MarysBabies

Mary’s four babies, born July 21st/22nd (night)

So, with Mary the rabbit having babies, I thought I’d do a brief post on what I’ve learned about raising rabbits for meat…so far. (I’ve only been in this since mid April).

Wire cages. Seriously. Get wire cages. Rabbits don’t just pee down, they pee out (think small male child), which means that any wood you have used for your pretty hutch that you paid top dollar for is quickly going to be soaked with rabbit pee that will be virtually impossible to remove. Ewwww. They do consistently pee in the same place, though, which makes placing catchment bins easy. I’m currently using 15 gallon plastic pots filled with shredded newspaper I get from a friend who works for a printer.

You can build your own cages. It won’t likely save you any money, but you can make them whatever size you like, which is nice. Look for 1/2 x 1 inch galvanized wire (bottom of cage) and 1 x 2 galvanized wire (sides/top), along with the J clips and pliers at well stocked hardware or feed stores. Draw out detailed plans first, or you will make a lot more cuts than you need to (ask me how I know).

RabbitsHangingCages2

Four wire cages, stacked. The wooden hutch in the back we inherited. Eventually it will go away. Right now it will be used as a grow out cage for the young after they are weened.

They say your cages should be minimum 18 inches high, and you need about .75 sq ft per pound of rabbit. So a 10 lb New Zealand or California breeding rabbit is going to need a 30 x 36 inch cage.

Rabbits can not live on rabbit pellets alone. I was once given a young rabbit by an old boyfriend in college when I was about 20. I did not have time for a rabbit. I was a full-time college student with several jobs (and a well-meaning but unthinking boyfriend).  We built it a hutch outside (after trying it inside and getting tired of cleaning up the endless stream of rabbit pellets that come out like an overactive Pez dispenser) and fed it pellets and the occasional carrot. It lasted about 6 months. It likely died from bad diet, heat exposure and loneliness. Turns out rabbits need a lot of roughage in their diet. So in addition to pellets, you feed them “hay”, which is really just dried alfalfa or grass hay from the feed store. A bale will last you a long time (when the chickens don’t escape and make nests in it).

The author of the book I’m using, “Storey’s Guide to Raising Rabbits by Bob Bennett” says never ever feed rabbits greens (i.e. vegetables or fresh anything) until they are 4 to 5 months old, or they will get diarrhea and die. And being a biologist, I breathe a huge sigh and once again lament that we’ve bred animals so far away from their natural instincts and diets, and wonder how in the hell a rabbit in the wild survives on a diet of nothing BUT greens from the time they are old enough to eat. I would guess that like with ruminants (animals that eat grass and have multiple stomachs, like cows, sheep and goats) that it is all about that amazing ecosystem of bacteria and other microorganisms in their gut, that help them digest the tough cellulose in grass and other fresh greens down into digestible nutritional bits. Daniel Salatin (Joel Salatin’s son, of Polyface Farm fame) has been breeding pasture fed rabbits since he was seven (he’s now over 30), and selecting for stock that does well on pasture. His advise: no pasture until they are 6-7 weeks old, when they seem to be able to better handle any parasites they might pick up from being on the ground. Great info on raising rabbits on pasture here. I’m not there yet, but hope to be by next spring.

I suggest that if you want to try this, introduce greens slowly when your rabbits are 8 weeks old (give a little bit every day for a week so their gut microbes can adjust, then a little bit more the next week etc.). And give them fresh grass, clover…stuff a wild rabbit would likely encounter, rather than carrots and apples. This is what I did with the young rabbits I got back in April (they were around 5 weeks old) and they have shown no ill effects (but they were being raised in contact with the ground, out under a tree, and had probably been exposed to all manner of microbes by the time I got them).

MarysBabies2

Mary with her babies. Nest box in background. Once they were big enough, they all got out of it, likely due to the heat. Note rubber Home Depot mat.

Rabbits are ready to breed when they are 5 to 8 months of age (less for smaller breeds, more for giants – mine are in the middle at about 6 months). They CAN breed earlier than this, but just like we don’t want babies having babies in the human world, things work out better for rabbits if you don’t breed them too early.

When breeding, take the doe (female) to the buck (male), not the other way around. Females can be quite territorial, and don’t take kindly to a male coming in and messing up their home. It’s best to breed them twice, a day apart, as sometimes it takes a day for her to really get into the mood. The actual mating is quick, and the males are very motivated, and will “go for it” with whatever part they can reach, over and over until his stamina runs out. He will also stamp his feet (or at least mine did) which I think is some kind of charming rabbit mating ritual (or frustration at her tail being in the way – hard to know).

