Sunday, January 31, 2016

Reds, Rainy Days, and Ethics

The Dawn of a New Day

The pitter-pat of rain on the window announces the inevitable boredom of being stuck inside on a rainy day. I wait all week to go outside on the weekends, only to awake to wet patios, mushy pastures, and damp prospects for having fun. No walks with my dog Anna; no donkey rides with Jake or Beauty; no playing pickleball with my daughter Micaela. Bummer.

I guess the rain outside gives me reason to update my blog about New Zealand Red rabbits. It has been an interesting last couple of months with the rabbits. We now have two healthy litters: one with three brokens and one with one broken and three reds. Two years ago I remember my doe Jasmine had eleven kits in one litter; I had to redistribute the babies to other does. My litter sizes have declined for reasons I do not know. I let the buck breed the doe twice; I bring the doe back to the buck’s cage about four hours latter and let them breed twice again. I read where too much line breeding can negatively impact litter size; however, my current litters of three and four were produced by recently purchased bucks that aren’t even related to my does. If anyone who breeds reds has any ideas on increasing litter size, please send me a comment or an email.

As a hobby farmer, I have often thought about the ethics of breeding animals. When I bred Mini Lops in college, I didn’t eat the culls, but did sell them to a meat processing plant in El Monte; I needed a way to ethically get rid of culls because I had flooded my neighborhood with free pet quality rabbits.

While walking the isles at the Kern County Rabbit Breeders show, I noticed white boards announcing rabbits for sale --all breeds. I thought to myself, could all those rabbits from one breeder be show and breeder quality. I struggle with ethics when a customer inquires about purchasing a breeding trio from me. At what age can I really project the adult quality of a young rabbit? At what age can my eyesight accurately sex the kits? If the rabbit is show or breeder quality, why am I willing to sell it? These are questions I need to address to derive a viable and ethical sales policy for

I also breed mammoth donkeys and Katahdin sheep and I had to address the same questions as to what I believed was ethical.  Ten years ago riding donkeys with good size, conformation and personalities could easily bring $2,500 - $5,000. But with the housing crash and higher feed costs, the demand has diminished. Should I still breed just so I can enjoy the experience of a new foal each spring? I got greedy and bred my best riding jennet one more time; it did not end well for Daisy. I was heart broken. She was not just a riding animal, she was my friend. She never complained about our long conversations, and she was always eager to head out the gate for a trip down our country lane. I stopped breeding donkeys. I stopped breeding LSG dogs. What would I do with the extra Anatolian Shepherds that I could not sell? The sheep Anna guards I can eat or easily sell for meat or yard art.

This is why I have settled on breeding New Zealand Reds: they are a healthy source of protein. Although considered the first domesticated rabbit in America, the reds have fallen out of fashion. A reduction in red breeders has vastly diminished the gene pool. If one large red breeder lost his or her breeding stock that would be a genetic loss for all reds. When I started taking my reds to shows, I rarely found other reds at the show table. Last year, at our local Porterville Fair, there were three New Zealand Red meat pens related to my rabbits. Two of the red meat pens placed in the top ten. Reds didn’t win but it was improvement! Young 4-Hers and FFAers were raising and showing our reds. At the recent KCRBA show two red brokens won Best of Breed and Best Opposite.  The judge had to decide between the red broken buck and a red buck for Best Opposite. The reds had beaten a good selection of New Zealand whites and blacks. Once again, reds are making progress.

But I am still left with the ethical question of what to sell. I no longer sell babies right after weaning. Why not? I cannot honestly tell a customer that a six to eight week old kit will turn out to be a show winner or breeder. From experience, I have found some of my best show rabbits were initially misplaced in the cull pen. Now, I prefer to keep the babies until they are intermediates. The obvious culls go into the rabbit stew, and the remaining intermediates travel to local rabbit shows to see if judges think they are potential show contenders.

After a trip to a show or two, I can then tell which babies are appropriate for selling. I had an eight-month-old buck that showed well at the KCRBA January show; I sold him. I knew he would help improve someone’s red genetics. I could sell him because I had two or three others related to him. Was he perfect? No, but he was the best that I had bred up to that point. So this is how I would like to proceed: If you would like to purchase a single rabbit or breeding trio from me, have patience. Let me know what you want, send a fifty percent deposit in the fall or winter, and in spring, I will be able to deliver New Zealand Red[s] that will make you proud.

Currently, I only have three breeding does. Each has a litter and will be rebred in February for our local fair’s meat pen show. The does will be bred again after the May fair. So I project to have nine litters this year. Each litter is averaging four kits. Four times nine equals thirty-six kits produced this year. Fifty percent will be utilized for personal consumption. That leaves about eighteen kits for showing, breeding stock replacement, and sales. This year I will keep back four of my best does to increase my breeding herd for 2017. I probably will only keep one buck, since my current bucks are all under two years old. So I am at about thirteen rabbits that I will have for sale this spring. Eight of those will probably go to 4-H or FFA meat pens. That leaves me with about five-to-eight rabbits to be sold for show or breeding. Not many, but hopefully all show or breeding quality. Hopefully all will be good enough to improve someone’s red genetics. 

Let me know if you are interested in breeding New Zealand Reds.