Young Pigs in Love

img_20161220_155021037-1Generations of homesteaders and farmers have relied on hogs for food, field preparation, waste disposal, and occasionally, companionship. The little buggers have personalities better than most people you will meet. Who knew a Christmas present would turn into a love affair?

A few days after Christmas, the entire tribe climbed into the War Wagon for a two-hour drive to buy a replacement rabbit for my youngest daughter. Unlike the unfortunate incident with Jennifer a couple years ago, the impetus for this trek was neither my fault nor the result of friendly fire.

Death is a frequent enough visitor to the Cunha farm that I finally broke down and put up a sign reserving him a parking space next to the barn. I figure the faster he is in and out on his business, the less time he has to notice job opportunities while skulking around.

I’m giving serious thought to diversifying into a discount pet cemetery. Nothing fancy. Just a hole and a marker for the budget conscious parents of pet-owning children.

We had acquired Winter at our local co-op. She was on consignment from someone who had a connection with the manager. I should have known better.

Most days you’d have an easier time asking permission to date one of my daughters than convincing me to hand over a proven breeder, but reproduction wasn’t a factor. This rabbit was to be a pet, something cute and fluffy that wasn’t destined for the dinner plate.

This is how a farm turns into a petting zoo; one sacred bunny at a time.

Putting aside my misgivings about the rabbit’s lineage, living conditions, and lack of liveliness, I relented to the pleas of the women in my life. The rabbit came with a cage and paraphernalia, so I’d break even, if it died prematurely.

It was dead inside a month from a nasty eye infection we couldn’t get under control. Mrs. Cunha has a pretty good track record of doctoring animals, but even the best lose one every now and then.

It’s just my luck that it was an eleven-year-old’s pet…and Christmas.

61c55ee6adc9f00717d5e37f06081d250ea6164726bb1b0e5apimgpsh_fullsize_distr-1I still don’t understand the vagaries of rabbit math any better than Chicken Math, but we ended up a hundred-some-odd miles away from the farm, at a stranger’s house, answering a Craigslist ad offering Lion Head rabbits for sale. Mrs. Cunha always finds something unsettling and mildly creepy about answering the Craigslist ad of a complete stranger. I revel in the Libertarian rush of two independent, like-minded people coming together for an exchange without Big Brother being any the wiser.

While Mrs. Cunha and the girls cradled bunnies and gossiped about people none of them mutually knew, the husband of the pair took me on a tour of the menagerie. Before me was an organized, well-maintained suburban homestead that offered neighbors and the Home Owners Association no substantive reason to be upset…but, of course, they were.

If availability of food ever becomes an issue, neighbors who complain about others keeping chickens will be last in line and charged three times the going rate for having been twats.

Milling about the yard amongst the chickens and beneath the elevated cages of quail and pheasant was a bristly black package of pork protein. Something about the way I watched the little boar must have clued the husband into my mild interest because the next thing I knew, I was handed a wiggling, grunting, four-month-old American Guinea Hog.

Mrs. Cunha appeared beside me without my knowing. We’ve been married long enough that she knows her presence is probably necessary when there is that much commotion and squealing going on. Even if her skills are not needed, Mrs. Cunha appreciates slapstick.

Just once in my life, I’d like to have the farm prepared for a new animal addition.

She was falling in love as quickly as I was. The feeling was second only to looking into the eyes of a newborn child. We were sure he would be delicious.

img_20161221_092635780_burst001-1I try not to hold it against people when they tilt their heads and shoot me a quizzical look at my choices in livestock. It’s not their fault the animals we husband are a tad unusual, but it does take me down a peg when someone says, “Never heard of it.”

American Guinea hogs are pigs and not available at any pet store I can think of. Your local Petco carries Guinea Pigs, which are actually rodents, but I’ve had to explain the difference several times already. English can be confusing, but this distinction eludes many people. Most folks hear “Guinea Pig” as soon as I say “Guinea” and assume we are some sort of quixotic rodent-wrangling ranchers.

Marketability is second to producing what meets the needs and desires of my family.

It’s always dangerous to draw conclusions about an entire breed based on one example. Any scientist, pollster, and jackass in a bar who says, “The rest of the world calls it football” will be quick to point out how small sample size skews and can often invalidate conclusions. Anecdotes are not data, but I’m optimistic, bad at math, and like to gamble. That’s why I play lotto, too.

