Getting Started with Meat Rabbits: Weaning and Growing Out

We have made it to the last post in our “Getting Started with Meat Rabbits” Series.  To view other posts in the series, click the following links:

Housing

Feeding and Watering

Buying Breeding Stock

Breeding

Pregnancy and Kindling

Birth to Weaning

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Weaning is the process of removing the kits from the mother rabbit so they are not nursing anymore and the mother rabbit’s milk production can dry up.  The kits will now eat hay, feed, and water like an adult rabbit, and the mom is now free to have another litter of kits.

The most important aspects of weaning are to keep the kits healthy and growing without nourishment from the mother and to prevent mastitis in the mother.

Timing the weaning to when the kits are eating and drinking enough to sustain themselves without nursing is key to keeping them healthy through weaning.  We wean our kits at 6 weeks of age.  Some people wean as early as 4 weeks or as late as 8.  We find 6 to be an excellent middle ground.  The mother is usually starting to wean them on her own by 6 weeks, so it follows the natural pattern.  Our kits have never had a problem continuing to grow and be healthy when weaned at 6 weeks.

We re-breed the mother at 5 weeks (as long as she is at a healthy weight and body condition) – so that gives her only one week of nursing and pregnancy at the same time.  We do not suggest you make her overlap nursing with early pregnancy for any longer than one week at the most.  It can cause issues with the pregnancy and the upcoming kits.

How you handle the weaning process is very important to keep the mother from getting mastitis.  Mastitis is an infection in the mammary glands that occurs when too much milk builds up and isn’t expressed.  Sudden stopping of nursing can cause it, so it is important to gradually remove the kits so her milk production can decrease gradually.

We wean gradually over a 4 day period.  We find this has made it so we never have a doe get mastitis, and it gives the smaller kits time to catch up with the larger ones.  The litter size will control how many are weaned each day.  But we always wean at least two on the first day so no kits are living alone in a cage because after being with a litter and mother it can be very stressful for a kit to live alone.  The stress could cause trouble with their growth or cause illness.

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So, to give an example, lets say we have a litter of 6 kits.  We would wean the largest two on the first day, then the next largest one on the second day, the next largest one on the third day, and the smallest two on the fourth day.  We find that by the fourth day the two kits that were the smallest when we started weaning are now comparable in size to their larger siblings because they have been given more time with mom and have had access to more milk with no bullying.  So if there were 7 kits it would be 3, 2, 2, 2.  8 kits it would be 2, 2, 2, 2.  If there were 10 kits we would do 3, 2, 3, 2.  You get the point.

If there are less than 5 kits we do it over less time than 4 days.  If there was 4 kits we would do it in 3 days by doing 2, 1, 1.  If there were only 3 kits it would only be 2 days with 2 and then 1.  Again, we never put one kit all by itself in a cage.  If somehow you had a litter of only 2 kits, we would suggest just weaning both of them the same day.  That way they don’t have to live alone and stressed, and with the mother only feeding two her milk production is probably not very high anyway.

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During the weaning process and once all the kits are gone we check the mother daily for signs of mastitis until she is completely dried up.  To do this we just gently palpate each mammary gland with our hands.  They should not feel hard or hard and hot – that would indicate mastitis.  The first few days after the kits are gone it will feel like there is some extra tissue hanging down under her, this is fine as long as it isn’t hard.  It should shrink back up within a week or less.

Once the kits are all out of the mother’s cage we decide how to feed her based on her body condition and status.  As we discussed in the feeding and watering post in this series, she will always have unlimited hay and unlimited water.  The pellet amounts are what will fluctuate.  If she is overweight and pregnant we would go back to rationed pellet feedings until the last week of pregnancy and then go to unlimited pellets.  If she is overweight and not pregnant we would do rationed feeding until we got her to a good weight.  If she is in good condition and pregnant we would continue with unlimited pellets.  If she is in good condition and not pregnant we would put her back on the adult rationed pellets.  If she is underweight then she should not be pregnant because we wouldn’t have bred her while she was underweight – but if this is somehow your situation she would absolutely stay on unlimited pellets.  If she is underweight and not pregnant we would continue unlimited pellets until she was a good weight for breeding.  You can read more details about rationed adult feeding in the Feeding and Watering post.

