sub-zero temperatures. Now that spring has arrived, it’s kindling time again! Using the young buck Bernard, I bred the does in March.  What they say about rabbits is not necessarily true.  Bernard was not interested in the does. Like Ferdinand the Bull, he was much more interested in smelling the green hay in his hutch.  He cowered in the corner of the hutch and stared at the doe intruder.  The Raising Rabbits manual suggested using younger, inexperienced does with Bernard since the older does may be intimidating and too agressive (so much for the older woman initiation theory.) Putting young does in several times with him would make him comfortable with breeding. And to get him in the "mood" the book suggested I tickle his sides.   I felt ridiculous getting a rabbit in the "mood", but the session worked and he bred the first doe’s head.  It took a few days for Bernard to figure out heads from tails but he finally successfully bred doe #1.  How do I know he was successful?  All bucks are different, but most of them seize and fall over on their side as if dead when the “deed is done.”  The first time my daughter bred a doe she ran off screaming for help believing that her buck was dead.  Thank goodness, to the best of my knowledge, she has not had therapy as a result of that incident.

I marked the due dates on the calendar (30 days from breeding) and a few days before the due dates, place nest boxes in their hutches. The boxes are filled with wood shavings and hay.  A few days before the does are due to kindle, they begin building their nests.  They gather the hay in their mouth and build a deep nest in the box. 

Doe gathering hay for her nest

The doe finishes building the nest with fur that they have pulled out from their chests. Some does begin pulling hair out weeks before their due date and they are practically bald at kindling time. Others pull their hair out a few  hours before they kindle.  I still get excited about opening the hutch in the morning and find the fur nest moving and wriggling.

The Nest box with newborn kits in a nest of fur, hay, shavings 
One day old kit

5 week old kits hopping in and out of their nest box

The doe nurses her kits only once or twice a day. In ten days, the kits open their eyes and in three weeks they are hopping out of the next box.
By six weeks, the doe is rebred and the kits are put in rabbit cages that move on pasture.

The cages are dragged on pasture twice a day. The growing kits have ample room to run and bounce. 

The Rabbit Cage Fleet 
Doe and her 5 week kits in pastured rabbit cage on the farm
The young rabbits or fryers are slaughtered on the farm at around 12 -14 weeks.The slaughter process is very simple and takes five minutes. The skin comes off in one pull. It makes a good muff when scraped, salted and tanned. The head and feet are discarded. Often falconers will use the head and feet for training their prey birds.
Tom slaughtering a rabbit

Rabbit meat is delicious. Older rabbits are made into rabbit stew. Stew can include almost any vegetable. Here is one of my basic rabbit stew recipes.

Rabbit Stew
4-6 Servings
3 - 4 lbs rabbit
6 potatoes, quartered
8 carrots, sliced
1 medium onion, chopped
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup beef consomme
3/4 cup beef broth
3/4 teaspoon pepper
1/4 teaspoon basil
2 bay leaves
1/4 teaspoon rosemary
1/4 teaspoon thyme

1 Cut rabbit into pieces. Layer onion, potatoes, and carrots in bottom of a crock pot. 2 Add spices to the pot. 3 Add rabbit, salt, pepper, consommé, and about 3/4 cup beef broth. 4 Cover and cook on low for 8 hours. Thicken gravy as desired. Serve with sweet potato biscuits.

Young rabbits or fryers are sautéed with garlic and butter and fresh chives or parsley. This is my favorite recipe that we serve mid summer at Fable using almost ripe pears from our neighbor’s pear trees.

Braised Rabbit with Pears Recipe
Serves 4
2 young rabbits, each cut into 6 to 8 pieces
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, finely diced
3 cups dry red wine
1 cup chicken broth
2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon brown sugar
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 firm, slightly not-quite-ripe pears; skin removed, cored and halved
3 tablespoons chilled butter

Season rabbit pieces and dust lightly with flour. Heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add onion and saute for 3 - 4 minutes. Add rabbit pieces and brown each evenly. Add wine, broth, vinegar, sugar, bay leaves, rosemary and salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Add pears to the pan, cover and simmer for 30 minutes more. Remove rabbit and pears and arrange on plates. Remove bay leaves and rosemary from pan. Whisk in butter until melted and spoon sauce over rabbit.

The Updike
Tom makes a great rabbit linked sausage with rabbit, pork, apple, salt, garlic and spices. We sell it in our farm store and at the farmers markets.

Rabbit Workshops
Tom recently gave a rabbit slaughtering presentation at the Callicoon market to a large group of people who are raising or thinking of raising rabbits for food. We held a rabbit workshop last summer and will repeat it this year if folks are interested. A description of the workshop:

Rabbit to Roaster
Rabbits are caged raised during kindling and transferred to pasture cages at weaning. See the rabbitry and pastured rabbit cages. Learn how to raise rabbits on pasture. Learn how to slaughter rabbits and break down the rabbits into parts used for stewing, braising, sautéing and grilling. A rabbit meat inspired lunch will be served. In Fable, the farm’s restaurant, participants will work together to prepare dinner using all parts of the rabbit (including the liver and kidneys) Dinner will be accompanied by the seasonal dairy and produce raised and harvested on the farm.
You don’t have to be a farmer to raise rabbits for meat. A backyard hutch is easy to make and works well for three to four does. And the slaughter process is so quick and easy that every family should be adding rabbit meat to their diets. The French eat a lot of rabbit and every farmers market in France sells live rabbits which are slaughtered a at the market or at home. We don’t have to be French to eat rabbit. Hop right into rabbit raising or buy rabbit meat at the farmers market Bon Lapintite!

Farmer selling live rabbits at Bayeux Market in Normandy France