Bunny Plucker

Zeus Post Shearing 2014

Not to spend all of my blogging time on making the fiber animals all naked, but it is spring, and the shearing needs a-doing. Or, well…it does if you’re a rookie rabbit owner who underplucked the poor buns during the winter for fear of them freezing and then found, come spring, that their legs were almost felted in place.

Word to the wise: if you raise Angora rabbits as fluffy as mine, you are NOT doing them or yourself any favors by leaving too much of their undercoat in place over the winter.

Zeus Post Shearing 2014
Zeus, post-shaving. I was able to preserve the top coat without shearing, so he’s just missing his dust ruffle.

My rabbits are a French-German mix, so I don’t technically need to shear them IF I keep up on the plucking. Their undercoats were so bad, however, that trying to trim the mats with scissors was almost impossible. It’s much easier to cut them with clippers, I discovered, so if you’ve got mats to deal with, borrow a pair of dog-grooming clippers. My mom has the Wahl Pet Clipper kit, and it did the job. I won’t say they’re the best tool you can buy for angora, so I would do some research and ask breeders of purebred German angoras about their clipper preferences before investing myself.

Ananke Post Shearing 2014
Ananke let me get a better picture of her shorn backside so you can see what they’re missing.

If anyone else finds themselves in a similar situation, for what it’s worth, here are the things I picked up in shearing mine and my mom’s rabbits last weekend.

Keep the skin tight.

Wrinkled skin can get caught between blades, which means cut bunnies. Which we all want to avoid.

  • If you don’t have a pro rabbit stretching rack or really chill bunnies, get a calm person whom the bunnies know to hold the bunny while you clip.
  • DON’T PULL THE WOOL. This causes skin tents. Pull the skin.
  • Try to gently pinch the skin between your fingers, just enough to feel where it is, so you know what you’re doing before you cut.

Know your bunny anatomy.

And gender. Trouble areas to be especially careful of include:

  • Nipples, especially on nursing does.
  • Penis and scrotum. (More the scrotum, those things flop all over the place.)
  • Legs. Put pressure on the joint close to the body to help straighten those out.

Maintain your equipment.

Part of this comes down to grooming the rabbit first to get rid of any dirt or hay in the coat, which is important if you have free-range rabbits. But also:

  • Oil the clippers before you start. Clean and oil them as needed while you work.
  • Make sure you’re working with a sharp blade. (If you can’t easily cut through un-matted fiber, your blade is too dull.)
  • Have good, sharp, short-bladed scissors on hand for areas where you find yourself needing more control.

The last trick I found useful is one for dealing with really thick mats. The clippers and scissors both struggled with those. I worked in very slowly by shaving a bit, then gently tugging the pelt a bit to loosen it, which gave me a less dense area to tackle next. It’s slow going, either way, but lesson learned: next year, I will be doing much more thorough plucking during the winter.

Ananke Spring 2014
Just for cuteness…a face shot of Ananke.

She Shears Meat Sheep By the Seashore

Going for the long-tail search terms with that title. Oh, yeah. The far distant tail of the long tail.

Seconds before I dropped the sheep into the shearing position--handling the sheep was, for me, the easy part.
Seconds before I dropped the sheep into the shearing position–handling the sheep was, for me, the easy part.

To aim for a shorter tale, I got to shear a sheep last weekend through the UMaine Extension School. They partnered with Wolfe’s Neck Farm to provide a pretty stellar (if entirely too cold), hands-on learning experience. Also, networking for farmers, FTW. Very impressed with the amount of materials they provided for the minimal course fee–on top of getting to handle sheep and being fed lots of chili, they sent us home with a manual that basically tells you everything you ever wanted to know not just about shearing sheep, but about housing, feeding, judging, and generally caring for them.

A friend who has taken some of the extension courses in the past said that extension education seems like basically a group of experienced people who really want more people to be doing the thing they’re teaching, so they bend over backwards to make it possible. That describes my experience.

But want you really want is pictures of me shaving a sheep, so here’s the album, complete with an “auto awesome” gif. You’re welcome.

Much laughter has been had at my expense by those who have known me since I was a squeamish girly-girl, but I also happen to be pretty good with animals and if my first sheep was any indication, it’s a skill I could master without overly much ado (practice, yes: ado, no). The New Zealand method requires some stamina and flexibility, but much to my surprise, I am stronger and more flexible than I sometimes realize.

Bonus? I picked up a massive, lovely Romney fleece for dirt cheap. Most of the sheep (being bred for meat, not wool, since no one lets a bunch of n00b shearers loose on a flock of fiber animals) had poor quality fleeces, but the farm’s ram was a (filthy) beauty whose fleece was destined for the wool pool. The farm let me have the fleece in exchange for a donation that was more than they would have gotten from the wool pool and much less than than I could have gotten it for at a fleece show. Everyone wins.