You CAN force-mate a female. I’m not going to. If she doesn’t want him, there is probably a reason. A friend of mind used to talk about strange people you would meet with the comment “someone in this herd doesn’t smell right”. I trust the female rabbits instincts to know when the male isn’t right. And if she doesn’t want him, she won’t mate, despite his best efforts. Turns out that that fluffy tail makes a very good “I’m really not interested” cover for the critical parts. If she’s into it, she’ll “assume the position” and get her tail out of the way.

It takes all of about 30 days for a rabbit to go from bred to babies, and females can be bred as often as 4 or more times per year depending on her health. This is what is known as being an “R selected” species in biology. When your environment is unstable (i.e. lots and lots of things can go wrong with your offspring… like everyone wants to eat them), then it is to your advantage to have a lot of them, and have them be independent quickly (think bacteria and many insects). It also means that rabbits, well, breed like rabbits.

You’ll need a nest box for the babies to be born in. The bottom should be wire (for adequate ventilation in the summer – you can put a board or a piece of cardboard down inside of it in the winter – make sure it stays dry). I used these plans for my nest box. I only made two, not 10, as the plans call for. Basically, I just needed the dimensions. My understanding is that the top is optional, but I did add it. I also added “baby saver” wire around the bottom 3″ of the cage, all the way around. In retrospect, it seems unlikely that they babies could crawl out of the 3 1/2 inch lip of the nest box, but better safe than sorry.

The breeding pattern is this. Breed day zero. Babies day 30. Ween babies and breed again, day 90. Grow out offspring and harvest when they are 12 weeks old (or separate males and females at this time if you are going to keep them for breeding purposes). Personally, I would give the Mama’s an extra month off, and breed them 3 times a year, if I were trying to maximize production. (They should give birth to about 8 babies, in an ideal world.) I’d need more cages to do this. I don’t want to build more cages just yet.

Mama rabbits only feed their young once a day! And they feed them by standing over them, not laying down like a cat or dog would do. I was worried Mary’s babies weren’t getting fed, because I never saw Mary IN the nest box. Thank goodness for Google. By the way, this important factoid was NOT in the Storey book, which is also poorly indexed (info on rabbits and temperature was under “weather”, not under “heat” or “cold” or “temperature”).

Alice&Betty

Betty (brown) and Alice (white). Gosh it’s hot. But we’re still friends, and much prefer being together than in separate cages, thanks.

I always hesitated to get rabbits because I hate keeping animals in cages. So I was researching alternative methods of keeping rabbits (but avoiding the pet rabbit sites), and found a great post on keeping rabbits in a more “natural” way. A few things that were pointed out were 1) rabbits are social creatures in the wild. They LIKE each others company, especially if they are related. It’s OK to keep more than one in a cage so they can keep each other company. (I’ve been doing this, even though the cage, theoretically, should be twice as big, and isn’t). 2) have some sort of mat in the cage so that the rabbit can get off the wire if it wants to. Sometimes rabbits feet get messed up from being on wire all the time. I found these great rubber “bricks” at Home Depot in the gardening dept. They were 1 x 2 ft square. I just cut them in half and put one in each cage (away from the potty area – which is pretty consistent). Simple. 3) rabbits get bored if left alone in a cage all day long and they will chew whatever they can get their teeth on. There is a lot of advise about how to design a cage so that there is nothing they CAN chew on. Well how about this? For goodness sakes, give the rabbits a stick they can chew. Mine have whittled down quite a few over the last few months. I find they also nose the sticks around in the cage like a toy.

Rabbits deal with cold quite well. They do, after all, have all that fur. Heat is much harder on them. I put frozen water bottles in the cages (which are out of the sun and well ventilated) when the temperature is going to be over 95. They seem to appreciate it. We made it through a week of 100 degree days a month or so ago. I also have a mister system that runs along the front end of where the rabbits are kept (and along the chicken pen). It doesn’t mist directly on the rabbits (they would be wet if it did, which seems like a bad idea) but it does help cool the air in front of their area.

So far, so good. Looking forward to our first rabbit dinner, but not the part that comes before (though it can’t be worse than killing chickens).

Miles Away Farm Blog © 2012, where we’re trying to not think about how cute these baby bunnies are, or give them names. ‘Cuz rabbit is tasty!

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