|Rabbits on pasture. Photo courtesy of www.cuniculture.info/Docs/Phototheque/Materiel07.htm|
By Diane Schivera, M.A.T.
Raising rabbits on pasture allows the animals to exercise, engage more easily in natural behavior, and improve their overall quality of life, while giving the farmer a way to move or manage rabbit housing easily. Rabbits raised on pasture produce more meat and meat of nicer quality, with more omega-3 fatty acids in the limited amount of fat contained in the carcass.
Nitrogen in rabbit manure goes directly on the soil, and less is lost as ammonia gas than during composting. Some loss does occur on the field, but this loss is minimized if the soil is absorbent, is not waterlogged or is not very dry, crusty and in direct sun. Fertility from the manure improves pasture production, and the rabbits’ direct application of manure to the field eliminates the need to make and move compost for part of the year, thus saving labor.
Rabbits that have been intensively bred for production, such as California and New Zealands, often will not do so well on pasture. Confined rabbits can be raised to slaughter weight in 8 weeks. On pasture and with less intensive feeding, they need 10 to 12 weeks.
Breeds that are recommended, primarily because they will reach a good size on pasture, are:
Champagne d’Argent – 12 pounds
Crème d’Argent – 11 pounds
Californian – 10.5 pounds
American Chinchilla – 16 pounds
Cinnamon – 11 pounds
New Zealand – 12 pounds
Palominos – 11 pounds
Satin – 11 pounds
When selecting rabbits for breeding, emphasize meat types. A rabbit/fryer destined for meat is compact and short, with a blocky appearance. The fryer should be smooth, with no visible hip bones, and with as much depth as width. The shoulders should begin at the nape of the neck and rise to the highest point over the hips. To get an accurate picture of each fryer, pose it by putting the fryer so that the toes of the hind feet are even with the knee joint of the hindquarters. The toes of the front feet should be placed below the eye.
Daniel Salatin of Polyface Farm in Virginia raises rabbits that he has bred himself over the last two decades, primarily by crossing New Zealand White and California breeds. One Dutch buck contributed to the gene pool. His current breeding stock coloration is not typical of any of these breeds. He said that he selectively bred for animals that did well on the Salatins’ farm, and those animals just happened to show recessive traits for color. He had no preference in their color when he made breeding decisions. The rabbits have brownish-golden fur with a slightly darker color on their foreheads. He sells breed stock to those willing to travel to his farm.
Covered cages on wheels can be moved daily to pasture in a permanent, wired-off pen so that rabbits can graze and exercise. Gail Adamoschek of New York, using a USDA Sustainable Research and Education (SARE) grant, tried different designs for pastured rabbit cages and developed an “apartment complex” design as described here (based on her SARE report; see resources):
Our original plan was to use greenhouse hoops for the side and roof structure, but they were harder for us to get than some other materials. We found that cattle panels are easy to find at farm centers, are reasonably priced, easy to transport in a pickup truck, and, as we learned from our experience with sheep, these durable panels can be used for years. They are made out of rods and are 4 x 16 feet.
Three 10-foot x 4-inch x 4-inch lumber – two for long sides and one cut into two 4 1/2-foot pieces to be used as cross members for the frame.
One cattle panel (16 feet long)
One roll of 1-inch x 2-inch welded wire (4 feet long)
One 10-foot x 5-inch piece of 2-inch x 4-inch welded wire
Wheels with shafts
Nails and metal plates to secure corners
Wire clips and pliers
Canvas and bungee straps
Make a rectangular frame using the 4 x 4s. It is important to use metal plates to secure all joints. Onto this frame, staple (using fencing staples) the panel in a hooped position to create a greenhouse-like frame.
Next, using plenty of wire clips and staples for the wire to wood sections, affix 1- x 2-inch welded wire all the way around the sides of the whole structure. We made service doors from the same type of wire so that we could easily reach into each of the four apartments.
To the bottom of the cage, staple 2- x 4-inch welded wire and place metal straps every 11/2 to 2 feet for extra support.
Create apartments by placing 1- x 2-inch wire across the inside and connecting the wires to form the size apartments you wish. We made four apartments.
On one end fasten a 1/2-inch pipe across the whole end. This is for simply inserting the shafts of wheels for moving. I suggest hanging the wheels off the cage until you’re ready to move the structure, then placing the shafts all the way inside the pipes, going to the other end, picking up the cage slightly and pushing. When you get to the desired place, set the structure down, go to the other end, remove and hang up the wheels and go about your business.
Place canvas, fastened down with bungee straps, over the structure to provide shelter against the elements. Place feeders inside, hang waterers, and put 1/4-inch plywood or wire mesh in the corners for the bunnies to get onto while you’re moving the pen. After a while the rabbits will get the hang of this.
Our rabbit pens are 8 feet x 8 feet (x 2 feet tall), separated into two compartments. Each 4- x 8-foot section is plenty of space for one litter, which usually amounts to 14 to 20 rabbits per pen (seven to 10 per side). The top of the pen and the north, east and west sides are covered with roofing. The south side is covered with 1-inch chicken wire. The top of the north side is permanently propped open 1 to 2 inches for ventilation. Some of our pens have a couple of feet of open space on top (with chicken wire of course) and sides at the south ends, but we don’t believe this is necessary. The top lid is separated into two sections, each hinged along the center so that they can be propped open to access the cage. A piece of wood that pivots loosely on a nail is turned up to prop open the lids.
