The following are my observations based upon my experience with the care and processing of small livestock, living in a hot and humid climate on the Gulf of Mexico
Chicks of all species need warmth for their first few weeks, but on the Gulf Coast, and anywhere else with a hot climate, it’s easy to overheat them. If you’re keeping the birds outside, and it’s anything over 80F or so, they probably do not need additional heat from a heat lamp or other source. Generally, I would take away a heat lamp and use a regular incandescent bulb if the temperatures were regularly over 65ish. If it is cool enough to still require external heating, keep the lamp off to one side of the enclosure. Be very careful to “round out” any corners the enclosure may have, particularly when the chicks are very young. Chicks pile up on top of each other and suffocation is a common cause of death in the early days. Ensuring there is enough room for all of the chicks also helps decrease the chance of suffocation.
[JWR Adds: In our experience, an oval galvanized steel livestock water tank works quite well for raising chicks. Add a screen of chicken wire across the top to keep out curious cats and to restrain hopping chicks. By placing a 200 watt heat lamp at one end of the tank, allowing the chicks to choose a place with a comfortable temperature.]
The food and water should not be under the lamp, to help minimize fouling or tipping of either. It also encourages chicks to move out from the heat. If the chicks are very young, and aren’t a waterfowl species, marbles can be placed in the waterer (or bowl) so the chicks do not trip and drown. On account of their absolutely tiny size, quail chicks are particularly susceptible to falling into water sources, even despite marbles, if there is anything much more than a finger’s gap between the marbles, as are guinea fowl chicks. Keep quail chicks in wire cloth enclosures for a very long time – some of the species are so small at adulthood, they can still easily slip out of standard chicken wire.
Some sources recommend treating the water with tetracycline and electrolyte additives – I personally had mixed success with that course of action. Some breeds and species seem to fail to thrive without it, and some fail to thrive with it. My best advice is to – if you choose to purchase and use the powdered additives – do so sparingly and not for long periods of time. And if you turn the water a bright yellow from how much you added – dilute it!
Chick starter, which is a higher-protein chicken feed with very small granules, can be used for most chicks with a fairly high rate of success. Some of the smaller quail species are actually too small for even that – cornmeal can be used for these, if you discover they are having issues, or grind some of the chick starter more finely.
While I have, at times, raised regular poultry and waterfowl chicks together, ducklings and goslings are very, very messy, and will make all the other chicks rather dirty, smelly, and sickly on account of how wet they’ll get. The best course of action is to generally keep them separated, particularly since ducklings and goslings are happiest when they have a tiny “pond” to swim in from the get go. While very young, a pie pan will suffice for a pond (glass is better, as it is usually too heavy to tip over). The only real concern is “can they climb into it and climb out of it.” If you do not keep a small swimming area for them in their enclosure, a kiddie pond is plenty acceptable, provided they have supervision (aka, “rescuers” for when they’ve tired themselves out). Stopped up bathtubs or sinks work, too, but as waterfowl defecate while swimming, you may want to pass on that option.
Should non-waterfowl chicks get wet, getting them warm and dry again is a priority if at all possible, as even in warm temperatures, they will catch cold and basically freeze to death. If you have a lot of chicks to dry, a heat lamp and a hair dryer (on low, held at a distance) works, but a dry towel and rubbing is better for the chicks (just be gentle!).
I have generally had poor success when grouping chicks of too disparate ages together – two weeks makes a huge difference in size for most birds. The older chicks will suffocate the younger ones, simply by being large enough the younger chicks can get underneath them and then get trapped.
Most chicks will begin to get their first real feathers (along their wings) within a week – unless it is unseasonably cold, or these are winter chicks – it is generally safe to remove a heat lamp (and sometimes even a regular lamp) once the chicks are about half feathered over their bodies. Naturally, common sense should be employed when deciding whether chicks still need their heat source or not.