Over the next couple of weeks interacting with Hamilton (named for the first three letters of the word, and not the crappy, Leftist play), his personality convinced Mrs. Cunha and me to modify his job description from “Dinner” to “Bacon Maker.”

That’s how we found ourselves on a two-and-a-half hour sortie the opposite direction to find Hamilton a couple of girlfriends.  Despite the reputation of my area of the country, we desired some depth to our gene pool.

Why is it every animal I want can only be found somewhere between Timbuktu and frickin’ Narnia?

img_20161221_092100811Muddy and mildly bruised from the extended fumble recovery drill of chasing down two gilts my wife and daughters selected from the dozen or so available, I sat in the front seat watching the landscape roll by and daydreaming of the little black, wiggling piglets in my future. The new additions to the farm grunted back and forth between themselves, nestled in a bed of hay in a wire dog carrier in the far rear of the passenger compartment.

“I’m hungry,” came a call from the middle row of seats.

“Holy crap. The pigs can talk,” I said, turning my head toward my wife. Mrs. Cunha shot me the stink eye. It dawned on me that I was playing with fire.

The reason there aren’t very many comediennes is because, as a general rule, the female of our species largely lacks a sense of humor.

Hamilton’s new girlfriends, already christened Petunia and Baby Girl by my daughters, must have smelled the delicious aroma of fast food as we pulled into the drive-thru. I could hear my porky piglet producers rouse themselves inside their pen. Their chattering increased the closer we crept to the order board.

I was busy with the continual internal debate of whether my fat ass would survive skipping Going Big or Super Sizing or whatever this place called their sneaky attempt to pry an additional dollar from my clenched fist in exchange for ten cents more worth of compressed potato flakes and sugar water when the squawk-box fired auditory shrapnel through the driver’s window.

Despite having visited a drive-thru literally thousands of times in my life, the voice burst is always jarring. Maybe it’s the screechy tone. Maybe it’s the sudden blast of noise from a direction devoid of human beings. Maybe I’m just wound too tight.

Apparently, Baby Girl and Petunia are both wound a little too tightly, too.

The phrase “Squeal like a pig” has basis in reality, let me tell you.

My spastic lurch wasn’t finished before both those pigs were on their feet, banging the sides of the carrier as they ran in circles, grunting, snorting, and oinking. My daughters covered their ears with their hands against the piercing racket, as I shouted our order back at the disembodied voice.

Order placed and pulling forward to the first window please, I hoped the hay the gilts were kicking out of the cage wasn’t contaminated by anything foul-smelling enough to remind everyone of this adventure the next time we climbed in.

As the car drew up to the window, I glanced over at Mrs. Cunha, who had a look on her face that was a cross between horror and mortification. I turned my head the opposite direction, not know what I would encounter, but half expecting to find a circumstance that would require zombie apocalypse skills.

Freddy Mercury sang that fat bottomed girls make the rockin’ world go ’round.

Now, I’m between 6’4″ and 6’6″ depending on the angle of the video surveillance camera and clock-in at three hundred-none-of-your-damn-business pounds, so I realize my commenting on a woman’s size is akin to Stalin chastising Hitler on his human rights record.

Having said that, I’m going to throw a couple of stones from my glass house.

img_20161230_123607555The young woman collecting money at the window within earshot of the pair of squealing, oinking gilts in the back of my car wasn’t ugly at all. For a hefty girl, she was reasonably attractive and probably has no problem finding a ride home long before last call. She was far from a Tess Holliday, but a carb holiday wouldn’t have killed her.

Women, especially the younger ones, are self-conscious, so she probably knows this about herself.

The look of hatred coming from the chubby cashier confirmed my suspicion that she had heard my little piggies squealing all the way home. I was afraid to hand over my debit card for fear of how many customers behind me I was going to “accidentally” be buying lunch for. At minimum, each burger would be spat on before wrapping.

As I handed over my card, I saw her eyes dart behind me, looking into the back of the car. Her eyes sparkled as they widened, and her mouth untwisted from its scowl into a smile.

“What kinda pigs y’all got there?” the young lady said.