Granted, it’s going to be a beast to skirt and wash, but I’m pretty confident it will be worth the effort. Sweaters for everyone this Christmas! Or, you know…one a year for the next five Christmases. We’ll see. 🙂

Village Farm Alpacas

Female and young alpacas

Mom and I took a little jaunt up the coast yesterday for pie and an impromptu yarn crawl of sorts, which put us in a great position to visit Village Farm Alpacas. I’ve been interested in owning alpacas for a while now–it’s one of the reasons we bought the house we did–but this is the first chance I’ve had to get a better look at what alpacas take to raise. Terry, one of the owners, shared a wealth of information with me and I am so impressed that I would like to encourage anyone in the market for alpacas (breeding stock or pets) to give these folks a call.

Female and young alpacas
These are some of the females and young alpacas, leaving their barn.

What is the alpaca biz like?

I’m not interested in alpacas as a business, per se, but the Village Farm model is pretty interesting. They have a store, open 7 days a week, which is critical for supporting the breeding operation. If you’re selling animals for breeding stock, the only way to command the best prices on the market is to take your animals to shows to be judged on their fleece, size, health, etc. – but champion bloodlines are worth the cost of traveling to the shows. All of the Village Farm fleece is processed by one-woman with a solar-powered mill who runs her operation nearby, so they are able to sell roving and yarn to get a better market value for their products. If you buy from the store (which has a great selection of products from their animals and from a farm coop in Peru), they’re happy to take the time to give you a farm tour, which is the part I was particularly excited about.

What makes a great fleece?

Before we met the animals, Terry showed us a prize winning fleece and talked about what you want to see in a top quality fleece and how you look for that in an animal. Having a low micron (super thin fiber, about a fifth of a human hair) is valuable for softness, which you just have to have tested if you want to bring in top dollar for the fleece. For ease of spinning, the lock should have a good number of crimps per inch as well as a high amplitude crimp (bigger difference between the peaks and valleys of the crimps). You’ll want a good fiber density and fiber that organizes itself into bundles, which Terry pointed out you can see even from a distance in the animals–they’ll have good, poofy top-knots and look more wooly than hairy.

Meeting the animals

Terry introduced us to the ladies and the crias first, but the real fun came when he brought us to a pen to visit the gelding males. Geldings are MUCH less expensive than females or sires, the same way that dogs are less expensive if you’re not buying to breed them. They’re less aggressive than sires and friendlier than pregnant females, so this is what I would be looking at for my own little herd. Karuso (grandson of a champion) wandered directly over to me, and after talking to us a bit about how alpacas should and should not be handled (they’re herd animals who need to understand their place in the herd to be sociable, not cats you can pet and coddle without developing behavioral issues), he let me try holding Karuso in place and scratching his neck. Karuso wasn’t impressed with my animal-managing skills and ducked away after a minute, but I got enough time to get a little taste of what it feels like to handle alpacas in order to care for them.

Chillin' alpacas
The female alpacas in their barns.

What do alpacas need?

As Terry offered to put together a package of animals for me, which I sadly had to refuse because we are not quite ready for alpacas, he gave me a basic sense of what you need in order to care for alpacas.

  • Land: One acre can support up to 8 alpacas.
  • Company: Alpacas need other alpacas–three is the minimum you should keep.
  • Shelter: Alpacas need a simple three-sided shelter for the colder months.
  • Feed: Each alpaca goes through about 25 bales of hay annually, plus a specific feed supplement.
  • Water: Obviously, all animals need water, but you need to either have a frost-free tap and a self-heating trough or buckets for winter or the time and willingness to haul enough water for three large animals. (Well, large compared to rabbits, anyway.)
  • Fencing: Terry recommended electric fencing, but I might need to research that more deeply and possibly consider other options because having sweet fluffy alpacas behind electric fencing not far from the border of a residential neighborhood with a lot of kids strikes me as a recipe for deep-fried, underage trespassers who can’t be bothered to read warning signs.
  • Protection from coyotes: Their setup involves leaving talk radio playing at the edge of the field at night.

The last critical element is, of course, time. After getting rabbits last year, I can’t downplay this element–the rabbit grooming takes far more time for me than I thought it would after talking with pros. And while alpacas supposedly don’t require much grooming aside from toenails and an annual shearing, I suspect there’s always going to be some aspect that just takes me more time because I’m not doing the task frequently enough to get fast at it. So…not a decision to be undertaken lightly. Thought and planning required.

What doesn’t require much thought is pointing out that the Village Farm folks have some lovely fibers and garments in their online store as well, so if you’re looking to buy roving/yarn from really nice people with beautiful animals, you might want to bookmark it. And if you happen to have land ready to go and know you’re up for the time commitment of owning alpacas, you should probably give Terry and Bonnie a call–they’re very knowledgeable and helpful.

They’re also about two minutes away from Eagle’s Nest Yarns and the excellent strawberrry-rhubarb pie at Moody’s Diner, so there are many good reasons to make Waldoboro a stop on your next coastal Maine yarn crawl. 🙂

Meet Zeus and Ananke

The bunnies are here! My mom and two of her crafting buddies went with me to Acker’s Acres to pick them up after we finished the Spring into Summer quilt shop hop today. They are such a hoot to hang out with.