Depending on the purpose and breed/species of the chicks, the methods of feeding and care after this point vary in detail, but not in the basics. All birds should have enough feed to “free feed” (unless range – these may or may not need supplementation, depending on your situation) and access to plenty of clean water. For chickens and turkeys, meat breeds can be grown at a quick rate by regulating their daily light exposure and feeding a high protein selection with added corn gluten (for that bright yellow color). Long periods of light and artificially cold temperatures are how the best “market” birds are produced. If you don’t particularly care that it’ll take twelve weeks instead of eight weeks for a similar size, I suggest skipping building an insulated and air conditioned enclosure. The birds turn out healthier, anyhow.
For waterfowl, if you don’t provide them with a place to go for a swim, they will find one – usually another pen’s waterer, based on my experience. Their food and drinking water should be kept fairly close together, as they generally need to water to help them eat standard crumble-based feed.
Once the birds are older than a month to six weeks, the care is basically the same. Adult birds should have access to grit – which is also a calcium supplementation for the laying hens. If you have guinea fowl (be careful about purchasing/acquiring these, as because of their volume and constant racket, they are generally banned in urban areas, even the urban farming friendly ones), be sure to keep them penned until they’re about six months old, so they know where “home” is. The moment you let them range, if you intend to, they will spend time flying about and generally being a nuisance. On the other hand, they do tend to keep the hawks from dining on too many of your birds, as well as alert you that running outside with a weapon to scare off whichever predator was a-hunting maybe a good idea at that point.
If laying hens are your intent, be sure to build a coop with easy access for egg collecting. Our first coop had two wire doors that allowed for human entry (basically crawling into the coop) near both ends, on the same long side, the better to catch birds with. It later was modified, when we built a chicken wire enclosure with a wire roof (because of hawks), to include a chicken-sized exit in the middle of the long side without human-sized openings. The laying boxes were built into the ends of the coop, so that it was easy to reach in to collect the eggs. The coop had a solid floor, as did the nest boxes, and was raised a couple of feet off the ground to help discourage the rats. (This did not always work.) The coop was effective, but had its limitations. If you are unfortunate enough to have a cock that grows up to be violent and frequently attacks, having to crawl face-first into a coop is rather daunting. (As an aside, if any of your birds become human-aggressive, regardless of their age and quality, I strongly suggest culling the bird. An old rooster, even if past the point of being edible for your pot, makes good dog and/or pig food.)
Nest boxes should be large enough that the largest of your hens can sit comfortably in them with a couple of inches to spare. Because of this, if you intend to keep turkey hens for layers, I suggest the smaller breeds such as the Cannonball, although the Bronzes will also work.
Raising chicks from eggs laid by your own birds can be rewarding – and heartbreaking. It is a combination of equipment, practice, and luck. Research the topic thoroughly before attempting – and you may just want to let a broody hen (who will valiantly guard a nest of eggs from being taken) go through the trouble.
Chicken manure will burn plants if added straight to a garden. Let it “age” before considering adding it to a garden. I recommend adding it to the compost pile, first, so it cools down enough to not burn the plants.
A note on pigeons and squab: while squab is a fairly tasty meat, attempting to raise the chicks yourself is not something that should be undertaken. Purchase adult birds, and let them hatch and raise chicks. Squab should be “harvested” before the chick can fly, and the size will depend on the breed. The nest boxes should be placed a few feet above ground, and can probably be a little bit smaller than a chicken hen’s nest box. If penned, they will need standard poultry fare. If allowed to range after they’ve learned where “home” is, they will pretty much take care of themselves.
Rabbits are small, relatively easy to keep livestock. The meat is lean, if that is a concern for your family, and the hides can be tanned for either fur or just skin. There are many breeds of rabbits. I do not suggest the long haired breeds for at least the Gulf Coast unless you intend to keep the animal as a pet or in an air conditioned facility. Californians (white rabbits with dark colored ears, nose, and feet) and New Zealands (mostly found in solid white, but sometimes red or black as well) are the two most popular “commercial” breeds. They mature fast and are fairly prolific. The does I kept often had litters of eight kits or more. I also raised Satins, which are so named for the satin sheen to their fur – very beautiful creatures, and lovely soft furs. We tried Palominos (colored much like palomino horses), which are supposed to have excellent growth rates for their fryers (butcher sized rabbits) but had issues with their feet being torn up in cages that the New Zealands had no issues with. However, don’t overlook a doe and/or buck of totally unknown pedigree. Our first doe, Attack Rabbit, and the one who produced the largest kits, although often not the largest litters, was bought at a feed store who had gotten her from someone-or-another. She was a great producer for early Spring cash – she mostly threw spotted babies, regardless of the buck, and spotted baby bunnies sell very well as Easter bunnies and pets in general.
