Rabbits

I have wanted to keep rabbits for a very long time. Not for pets, mind you, but for meat. The thought is even more attractive now that we’re feeding our pets raw. I’ve read up on the subject, and I even have my favorite books, but I’ve really never spent a lot of time around rabbits, and I’ve been generally scared of them, nervous that they’ll bite me, or panic and break their back, or whatnot.

At the farm, Jeanette keeps perhaps 150 rabbits, all rescues. Some of the males are neutered, a few rare females are spayed, and for the most part they are fat and healthy. Since being involved in rescue, she and her husband have decided to be vegetarian, because in her words “when we were raising show rabbits, it just didn’t seem right to go to potlucks at the end of the weekend and be eating the losers.” I get her point, but I don’t plan on giving up meat anytime soon, I just want to raise it myself in a humane and healthy way.  I think she would be appalled at how much I am learning from her practices.

They started with hutches, but they’re bulky and not very practical. They then progressed to cages in the barn, hung from the walls like picture frames. It gives the cages some spring, so even if a rabbit does panic, it’s less likely to hurt itself badly. There is one room that is set up like a commercial breeder, with cages double high and a runoff so that the lower cages stay dry and waste-free. it’s the system I’m most familiar with, but I have never been very happy with it.

What has surprised me the most is the outdoor runs. Females have been getting transferred out to colonies 4-10 members large in wire-bottomed, wire-enclosed, tarp-roofed structures that have been set with hay bales. The hay and rabbit waste breaks down into an odorless soil that is ideal for shallow burrows. She never mucks them out, and they do not smell. The colony rabbits are the healthiest, happiest, most friendly rabbits she keeps. She’s trying to get the rest of the barn rabbits into colonies before winter.

I asked her where she puts the rabbits in the winter, and she says that the rabbits do fine out there. I was so shocked! It can get to -70 with the windchill, and easily -30 without. And four foot snow buildup. Aargh! I couldn’t hardly wrap my brain around it! She’s apparently been doing it for years and has never lost a rabbit to the elements. The snow surrounds the pens and shelters them from the winds, the decomposing hay and poo keep the ground temperature from freezing, and sometimes downright warm, and the rabbits just build nests, grow thicker coats, and snuggle up with eachother. It still boggles my mind, but it makes sense.

It also makes me wonder if I could do something similar in our backyard. Even though we’re in the city, we’re zoned in such a way that we can put up a request for land use and if it is not denied, we can have certain kinds of livestock and poultry on our property, provided that it is set back from the road a certain number of feet. I also do not think rabbits are classed as livestock, so we could have them without a problem. I’m nervous about wintering rabbits, but it could be very rewarding all the way around. I’ll have to look at the costs of building a shelter. I would have to a slightly different system up for breeding, but it might be worth looking into.

Now if only I have enough nerve to petition for chickens, we’ll have fresh eggs…

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4 responses to “Rabbits

  1. dangerouspenguin

    I have always wanted an Eglu (www.omlet.us) — in fact I may blog about them this evening! Our tenant used to keep chickens in downtown Vancouver, so I’m convinced that it’s possible anywhere.

    I’m with you on the rabbits, but not convinced that I would have the wherewithall to wring their furry necks when the time comes. Still, the survivalist in me thinks it’s a fine idea.

  2. homespunheretic

    You know, I just found out about these today, coincidentally. I think they’re pretty great for this type of containment. I think it would be pretty cost prohibitive to get one shipped here, but I think they’re totally adorable.

  3. Can you post a picture of the outdoor runs so I can see how they are constructed? I’ve been toying with starting to raise pastured rabbit and am not sure what type of cage would contain them. Thanks!

  4. homespunheretic

    Michelle, I’ll see what I can do. At the very least, I can get you a list, and plans. The runs are all different, some are simply chain-link, some are various and sundry wire-on-wood chicken run things, all with tarp roofs and wire floors (buried under 1-2 feet of manure and hay) to prevent digging out and digging in. They’re building some new ones now, so there might be some good in-progress ones. I won’t be going out for a few weeks, but I’ll see what I can get shots of.

    My understanding is that even if you let the females live in colonies, and then separate the young into colonies before breeding age, you’ll still have to keep your males separate, and possibly keep your breeding females separate during birthing through weaning BUT I do not have any hard facts on this. It is one thing I will be looking into before I get my rabbits. It would be so convenient to be able to leave mothers and babies in the colony at large. Not so with the males: they’ll over-impregnate the females, and put too much stress on them, as they’d be birthing again around weaning time.

    There’s also something important about temperature, and how male rabbits won’t be enthusiastic about mating or fertile if the temperatures are too high. I like Storey’s Guide to Raising Rabbits for general rabbit info, even if the commercial cage setup isn’t exactly what I want to do.

    Any resources you can share about pasture rabbits? I haven’t found much at all.

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