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Rabbits on the Homestead, Take 2

February 25, 2013

Animal Care, Rabbits

Sunning rabbit

Every homestead needs a good supply of small meat animals- something the family or group can eat in a meal or two so that spoilage and waste are not a problem.  We have tried a couple things, but for years we mainly relied on chickens because they were more cost-effective than others (like turkeys).

We still utilize spent layers and surplus roosters with dumplings and in soup, but for tender by-the-piece type eating, you really need young meaty types.  The industry standard for decades has been the Cornish-Rock hybrid.  Initially, individuals were selected for fast growth and more breast meat.  Over time, they have been further “fiddled with,” the result being that  you can now grow a bird from a few ounces at hatching to 7 or 8 pounds in less than 2 months.  Amazing, yes;  ‘normal,” no.

About three years ago, we decided that we just had to find an alternative to raising Cornish cross chickens for meat.  They are so unpleasant to take care of and you just know you are doing them a favor on “processing day.”

Beyond all the GMO type issues, there was the very practical perspective of unsustainability.  These creatures are not something you can naturally breed in your own backyard;  you have to purchase them as day-old chicks from a hatchery.  This is no good from a preparedness aspect.  About two years ago, we decided to try rabbits as an alternative.

Steep Learning Curve

drinking rabbitAs usual, I read every book, article, and blog I could find before we made our foray into rabbits.  Then I began watching Craigslist ads to find hutches and the going price and availability of various breeds.  Once we acquired some hutches, we visited a local breeder and got even more information from him.  We bought two Californians and set up our rabbitry.  We eagerly awaited our first litter.

And we waited.  And we waited.  We bought an additional doe to speed this project along.  And we did have a litter finally. It was born on an extremely hot day.  The mother did not give birth in a nesting box, but rather on the wire and most were mortally injured before we found them.  The rest died within 2 days though we had carefully put them in the box with gloved hands.

This dismal story has replayed itself in several different variations many times since then.  Either our rabbits would not breed or they would give birth on a day that it was 17 degrees or the mother would not care for them, and so on.  Whatever the particular reason for the death of that litter, it has always been the same outcome, with one exception.  Even out of that bunch, only one lived to breeding age.

In addition, we have had several other rabbits just die for no apparent reason.  We have since decided that adult mortality may have been related to water bottles allowed to run dry by the adolescent children charged with caring for them.  Sigh…

All the way around, this has been a very frustrating project.

Rethinking the old way

We are always interested in going the most natural route with regards to food and farming.  If we can simplify our operation and reduce our labor, all the better.  We decided to rethink the way we were running things.

In nature, rabbits live in burrows and warrens.  They select foods for themselves and give birth in cozy nests underground where the offspring are not at the mercy of weather extremes.

We have had our hutches located inside what was previously the henhouse and attached chicken yard on the northern and eastern walls with shade provided by large trees.  Our birds are all in “chicken tractors” now so the structure could be entirely repurposed.

After thought and discussion, we decided to give them the run of the “rabbithouse” and yard and hope for the best.  We were aware of some possible problems, including that they may dig out and disappear, but we decided we had little to lose at this point besides the feed bill.

A New Plan

We knew that we had to have a way to catch the rabbits in the future.  Chasing them around to catch dinner would be undesirable if not impossible if they had holes they could disappear into.  We took apart the hutch I wrote about here and affixed the 3′ x 3′ fence part to a wall within the structure.  We made this into a “feeding station” so that the rabbits had to come into an enclosure (where we can catch them) to get food and water.  We leave one of the little hinged doors open.  The house itself also has a small knee-high guillotine-style door going out to the yard that we can close.

the feeding stationWe made sure the yard had no easy places to dig out and then set up the food, water, and minerals.  One by one, we brought the rabbits into the rabbit house and put them into the feeding station.  We allowed each to eat and drink and then go exploring.  After one had left, we brought the next one and repeated this procedure.

Altogether, we released 6 does and 2 bucks, some of which had never met each other.  We saw one scuffle when the most dominant doe chased another out of the house and we have seen the bucks pursuing the does, but otherwise it’s gone pretty well.  A little fur blowing around, but no blood.

The house is probably about 8′ x 10′ and the yard is around 25′ x 40′.  That gives them plenty of room to get away from each other.  In addition, they can take shelter under the empty hutches and the low hanging branches.  I have even seen one doe dozing in the old chicken nesting boxes that are about a foot off the ground.

Each morning, we’ve done a head count.  So far, there have been no escapes and no attempts that I can see.  That could be in part to the big salivating dogs that patrol the perimeter.  It took 4 days for any to even show an interest in making tunnels since they were so happy with their new-found freedom.

So far, so good.  I’ve even witnessed what appeared to be a successful mating- that is an improvement in itself!  Maybe by this summer, I can give you a good update about how it’s working out.