“American Guinea Hogs,” I said, my chest puffing up just a bit.

“Never heard of them,” she said.


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Rest When You’re Dead

0619161702bMy neighbor says he’s worked harder in retirement than at any time in his life. I have no reason to disagree, if this summer is any indication. The past two months have been filled with backbreaking labor that is quite possibly the hardest I’ve worked in my life, as well. And we are not anywhere near finished, as I seem to be very poor at estimating time requirements to build our dreams. I am likely the world’s worst construction foreman.

The barn is not as squared away as I would like, the orchard will have to wait until spring for planting, and the house still looks like a construction zone. However, hay has been put up, the chickens and rabbits are reasonably well housed, the vineyard installed, and all the rough carpentry in the house is complete.

Considering much of the house was stripped to the studs to fulfill Mrs. Cunha’s desire to make the house “hers,” despite her name being on the deed right next to mine, the two solid months of sunrise-to-sunset projects worked in between farm chores was really a labor of love.

It’s amazing the amount of energy you can muster when it’s your project, your farm, and your neck on the block. The kids would be happy to live in a dank cave, if they never again had to break a sweat.

Thank God for YouTube and helpful electrician types who are generous with their knowledge because I had to re-learn some of the trickier aspects of electricity I had forgotten in two decades.

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Note to self: Hot and common really should be capped off separately.

Actually, I learned that lesson all on my own, and frightened Mrs. Cunha quite badly in the process. Being the religious sort, it seems she associates sparks and the smell of burning insulation with demonic forces. It was a big enough flash to make anyone believe in the devil.

Somewhere between “Hey, I have an idea” and “Maybe we should just set the place on fire and sell the scavenged scrap metal,” I decided to give Mrs. Cunha a thrill by incorporating a curved wall on the walk-in closet we were framing in one of the rooms.

Yeah, it's a round wall. Don't try this at home, kids.
Yeah, it’s a round wall. Don’t try this at home, kids.

I had seen it done before and the math didn’t seem too difficult. What I didn’t count on was the men I watched create this magnificent arced wall were far more skilled carpenters than I. That plus I’m terrible at math. Well, it’s not so much that I’m bad at math. My house is bad at math.

The first rule of construction is there is no such thing as a plumb wall or a square room.

Don’t believe for a second that a measurement at one end bears any relationship to the middle or bottom. And on the rare, lucky occasion everything measures out perfectly, it will invariably look catawampus compared to everything around it. Luckily, there aren’t many construction problems that can’t be fixed with a hammer.

Speaking of beating lumber into submission, the barn is constructed of white oak, which I prefer to call by its Indian name, “Can’t drive a God-Damn Nail into It.”

The Amish who milled this lumber must have reinforced it with steel because I cannot think of any other reason a sixteen-penny nail won’t make it through two of the boards. The barn is pretty old, so maybe I need those old-fashioned rectangular nails instead of the modern, round ones.

Anyone with insight into this problem is welcome to enlighten me in the comments because I’ve run out of men in my family who can.

0602161706The upshot is my kids have been provided material for several anecdotes to pass on to their children about Grandpa Carlos bending and cursing nails, Amish, and oak trees. The only thing that has kept me from hurling my hammer into the hay field is the knowledge that I would only have to find the son-of-a-bitch when I calmed down, lest it break a mower blade.

As it stands now, there is still a ton of work to accomplish. At least, we got the Japanese beetles under control. The house is a wreck, the farm is still very much in the start-up phase, and I’m not sure where I’m going to store all the hay from the next couple of cuts.

I’ve never been more exhausted and I’ve never been happier. It will probably get worse when I retire.


3Thank you to every one of my readers for coming back week after week. The content on this website is free to access, but does take resources to produce. Please visit my Patreon account to see what I have in the works for the homestead and consider becoming a supporter, which gets you content, behind the scenes access, and goodies not available on the main site.

Rabbit Math

It happened while I peed behind a mesquite bush during a West Texas hunting trip.

Cactus PeeingI caught movement out of the corner of my eye as I concentrated on flooding an anthill. My brother-in-law and my rifle were back at the truck, stuck axle-deep in a patch of fine New Mexican moon dust on what passed for a road. Out there, the landscape all looks pretty much like Afghanistan, so once cellphone signal is lost and the GPS app on your phone no longer works, it becomes difficult to know with certainty whether you’ve committed a border incursion or not.

