Monday, May 29, 2017

From Cage to Cooler to Canning Jar

We did it. We have processed our first, home-grown protein. In other words, our first litter of meat rabbits are now residing in our pantry.

Did it go as I expected? Pretty much, except for some huge bruises on my backside!

I will write an outline of how the day progressed. And I apologize in advance for any dark humor that works it way into my descriptions. We do respect our animals, take good care of them while raising them and dispatch them as humanely as possible. In fact our breeding pairs, Roger, Jessica, Honey and Charlie are a part of our family. But, we also realize that Alan and I also have a dark sense of humor that gets us through the more grizzly aspects of living self-reliantly.

Alan was in charge of photos, I haven't looked over them yet to see which ones can be included in the post. As this was our first experience, the educational photos may not be available until the next batch are processed -I don't remember Alan taking pictures during the skinning and butchering process. Those of you who are truly interested in the process can google for videos and and other sites with photos. This was something I did the night before to make sure I was familiar with what we needed to do, and not do.

Preparations started a couple days before as Alan started filtering a larger supply of potable water than we generally use. We had purchased a chest cooler large enough to hold the 'batch' and the plan was to have ice water in the chest to chill the carcasses. I also suggested we have a five gallon bucket with potable water for a pre-rinse before placing them in the cooler. We filter our potable water into 2 1/2 gallon bottles that we usually pour into our small holding tank for our kitchen system.  As he worked on a supply of water for this project, Alan set the bottles aside as they were filled.

The day before the event, we turned on our freezer to make ice and also cool down some of the water. Alan filled some 2-liter bottles with water (no need to be potable) to freeze. He placed these and one of the bottles of potable water in the freezer. When the potable water was chilled he moved it to the fridge, we just wanted it cooled so it would not immediately melt the ice in the bottles when we added it to the cooler. We also mounted the 'Hopper Popper' and the 'Rabbit Cincher' on our deck posts, more about these helpful tools later.

Oh, one final 'prep' was to not feed the rabbits for 24 hours beforehand. Our breeder rabbits are housed in the same area as those that were to be 'dispatched' so I had a dilemma - I did not want to feed the breeders in front of the others, but I also did not want the breeders to go hungry just because we were withholding food from the ones to be dispatched. My solutions was to feed everyone the morning before (the 24 hour cut off), I fed the meat rabbits a very little amount while giving the breeders more than usual as I did not want to give them their usual nightly feeding in front of the ones we had stopped feeding.

The next morning we had a friend arrive who had offered to help. She had processed some rabbits the summer before and thus had some experience. As rabbits tend to scratch I put on work gloves (I was to learn this was a mistake) while Alan went to get the first one from the cage. Alan actually asked me which one I wanted first! We had 'named' all the meat rabbits Stewie but we always blamed Stewie #4 for any trouble that was caused in the rabbitry. When I was sexing the rabbits a few weeks earlier and learned we only had one male out our of the six, we designated him as Stewie #4. He was also the only one with dark gray ears so he was easily identifiable, so I said 'Bring Stewie #4'.

In the foreground is the Rabbit Cincher hanging from a hook
on our deck. Directly below the cincher in the photo you can
see the 'V' of the Hopper Popper which is mounted to the left
of the Rabbit Cincher.
We had purchased the Hopper Popper because it is designed to be a humane way of dispatching the rabbits. Basically, you slide the rabbit's neck into the metal 'V', hold the hind legs and lean back using your weight to dislocate the vertebrate. I took Stewie #4 from Alan, placed him in the Popper, held him by his hind legs, leaned back... and promptly fell backwards onto our very rocky ground. Note to self- do not wear gloves when trying to keep a grip on the rabbit's legs. Thus, the massive bruises on my lower back and backside - the final revenge of Stewie #4.

Placing Stewie #4 in the Hopper Popper.
(Gloves should not have been worn.)
Once each rabbit has been dispatched. We placed their hind feet into the loops of the Rabbit Cincher we had purchased. We went with the cincher in place of the typical gambrel hook to hold the rabbit for skinning/gutting because we thought it would be easier to use. After using it, I feel we made the right decision. The cincher is a basically two slip-loops of braided wire separated by a short length of small diameter pvc pipe. The wire is actually in a triangle configuration with a loop above the pipe for hanging and a slip-loop at each end of the loop for holding the hind feet. Where the grambrel hooks need to pierce each leg above the foot, with the cincher, you simply slide the feet into position and tighten the loop. The hanging loop also provides a lot of mobility for twisting the body while skinning the animal. Note: Place a 5 gallon bucket on the ground under the the rabbit cincher for all unwanted parts to drop into. We placed a garbage bag in the bucket to make clean-up easier.