Anyone else tried a warren arrangement and have any pointers for us?

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15 Comments on “Rabbits on the Homestead, Take 2”

  1. joe browning Says:

    What are your plans for the doe that you think may be bred. are you going to separate her from the other rabbits when it is time for her to deliver or let them sort it out for themselves. I have 1 buck and 5 does all in separate cages which works fine for breeding but there food needs are completely dependent on me. I also have a pair that have been running loose in the yard all winter with no help from me at all and they seem happier and healthier than any of the rest. Couple this fact with the amount of feed and it’s associated cost and I have been wondering if there isn’t a more cost effective way of raising them. I’ve built 2 rabbit tractors for litters when they are out of the nest that I can move to fresh grass every day but I’m intrigued about keeping the adults in a more natural, less costly way. Buying pellets may not be a sustainable option in the future. Thanks for the article and good luck.

    Reply

    • Laura Says:

      Thanks for your comments and for sharing your set-up. Sorry for the delay in responding.

      About the (hopefully) bred doe- as for now, our plan is to let her dig a burrow and kindle there. We hope to avoid the problems with temperature extremes, etc. When they reach weaning age and are coming to the feeder with her, we may move them to a “tractor” for grow out.

      About a week after I witnessed the mating, she began digging. It is amusing to me that she has changed her mind A LOT since then. She has dug and completely refilled 4 burrows now I think. One flooded after a rain, but the others I can’t figure out.

      About the feed reduction- I do think we are wasting less feed. If it is knocked out of the feeders, it lands on the ground where they can still get it (rather than falling through the wire floor). Also, they are nibbling what grows in their yard. I bring them a small bucket of greens I pick from our property too. It’s handy that they have come to expect that when someone comes in there will be food. Now when they hear the door open and close, they come into the “rabbit house” to see what we bring. That should make it easier to catch them later.

      About your rabbit tractors- do they have a slat or wire floor on them? We are looking at designs.

      Reply

      • joe browning Says:

        Thanks for the info. I’m really interested to see how you rabbit production works out. The tractors have neither slats or a wire floor. They’re made from metal cages wrapped with dog and chicken wire as a small bunny can go through 2×4 dog wire like it’s nothing. I’ve found that with a wire floor when dragged from one location to another it mats down the grass and prevents their being able to get to it. If it has no floor and as long as it’s on level ground and moved once or twice a day a litter can mow it down to almost bare dirt without small bunnies escaping, but the level ground is the key. If there is a gap under any corner you’ll be chasing bunnies across the yard. Surprising how much they can eat in a day and it greatly reduces the feed bill on finished rabbits. Thanks again.

        Reply

        • Laura Says:

          I have written a follow-up piece about some things I’ve learned so far. We’ve had a lot going on with a funeral, travel, etc and have neglected the blog a bit. I imagine we’ll get it up tomorrow or Wednesday.

          I had the same question about the wire floors I’ve seen on some tractor designs and the slat floors on Salatin’s. It seems like they would fold down the very grass you want them to eat as you pull them along. I already struggle with moving the pens when the grass is lush. The extra friction would probably be a no-go for me.

          I know what you mean about level ground. We have had the same problems with chicks and ducklings in our tractors ducking out if there is any gap at all. In some pastures, we have a set of wood pieces that accompany the tractors as they migrate across.

          I’m hoping that young rabbits with lots of grass to eat and space to hop around in would not be too prone to digging, but I guess I’ll have to wait and see (assuming we ever get any successful litters!).

          Thanks.

          Reply

          • joe browning Says:

            I mounted a treated wood runner around the bottom of the metal cage to make them easier to move as that slides across the ground without digging in. I also attached a rope to each so I can grab that instead of having to bend over and grab the cage itself.

            Reply

            • paseodelnorte Says:

              Most treated wood is poison, and rabbits chew wood. If you use this make sure the runner can’t be reached by the rabbits.

              Reply

  2. Rosemary Meeks Says:

    You have addressed most things about the rabbits, but not the most morbid aspect of
    raising them for food. How do you kill them? I think unless I was totally starving and had not eaten for several days I would not be able to muster up the courage to kill one for the food. And….I would not know how anyway. I am so tender hearted that I might not be able to eat it once I’d killed it. I know…..someone might say, “Then, starve.” I feel that
    this is an important question, how to kill them for food. Also, if I mustered up the courage to do so, then what do I do? How do I make one ready to be cooked. How do I skin it? “Shudders at the thought” But I think these are viable questions. If you do not
    wish to address this on your website please e-mail me with the answers.

    Sincerely, Tender hearted mama.

    Reply

    • Laura Says:

      Rosemary,

      I completely understand your feelings about this actually. Believe it or not, I am even squeamish about squashing bugs because I don’t like to feel it under my shoe. Participating in “processing” our first chickens took a long time for me- we’d been raising them for over a year (for eggs only) before I made myself do it. And after I had done it, I could hardly make myself chew and swallow. It was very bothersome to mentally adjust to.