The trip had started from my house in El Paso in the wee hours of the morning with the intent to drive until we thought we were lost and then make some ranchers very happy by thinning out the coyote population. You would be surprised how accommodating ranchers can be when approached by a couple of polite rednecks who ask where the cattle are (so we can keep clear of them) and ask permission to hunt (even though we don’t technically have to).

GateHunting out West is a little different. Vast expanses of land are leased to ranchers from the Bureau of Land Management with the proviso that it be left open to the public. That’s why there aren’t locks on the gates.

The rule of thumb is that a locked gate means you can’t go through. You also leave the gate the way you found it; closed, open, or closed and latched.

And for God’s sake, if you see somebody, take a few minutes to say “Hello,” state who you are, and why you’re there.

I’m not sure of the exact rules of hunting BLM land, but those three sentences have served me well. Every rancher I’ve encountered was glad to have me there helping him out with a problem, told me where I would have the best luck on his lease, and invited me to come back.

Most even offered use of the garden hose up at the house. It probably helped that I don’t look like a Mexican.

Bill JordanCompleting the transmogrifying exercise of changing fire ants to piss ants, a young rabbit loped from the mesquite in the far right of my peripheral vision about twenty yards distant. He was feeling brave for my lack of a rifle.

Without bothering to holster one gun before grabbing for another, I skinned my pistol and went to work with speed that would impress Bill Jordan.

Rabbits have a goofy method of locomotion. They take a few hops and stop to look around. I suspect they do that to decide whether they need to take a few more. It makes properly leading a shot difficult, and is why I would have preferred he was tearing ass through the brush.

It’s supposed to be carried with the hammer back, you novice.

The Big Four-Five barked at the exact moment little Peter Cottontail came to a halt to consider his next move, and two hundred thirty grains of “Take That!” slammed into the khaki colored dust directly in front of his nose.

Peter Cottontail recoiled in his footprints at the breeze and dust kicked into his face. My Peter Cottontail did, too.

This rabbit was either clairvoyant or possessed of the four luckiest rabbit feet in history because he started hauling ass as I touched off the second round. The bullet sent up a plume of dust where he had been.

Two shots. Two misses by less than five inches. Had this been a combat shooting drill, that kind of accuracy would have been considered excellent. That day, it meant I suck.

There are two things you never run from; dogs and cops. Both for the same reason. They possess a chase instinct triggered by movement. If you don’t believe me, think about how racing dogs are induced to run around a track. If you need further proof, take off running the next time you get pulled over.

Being the Alpha Predator I consider myself, there was no way I was going to let Mr. Rabbit get away now that I was committed. Zipper down or not, I was taking home hasenpfeffer.

images (53)Despite the portrayal in movies, it’s actually quite difficult to shoot while running, especially with parts of your anatomy hanging out that don’t normally hang out. Whoever coined the term “Run and Gun” probably intended them to be done in turn…and with a zipped fly.

After five more shots that ruffled the rabbit’s fur as they passed, I screeched to a stop to aim my final shot. Yeah, I carry on a loaded chamber. Save your lectures for somebody who’s had a negligent discharge.

Then the rabbit sealed his fate by cutting left as I set up for a Portuguese Brain Shot. I adjusted my aim, set my lead, and caught him at the end of his rib cage. The pink cloud confirmed the bullet found its mark.

Portuguese Brain Shot 2
Portuguese Brain Shot

Physics is a hell of a thing. So is rabbit anatomy. A demonstration of which I found as I approached my quarry. Apparently, rabbits are loosely put together. Either that or I managed to hit some secret rabbit disarticulation pressure point because there wasn’t anything recognizable as a rabbit from the bottom rib on down.

Word of what happened must have gotten around to the other wildlife pretty fast. Later in the day, I was nearly bitten by a coyote I suspect was out for revenge at my stealing his dinner.

My wife’s reaction wasn’t exactly what I expected. I thought she would be thrilled I brought back something edible. Up to that point, I operated on the principle of “Don’t bring home anything she can’t cook or play with.”

I think her exact words were, “I’d cook it, if you hadn’t shot the shit out of it first. What am I going to do with half a fucking rabbit?”