Zeus and Ananke arrive

They are a little freaked out, I’m not going to lie, but the Rabbitat is sturdy, the cages are level and secured. Hopefully we can keep them cool enough in this heatwave.

Zeus May 2013

This is Zeus. He’s about four months old, and his first real wool is ready to be harvested, so that will be a fun project to attempt this weekend.

Ananke - May 2013

And this is Ananke. An internet huzzah to whoever figures out why I decided to name her that first. She’s just eight weeks old, quite snuggly, and less stressed than Zeus, possibly in part because her coat isn’t yet as thick as his.

Looking forward to the Fiber Fest tomorrow. Anyone else going to the Ravelry meetup tomorrow? I’ll be there with my dragon, for whom I swear there is a pattern coming as soon as we get the photo shoot done.

The Cages

I’m sighing a deep sigh of relief right now. We finally have rabbit cages. I had planned on buying the 30″ x 36″ cages from Tractor Supply a few months ago. I made the mistake of assuming that I could just drop in and pick them up anytime, however, so I waited until about a week and a half ago to go shopping for cages.

Tip: Start trying to buy your cages a month before your rabbits arrive. You might get lucky and find them in stock, but you also might have to wait for a truck to come in, which will put you pretty close to the wire.

Rabbit Cages

If you do buy this cage, you should know that what’s in the box is not going to put a safe cage together. Most of the joins are meant to be held together with a simple  hook over the adjoining side of wire. In theory, this would be fine, but the sides clearly came off a roll and weren’t flattened perfectly. The warp of the wire means that the clip system is essentially useless. You need to buy the J-clips and j-clip tool to pull the cages together safely.

Once I used the j-clips, the cages went together without too much trouble. The door swings in, and there’s a hook for the top of the cage so you can keep the door out of the way while you’re dealing with the bunnies. The best feature about the cage is that it looks like it was galvanized post-weld, which means that the welds shouldn’t rust out before the wire.

The option I might consider in the future is making my own cage. I’m still researching that process and pondering what quantities of cage I’m willing to produce (you’d almost have to be a pro rabbitry or selling cages to buy the wire in the bulk to make it worthwhile). I’ll post plans and instructions if I ever do make a cage, but in the meantime, if you’re looking for a supplier of bulk welded wire, Bass Equipment Company is the best place I’ve found so far.

In other news, the Rabbitat is 95% complete–it just needs a coat of paint. Plans and pictures to come soon. We’ve also decided on names for the bunnies…to be revealed at the end of the week. Duh duh DUH! 🙂

The Bunnies are Coming!

A while back, John and I went out to Acker’s Acres to meet Beth and her angoras, who were just at the beginning of a breeding season. Yesterday, Sarah and I were able to meet the kits who were just twinkles in their mothers’ eyes. They’re only six weeks old, so not old enough to take home yet (which is good, because the rabbitat is not yet built), but old enough that you can see what coats they’ll have and distinguish their genders.

Beth had a few male fawns that were a bit older–I met them on my last visit. Male rabbits are harder to find homes for because you only really need one to get a rabbitry going. They were so sweet though, and I just couldn’t help agreeing to give this guy a home.

My First Angora

He was due for a grooming, so Beth used him to demonstrate some basic grooming techniques. His first useful coat was also ready to be harvested, so I got to see exactly what he’ll be producing and how easily it comes off. I’m glad that these rabbits can be plucked instead of shorn–seems like plucking is a lower risk entry to gathering bunny wool.

We couldn't believe how cool he was with being held like this.
We couldn’t believe how cool he was with being held like this.

I had the darndest time choosing my second rabbit from the younger batch. I adored this tiny little bunny. She was from a litter of ten, and all of the kits in her litter were a little smaller. She was definitely a snuggler.

The doe we didn't take.

One of her little sisters, the runt, had escaped just before Sarah and I showed up, and we had a grand old time helping Beth round up the clever little adventuress. If anyone ever asks you how long it takes three grown women to chase one bunny, the answer is WAY longer than you’d think.

This is the bunny we ended up deciding on in the end, and she’s the niece to the male rabbit. Apparently inbreeding is a done thing when you’re dealing with rabbits, though, because Beth said we could breed them together if we wanted to.

Sarah and  6 week old REW Doe we did choose

Not sure I’ll be up for breeding them anytime soon–that’s a more difficult endeavor that would benefit from a degree in rabbit genetics. All of that is far more complicated than it seems like it ought to be, but fortunately, Sarah (aka Queen of Overthunk Things) has taken an interest in both rabbit behavior and genetics, so I can pretty much count on plenty of help raising those rabbits right.

Our date to pick them up is tentatively May 31st, so keep you eyes open for more fuzzy bunny pictures soon!