Meat in the freezer

Yesterday was butchering day at Bramblewood Acres.

It’s never a pleasant task to kill an animal, but it puts humanely raised, clean meat into our freezer and we know exactly how those animals were raised and how they lived.

And we know how they died.

(No photos with this post out of consideration for those who are squeamish.)

We had 11 rabbits to send to freezer camp and butchered and prepared 7 of them. The last four got a reprieve until next weekend because we simply ran out of time. My husband and I have the whole process down to an art. He dispatches them (a .22 to the back of the head, quick and easy.) We tried other methods in the past and have found the .22 the quickest way possible for us and the rabbits never see it coming.

I skin them. My husband doesn’t have the patience to take off the skins with as little damage as possible to the hide and I like to save them as intact as practical. We have about 20 skins in the freezer waiting for tanning and curing. My daughter wants a rabbit skin blanket, so, we are saving them for that project and future skins will either be sold or saved for other projects. The hides are beautiful. Thick, lush fur in an amazing variety of colors. The winter hides are the best.

By the time I’m done skinning (I’m getting faster!), he has prepared a second rabbit for skinning and gets to work cleaning the one I just skinned while I skin the next. Once he’s done with one, into the salted ice water it goes to wait for final preparation.

And so it goes until we are done.

In the past we have either frozen the entire rabbit after cutting it up into quarters or put them all into a pot and cooked down for canning.

I have a confession: I hate bones. I cannot stand bones in my meat (any variety!) and it sets my stomach on edge if my teeth touch a bone while eating. I have to pick all the meat off a bone before I can eat it. Don’t ask why, I don’t know, but, there it is.

This time, we de-boned and filleted the hind hoppers and back and froze them. It took quite a bit more time than just cutting them up and freezing, but I think it will be worth the effort come time to cook.

The remainder of the rabbit (front legs, ribs, the bones from the back and hind hoppers after filleting which still had a bit of meat left on them) went into the stew pot where I cooked it just enough to fall off the bones then picked the meat off in chunks and froze it.

Out of 7 rabbits, we ended up with enough meat for just over 8 meals. Those were some BIG rabbits and there was zero waste (except for the bones).

Tonight some of that rabbit will become rabbit burritos. Yum! It has a similar texture to chicken, but a very different flavor. It’s a milder, sweeter, more tender meat than chicken and anything you can do with chicken, you can do better with rabbit.

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As the dirt warms

Ahhh, yes. That time of year has finally arrived. I’ve spent the last three weeks chomping at the bit to get out into the gardens and get busy. Now, it’s here and I’m busy! I’ve never been one of those people who can sit still for very long. I can’t barely sit through an entire movie so winter is usually torture for me. I scrub walls and cabinets, ceilings and light fixtures because I cannot just sit and do nothing. Let’s just say, by the time spring rolls around, there isn’t much left to “spring clean” in my house.

Thank goodness for that, though, because if I had to spring clean my house, it wouldn’t get done. I’ve been busy, busy creating new beds, preparing old ones for new plantings and planting. So far, I have carrots, onions, romaine lettuce, a mesclun lettuce mix, spinach and 24 new asparagus crowns in the ground. Doesn’t seem like much, when typed, but in the ground, that’s a lot of space to prep and plant. And, that’s only the veggies. I’ve also prepped and planted three new wildflower beds, a sunflower bed, marigolds, lavender and a hummingbird/butterfly/bee garden. Four more of those left to prep and plant, along with the rest of the veggies. I won’t put tomatoes, peppers or eggplant into the ground for a couple more weeks, but potatoes, beans, summer squash and new herbs will be going in this weekend and early next week.

We started a new clutch of eggs Sunday, and between the new incubator fan and upgraded thermometer/hygrometer I’m hoping we get a hatch this time. We candle for the first time in 6 days then again a week later. Then, cross fingers, eyes and toes and hope for the best! I read that incubating eggs is part art, part science, and I have to agree. Successful momma chickens just rose a few notches in my admiration book!

