Growing Pains

At Spellcast Farm, we are currently suffering through growing pains.  According to Joan Halifax (an American Zen Buddhist roshi), growing pains are a fruitful darkness, a threshold when the limits of self are recognized and tested — and broken.

It is hard to be with the pain, but if you can stand it and work through it, you come out better on the other side.

Natalie Goldberg writes, “Write what disturbs you, what you fear, what you have not been willing to speak about. Be willing to be split open.” Wally has been telling me for days now that I need to be honest about what is going on here so that other people can learn about it.  So here goes the splitting open:

Pasturing rabbits is not working very well.  I am not sure what is going on, but they have been dying like flies, with different, sometimes very weird, symptoms.  We accept that we will lose some of the young ones to bloat, that happens even in caged rabbits.  It’s called weaning enteritis.  We’ve also lost some almost-grown rabbits which is even more devastating.  Something is not right and they are not getting what they need.  They have been receiving supplemental hay and whole grains, just as I’ve always raised them, but the system is not working.

I’ve read that you must let the ground rest for a year after pasturing rabbits over it again.  That makes no sense to me, but if it is true, then in order to successfully pasture rabbits in numbers large enough to sell them at market, you need a whole lot of property.  In order to successfully pasture rabbits on a lot of property in open bottomed cages, then you need a lot of flat property.  We have neither.  There is very little land here that is flat enough so that we can pasture the rabbits without risk of them escaping.

What baffles me is that we kept rabbits in the raised beds most of the fall and winter and they did wonderfully.  They were kept in the same eight by four enclosure bedded down with straw and we lost very few of them.  They received fresh straw every week, the manure built up and often the straw got wet from weather, but they did not miss a beat.

There must be something in the soil that is causing the problems.  With the wet, cool spring that we’ve had, it is no surprise to me that we’ve had issues.  I expect people in this area with goats and sheep are seeing a lot of parasite and other issues due to the weather.

Grazing the rabbits on areas with really tall grass seems to make a difference.  I have a few tractors in what is the former goat pasture and they’ve done reasonably well, HOWEVER, they’ve escaped right and left and pulling the tractors over knee-high grass is difficult and you cannot get the tractors to sit level enough to prevent escape.  You can lose just as many rabbits to escaping as you do from illness.

So, we are taking numerous steps backward and are re-evaluating the situation.  We’ve put up the surviving rabbits up in conventional cages and I am monitoring them closely.  We have built more raised beds that we’ll install tractors over, bed down with straw and will keep the rabbits in this arrangement for the time being.  We will bring the pasture to them which may be what we’ll need to do for the foreseeable future.

My grants were not to work with pastured rabbits; they were to develop an integrated farming method utilizing pastured rabbits and market vegetables.  I can still use the composted manure to fertilize the soil and I can still feed the waste vegetation back to the rabbits.

Eventually, we will get some tractors out in the back portion of the property, but these will be older rabbits, perhaps 10 weeks or older.  At that point, their digestive systems should be mature enough to withstand whatever assault they have been experiencing over the past few months.  They will essentially be finished on pasture.

What it comes down to is that we need to have rabbits to sell and at this time, we do not and it is incredibly, beyond incredibly, frustrating.  Wally has told me time and time again, if pasturing rabbits was viable, more people would be doing it.  Rabbits, as a species, may not be adaptable to living in open-bottomed pens and at this time, that is our only option.

I am not sure if I mentioned it or not, but Wally’s daughter passed away last Friday.  It has been a very difficult few weeks.  Wally has been home since Monday and we’ve been working hard to catch up on chores.  Wally’s butt has not come off the lawn mower for the past few days.  As I write this, he is finishing up weed whacking.  It looks so much better!  We are both doing what we can and trying to be kind to each other and ourselves.  I cannot imagine what Wally is going through, but my heart hurts thinking of his pain.  I know he’s been frustrated with the rabbit situation and he’s happy that I’ve admitted at least partial defeat.

Until later …