The first rabbit took me close to thirty minutes to 'muddle through' even though I had read directions and watched a video. The second one was down to about 20 minutes, the biggest learning curve was that I realized I needed to be more aggressive, not hesitant, which came with familiarity with the process and the anatomy. Then I watched our friend do a couple. This was also beneficial because we were able to see difference in techniques that we both used and recognize advantages of changing some of our methods. By the end I could go from 'cage to cooler' in just over 10 minutes while our friend holds the record at just under 8 minutes.

Upon googling how-to instructions prior to The Day, I discovered there was no one set of steps that everyone agreed upon. Based upon my experience last year, when I butchered chickens for the first time, I familiarized myself with the various ways people suggested and then planned to figure out what worked best for me. The further we get into this self-reliance experience the more comfortable I am with figuring out what works best for us rather than trying to replicate what others are doing. By researching several different approaches, I can usually ascertain the important points that need to be adhered to - in this case be sure not to puncture the bladder or intestines - and can then work through the rest in a manner that works for me.

This means the first couple of rabbits were guinea pigs to put into practice what I had been studying. Below is a basic description of the process from the point the freshly dispatched animal is hanging upside down from the rabbit cincher. WARNING: The following details may be considered a bit gruesome by some readers.

A rabbit in the cincher.
Starting the skinning process.
1. Remove the head. Psychologically, this was always the hardest step for me. It was also the most difficult physically on the first rabbit because I did not realize how aggressive I had to be. I probably spent well over 5 minutes trying to delicately cut into the neck. I have a great Morakniv knife that I use for butchering and I was beginning to think that it was badly in need of sharpening when I could not make a cut into the skin. I then decided to toughen up and apply some muscle. That did the trick and once I broke through the skin the knife sliced with the sharpness I was accustomed to and the head came off quite easily after that. Lesson learned - be aggressive.

2. Start skinning at the hind feet. The two techniques I came across that I wanted to try were (a) to cut around each leg near the foot and then cut down the inner leg and pull the skin down the leg and (b) cut the skin up the inner leg from the groin towards the foot then you can easily pull the skin away from the leg  and slide your knife under the skin up by the foot and cut it loose. I found (b) to be quicker and easier. With (a) it was difficult to cut through the skin near the foot because it was stretched so tight at that location. Starting at the groin you could pull the skin up and poke with the point of your knife to get it started.

3. Pull the skin the rest of the way off. With my first two rabbits I took extra time to cut around the tail and also used garden shears to cut off the front feet before pulling the skin all the way off as these were steps included in my reading. However, when it came time for my friend to skin her rabbits she did not do either of these. Once she had the skin loose from the hind legs she simply added a little more muscle and continued to pull and everything came off cleanly. Lesson learned - be aggressive.

4. Open the abdominal cavity. Do not be aggressive. This is where you want to take care not to nick the bladder or intestines with your knife. I am pleased to say we had no such accidents with any of the six rabbits. I was surprised that even though we withheld food and water for 24 hours their bladders and lower intestines were not empty. Back to the technique - carefully make a small horizontal cut in the meat between the hind legs, you can use the hand that not holding the knife to pull the meat towards you a bit and thus put some space between it and the innards. Now you can place your finger in the slit, pointing down, to open up the space between the meat and the innards. Carefully insert your knife next to your finger with the sharp edge towards the meat and carefully cut the meat open. You will be able to cut down for several inches until the start of the rib cage.When you pull your hands away some of the insides may start to fall out, but don't worry everything is fairly 'tough' and will not break open.

5. Disconnecting the innards. Again their are various techniques, my choice is to turn the carcass so the back is facing me and carefully cut the tail bone below the tail. I find kitchen shears or small pruning shears work well when needing to cut through any bones.  Then I turn the carcass back around and carefully cut down along each side of the spine from the tail bone, basically along side where the intestine leaves the body. I just looked at this area closely on the first rabbit and figured out where to cut so that I could keep the tail and anus connected to the intestine and remove it all innards. Once you disconnect the small section up by the tail, everything will easily slide out.