      With regards to how we will do rabbits- it’s something that I can’t completely answer yet because we have never “harvested” one of our own. I know of the possibilities and could probably write a post on them. For example, I’ve seen a video showing how to put the rabbit belly down on the ground, hold a broom stick across the neck with one foot, and jerk it upward sharply by the tail, instantly breaking the neck. (I know- “cringe”.) But I would feel better about instructing people if I had first done it myself.

      Joe and our oldest son have almost entirely taken over the task of harvesting and cleaning animals now and I am (gratefully) rusty. Rather than scalding and plucking our birds, we have skinned our chickens since we don’t eat the the skin anyway. Joe has a system for skinning squirrels that he could write about. I imagine doing a rabbit would be similar.

      To some degree, I can say I’ve never entirely gotten used to participating. I guess I hope I never do. I don’t want to be callous or wasteful. I want to be humane and appreciative. Originally, the reason we began was to know we were providing “clean meat” for our family, but then it became a matter of sustainability for preparedness also.

      One of the secrets for me is to position myself or the animal so I can’t see its face. (With a chicken, that can be putting it into an angled cone so that the neck/throat is exposed, but that’s all I can see. With a rabbit, I might put a towel over its head). That may sound silly, but looking it in the eye makes it much harder for me. When I clean an animal, I quickly remove the head or cover it. Keeping up a steady conversation with someone else about a totally different topic helps too.

      If it was just for myself, I might learn to live on eggs, beans, and veggies. And it’s possible to get sufficient protein from those sources, so keep that in mind- you don’t HAVE to eat meat. If you do decide to raise meat animals but don’t know if you can bring yourself to follow through on the butchering, possibly you could enlist someone’s help in exchange for allowing them to keep some of the meat for themselves.

      I don’t know if that helps you any Rosemary, but your questions are very valid. It’s a hard lifestyle change to make and one should not take for granted that hunger would make it a whole lot easier.

      Reply

      • Karen Says:

        When we first butchered our chickens I was quite proud to be able to chop the head off the way I had seen my Dad do it as a girl. Eating one of our ‘girls’ was a different matter, though. Although I put on a strong front for the kids, it was hard to deal with… took about six (6) before I was okay.

        Reply

    • Laura Says:

      I came across this today. Maybe you will find it helpful.

      http://www.edthatmatters.com/free-pdf-rabbit-processing/

      Reply

  3. rumcrook™ Says:

    Their is nothing wrong with the concerns you expressed. Modern humans have been quite disconnected from our food sources, and unless you were raised on a farm or hunting from an early age it would be hard. If it wasn’t and you gleefully awaited processing day I would worry. Maybe you can find a local ag or 4h and make contacts with a family that is already an old hand at this and can come help you the first time.

    Reply

  4. Marcy Says:

    We’ve been raising rabbits for a couple years now and I fear you are going to run into several serious issues raising all your rabbits in one pen. Fact is, females are dominant in the bunny world and when birthing time comes around, they prefer their privacy for the litters. Putting them together for “playtime” could work out as long as there are no babies involved. A female stressed prior to or during birth is a serious threat to the well-being of both, mother and litter. A female is also very capable of killing a buck, regardless of sizes. We do not breed our does during the hottest part of summer but don’t have much problems in cold. Winter temps where we are rarely drop below zero and we always add litter to the kindle boxes. Anyway, we have been pretty successful raising rabbits in individual cages so if you have any questions let me know.

    Reply

  5. Jenny O Says:

    There is a utube type video of harvesting rabbits using a secured noose. The noose was snugged down around the neck. While holding the rabbit, a firm, quick “jerk” dispatched the rabbit without any twitching or spasms. If I can find the site, I will get the info to you. The dispatch was very peaceful. I guess if the rabbits are used to being handled by humans, even “collared” or “harnessed” as some people walk their pet rabbits, then the whole dispatch event should be less traumatic for the rabbit. I understand how hard it would be to handle the harvesting. For that reason, I may have to go vegan if or when TSHTF.

    Reply

    • Marcy Says:

      We use something called a”rabbit wringer” which is basically a V-shaped bracket attached to a post in the rabbit barn. My husband is in charge of dispatching the rabbits and simply slides their neck into the V and gently tugs which seperates the spine killing them instantly and most importantly, painlessly. He tried shooting them in the head with a.22, chopping them at the base of the neck and several other methods and The Wringer really seems the most humane.

      Reply

  6. Jasper Jimenez Says:

    which is used for, amongst other things, testing cosmetics on animals , has been cited as an example of cruelty in animal research. Albino rabbits are typically used in the Draize tests because they have less tear flow than other animals, and the lack of eye pigment makes the effects easier to visualize.

    Reply

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