103_0061 The weaned kits receive unlimited pellets, unlimited hay, and unlimited water all the way through their growing out.  Depending on how many kits are in a cage, we find towards the end of growing out we have to fill pellet feeders three times a day instead of two, and put two water bottles on a cage instead of just one.

It is fine to put weanlings of different ages (from different litters) in cages together.  But be careful if there is a large difference in size or age because the larger older weanlings might bully the younger smaller ones and cause them stress and growth problems.

Do not overcrowd your weanling/growing out cages.  Your kits will not grow as fast and as well if they are crowded and stressed.  However, do try to keep them with at least one other kit, never alone.  Young animals eat and grow better when they have another young animal with them.  You may start with 8 new weanlings in one 30×36 inch cage, but as they get bigger you would split them into two cages with four rabbits in each to be sure they have enough space.7

We butcher our kits at about 11 weeks of age.  Sometimes they are at weight at 10 weeks, and sometimes not until 13 weeks.  But basic fryer butchering age is between 11-12 weeks.

If we are keeping a kit to grow-out into a breeding animal they either move into their own cage when the rest of the litter is butchered, or we keep them with a same-sex sibling if we are keeping more than one.  They can live with a same-sex sibling until they are bred – once it is time to breed them they need their own cage.  We feed them unlimited pellets, hay, and water, until they reach a healthy adult size.

We have now covered everything one would need to know to get started raising meat rabbits.  We hope the series has been helpful – please feel free to ask any questions in the comments sections of any of the posts in the series and we will do our best to help you.

 

Sunday Homestead Update

Sorry for the silence!  We have been so busy with fall projects and life around here that I haven’t even been on the computer in a couple of weeks now.  It has been a wonderful season of accomplishing things around the property and farm, and enjoying the beautifully warm autumn weather we have been having.

So here is a peek at some of the things going on around the homestead…

The Flerd – Sheep and Goats

The three ewes have been taken to the breeder, where they will stay until mid December enjoying time with the ram and hopefully come back pregnant.  It is very strange with them gone.  The barn seems empty and chores are a little too easy.  🙂

The goats were a bit upset when the sheep left, but have settled in without the sheep around.  They are both doing well and we are looking forward to their upcoming ultrasounds.  Neither has come back into heat since they arrived, so they are most likely both pregnant.

Now that the sheep stall is vacant we can begin some of the barn remodeling we plan to do.  I will keep you posted on all of that.  The changes include some new feeders, two permanent lambing/kidding stalls, and a new milking stanchion.

Rabbits

Our last litter of rabbits from the buck that died is now at the adorable stage.  Unfortunately, mama bunny is super protective and aggressive about her kits, so we can only admire from afar.  She even attacked and bit Mtn Man while he was trying to put some hay in her cage.

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Hunting

Mtn Man and Young man each successfully hunted a buck mule deer – adding two more animals worth of meat to our freezers.  The only tag we have left is Mtn Man’s for a cow elk.  He has until January to fill it, so he will hopefully be successful and we will be set for our red meat needs for the next year.

Mtn Man has some of the deer meat brining right now in preparation to go into the smokehouse.  It will be our first smokehouse experiment!  We are a bit nervous because with the warm weather the bears are still out and about.  We had one in the front yard one morning last week.  We will have to guard the smokehouse carefully during smoking next week when the meat is ready to go in.

He made some corned venison (like corned beef) by brining and then cooking some of the deer ribeye.  It turned out delicious!  We will definitely be doing that again with our game meat.

Poor Kitty!