Rabbits are best kept in multi-cage hutches, with one adult rabbit per cage (except for breeding, which is not a long-term activity for a rabbit). Commercial rabbit food is certainly sufficient – it is a mostly alfalfa pellet with some additives. Roughage, such as grass, corn stalks, lettuce, alfalfa cubes, hay, or the like, should also be provided. Chewable items, like blocks of wood, should be readily available, as rabbits have to chew on things to keep their teeth from growing too long. Salt licks (small round discs of salt) should also be made readily available. There are plain salt licks (usually just white), and mineral salt licks (usually brown in color). My rabbits always seemed to prefer the mineral blocks to the plain. Rabbit feeders can be metal containers that fit into and through the side of the cage or crocks (heavy based bowls) sitting on the floor of the cage.
Like any other living creature, water should be readily and easily available. Rabbit waterers are bottle-fed gravity metal tubes with a ball-bearing that prevents too much water from coming out until the rabbit licks it to get water. These are generally attached to the outside of the cage. There are similar “nipples” for water lines, for larger rabbitries. Some breeders prefer to offer both food and water in crocks – I personally had issues with the water crocks being knocked over more times than not, particularly once a litter of bunnies was bouncing around in the cage along with the doe.
Despite the ease of growing and raising them, rabbits have a few “issues.” Rabbit urine is highly acidic and corrosive. It will, eventually, damage cages to the point of requiring repair. Rabbit feces are rather “hot,” and cannot be placed directly on a garden – the exception here being blueberry bushes, which love them. Worms, however, are often grown immediately under a rabbit hutch, as they break down the waste rapidly, and thrive on it. Allow rabbit waste to “sit” under the worms’ tender care for a bit before attempting to add it to a compost pile or garden directly. Adding it to compost to finish cooling down is a better option than adding it straight to the garden.
Domesticated rabbits are descendants of the European cottontails, and thus, are not terribly heat tolerant, and, in the Gulf Coast’s climate, are prone to heat exhaustion and heat stroke during summer. They are also not very productive during the summer months, because of this heat intolerance.
Despite their heat intolerance, rabbits can be successfully kept in the high temperature and high humidity climate of the Gulf Coast, with a few caveats. When selecting an area for the hutches, pick an area with decent air flow and shade to help keep them cool. The hutches should not be 100% solid sided, but be at least half hardware cloth, as well as having wire bottoms. Do NOT use chicken wire as the primary material – some rabbits like chewing on it. It can be used to wrap around any wooden posts (double wrap it and secure with U-nails; it’s a pain to do, but works better). A piece of wood or sheetrock should be provided as a place to sit that isn’t the wire bottom. Failure to do so can cause sores on the rabbits’ feet. The nest boxes should also be constructed with wire bottoms, with an ability to mostly enclose them for winter litters. The hutches should also be located in a relatively quiet area – constant loud noises will stress the rabbits and increase the chances that the does will reabsorb their litters before birth, or even eat the kits after birth.
If you build the hutch, each enclosure within the hutch should be at least two feet square plus a reasonable height – it may look like a lot of space, but a nest box should be at least 12″ wide by 18″ long and 12″ tall. Also make sure to construct the openings large enough to easily get the nest box into the pen.