Sometimes, it’s heartbreaking

None of the eggs hatched. I gave them til Saturday and when I opened the incubator to remove them, the smell was incredible. I’m going to say they died in the shells. I think what may have happened is, since my hatch date was off by a couple of days and the temperature wasn’t high enough, I stopped turning them too soon.

If you stop turning the eggs, the embryos stick to the shell, and if they stick, they can’t move to peck their way out of the shell.

It’s very, very disheartening and disappointing. But, we will try again. I picked up a fan for the incubator yesterday and got a new thermometer with a hygrometer on it to keep close tabs on the humidity AND the temperature. Having a fan to keep the warm air circulating is supposed to increase the hatch rate, too.

It’s heartbreaking to lose any animal, and we’ve lost quite a few. I can’t even tell you how many chickens we’ve lost over the years to predators – hawks, fox, coyote and raccoons – and every loss is hard. Last year, my vegetable garden was a failure, for the most part, some plants never made it to fruiting due to the extreme drought and heat and we had to make a choice: Water the vegetable plants or water the animals. Our well had gone dry, twice, so the garden had to die because we had to go to a very strict water use regimen. There was nothing I could do but watch all my plants, all that work and sweat and time, dry up and die.

Very disheartening.

But, you keep pressing forward. If I gave up after a loss, I might as well pack it up and move to an apartment.

Trying to be self-sustaining is no walk in the park. It’s hard, sweaty, often back-breaking work, it’s time-consuming, and sometimes, heartbreaking and disappointing. But, you learn, you make changes or improvements and you keep moving forward, striving to do better the next time. This is a lifestyle I have chosen and I love it, I love the work and the satisfaction of a job done well.

With every disappointment, every heartbreak, there is always something that keeps me going and reminds me how lucky I am and how wonderful this life I’ve chosen is.

ImageBecause sometimes, there ARE new babies to welcome into the world. One of our does, Pumpkin, had a strong, healthy litter of eight.

And, there are always fresh eggs.ImageWhich means there is always the chance for more chicks.

Gardening is SO much work! Why bother?

The goal of the 2013 garden here at Bramblewood Acres is to grow enough produce not only to satisfy our need for fresh veggies (a salad for dinner, freshly plucked from the dirt is our typical spring/summer fare) but also to be able to preserve and freeze enough of what we grow to get us through the year.

Why? Well, first and foremost, homegrown just tastes better and I like knowing what’s in that jar of pasta sauce or green beans and knowing what happened every step of the way. I know what goes into growing each veggie, the effort, the compost (thank you chickens, rabbits and horses!), the time, the sweat, the blisters and sunburn, and I do believe I enjoy it that much more simply due to knowing the history of each jar, each vegetable. In each jar, I’m not just eating something delicious and pure that I grew or raised, I’m rewarding myself, one jar at a time, for hard work and diligent effort.

And that feels darn good.

Secondly, I like knowing that the things I’m feeding my family grew a few steps from the house, not Mexico or Argentina or Taiwan. I don’t use a single chemical in the whole process, which translates to pure, clean, healthy food at the end of it all. Whether I I can it, freeze it, dry it, or eat it right away, it’s all the same pure food it started out as. Except for a little dirt and bug poo, it’s 100 percent as Mother Nature intended. I get extreme satisfaction knowing I can grow, share, and eat varieties of plants that most people have never heard of, much less put into their mouths, and to me, that’s pretty awesome. I love sharing my bounty and enjoy seeing people’s faces when they bite into something homegrown and can truly taste the sunshine, rain, and warm summer days it took to create that food.

The driving desire to grow and raise your own food is hard to describe to those who have never felt the urge it or don’t have the passion for it. There are so many factors that go into it and unless you get it, you won’t understand why I will spend an entire hot, humid, icky summer day sweating in the garden or a long, cold day fixing pasture fencing, snugging up a chicken coop or butchering rabbits when I can just take a trip to the grocery store, and, with next to zero effort, fill my pantry and my refrigerator.