Our indoor kitty, Mo, somehow forgot about the concept of the wood stove while it wasn’t going all summer.  As we have started having fires in it this fall, we figured he knew from last year that it was hot.  Unfortunately, he jumped up on top of it while it was hot and burned his paws.  Poor kitty.  He was not feeling well for a few days but they are healed now and looking good.

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Baby Gate

Mr. Smiles is getting around the house now – it was time for a baby gate at the top of the stairs.  Mtn Man made a beautiful gate that matched the banister he made last year, and it will keep our little man safe from falling down the stairs.

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Operation Christmas Child

The 4 older kids wanted to help out with Operation Christmas Child.  Our church packs boxes each year to donate.  The kids decided to sew and assemble 100 drawstring backpacks to put in the boxes.  They worked so hard on the project, from raising money for the supplies to the actual making of all the backpacks.  They finished them this week and are very excited about giving them to needy kids in other countries.

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We have a lot of farm-project finishing coming up in the next few weeks, it will be fun to share them with you as we complete each item.

Sunday Homestead Update

First Snow

We had a mild cold snap this week, getting down to 25 and bringing a dusting of snow with it.  It has been fun to sit by a cozy fire, knitting and sipping hot tea.  But we were also happy when the warmer autumn days returned and we were able to continue to get outdoor projects done before real winter sets in.

Rabbits

We had two litters born last week.  Justice kindled a litter of 8, and Indi kindled her first ever litter with 5 live and 1 stillborn.  Even though it was her first time she put all the kits into the nest box like she was supposed to, so that was good.  Both litters were doing very well, until we went for morning chores 9 days later and were shocked to find Justice’s entire litter frozen to death.  The night before they had plenty of fur on them and seemed fine.  But in the morning there wasn’t much fur on them and we noticed that they were right up against the wire bottom of the nest box.  Normally there is plenty of hay, fur, and a piece of cardboard between the kits and the bottom wire.  In all the years of using the nest boxes with hardware cloth bottoms we have never had a litter freeze.  Not to mention by 9 days old they have quite a bit of fur on them.  But it was clear that somehow that is what happened – we are pretty sure it was because they didn’t have any insulation under them.  It was 35F that night.  It was very sad and especially hard because we feel responsible, even though we have never had that problem before, it is still hard not to feel guilty.  And it is always difficult to lose babies, no matter which species.

Goats

Heidi and Gretchen are integrating into the flock flerd well.  It is still kind of three sheep over here and two goats over there, but they don’t have trouble sharing space and even food when needed.  They have decided that Tundra is not going to eat them, but they still face him head on at all times when he is moving around the barnyard – ready to butt him if necessary.  Tundra couldn’t care less about them.  He just seems to view them as more animals to guard, but not something to bother sniffing or chasing.  So that is good.  Finley, however, thinks that they are fun to chase – which is NOT good.  He is just now beginning to go back outside after healing from his toe incident.  We will need to take it slow introducing him and be sure he doesn’t make a habit of chasing them.

I have been digging into our new raising goats book.  We are excited because there are a lot of wild plants and brush that grow on our property that we will be able to feed to the goats – something that we haven’t experienced with our livestock before.  Since we can’t grow hay or pasture, this is a huge plus for us as far as the goats go.  When working on the root cellar a few currant bushes had some of their branches ripped off by the tractor, so I took a few branches up to them.  They were gone within a few minutes – the goats loved them!  And the sheep helped eat them as well.  So that is good.

Root Cellar

The outside of the root cellar is completely finished!  We are VERY happy with how it turned out.  We are now going to track the temperature and humidity inside of it daily all through the fall, winter, and spring so that we can get an idea of what we can successfully store in it.  Next summer we will build shelving inside of it and then start using it next fall.