Since I can’t be trusted to bring a whole rabbit back from the wild, we began raising our own rabbits. We started with two does, Eve and Shelby, and one buck, Sampson. My choice for naming the male was “Adam,” but I was vetoed by a nine-year-old who refuses to be bound by convention. Or maybe she doesn’t read her bible enough to keep all the names straight.

This Rogues Gallery was the beginning of my education.

The purported reason to raise rabbits was to reduce the grocery bill. Coming from generally poor families and poor cultures, the idea of food readily available on the homestead was attractive to my wife and I. We wonder whether we are part of the whole Homestead movement that has gained popularity the past few years and often question if we are “real” homesteaders. We live outside city limits, but are not terribly isolated (at least, not yet. Time will tell). Our fruit and vegetable crop isn’t terribly impressive. We only have a couple types of livestock.

I don’t have a clue if we’re “real” homesteaders or not, but the longer I work at it, the more I believe it’s a mindset.

Eve and Kids
Is there cable at Freezer Camp or do we have to use rabbit ears?

Another concept I am beginning to understand is “rabbit math.” Not so much in the multiplication sense, even though rabbits earn every bit of their prolific reputations.  Rabbit gestation is thirty-one days (give or take), and left to their own devices, the doe can easily be pregnant a month later.

A week ago, Eve kindled eight kits, and a day later, Shelby kindled nine. Add in the two we held back from Eve’s March litter to let them grow bigger, the second buck my wife wanted for some eugenic experimentation, and the third doe my daughters fell in love with, that means I have a total of twenty-four rabbits running around.

Rabbit math.

First rabbit from our first butchering.

Luckily, we butcher between eight and twelve weeks, so I won’t be up to my ass in rabbits for too long. Of course, that depends on how soon we breed them again. I’m going to have to get really fast at butchering if I don’t want to spend every spare minute wrist deep in a rabbit carcass.

We strive to be responsible rabbit ranchers. That whole good stewards of the land and responsible practitioners of animal husbandry thing. Following the desire to give the best life possible to the cute, furry little creatures we ultimately conk on the head, decapitate, rip the hide off of, and disembowel for consumption, I set about to build a place for them to live. I call it a Rabbit Condo.

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The problem is I tend to over-engineer my construction projects. This two-tier movable rabbit enclosure with removable back for additional ventilation in summer wound up too heavy for my wife move by herself. Loaded down with cages, rabbits, and the watering system she added, it’s too heavy for me to move by myself.

Rabbit math.

Four foot by four foot size.

Try as we might to remember they are livestock, the natural tendency is to develop some sort of attachment to animals you spend months caring for. That’s why we don’t name animals destined for Freezer Camp. Every now and then, we have to bend that rule for ease of identification, so we wind up with animals named “Brownie,” “Runt,” and “Thursday Dinner.”

Four foot by eight foot size; divided in half to segregate boys from girls…Rabbit Math, you know.

In the continuing quest to minimize feed bills, we encourage our rabbits to forage as much as possible. That’s a Homesteader euphemism for “Let them eat what’s growing around here, so I don’t go broke buying them store-bought feed.” To keep them penned up while enjoying the “free” foliage growing in the yard required building Rabbit Tractors, basically movable cages.

Rabbit math.

If you can’t tell, every time I have a great money saving idea, it requires an outlay of cash with a fairly long break-even point. In six months of building rabbit structures that are better constructed than my house, acquiring the animals themselves, and providing feed (They still need some trace minerals and vitamins not found in forage), my rabbits have provided enough meat for exactly two meals.

Yeah. Rabbit math.

The upshot of all these rabbits is there is lots of poop…Lots and lots of rabbit poop.

As it turns out, rabbit droppings are the high end of the manure world, and there is a sort of boutique fertilizer market for them, the red worms that magically appear in the rabbit poop pile, and the worm poop after decomposition.

IMG_0433 IMG_0430But you can’t charge an arm and a leg for “worm shit,” so the fancy term is “worm castings.” From what I hear from other homesteaders, there is a long line of hippies, hipsters, and high-end home gardeners willing to pay through the nose for the stuff.

Maybe I can make this rabbit math stuff work to my advantage. Somebody might get to go to college.