I do it because I get a great amount of satisfaction that we can be mostly self-sufficient and feed ourselves. I like that very much. I like depending on myself and I am fulfilled when I look back on a hard day of work and see a job done and done well. It is hard work, but it’s hard work well worth doing, in my opinion. I like knowing exactly what’s in my food and where it came from, no questions any where along the line from planting to harvesting to preserving.

Here’s to the 2013 season and hoping all goes well enough that by the end of summer, I’ll have shelves full of canned goods, crates of potatoes and onions, a freezer full of homegrown meat and heading into the winter comfortably stocked.

What almost spring brings

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Colorful!

The ladies are at nearly 100 percent production again, thanks to the longer days. I love the variety of colors we get, its always fun to try to guess which eggs came from which chicken. I think the huge dark brown ones are from the black and white cochins.

A few new babies have joined our household. We got six more laying hens: Three Americaunas and three Anconas. Plus, two Tufted Roman geese and two bronze-breasted turkeys. The geese, Max and Ari, quickly bonded with my daughter and they follow her like a momma goose. Very funny. They will be pets/guardians. The turkeys are Thanksgiving and Christmas. You figure it out!

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Max and Ari with “momma.”

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Thanksgiving and Christmas checking out the goose “momma.”

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The whole flock exploring the family room. They are interested in everything! They are all the same age, but the geese are growing like crazy.

 

Year-end roundup

We got through the summer, despite the heat and drought. We had to have water hauled out to refill our dry well a few times, but thankfully we saw some rain raise the water table towards the end of summer. Too late to save my squash and melon and bean plants from turning to crispy bits of formerly living things.

I canned what I could: Several quarts of tomatoes, tomato sauce, peaches, rabbit stew and shredded rabbit (mmmm!) and chicken broth. We harvested many huge, tasty, sweet potatoes and a bucketful of late season turnips. The late-season beets did not do well and the late-season spinach did not produce enough to bother with. My garden is currently wintering beneath a layer of rabbit manure mulch and garden leftovers, waiting for the first bite of the tiller to dig in as soon as the ground is warm enough to get out there.

We are in the middle of winter now, and so far, it has been significantly milder than I expected. We’ve had some moisture, not much. We’ve had a few below-freezing days, but not many. I am worried this could be a precursor to a dry, warm spring and another hot, dry summer.

I think I will approach keeping my garden watered a bit differently this year. I learned the hard way that the overhead watering system (a sprinkler) cannot compete with dry, windy conditions and the plants fail. This year, I think I will invest in a good quantity of soaker hose and nestle the hose near the neediest plants. I am also going to reduce the number of tomato varieties this year. We had WAY too many cherry tomatoes and not enough good, meaty canning/eating tomatoes.

The spring seed catalogues have begun arriving and I am drooling and ready to start ordering. But before I do, I need to sit down and design my garden, decide what I’m going to plant and where, maybe try some companion planting this year. I do know that although I thought it was big enough last year, I need to add a few more feet this spring. And cattle panels will make better vining bean supports than strings between posts. For sure.

What are your “must have” veggie plants?

A few things have happened since I last posted (forever ago, I know!)

1. I got married to a good ole farm boy who has no problem doing some of the heavy lifting around here.

2. I somehow managed to acquire two more horses, bringing my herd up to five plus one boarder. Six horses takes a lot more time to care for than three! Just sayin’.

3. We started breeding/raising/butchering rabbits. We are working on perfecting the process so we can make the venture worthwhile. So far the meat we’ve gotten from the rabbits is yummy, but about as pricey as a filet mignon, pound for pound. I’m working on ways to reduce our costs (feeding), otherwise, it’s just not worth it. I would also like to figure out how to market them, and that requires some FDA research. I’m not sure if we can sell them dressed, or live only.

4. There are more than 20 homegrown, free-range chickens in my freezer. I will be doing the chicken-raising venture again! Aside from the initial expense of buying the broiler chicks and feeding them a high-protein diet for the first few weeks of life, the meat and effort was definitely worth the end result.