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Garden

My beets and turnips are still alive inside the pest tent, and there is celery, parsley, beets and turnips still alive outside of the tent.  We have had several frosts down to 25F already, so I am pretty excited they are still going.  I am interested to see how long they can go.  Even though they are still alive, I don’t think they are growing much because of the cold.  So I need to plant them earlier next year so they get a bit bigger before the cold weather hits.  Although I wonder if more mature plants wouldn’t handle the cold as well.  Experiments, experiments.

The tomatoes are continuing to ripen in the basement and we have been making spaghetti sauce with them this year since we still have stewed tomatoes left from last year.  It is amazing how many tomatoes it takes to make a small amount of sauce.  I am not sure sauce is the most efficient use of the tomatoes.  It might make more sense to do other things with our home-grown tomatoes and just buy sauce at the store.  We usually use at least 2 jars of spaghetti sauce a week because Friday is always homemade pizza and a movie night at our house.  It seems impossible to grow enough tomatoes for that much.

 

Now that we have finished up some of the projects we were working on (root cellar and smokehouse), we can move on to other projects – a permanent barnyard fence and gate to replace the livestock panels, and an outdoor hay and feed manger for the goats and sheep.

 

Getting Started With Meat Rabbits: Birth to Weaning

Check out the other posts in this series:

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You have a doe with a nest full of hay, fur, and newborn kits.  Now what do you do?

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Once she has had time to settle after giving birth, usually about 12 hours, you need to check on the kits.  Some does are more tolerant of this than others.  Be careful, be quiet, and don’t make sudden movements.  We usually pull the nest box to the front of the cage and pull the fur out of the way to see the kits.

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If it is cold out you need to be careful not to let the kits get chilled.  They stay warm with a combination of cuddling together for body heat, and the fur covering them.  So uncovering them, and separating them from the warmth of one another are ways you might accidentally chill them.  So if it is cold, work fast and try to keep them in groups.

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The kits are usually in a clump way at the back of the nest.  We pull them out one by one, checking them and piling them together in a clump at the front of the nest.  Then we move them back to the back again and cover them back up.

As we pull each one out we are counting them and checking to see that each one:

  • is alive
  • doesn’t have any injuries
  • has been fed

Is Alive:  It is common for rabbits to have stillborns, or to have kits die in the first few days.  When we find a dead kit in the nest we remove and dispose of it immediately to keep the nest healthy.

Doesn’t Have Any Injuries:  Sometimes an overzealous doe will accidentally chew on her kits when she is cleaning them after delivery.  The most common place is on the ears of the kit, but there can be other places as well.  If a kit is injured a decision needs to be made as to the extent of the injury and the chance of survival.  Sometimes the best thing for the animal is to be put down so it doesn’t suffer.  Minor injuries just need to be kept clean and given a chance to heal.  But putting ointments/medication on the wound could make the doe reject the kit, so it is best if you can avoid it.

Has Been Fed:  Does feed their kits twice a day, usually about 12 hours apart, in the morning and evening.  We find most of our does feed around 9-10 pm and 9 am.  The kit will have a very round belly if it has been fed, called a “frog belly.”  It is easiest to see the frog bellies if you check the kits soon after you think she has fed them, but they should be apparent for up to a few hours after.

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Rabbit kit with fully fed “frog” belly

If you find you have a kit that is not being fed you might have to force her to feed it.  We do this by taking the doe out of the cage onto our lap or a tabletop.  Then we put the kit belly up underneath her and make sure it latches on and gets a chance to eat.  Some people do this in the opposite way, with the doe on her back and the kit laid onto her belly.  We find the does really hate this and the battle is not worth it.  It has always worked well for us to do it with the doe right side up.  Plus, the kits are naturally used to eating on their backs, so it seems the best way to feed them.

Sometimes, if a kit is continuing to not get fed you will have to do the force feeding for a few days in a row.  But most of the time one or two feeding is enough to get them going and vigorous enough to eat themselves.

We check on our kits every day for the first 4-5 days to be sure they are all eating, healthy, and growing well.  It is amazing to see how quickly they grow and change.

