|The rabbitry at Rabbit Hill Farm. All photos by Cheryl Wixson.
By Cheryl Wixson
For the urban gardener or homesteader, domestic rabbits can be valuable livestock. Rabbit meat is an excellent source of protein; the pelts can be used in numerous applications including hats, lap robes, cushion covers, vests and coats; and rabbit manure is an excellent fertility source. For several years I raised rabbits within the city limits of Bangor. When my husband and I moved to Stonington, the rabbitry became an important component of our organic farm plan.
Our farm site on Rabbit Hill is primarily thick spruce on rough rocky boulder ground overlooking Crocket Cove. Over a period of nine years, we have been clearing the forest and building soil with organic hay, seaweed, chips, compost, rabbit manure and rock dust.
Under the National Organic Program, organic livestock production is a management system that respects the animal’s health and wellbeing and provides housing and feed most closely resembling the natural environment. Our farm does not have grassy fields, but we have an abundance of wild rabbits (that raid my gardens) and pasture materials for feed (from patches of weedy hay growing around the edges of forest openings). Our rabbits are not housed in cages in a barn; they have year-round access to outdoor areas.
|Two creme fryers.
We first considered breed and breed stock in establishing the rabbit herd. As our rabbits are bred for both pelts and meat, we chose Satin and New Zealand to start, and later introduced Crème d’Argent into the breed line. Pay particular attention to your environment, as not all rabbit breeds thrive on pasture conditions. In our coastal location, we are developing a breed that tolerates fog and damp conditions, thrives and grows on pasture and chips, keeps a neat and clean hutch and is gentle to handle. The California and New Zealand rabbits grow to a good slaughter weight in a relatively short time but are not necessarily suited to pasture. Other breeds to consider include Silver Fox, Champagne d’Argent, Cinnamon and Palomino. Visit the breeder before you purchase livestock, and isolate a new rabbit for at least a week before introducing it to the herd.
Housing rabbits is critical and must take into consideration the life cycle of the rabbit. Our breed stock is housed in outdoor hutches all year. These hutches are stick-built construction with an enclosed back and wire front. We started with hardware cloth but soon found that it sagged under the rabbit’s weight, so switched to the wire used to make lobster traps. (Please contact me for hutch construction plans.)
Fryers are housed in 4- by 4-foot dog “playpens,” with a wire top and bottom to protect from predators and prevent escapees. A tarp covering the roof and sunny side provides adequate shade and protection from rain. Inside each pen is a small house that serves as a den.
|Two kits in a nest box.
|A doe with kits at the grain feeder.
In our production system, we figure that it takes about four months from breeding date to slaughter date, a useful calculation when determining when to breed and how many litters for each season. I replace brood does when they reach 3 years of age with our own stock and replace bucks with a new blood line. In our island climate, the optimum breeding season is mid-March until the start of hunting season, around November 1.
For best results, we take the doe to the buck’s hutch for breeding, twice, once early in the day and then later in the evening. The normal gestation period for rabbits is 31 days. About five days before delivery, I clean the hutch thoroughly, put a wooden nest box in the back of the hutch and fill the back with plenty of clean hay. Right before kindling (giving birth), the doe pulls fur and makes a nest in the hay.
Once the doe has kindled, I check to see that the kits are covered, but do not disturb the doe or the nest for at least 24 hours. My does are extremely protective, and I have had does abandon kits that were handled too soon after birth. About 36 hours or so after kindling, I give the doe a small treat in the front of the hutch, and, wearing gloves, I count and check the kits and remove any dead ones. The kits should be checked daily. Sometimes a kit will stay on the doe when she is finished nursing and end up on the wire. These kits should be returned to the nest box.
Baby rabbits usually open their eyes when they’re around 12 to 14 days old. Once this happens, they start venturing out of the nest box. As they start to nibble on food, it may be necessary to increase the doe’s rations. Around 5 weeks of age, the kits and doe are ready for the larger quarters of a nursery pen.
