Our Philosophy

Festina lente
-make haste...slowly

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Rabbit-Powered Lawn

Thought I'd throw something different out there this time for the making-a-lawn-useful department.

We've converted well over an acre of lawn adjacent to whatever house we were living in - both front and back yards - into productive gardens over the last half decade, and hopefully nudged a few others out along that (garden) path as well.  And I can't praise such transitions highly enough!  But if anything, permaculture is a flexible bedfellow, and this situation begged for something else.

Meet my lawn crew.  The small cage in the front is the rabbit finishing tractor and has 6 nice fat little 5 week old rabbit kits, freshly weaned, doing their lawn maintenance doody in it.   The two-legged chap with the old-fashioned reel mower is yours truly - bare feet, pleasantly quiet, no smelly gasoline exhaust, and a nice bit of exercise just for good measure.

Both tractors get moved to a new patch of greens once a day.  The larger tractor contains a standard breeding trio of New Zealand meat rabbits - one buck and two does.  Each compartment has a half gallon lick bottle and heavy-duty rubber food dish, making daily maintenance low key.  We can actually leave them completely unattended for at least 3 days; just be absolutely certain that the water bottles are nice and secure.  Both tractors have a floor of poly-coated chicken wire to keep the inhabitants from digging out, and a 5-gallon-bucket-cum-rabbit-hole bolted to the dividing walls in each cell for comfort.  The big tractor here does require some effort to move, so be smarter than I am, and make your version lighter!

New Zealand rabbits come in black, white, red, and "broken" versions, that is, red and white or black and white, like the sweet little doe we got from the Mennonites on Labor Day in the far right slot.

Any breeding stock selection we do from our babies will keep the standard breed colors in mind.  I'm afraid it's freezer camp for the grays and tans.  After a few generations of selection and more attentive importation of fresh genetic stock, we should be able to pedigree, if that's a route we choose to take.  So the albino, the solid black, and the black and white broken may have a future 'round here.  Ella will be glad to hear that; she's pretty enamored with the albino for some reason.  I don't usually like the children playing with their food, but they've done a lot of it this round for some reason.

The lawn is pretty good quality I think for rabbit forage - nitrogen-fixing clovers and medics boosting grass growth, and providing extra protein variety for the maturing kits and lactating does.  I tend to think that animals raised this way turn out healthier and more immuno-competent than animals that are confined and fed a "perfectly engineered" diet.  We should always learn from our weeds, too, and the presence of these nitrogen fixers suggests that we are dealing with soil that is probably compacted and maybe not terribly fertile.  Rabbit pills always help with that.

We've had a couple of soaking rains since the old tractors got moving in the front yard of the new farmhouse.  The area between the tractors and the car is where they've been, heading right to left in this view.  You can almost see the improvement in the lawn already.  Rabbit pills aren't "hot" like chicken manure, so they tend to improve their environment without a delay.  Of course any input of sufficient quantity can be damaging, organic or otherwise, so keep those tractors moving!

When done right, the ecological benefits of raising rabbits on the lawn should be obvious, but the economics of the arrangement are promising, too.  A healthy breeding trio of meat breed rabbits like these can produce 1-2 rabbits for consumption per week, averaged out, without even pushing the does very hard.  A dressed young rabbit weighs about 3 pounds in 8-12 weeks, and costs between 50 cents and $3 per pound to raise, depending on the rabbit's genetics and what you're feeding - lower if you're foraging for them and feeding a little hay, in the middle with a mixed strategy like this, higher on straight pellet off the ground.  At retail prices rabbit runs 6-7 dollars a pound, so immediately you've saved at least half your meat money, even if you go the expensive/lazy way.  And, even on a smallish lawn like mine, our rabbit production could easily be doubled, and maybe tripled, for a little extra income.

Rabbit is one of the least expensive meats you can produce(*), with excellent feed conversion efficiencies, loads of soil benefits that initiate a positive feedback loop for your production system, and low start-up cost.  The small tractor in the last photo (above) was built completely from scrap wood and metal, with only a little chicken wire and a couple of hinges to purchase (unless you have those laying around, too, like I did).  What's more, if you were to lose the ability to buy rabbit pellet (for whatever reason), they can be fed weeds from the garden and leaves from the forest pretty effectively, though they may take a bit longer to reach market weight that way.  But then, if you get to that point any meat will be a real treat, and chicken would be tough to raise without imported feed...or tough to eat by the time you get them there without it!

Rabbit is delicious, tender, low-maintenance, high-protein, low-fat (not necessarily a bonus to me, but...) meat that could easily replace a lot of our higher-energy chicken consumption.  Where feathers become a smelly disposal nightmare sometimes, rabbit pelts can create an additional income stream or useful material resource for making mittens, jackets, hats, slippers, bags, etc.  AND, they are wicked easier to clean than chickens.

Here's a rabbit recipe I really enjoy:

~Stuff the cavity of a whole rabbit with a little fresh marjoram, summer savory, and/or thyme.

~Rub the outside of the rabbit down with olive oil, lard, or melted butter.

~Salt, pepper, and garlic to taste.

~Wrap a couple strips of bacon around the rabbit to close it up and add some more fat, and pin the bacon in place with a toothpick or two.  Use good fatty bacon!  Life's too short for cheap bacon.

~Braise both sides in a hot cast-iron skillet, and then stick the skillet in a 375 degree oven for half an hour or so.  A little liquid in the pan - butter, bacon squeezins, apple juice - keeps the meat quite tender.

~Set the rabbit on a plate to rest and return the remaining liquid to the stovetop.  Add a cup of decent red wine to the rabbit juices et al, and reduce over medium heat until it reaches a good light gravy consistency, then drizzle it over the rabbit (quartered) and serve.

~Absolutely enjoy the hell out of it with good friends and a homebrewed beverage of your choice.  (I'm partial to hard apple cider as a compliment for rabbit, but of course the rest of that red wine you shared with the gravy would be great, too...)

I imagine this recipe would be good for squirrel, guinea pig, ground hog, or whatever else you might have handy, too!

(*) I would say that wild meats are cheaper except that I've seen the real cost of hunting too many times to feel confident about that statement!  Since Sandy Hook, ammunition alone has tripled in price.