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Rabbit Kit Day 1

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Rabbit Kit Day 2

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Rabbit Kit Day 3

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Rabbit Kit Day 4

We do not hand rear orphaned or injured kits.  Kits under two weeks of age have an extremely low chance of survival when hand reared.  I have never heard of or seen one that survived, and that is from experience with both domestic and wildlife rehab kits.

But there is an option of what to do with orphaned kits.  We purposefully breed two of our does within 24-48 hours of each other so they will kindle very close to the same time.  We have had excellent success with fostering kits over from one mother to another mother as long as the kits are within a few days of the same age.  As you can see they change and grow quickly so you have to be careful not to try to foster if there is a big difference in size.

We also foster over if one doe has a very large or small litter.  For example, sometimes we have had first time does that only have 1-2 surviving kits.  A litter that small will have a very hard time staying warm.  So if we have another doe that kindled close to the same time we will foster those kits over to that mother and let the other mother’s milk dry up and then re-breed her.  Or, sometimes we have a doe that has a huge litter of 13, and another doe kindles the next day with only 5.  In that case we will foster 4 kits over so that each litter has 9 kits in it.  It will help ease the pressure for the doe to have to feed so many, and they will grow more evenly.

To foster a kit over simply take the kit you want to switch over and gently rub it across the side of the new mother to get some of her scent on it and then tuck it in with her kits in the nest and cover them all with her fur.  We have never had a doe reject a kit put in her nest in this way.  But we always do the foster move-over in the first few days of life.

For the most part, once they survive the first few days they are likely to survive to weaning.  So after day 4 or 5 we stretch out our checks to twice a week or so.  By one week of age, they are fully covered with fur, but their eyes are still closed.

1 week old

1 week old

On the 9th day it is time to clean out the nest box.  Quite a bit of mess can gather in the first 9 days.  Their eyes open on day 10 and it is good to have them opening in a clean environment.  To do this bring a dishpan, or properly sized box to the cage.  Take all the clean fur out and put it in the box, then put all the kits on top of it.  Careful moving the kits, they are surprisingly hard to keep in your hand.  It is best if you have two people for this process, one to clean the nest, the other to take care of the kits.  Kits have very sporadic and spastic movements and can easily jerk themselves right up and out of a box.  Remove all the dirty hay and fur from the box.  If you are using a cardboard nest liner like we discussed in our Pregnancy and Kindling post then remove that as well.  Put a new cardboard liner in and then using fresh hay create a nice nest with a recessed area in it for the kits to go in.  Carefully move the kits back over and re-cover them with the fur you saved.  If it is cold you need to move very quickly so the kits don’t get chilled.

When their eyes are opening sometimes they can get a bit crusty or stuck shut.  If this happens just take a warm wet cloth and gently wipe it over the eye to moisten the crust and help it open.

By two to three weeks the kits have entered the oh-so-cute phase.  Plan to spend a lot of time standing in front of the cage adoring how cute they are – it’s good for your soul.  😉

2 weeks old

2 weeks old

They will begin to be able to enter and exit the nest box on their own.  Most of the time they will still choose to sleep together in the nest.103_0017103_0001

Around 4 weeks of age (depending on the weather) they will be spending little to no time in the nest and the box can be removed.  In colder weather leave it longer, in warmer weather maybe shorter.  Let the kits behavior decide.  If they are never in it and it is just taking up needed space then it should definitely go.  They will still cuddle together for warmth and comfort.

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At 5 weeks of age, give your doe a physical exam, if she is in good health and at a good weight then you can re-breed her.  Sometimes, waiting too long between re-breedings can make it difficult to get the doe pregnant again.  However, an unhealthy or underweight doe should NOT be re-bred at 5 weeks postpartum.  She needs time to regain weight and get healthy before she is re-bred.

Once the kits reach 6 weeks of age the cage is getting very crowded and they are eating and drinking on their own.  It is time for them to leave their mama.