After selecting a shady area with good airflow, the next caveat is this: if you intend to breed rabbits during the summer, for late summer or early fall litters, the buck will need, at minimum, a large bottle of ice to rest beside to maintain his fertility. Bucks lose their fertility when the temperatures get into the upper 90s F. I recommend two liter bottles mostly filled with water and then frozen solid for the purpose. You should probably have at least two bottles per buck – the first bottle will probably have thawed completely out by the end of the day, and he’ll need cooling even overnight often. A fan in addition to the bottle of ice certainly would not hurt the buck, nor any doe in the area. One of the more serious show rabbitries I interacted with had an entire barn for their rabbits, somewhat insulated and could be enclosed during the worst of the summer heat for air conditioning, and in all but the coldest of winter, large livestock style fans ran from every roof-corner in the barn. The reason for this was that it ensured the rabbits’ fur was not thinned out in reaction to the temperatures. As I was not involved in showing rabbits, and the furs and hides were kept for home use only, we usually made due with ice bottles and fans for our bucks – or forwent litters from June to September.
Breeding is done by placing a doe in with a buck for a short period of time. We generally kept ours separated unless breeding, because neither of our bucks were very bright (we only kept two bucks at a time). I had to occasionally move the buck to the correct end of the doe. Unless it is midsummer, if a doe does not produce kits after a couple of breedings (approximately 3 months), it is probably time to cull her from the colony.
The gestation period of a rabbit is approximately 30 days, with the resulting litters being 4 to 12 kits. Place a clean nest box in her cage a couple of weeks after breeding. The doe will start nesting a few days to a week before the kits are due, and she’ll do this by pulling tufts of fur from her belly to make a nest with. Fill the nest box with a mid-quality hay (not too scratchy) for her, and she’ll take care of the rest. Try to ensure her toenails have been trimmed, so she doesn’t hurt the babies when they’re born. When the kits are born, the doe will eat the afterbirth. Occasionally, a doe may accidentally “eat” part of one of her babies – remove the corpse as soon as possible. An over-stressed doe may eat, or partially eat, an entire litter. Some … very few … seem to acquire a taste for doing so. If two litters are destroyed in such a fashion, cull the doe immediately. I have only had two does, in all the rabbits I’ve raised, acquire this “habit” – they both were violent rabbits to begin with. One was named Rabies, the other Rabies II. Rabies II left claw marks on my arm that took the better part of five years to fade. Does are likely to attack as they get close to birthing up until the kits have been weaned (4-6 weeks). In my experience, the ones to keep an eye on are the ones who attack without kits in the cage.
The kits are born furless and blind, but start putting on fur nigh immediately. Their eyes open between 8-12 days, and they start getting into trouble shortly thereafter. They can be safely removed from their mother’s cage by eight weeks of age, and butchered from eight weeks to four months without any influence on the flavor – size and how long you want to feed them are the real factors here.
If you are attempting to grow your colony, select the best doe and/or buck from the litter. “Best” can be the largest, the most docile, the most wildly spotted, the most interestingly colored one, or what have you. If none of them meet your fancy, cull the whole litter. Sexing rabbits is an acquired skill, and not easily described with words alone. The pictures here are pretty good. Does are more useful than bucks, but raising an extra buck isn’t always a bad thing. My personal preference, however, is to usually bring in a buck from another breeder, to keep from causing problems for the later generations. If you do keep any of the babies for breeding stock, make sure to keep a breeding book to track them, so you don’t breed a doe to her grandfather-and-daddy – that’s pushing it. Skip a generation at that point. Two unrelated bucks would be a minimum for raising breeding stock does. (If you want to get really complicated, you can also tattoo the ears of rabbits, to better track them. This is particularly useful for single-breed rabbitries which may not be able to distinguish animals by sight alone.)
Does can be bred at 6 months of age, and bucks at 7 months of age, but all the experienced breeders and books I read on the subject strongly suggested waiting until a doe was a minimum of 10 months old prior to breeding her. While a doe can theoretically be bred back to a buck the day her litter is removed from her pen, it is generally suggested to give her a short break between litters, for her own health.
I was introduced to the “art” of butchering chickens at the age for 12 or 13, when I raised my first set of market chickens for 4-H. It was messy, I cried, and hated it. I wasn’t a stranger to death (one of the dogs had slaughtered, rather methodically, all but the birds that had been penned up as “the best” for show, two days before), I just wasn’t comfortable with me being involved in it. Not to mention, there’s something terribly savage and horrifying about seeing something’s head cut off with an axe blade in real life, regardless of how many horror movies you’ve seen growing up as a kid.