Rinsing the carcass before
placing it in the cooler.
6. Empty the body cavity. This is actually very easy, everything basically falls into the bucket under the rabbit. If you want you can save the heart and liver. We gave all of ours to our friend, you would have thought we were given her treasure! She says rabbit liver is amazing, maybe I will try it next time. Sometimes I had cut off the front feet before skinning, but if not, I cut them off now. I find it easiest to cut them off at a joint, I prefer the knee joint as there is no meat per se on the lower leg. We then rinse the rabbit in a bucket of water and placed them in a cooler of ice water.

Six rabbits, bagged for a 24 hour cool down in the fridge.
The average weight  of these six bags was 3 pound 9 ounces.
So, that was day #1. As with all fresh killed animals, you either want to eat it within the hour or you want to let it rest in the refrigerator for 24 hours before cooking or freezing it. If you cook or freeze the meat during that 24 hours you will just have tougher meat. Since we pressure can all of our meat for storage, I wanted to prepare these rabbits in the same manner as I do chickens and turkeys to see if we liked the results. I always make a big pot of bone broth and then de-bone the meat, can the meat in pint jars and the broth in quart jars.

The bone broth continues to simmer
after removing the meat from the bones.
After they had been in the fridge for 24 hours I halved the rabbits and started a large batch of bunny bone broth in my largest stock pot. I could only fit five of the six rabbits in the pot, but we had friends visiting that day so they were gifted with Stewie #6. I added the same ingredients to my bone broth as I always do for chicken and turkey bone broth: onion, carrots, celery, garlic, crystalized ginger, kosher salt and apple cider vinegar. I simmered the rabbit until it was cooked through, removed them from the broth, de-boned the meat and then added the bones back to the stock to simmer a couple more hours.

Removing the meat from the bones. The meat will be
canned in pint sized jars and used in soups, stews, etc.
As the bones were simmering I chopped the meat (and sampled quite a bit!) and got the batch of pint jars filled and in the pressure canner. Pints of meat take 75 minutes in the canner after they have come up to pressure and then there is a cool down period. After that, I had the quarts of bunny broth which take 90 minutes in the canner. My pressure canner holds 7 quart jars and I ended up with more broth than would fit in one batch so I put some in the fridge to can a partial batch the next day. It was bothering me that I was going to do a partial batch because I consider that a waste of propane. Since I have the burner on the stove turned on for close to two hours, I want to can as many jars as will fit in the canner.

A sample of our first batch of canned
rabbit meat and bunny bone broth.
Guess which one we will be eating first!
As I was taking the pints of meat out of the canner I was listening to the 'pings' as the lids sealed. They always seal within a half hour or so and I very rarely have one that does not seal. Later I went over to the counter to check all the lids and I was disappointed to discover that one jar had not sealed. Of course, since it so rarely happens, you know what I blamed it on. Or should I say, who I blamed it on - Stewie #4 was in that jar. But, I got the last revenge this time... remember my partial canner load the next day? There was one more jar of rabbit meat getting canned a second time.

Friday, May 5, 2017

I Feel Like We Just Brought Home a New Baby

Have you ever brought a newborn baby home? If so, what is the first feelings that you remember as you found yourself totally responsible for this little being for the first time? Excitement? Fear? Trepidation? Help!?!

Who do you turn to? Friends and family? Your online community? Parenting support groups? Parenting books by experts? All of the above?

Clive, the hive. We set him up on a old
carpet to keep the weeds (and ticks)
down around the perimeter of the hive.
Do you wonder where I am going with all these questions? Well, last Thursday we found ourselves driving home with a bouncing... box of bees. And we were soon to find out that those memories of first coming home with a newborn would be triggered by some similar experiences in the next few days. You may think this sounds ridiculous, but let me be more specific. It was the endless flood of advice, and may I say almost always conflicting advice, every time we had a question about the new additions to the homestead.

First off, it was a premature delivery. We were not 'expecting' the bees until 'sometime in May' according to the local apiary we bought the nuc (nucleus hive) from. When we got a phone call on the morning of April 27th asking if we could come pick up our bees that evening you would think we would have everything ready. After all, I had ordered the bees and the hive back in January. But, with the gardens needing to be planted and a strong penchant for procrastination, the hive still needed a coat of tung oil and then had to be transported and set up in the clearing on the northwest corner of the property that we had designated as the bee habitat.

It was a Thursday, there had been torrential rains a couple days earlier and even heavier rains were in the forecast for Saturday. I was thinking that Mark, the bee guy, wanted to get the nucs distributed to his customers in between the storms. That afternoon, we managed to get the hive completed and set up and arrived to pick up our nuc at the designated time, about 7:30 p.m.

