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Reality Check For Urban Livestock Keeper Wanna Be’s

When Christine and I decided to transform our backyard into a mini farm, the first livestock that we got was a pair of giant Chinchilla does and a New Zealand buck.  Overall, these rabbits were gentle and sweet.  The primary reason we started off with rabbits is we wanted to be able to have some type of animal that would produce offspring that we could later butcher for meat.  Rabbits seemed to fit that bill perfectly, so our first group of rabbits came to our homestead in early January of 2009.

Homestead 015No time was wasted, and we immediately had both does bred.  It doesn’t take all that long from conception to birth for a rabbit, so we expected the first litter to be born in early March of 2009.

At the time, Christine was working in Parachute, Colorado during the week, and would drive back to the homestead on the weekends.  I was excited for the birth of the brand new baby rabbits, so during that week I checked on Pepper’s nest box every morning and night to see if Pepper had delivered.  Pepper had everything she needed for her new babies – a secure habitat, a nice nest box filled with straw and her own fur that she pulled from her body, and plenty of food and water.

Homestead 013_crop

 

As luck would have it, Pepper gave birth on Thursday of that week, and Christine was not home for the event.  When I checked on Pepper that morning, I was not prepared for what I was about to encounter.  Every single one of her babies was dead.  There were six tiny, pink, frozen baby bunnies lying in the next box.  I was absolutely devastated.  My heart sank, and I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing.  Pepper gave birth sometime during the night, and she had just let all of her babies freeze to death (it was March in Colorado after all).

School_17One thing to keep in mind about this story is how different my childhood was from Christine’s.  I was born and raised a city boy here in Colorado Springs (dig those 80’s skate shorts!).  The only pets I had growing up were of the standard fanfare – a cat (many cats over the years) and a dog.  Christine, on the other hand, grew up as a country girl in Oregon, and had a whole lot of experience with rabbits, chickens, goats, horses, etc.  So here I was, totally naive and “green”, not knowing that the scenario with Pepper was pretty common when it came to a mother rabbits first litter.  I had no idea that some does will completely neglect their offspring right out of the gate.  In fact, some does not only neglect their offspring, but will kill them too.  It was a brutal wake-up call for me.  These cute bunnies were in my care, and therefore I felt like I was responsible for what had happened to Pepper’s litter.  Debbie and Christy with Rabbits

I told Christine about what had happened, and she was very sweet and reassured me that there was nothing that I could have done to prevent this tragedy.  Even so, it was a tough lesson to experience alone.

As time went on, we did get a few litters out of our rabbits, and we also lost a few more rabbits along the way.  Each time a rabbit was “lost” it was still tough for me to reconcile with what had happened.  I wasn’t as shocked as I was the first time, but that doesn’t mean that it made it any easier.

 

In the short time that we’ve had our urban farm with livestock on it I’ve seen plenty of other tragedies with other animals too.  We had an absolutely beautiful Red Star chicken that was at the top of the pecking order in our chicken coop.  She was gorgeous, lively, and had plenty of attitude.  One day I walked in to the chicken coop to give the girls some fresh water and feed, and I found our Red Star chicken lying on the ground.  And not lying like chickens normally lie on the ground.  She was dead.  No reason whatsoever.  Just gone.  Yet another heart-breaking encounter.

IMG_4878_resizeAnd then there was the time that we had one of our Ameraucana chickens get sick.  Neither one of us knew exactly what was going on, but we did know that she wasn’t laying any eggs, and her belly was starting to lose feathers and was really warm to the touch.  After a bit of research our best guess was that she was egg-bound.  Something was blocking her ability to lay any eggs, so it was essentially a clog in her plumbing.  We could see that day by day she was suffering more and more, so we decided that the humane thing to do was to put her down.  It’s one thing for an animal to die naturally, but quite another when we have to make the call of whether or not to end that animals life.  We decided that she was definitely not going to be able to survive this ordeal, so we said a prayer for her and made her death as quick and painless as we possibly could.  We agreed to do an autopsy on her, and felt better about our decision to end her suffering once we discovered a huge number of essentially hard-boiled eggs in her abdomen.  Yet another sad day on the farm, but thankfully those are few and far between all the good days we have.

Ben_and_HueyI wrote this personal recollection because I want folks to understand the reality of what happens on a working farm – no matter how big or how small it is.  When we first started up our farm I had illusions that all of our farm animals would always be in good spirits and in good health.  It was going to be a scene straight out of a Disney movie with birds singing, bunnies hopping around, and everything is right in the world.  Nature doesn’t work that way.  And it was a shock for me to learn this firsthand.  Don’t get me wrong – I know that nothing lives forever and that livestock complications arise on any farm.  I guess I thought my farm would be different.  I thought everything would always be rainbows and butterflies on our farm.  Alas, that is not always the case, but I can say that on a majority of the days, all of our animals live a happy and healthy life.