Moving the Pens
The rabbit pens are moved exactly like the Salatin-style chicken pens. This means wires with black tubing are attached to the bottoms of each side. We welded a dolly, just like the one for the chickens, which slips under one side, becoming the axle and wheels. Then we simply walk to the opposite end, pick up the wire with the tube handle and pull it along.
Polyface Farm Pen Design
Polyface Farm’s pens, according to the frugal life Web site listed in the references, are 3-foot x 8-foot, about 2 feet high and hold 10 rabbits or one litter. The frame is constructed from 2 x 2s with chicken-wire siding. The roof is corrugated aluminum roofing. The bottom of the pen has long, thin wooden slats, 1-1/2 to 2 inches apart, running the 8-foot length of the pen, with a reinforcing cross bar on top of the slats in the middle of the pen. The slats are parallel to the long sides of the pen, and the pen is always moved in the direction of the slats. This keeps the pasture plants from being flattened.
Ideally, rabbit pens should not return to the same ground for a year, in order to control diseases – coccidiosis in particular.
At Polyface Farm, the does that are ready to give birth are removed from pasture and kept in indoor cages. The kits and mother doe are kept indoors together for five weeks after birth. At five weeks, the doe returns to pasture; the kits are kept indoors for one more week. Daniel Salatin believes that kits are most susceptible to coccidiosis at 5 to 7 weeks of age. After a week alone, the litter is put in a pen on grass.
Other farmers have success allowing kits to be born and stay on pasture. If you are particular and have the young kits on ground that has not had older rabbits on it for a good year, your rabbits are less likely to have parasites.
In most setups, pens get moved at least once per day, but you need to watch the feed availability in the pen to determine how often to move them. Sometimes they need to be moved more than once a day.
Rabbits are coprophagous or pseudoruminators. At night, they eat pellets that are produced in the ceacum during the day, directly from the anus. These pellets are rich in vitamins and protein. Caecotrophy allows the absorption of nutrients (amino acids, volatile fatty acids and vitamins B and K) from bacterial fermentation products, and the redigestion of previously undigested food. So feed passes twice through the digestive tract in 24 hours. This is how rabbits, like cows, can get their nutrition from plant material. They can make meat without consuming a high grain diet. So, like pasture raised beef, rabbits on pasture are a more environmentally sound source of meat than non-pastured rabbits.
Pasture housing systems reduce the rate of gain of high production genotypes but result in increased nutritional quality of meat, with a lower lipid content, increased polyunsaturated fatty acids, a decreased omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio and a good vitamin E concentration. This improvement is marginal, however, since rabbit meat is generally low in fat. These characteristics along with more animal-friendly living conditions (Mugnai et al., 2008) justify the higher price of this product.
Rabbits will feed on grasses and other greens, but only if the tips of the plants are pointing upward. They like to nibble from the tips down toward the roots. If the stalks are bent downward, the rabbits will ignore the pasture and will eat only the other feed you provide. This is important to be aware of if your cage has a wire bottom; in this case, you should lift the pen after dragging it and set it gently on the grass to prevent bending the grass, or place it on short grass.
Pasture can supply up to 40 percent of the rabbits’ dietary needs. They will eat legumes and other high protein greens, but prefer plants with more stem or roughage. Beet greens, chicory, comfrey and other plants with developed stalks, including green rye, millet and winter wheat, are good feeds. The rabbits still need hay for roughage, and pelletized or free-choice whole grains to improve performance.
In winter, you can give the rabbits root crops, such as mangles, carrots, parsnips, rutabagas, etc., and free choice hay for a good diet.
You can feed standard rabbit pellets or alfalfa pellets. Rabbit pellets are in large part alfalfa. Alfalfa pellets will be less expensive. You must remember to give the rabbits a good variety of greens or winter roots to supply needed nutrition when feeding them alfalfa pellets.
A salt and mineral supplement and kelp are required with all rations unless the animals are getting free-choice rabbit pellets that include supplements.
For two years, I fed an Angora rabbit on quality mixed grass and legume hay, millet, barley, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and almonds along with vegetables in winter or pasture or grass in summer. Salt and mineral supplements were also included. She did well and grew lots of fiber.
“Pastured Rabbit Cage Development,” www.sare.org/reporting/report_viewer.asp?pn=FNE01-354&ry=2002&rf=1&rtf=1, SARE grant; Gail Adamoschek, coordinator, 130 Indian Dr., Sprakers, NY 12166; 518-673-2185; [email protected]
“Pasture Availability and Genotype Effect in Rabbit: Performance, Carcass and Meat Characteristics, by Mugnai C., Finzi A., Zamparini C., Dal Bosco A., Mourvaki E., Castellini C., 9th World Rabbit Congress, June 10-13, 2008, Verona, Italy; https://world-rabbit-science.com/WRSA-Proceedings/Congress-2008-Verona/Verona-2008-a.htm
https://polyfaceapprentice.blogspot.com/search?q=rabbit (Good pictures)
www.cuniculture.info (in French); photos at www.cuniculture.info/Docs/Phototheque/Materiel07.htm
Diane Schivera is MOFGA’s organic livestock specialist. You can contact her with your questions at 568-4142 or [email protected].