6 weeks old 3 lbs

6 weeks old

We will discuss how to wean your rabbits in our next post in this series.

 

Sunday Homestead Update: Projects, Projects, Projects

We have been busy busy with our fall projects around here this week.  Such a great time of year, being productive as a family together outside in beautiful weather!

Smokehouse and Root Cellar

We are SO close to finishing the smokehouse.  Hopefully this week I will be posting the final post showing how we built the smokehouse start to finish and how it turned out.  Mtn Man and Young Man are constantly discussing the details of how they want to smoke some of their elk and deer meat later this year.  They are reading books from our own homestead library, as well and some books we got from the local public library.  We have to wait until the bears go to bed for the winter, otherwise we will draw in every bear for miles to dine at our smokehouse.

The root cellar needs a little more masonry work on the front, and we have to figure out how to secure the old recycled barn door to the house in a way that is as rodent and bear-proof as possible.

Firewood

It is that time of year again…time to put up the firewood we will need to keep us all warm and cozy through the long, cold winter.  Many hands make light work and I am always surprised as the kids get older how fast work can go when we work together as a family.  There is still more to put up, but we made a lot of progress.

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Barnyard Gate and Permanent Fence

We started a new project this week involving the barnyard.  Building fences in the Rockies can be tricky and expensive because at least 50% of the time when you try to dig a post hole you hit rock of some kind and have to tweak your plan.  This often leads to the use of cement, or the fence looking all zigzaggy, or both.  It also means more expense.  We are blessed to have a lot of livestock panels that we can use as fencing, but we do hope to put in permanent fences everywhere eventually.

We decided we wanted to separated off a section of the barnyard as a separate pen and build a little housing shed in it.  We originally called it the ram shed and pen because we are planning to at some point, in the not-so-near future, get a ram and need a place to keep him separate from the ewes.  As we discussed this pen we realized that, built properly, it could be a very useful multi-purpose shed and pen that we could use to house any number of things.  It could be used to wean lambs, calves, or goat kids from their mothers, or to house chickens or turkeys.  We put up the temporary panels for now and have been using the area to separate the animals for various reasons, but the problem is that we only have one panel that has a gate and it is already in use, so we have to scoot the panels and open them where they attach a couple times a day while we move animals around.  So we decided it was time to put in the gate.  Here are the before pictures of that area:

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And here is the new gate:

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We are hoping to do the permanent fence for that area soon.

We also decided to start in on building the shed back there.  We are attaching it to the upper coop, which is attached to the barn.  It will be built with pallets, just like the upper coop was.  We went back and forth about the pros and cons of putting a floor in the shed, and ultimately decided it was necessary to make the shed as secure as possible against digging predators, which we have plenty of.  So we built the floor first:

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We had plenty of “helpers” getting in our way during the work on these two projects, including these ladies,

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and this guy:

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I am always surprised at how very curious sheep are, especially since they are such prey-driven animals.

Rabbits

Our only breeding buck, Uncle Sam, died unexpectedly this week.  He was fine in the evening, the next morning he wouldn’t eat and by afternoon he was dead.  Unfortunately, this is often the case with rabbits.  They usually do not show signs of illness until it is too late to save them.  We don’t know what killed him, but the other rabbits seem fine so we are thankful it wasn’t contagious.

So we are down to our two breeding does, Justice and Indi.  Both are due to kindle this week, so we should have a lot of kits very soon.  We are discussing the options of what to do about the loss of the buck.

Mr. Smiles’ Surgery

Mr. Smiles has recovered from his 5th surgery and a 4-day hospital stay.  The Pediatric Hospital Pajamas I sewed for him worked beautifully and we got many comments from nurses about how convenient and wonderful they were.  He did have tubes coming out of his arms, so the ability to open and close the sleeve was essential and I was very glad to have them for him while we were there.

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We will continue on with our projects this coming week as we take advantage of the weather and time available to work on things.