By the time I was fourteen, and for the next twelve years, I performed almost all of the butchering. My father assisted with the larger animals (goats and pigs). He slaughtered and butchered one cow, while I assisted – I was too short to do that one primarily. When I visit now, I still lend a hand with the task if needed.
My father quickly established that I severely lacked the hand-eye coordination to use the axe to butcher chickens, and that I also lacked the upper body strength (and distance) to use the “standard” pull the neck method of breaking a chicken’s neck. We cast about for a better option for a short girl in the 6th grade. We settled on tree branch clippers, the sort with handles about 2 feet long, and a short, curved blade, with a scissors like motion. It was my idea – the leverage gave me enough mechanical strength to make a clean kill, and the blades were long enough to pin a bird (and later rabbits) for the duration. My experience has been that clippers can be used successfully on birds below the size of geese and turkeys, and on rabbits as well. If the blade is sharp, the animal may be almost entirely decapitated, which allows for it to bleed immediately. I do suggest that, for rabbits, it be a two person job, to hold the rabbit’s ears out of the way – their ears are extremely sensitive, and the commotion is enough to scare them a bit anyhow, no need to taint the meat. For geese and turkeys, I strongly suggest that the bird’s wings be restrained (we did so by cutting a turkey-head sized hole into the bottom of a 5 gallon bucket, and having the body of the bird be inside the bucket) and a .22 bullet be used. It’s fast, it’s still cheap, and by pinning the bird’s wings, the post-death twitching/flapping/etc. cannot break the wings.
When selecting a site for processing, I recommend access to clean water, buckets for offal, and fresh air. A flat surface is necessary for poultry; a place to hang the carcass is necessary (or at least vastly more convenient) for most mammals. A sharp knife or two is important; my preferred for butchering is a skinning blade with a gut hook.
From this point, there are three methods for finishing poultry: dry plucking, wet plucking, and skinning. Frankly, in my opinion, none of them are particularly easy to do, but wet plucking takes my number one most-hated spot.
Dry plucking involves pretty much exactly like it sounds. I strongly recommend this method for quail, squab, and young broilers. Remove the head and neck of the bird, as well as the lower scaly part of the leg. Generally I remove the first wing joint, as well, because it is far more hassle than it is worth to do otherwise. You may need a pair of pliers to remove the primary feathers on older chickens, turkeys of any age, ducks, and geese. Grab a handful of feathers (starting on the breast of the bird is easiest), pull against the “grain” of the feathers. On smaller or younger birds, such as quail or broilers, the skin is very tender and can be torn very easily, even when plucking. Start off with a lighter hand than you might think you need, and work up in force from there. Continue to do this until the carcass is as completely de-feathered as you can get it. You may prefer to leave the tail feathers on, and remove the tail during the next step.
Wet plucking involves a large pot of very hot water. If you are going to wet pluck waterfowl, a few drops of dish soap is recommended, to break the oil barrier on the feathers, so it is possible to do so. Prior to removing the head/neck, lower legs, and wing tips, dip the carcass into the pot of very hot water for 15-30 seconds, using the lower legs as “handles.” Bring the bird out of the water, and give an experimental tug on the feathers. If they pull out fairly easily, continue plucking the bird. You may have to re-dip it if it is a large bird, or it cools off too much. Be careful to not over dip the bird, as when this occurs, the skin scalds and starts peeling. You will notice that wet feathers are very clingy, and like to stick to everything – you, the table, the bird, the pot, the post one landed on when you tried to get some off your hands. Wet feathers also don’t smell particularly wonderful, which is why I rather intensely dislike this method. Once again, remove all the feathers. After this, remove the head/wing tips/lower legs.
Skinning is pretty much like how it sounds. It is trickier on poultry than it is on a mammal, however, as the skin attaches in odd seeming places. On chickens, it attaches rather firmly around the leg-thigh joint, the chest bone, along the back, and very firmly attaches at the base of the tail. The skin also tears easily, so instead of larger chunks, you generally end up having nearly strips. It can be a bit frustrating, and does remove some cooking options later. Remove the head/wing tips/lower legs before commencing; it makes the task easier.