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24 Responses to Reality Check For Urban Livestock Keeper Wanna Be’s

  1. Leslie May 24, 2013 at 9:37 am #

    Great post, Ben. I love reading this blog … and your musings this morning were a nice peek into your lives on the farm. I’m almost convinced to move back to the Springs. I enjoy a mild growing season here in So Calif. but I miss the rugged individualism of Colorado — where things don’t always match, and where life seems more connected to what is real. Thanks for sharing — have a great summer.

    • Ben May 24, 2013 at 4:00 pm #

      Hi Leslie,
      We definitely have our challenges with our backyard farm in Colorado Springs. Between the rocky soil, short growing season, frigid winters, and a variety of natural predators lurking around, it is definitely an adventure, but we both love it! Hope you have a great summer too!

  2. Diana May 24, 2013 at 9:46 am #

    Good article, Ben. This is a hard concept for “city folks” to grasp. You’ve given them a heads up so maybe they won’t be devastated the first time something bad happens.

    • Ben May 24, 2013 at 4:08 pm #

      Hi Diana,
      Thanks for your feedback. I do hope this helps folks be better prepared for the inevitable if they have livestock. It isn’t a matter of “if”, only “when”.

  3. Brenda Bastin May 24, 2013 at 11:07 am #

    I love your heart Ben, it’s definitely in the right place! I grew up in the ranching world and still cannot bear to butcher any animal on our place. We are becoming known as the geriatric animal farm. I totally enjoyed reading your article and hope that you will be compelled to write another. Aquaponics and greenhouse are very desired topics, (hint hint).

    • Ben May 24, 2013 at 4:12 pm #

      Hi Brenda,
      The “geriatric” animal farm – that is funny! 😉 I still have a tough time butchering out any animal as well. Not that I’ve had much experience, but I know I’ll always have a heavy heart when I have to butcher an animal. At the same time I also know that we provided the best conditions, feed and love to any animal that is brought up to be butchered. Who knows how I’ll handle butchering out a pig at the end of summer – I’ll be sure to write about that experience when the time comes.
      Be on the lookout for an aquaponics blog in the near future! 🙂

  4. Anna May 24, 2013 at 12:43 pm #

    Ben,
    LOVED your article! Keep ’em coming. Love, M#2

    • Ben May 24, 2013 at 4:15 pm #

      Thanks Anna! I’ll be posting more blogs in the near future, so be on the lookout for those.

  5. Sarah May 24, 2013 at 12:54 pm #

    I remember when we lost one of our hens in a similar way, no warning, just came home and she was dead. It is a little socking. I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who has gone through that

    • Ben May 24, 2013 at 4:18 pm #

      Hi Sarah,
      You are so right about how shocking it can be to suddenly find that one of your animals has mysteriously passed away for no reason (at least on the surface). If nothing else, this whole experience has furthered my respect for mother nature!

  6. Ty Thompson May 24, 2013 at 3:32 pm #

    Ben, thanks for sharing some of the harsh realities of raising livestock. Whenever livestock dies, particularly when the flock is small, it has a significant impact on us. When I first started raising chickens we lost 90% before any were big enough to harvest for meat or lay any eggs to predators. First it was a hawk. Then the neighbor’s dogs. And finally a cougar that would climb a tree overhanging the yard at night, grab a chicken and eat it right in the tree, to the tune of four a night until we figured out what was going on. In hindsight, I should have foreseen those problems, but it’s something that anyone who starts from scratch knows, there’s a learning curve. Housing has improved so much that we haven’t lost a bird to predators in years, though they are all around the farm. The good news is that with our lessons learned with the chickens, we were able to proactively design a paddock system that while not 100% predator proof, is enough of a deterrent that they don’t even try to take our animals. We’ve since added geese, ducks, goats, and Soay sheep and never lost a single one to predators.
    Are you planning to do a post on the difficulties of harvesting your livestock? Even with my background of being a country boy who hunts and fishes, killing something I’ve raised is still pretty emotional. I get through it by reminding myself that my animals, which were raised for the express purpose that it will become food for my family, has been given a happy albeit short, life.
    Love what you guys are doing and would love to visit your little farm next time I’m in Colorado Springs.

    • Ben May 24, 2013 at 4:26 pm #

      Hi Ty,
      We had a similar experience with our first year of having a beehive. During the late fall, we saw a huge number of dead bees in front of the hive. We weren’t sure they’d make it through the winter, but thankfully they were just fine.
      Sounds like you guys have more predators to contend with than we do – that is a whole lot of protection that you have to build in the housing/shelter for your livestock in order to protect them.
      It is a big learning curve to figure out what is needed to protect your animals for those just starting out. Glad to read that you haven’t lost anything since you improved the housing!
      Like I responded to Brenda, I haven’t butchered out too many animals to date – only one rabbit and one chicken so far. But I will post my experience about butchering a hog this fall. And I think you hit the nail on the head saying that the animals are raised to be butchered, but you know that you gave them a good life prior to that!
      You are more than welcome to stop by our little farm when you are in town next. Just let us know!