This is the flap on the nuc in the
open position. It is closed by
pushing it down into a matching
cut-out, like a puzzle piece, and
only held in place by friction.
A nuc is a small version of a working hive (think mobile home of the bee hive world), which means the bees are going in and out during the day. By waiting to pick it up later in the evening we were making sure most of the bees had returned to it for the night and would not be left behind when we put in in out truck to bring it home.  We took our truck that has the cap on the bed because we did not want the bees riding inside the vehicle with us. It turns out that the nuc, which is a fairly sturdy, weather proofed corrugated cardboard (Corflute) box (like I said, a mobile home - minus the wheels), has a little flap that closes quite securely to keep the bees in for the trip home. I say quite securely but it is just a flap that pushes in flush with the opening and is held by friction, so we were still glad they were in the back of the truck.

As we were getting ready to leave the bee farm, Mark said he would give us the same advice he gives everyone picking up nucs. Here is the gist of his advice, although he did throw in a lot more beekeeping terminology:
1.Feed the bees for the the first week or so. The solution for feeding in the  spring is a 1 to 1 sugar water syrup. After a week, check the brood box (where we transfer the nuc to) to see if they have drawn (made) comb on the new frames, if so add a second brood box or a honey super (has frames just like a brood box, but the queen can't get into it so it only has honey, no eggs, larvae, etc.). If the new frames are not well established with comb, continue feeding the bees and wait a while before adding another box.
2. Treat for mites sometime in August. If you plan on harvesting any honey the first year, treat for mites after the honey harvest.
3. In fall, after the August harvest, have either a second brood box or a honey super in place and start feeding the bees a 2 to 1 sugar syrup so that they can store up food for the winter.

I nodded and asked a couple of questions and hopefully sounded knowledgeable, while the whole time I am thinking how much of this do I really have to do, I want to be a bee haver, not a bee keeper. We are self-reliant and I want our bees to be self-reliant, too. Also I was starting to feel a bit overwhelmed, like when it's time to bring the baby home from the hospital and you wonder if you really know everything you need to know to care for this new addition to the family.

A sample of our road conditions after heavy rains.
When I mentioned bringing home the bouncing box of bees this was not just a cute reference to tie in with the baby analogy. Remember those torrential rains I mentioned? And you may recall that we have been told by some of the county road crew that we live on the worse road in the county. Well, to go pick up the bees we had to go out the north end of our road, which is the longer end to travel before getting to pavement, about 5 miles. The rains had caused quite a few wash-outs along with flooding where the creek ran across the road in several areas. This left the road in worse shape than usual, including rocks up to the size of dinner plates strewn across it as well as dead fall tree branches as large as fence posts washed down from the mountainsides and onto the road.

I was worried the bees would be upset
after  the last 20 minutes of our trip which
was on our washed-out road.
 By the time we ventured out, the worst of the debris had been pushed to the roadside, but it was still rough going. I hadn't thought anything about it until we were on the way back with the bees. As we turned back onto our road ans started bumping along I realized the bees were not going to be happy by the time we got back to our house after about 20 minutes of being shaken up in the back of the truck. Since it was also almost dark by this time, we decided it would be a good idea to leave the bees in the nuc for the night and transfer them to the hive the next morning. This was the first of many decision we had to make for our new addition to the family.

When we got home, we placed the nuc up by the hive but kept it closed for the night, after an in depth discussion on the pros and cons of opening the door of the nuc for that night. My thinking was that, since the nuc was a mini working hive, it would be fine left 'as is' for the night. It had five frames, where a full size brood box has either eight or ten. And, since the nuc was well established, these frames were full of everything the bees needed and they would be fine closed up for one night. Plus, since we had waited for them all to fly home for the night before picking them up we could assume they always stayed in the nuc all night. Nevertheless as soon as we were in the house I google how long can bees stay in a nuc and found all different answers, both confirming and contradicting my thoughts..

Alan and I stayed up googling quite a few things about bees that night. It's not that I hadn't researched beekeeping before this, in fact, I had taken a three month online course. But, just like when you read all the baby books and thought you knew everything, it all seems different as soon as you bring them home. Oh, and the one sure thing we learned that night was a tidbit Alan came across that he shared with me. It said: If you ask two beekeepers a question you will get three different answers.