Once the bird is plucked or skinned, very carefully cut across the abdominal cavity, effectively thigh to thigh, and then approximately down the middle (there is often a sort of ”seam” here, it may just tear a bit under tension). Only use enough pressure with the blade to cut the skin, not any more than you have to use. Scoop the offal out, being careful to not touch more of the exterior of the bird than necessary. At this point, you can try to either remove the tail entirely, so as not to risk fecal contamination, or, once you have some practice, you can detach the anus from the tail with minimal problems. Rinse the bird out and off with fresh water (as well as yourself), and get the bird into refrigerated conditions as soon as possible, preferably before you start on the next bird.
Mammals are more or less the same process, regardless of size. The tools necessary may differ – I don’t have the strength to crack the hip bones on a cow or pig, or most goats, and need at least a hacksaw to do that job, but I can do so with a rabbit or other small mammal with my bare hands. Rabbits make for good practice animals for larger animals later, and the process is effectively the same for anything smaller.
Hang the rabbit from your chosen point. I either used bailing wire wraps around the hock of the back legs, or twine from hay bales tied into slip knots, tightened around the hock. Either way, the hock is a good place for an anchor point. The rabbit’s head should now be pointing at the ground, and all directions from this point are referencing the current up-down direction.
Run your knife in a circle just below the anchor point, all the way around the leg. Pull the skin taut with one hand, and gently run the blade down the middle inside of the thigh to the pelvic area. Repeat on the other leg. Very carefully cut across below the vent area, making the two cuts meet. Peel the skin down the legs, and work a finger under the skin, just below the tail, until you can get the knife through to cut the skin. Leave the tail on the carcass; it’ll be a useful handle later. At this point, you should be able to peel the skin down the body slowly. Don’t peel it down completely yet.
Finish removing the head from the carcass; there is usually a good bit of blood at this point. In a method similar to the hock area, cut the skin at the forefoot area, and then break the bone at that point. Use the knife to cut through the ligaments, and discard the forefoot into the offal bucket. Repeat with the other front foot. It’s now possible to continue peeling the hide off of the rabbit without impediments. If it sticks at any point, very carefully cut through the offending tissue, as you don’t want to pull the hide out of shape (if you intend on keeping it). If you don’t care, just remove it as necessary. If this were a larger animal, you would have sliced the hide all the way down the belly of it, and pulled the hide off that way. You can do that with a rabbit, but it’s just as easy to split the hide after it’s off as when it is on. If you intend to keep the hide for other uses, feel free to take a moment to lay it out on a wooden board, flesh side up, and sprinkle it with salt to start the initial curing process.
To break the hips easily, grasp one thigh in each hand, and bend them backwards. You will hear a crack, and possibly even see the pelvic bone fracture through the muscle, which is very thin. This should be more or less directly below the vent. At this point, very, very carefully cut around the vent area to open it, and down across the fracture. Using the gut hook, if you have it, or a very delicate touch with a straight blade if you must, cut the abdominal muscles all the way down to the ribcage. Cut through the tail bone, and use it as a handle to pull the intestinal tract down/away from the body of the rabbit, to prevent contamination. Then carefully remove the lower organs. You can remove the heart and lungs without cutting through the ribcage, but as rabbit is generally cut up instead of served whole, there is rarely reason to avoid doing so. Cut through the ribs and scoop out what remains. Rinse the rabbit, your hands, and knife (or knives) thoroughly. Then, gripping the thigh and foot of one leg, break the leg as close to the anchor point as you can. Repeat with the other leg. Hold on to the carcass, and cut through the remaining tendons and ligaments on one leg and then the other to bring it down from hanging.
Place the carcass into a refrigerated area as soon as possible. The meat can be aged for a day or so, if you prefer, frozen immediately, or even made that night.
Again, this is roughly the same procedure for almost any mammal. I’ve even used it on raccoons that managed to get caught in the traps set up to stop chickens from being stolen. (On a side note, to get rid of the really gamey taste, cook raccoon with onion, sliced apples and potatoes. The apples and potatoes won’t be human edible afterwards, but the raccoon will turn out tasting rather like beef. Just be sure to cook it very well done.)