  7. Misty May 24, 2013 at 8:08 pm #

    Great article Ben! We were kind of discussing with you and Christine on the coop tour Sunday about how my husband and I have this romantic idea of how our homestead will be. How there will be no issues…and we know that It’s simply not true. The best we can do is to read everything we get our hands on, ask questions of our friends and mentors and go slowly. I look forward to more articles. 🙂

    • Ben May 25, 2013 at 11:54 am #

      Hi Misty,
      That’s how we started too – we read tons of information through books, blogs, online articles and magazines, and even with all that information, it doesn’t fully prepare you for living an urban-homesteading kind of lifestyle. We jumped in with both feet, and never looked back, and are thankful for everything that we have on our little plot of paradise. 🙂

  8. Dave May 25, 2013 at 1:13 am #

    “I thought everything would always be rainbows and butterflies on our farm.” – No Unicorns?

    Great article Ben.

    • Ben May 25, 2013 at 11:55 am #

      Hey Dave!
      Shoot, I did forget to mention the unicorns, didn’t I? 😉

  9. Kayla Shaw May 25, 2013 at 11:36 am #

    This is my first time on this blog and I’m happy this happened to be the first post I read. Me and my husband are planning to start with rabbits as well because we still live in the Springs, but I didn’t know that about rabbits. I’m grateful I know what to expect because I would’ve felt exactly the same. I was a farm-raised Nebraska girl so death and mutiny in the animal world isn’t new to me, but for animal lovers its never easy to see our feathered/furry friends suffer. This was a great post and you perfectly communicated your sincerity and passion for what you do.
    Thanks so much for the post and I’ll be back to read more!

    Kayla Shaw
    Panacea Brief Therapies

    • Ben May 25, 2013 at 12:01 pm #

      Hi Kayla,
      I’m glad you found our blog site, and hope you find all the information useful! Seeing an animal suffer is very difficult for us too, and we always hope that we are making the right decision if we conclude that we have to put that animal down. We’ll keep sharing our real-world experiences with our urban homestead on this blog. Have a wonderful weekend!

  10. Nichole Fetterhoff May 28, 2013 at 4:38 pm #

    So so true. It’s devastating when you care for an animal and then it goes and dies from the elements, predators, pecking order, etc. The guilt is the worst, because it was your job to make sure those animals that you confine in cages make it and live. I’ve lost one bunny to the 100 degree hot streak last summer, one to the freeze in May this year, a chicken from being pecked in the head too many times (that we had to put down) and almost a duck to a hawk. Sheesh.
    My Cayuga is sitting on her first clutch of 12 eggs and I am anxious to have them hatch, but nervous to see whether she will care for them and hoping that the others in the flock don’t kill them. Wish me luck!
    Great post. An emotional eye-opener for some and a shared pain for others.

    • Ben May 29, 2013 at 9:36 am #

      Hi Nichole,
      Sounds like you have had more than your fair share of trauma with your animals – thank you for sharing this with the group, as I think it is a bit easier to handle these things when we know that we are not alone in this journey. You are so right about the guilt being the worst if you find an animal that has passed while in your care. That’s exactly how I felt each time. My mind is filled with thoughts on what else I could have or should have done, or if I overlooked something, or if I missed something, or… the list goes on.
      Let us know if your Cayuga is successful with hatching out her eggs! Please be sure to keep a small pool or wide bucket of water on hand nearby for her – that was one of the mistakes we made when our Muscovy went broody. They need to be able to keep the humidity/moisture level up for those eggs to develop and hatch. 🙂

  11. Lori May 30, 2013 at 10:53 am #

    Great article with good insight.

    • Ben May 30, 2013 at 12:49 pm #

      Thanks for the positive feedback, Lori. 🙂

  12. littlewolf June 28, 2013 at 2:44 pm #

    I am laughing by reading this blog, Ben we met you during the chicken coop tour and when I read your blog, it was like dejavu, we also had experience a chicken die on us for no reason but then again, because we were not paying attention on their behavior and what to look for, since they are always happy and friendly, we didnt realized that it was the eggs bound syndrome 🙁 . Now we are building our little rabbitry and we have seen videos and read books and read blogs, etc on what happens the first time, but I assure you that no matter what kind of knowledge we gain from reading; going thru the experience its not match to the emotional distress we will gain, its always the love you put into something just to see fail and loose it by the law of nature, but then again, you know you are human knowing that you “love, care and nutured” the food you want to eat, because you choose to eat well and healthy and want to take care of the earth as well. Loosing your worms and not knowing the reason why is also devastating, until you see that you mix some chile pepper in your “scrap” container and all your worms are dry out and flat….now that is another story…i know better now. Thank you for your blog and for sharing all your knowledge!

    • Ben July 1, 2013 at 2:06 pm #

      Hi Littlewolf,

      There certainly are a lot of things that can be learned from a book or a video, but real-life experience is the best tool by far, and that is how I learn my farming lessons the best! Not that I enjoy these tough life lessons, but they sure do make an impression. Thanks for sharing your stories too. I think it helps to know that we aren’t in this alone and that many others have experienced similar things with their backyard homesteads.

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