This is what the nuc looked like when we opened the lid.
A fully established mini-hive with five frames. The bees
had even started drawing some comb on the box lid.
The next morning we lit the smoker, I donned my protective gear and we hiked up to Clive, the hive. I opened the little hatch on the nuc expecting a huge out pouring of claustrophobic bees, but only a few rambled out to look around. I then opened the top flap to view the frames, which were nicely filled with bees, calm bees I was happy to see. I wafted a little smoke over the top of the frames in the nuc to encourage the bees to meander down into the frames so that I could grasp the upper edges.

When you use smoke you do not want to flood the hive with it, in most cases more is not better. I like to think of it more as herding the bees in the direction you want them to go with puffs of smoke. In order to transfer the frames and bees from the nuc into Clive's brood box I wanted the bees to move off the tops of the frame and down into the nuc so that they were on other parts of the frames. If I had blown smoke into the entire nuc box I would have probably chased the bees completely out of the box and I did not want a few thousand bees to come flying out at me (a typical nuc contains 10,000 bees). While smoke is used to calm the bees, too much smoke will actually lead to an agitated hive due to the confusion it causes.

Using the hive tool to loosen the frames from the nuc box.
Before attempting to lift out the frames, I saw there was some cross comb visible between the frames. This is where the bees build the comb as a bridge between the frames. I could only see the top edges of the frames so I had no idea how badly the frames were stuck together. Time to make more decisions. I used my hive tool, which has a sharp wedge, to split the comb I could see between the top of two the frames. As I wiggled the tool down through the comb I could feel the first frame separate from the next. I then grasped the top edge with both hands and lifted. Nothing happened. The frame was still stuck in the box. I again grabbed the hive tool and this time I used the end that is bent similar to a crow bar. I slid the bent end under the lip of the frame that rest on the box edge and gently pried up to loosen the frame from the box. I did this on both sides and then the frame, along with all the bees currently working on it, easily lifted out of the box and I carefully placed it in Clive. Four more frames to go.

Transferring a double set of frames. The white strip closest
to me in the box is the top of one of the new frames. We are
using plastic frames that have been coated in bees wax.
It turns out, I only had to do this two more times because the next time I pried a frame loose, two came up together and I was comfortable supporting both of them together with my fingers under the lips of the frames. Since Clive is an 8-frame box, we had three new frames in the brood box in addition to the 5 we transferred. You always arranged your frames so that the transferred nuc is in the center and the transferred frames are always kept in the same order as they were in the nuc. So our brood box has a new frame on one end then the five nuc frames and then two more new frames. The bees will now get busy drawing comb (building honey comb) on the new frames to fill out the brood box.

This is the feeder I made to hold the
sugar water syrup. When inverted, a
vacuum forms so that it does not
continually drip through the holes.
What's next? We'll check the new frames in the brood box at the end of the week. At that time, I am fairly certain we will see the new frames on either side of the transferred frames have been filled with comb. Soon after that we will add our second brood box. It is a medium sized box, which is shorter than the current (deep) brood box. It will also have 8 frames for the bees to draw comb on, but these are shorter frames designed to fit in the medium sized box. We are thinking of this as an auxiliary storage area (self-reliance) to help our bees get through the winter. While many beekeepers wait to add this on until after they have harvested their honey, we want to let our bees store up their supply before we stake any claim for ourselves.

The honey super, with the
flow frames will be added
to the hive later in the summer.
Once we know our bees are well prepared with food stores we will then add the honey super. The honey super is normally just another box with frames that the queen does not have access to, but in our case it has the flow frames that we will be able to drain the honey from the frames without removing them from the hive.

You keep the queen out of the honey super using a queen excluder, a plastic grid that is large enough for all the bees except the queen to get through. This allows the bees to fill the frames in the honey super with honey while making sure the queen does not lay any eggs in the your honey.

Alan adding the queen excluder on top of the brood box.

The queen excluder can be seen
through feeding hole.
The feeder jar in place over the hole in the top board.
The roof of the hive has been removed in this photo.
One more analogy and then I'll stay away from the topic of bees for a while. Alan made a purchase this week that will serve multiple purposes. It is the Hive Genie. It is a hi-tech device (Purpose #1 a new toy) that monitors the health of the hive in a variety of ways (Purpose #2 aids in the goal of bee haver vs. bee keeper) that even comes with its own solar panel (Purpose #3 solar panel - enough said). Get the analogy? It's a bee monitor (as opposed to a baby monitor).