We quickly learned that adventuresome kits like to wiggle out (and in!) of the wire pens to explore the forest. To make a nursery pen, we covered two of the fryer pens with hardware cloth around the bottom. The little rabbits delight in this new freedom and race around the pen. Once the kits have reached 6 weeks of age, the doe may be rebred and returned to her hutch. Around 8 weeks, the fryers have reached a size that won’t crawl through the wire. The fryers are then separated into pens with no more than three animals per pen.
Rabbits are pseudo-ruminators; at night, they eat pellets that are produced in the caecum during the day, directly from the anus. So the feed passes through the digestive tract twice in 24 hours. This is how rabbits, like cows, can get their nutrition from plant material. Pasture can supply up to 40 percent of a rabbit’s dietary needs.
As our farm is primarily thick spruce on rough rocks, our rabbits are housed on chips that we produce and are fed hay, small rations of grain, and daily handfuls of pasture-type materials, such as grass, dandelions, comfrey, carrot tops, root vegetables, apples or cornstalks. Be sure to introduce new foods slowly to rabbits, in particular fryers, as they can become piggy and eat too much, resulting in diarrhea and death. And comfrey should be fed in modest amounts. It is a good protein source and is useful for issues with diarrhea but in very large quantities has been shown to cause liver cysts. Monitor the livers of slaughtered animals for any signs of health issues. As with all things eliciting caution, individual differences may occur with intensive breeding. (See http://www.comfreycentral.com/research/comfrey_research.htm for a “Review of Animal Studies Using Comfrey or Related Pyrrolizidine Alkaloids.”)
Once fryers have reached about 3 months of age and around 5 pounds, they will either need to be sexed and separated or slaughtered. In our production system, we move fryers to the freezer and the latest batch of kits to nursery pens. Non-producing does and mean rabbits are culled from the herd.
Sanitation of hutches, pens, feeders and water bottles is critical to successful rabbit husbandry. Organic producers must use an approved product for sanitizing. We use a hydrogen peroxide and peroxyacetic acid product marketed as Sanidate or Oxidate.
Rabbits kept in dirty conditions are susceptible to coccidiosis, a highly contagious and deadly disease. One year in Bangor, I lost my buck and a whole batch of fryers to coccidiosis. A rotation period of at least one year is recommended for rabbits on pasture. We clean our hutches and pens weekly, move the pens and replenish the chips. All pens and hutches are sanitized before new rabbits are boarded in them.
Rabbits kept in clean conditions have relatively few health issues. Once I had a new doe with ear mites but was able to treat her and drown the mites with several liberal applications of mineral oil. I have never needed to seek medical attention for my rabbits, choosing to cull unhealthy animals from the herd instead.
Once the production season is over, prepare the rabbitry for winter. Pens, nest boxes and dens are cleaned, sanitized and stored. Water bottles are sanitized and replaced with electrically heated ones (a luxury). Hutches are cleaned, and 30 bales of organic hay are stowed in the barn.
Our four does and one buck provide the family with plenty of meat to last the year. We smoke the fryers whole, cook the larger rabbits to make potpies, prepare rabbit pâté and kidney pies. In winter, our rabbits are content to nibble on hay, vegetable scraps and dregs from the root cellar. Organic rabbit production is ideal for our homesteading needs.
Raising Rabbits, by Ann Kanable, Rodale Press, 1977
“Raising Rabbits on Pasture,” by Diane Schivera, MOFGA’s organic livestock specialist. The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener, Dec. 2009-Feb. 2010; http://www.mofga.org/Publications/MaineOrganicFarmerGardener/Winter20092010/Rabbits/tabid/1392/Default.aspx
About the author: Cheryl Wixson and her husband, Phillip McFarland, operate Rabbit Hill Farm in Stonington, Maine. She is MOFGA’s organic marketing consultant and food safety specialist. Contact her at Cheryl@mofga.org or 207-852-0899 (mobile).