5. I’m down to only about 20 egg-layers, so much for having enough to sell some of the eggs. We get more than enough eggs to keep us well-fed, but not enough to sell. If I get a good broody hen this spring, I’m going to let her set and see what we get.

Things that keep us busy

Despite the wretched, no-relief heat, utter lack of rain and a well that’s on the fritz, the garden is faring decently.

The squash and melon and cucumber plants all look so wilted and pathetic during the day, but they perk right back up once the sun starts going down.

Ignore the brown, crispy peas…I need to get them outta there. The Swiss Chard is non-stop!

Sweet potatoes in the foreground, peppers (sweet, habanero, jalapeno and chili) and tomatoes.

The peas are kaput, they don’t tolerate heat at all, and the spinach and the broccoli have bolted, but the tomatoes, scallop squash and beans? Oh, boy, they are producing like mad.

The good stuff.

The Yukon Gold cherry tomatoes and Sweet 100 cherries have been so productive I was starting to wonder how many I could tolerate eating before I was just plumb sick of ’em. So, what’s a girl do with pounds and pounds and pounds of cherry tomatoes?

Well, can them of course!

Preparing to make good stuff.

I decided to make pickled cherry tomatoes. It’s a quick and easy recipe from the Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving and requires only water bath processing.

Eisley Wax Hot Peppers, from my sister’s garden.

The man requested a bit of hot added to a couple of the jars, so, we inserted a whole dried Eisley Wax Hot Pepper into a couple of the jars next to the fresh rosemary and garlic. The peppers were gifted to me from my sister’s garden, and they are SPICY HOT! I won’t be tasting those particular jars. They are all his.

The first jars are packed and in the canner for 10 minutes.

Ever notice how waiting for a pot to boil can take FOREVER? Especially when you have to do it a few times.

Such pretty jars.

We ended up with 12 pints and 4 quarts of pickled rosemary/garlic cherry tomatoes. And I still had plenty of cherry tomatoes left, I was just done with canning at that point. And I ran out of pint jars and I’m saving the quart jars for more beans.

Here’s the recipe I used.

Pickled Grape Tomatoes

Yield: 4 pints

2 quarts grape tomatoes

1 teaspoon canning salt

1 cup white wine vinegar

1 cup white vinegar

1 quart water

4 cloves garlic

3 sprigs fresh rosemary

Wash and drain tomatoes. Combine salt, the vinegars and water in a saucepan and bring to a boil. Let simmer for 10 minutes. Pack grape tomatoes into hot jars, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Add 1 clove garlic and 1 sprig rosemary to each jar. Ladle hot liquid over tomatoes, leaving 1/2-inch headspace. Remove air bubbles. Process 10 minutes in a boiling water canner.

Oh! I love getting a call from the post office at 6 a.m…. “Hey, you have a box here, and it’s peeping!” We got 31 broilers and 12 more laying hens in this batch: 2 Ancona, 3 Black Jersey Giants, 4 Americaunas and 3 Rhode Island Reds.

Oh, such tired babies! It was a long trip.

A few more weeks and the two latest litters of bunnies will be ready to head to freezer camp. Bunnies have got to be among some of the cutest babies ever. Kayleigh has already claimed one to keep, a little rust-colored doe who is fairly large. She’ll be a good addition to the breeding stock.

Well, hello there little bunnies, all clustered in front of the fan and waiting for their bottles of ice.

It’s hard to keep them comfortable in this heat, but we do what we can with fans and 2 liter bottles of ice. They eagerly await their ice bottles every day and lay next to them all day long.

Seriously, where are the ice bottles! Soon, little bunnies, soon.

Kayleigh has been really on top of the bottles during this heat. We did, unfortunately, lose one litter during the hottest part of this horrible heat. Ten 100+ days in a row were too hard on the week old kits. We won’t breed any of the does again until late August.