When my husband and I began teaching homesteading skills at our school, Koviashuvik Local Living School, we knew that locally grown meat would be on the menu. Being excited about all things DIY, we planned to raise the animals ourselves. We wanted critters that would eat what we had — grass and browse — and be efficient about it, so we settled on goats and rabbits. The goats would eat brush and brambles, and the rabbits would fit into nooks and crannies among our perennial plantings, growing fat on clover and dandelions.
The most common way to raise rabbits on pasture is by using rabbit tractors. These are movable pens with slatted bottoms that keep the rabbits from digging out. Having done our research, we built a rabbit tractor, put in our doe and her kits, and sat back to watch our plan materialize. It didn’t take long for us to experience problems. We made the tractor light enough to drag easily, which limited the surface area that it covered to such an extent that we had to constantly move the rabbits to new ground. Also, our homestead is stony and uneven. The rabbit tractor was always bridging dips in the ground or getting hung up too high on rocks, leaving much of the grass beneath the slatted bottom out of the bunnies’ reach. Then, too, our field isn’t exclusively grassland; it’s disrupted by fruit trees, berry bushes, flowers, a pond, our garden, and other obstacles. We couldn’t maneuver the rectangular tractor into those enticing hexagons, spirals, and triangles of unused space. Further frustration was caused by the slats on the bottom, which continuously matted down grass as we pulled the tractor onto a new spot, regardless of how carefully we pulled it. This project was looking like a spectacular failure!
We didn’t give up. We devised an alternative system to deal with these issues: a series of 6-by-3-foot panels that can be set up in any configuration, including surrounding trees, rocks, or other obstacles. The panels are quickly and easily connected by sliding a dowel down through a few eye bolts that we screwed horizontally into the sides of the panels. To keep the rabbits from getting out under the fencing, we attached a wide strip of heavy-duty fabric along the bottom of the panel, which we lay flat on the ground on the inside of the pen. The rabbits don’t see any light showing underneath the fabric, and don’t care to nose under it far enough to discover that there’s a way out. We attach a wheeled rabbit cage to the outside of the pen via a chute and a pen panel with a door to accept it. Our chute is made of folded 1/2-inch hardware cloth, but you could also use boards or anything else that creates a tube the rabbits can’t jump out of. There’s no trick to making the pen door. Just be sure it fits tightly to the chute so the rabbits can’t get out where the pen door and chute join.
The wire cage is an important part of the system. It should be large enough to hold all your rabbits comfortably, because it’s where they can always go to get out of the rain or find shade if there’s none in the pasture. You can make the cage water resistant by laying a tarp over the top. We added our own wheel-and-axle setups onto repurposed cages to make moving them easier. The wheels are from a child’s bicycle; they’re a good size for rolling through fields. If you only add one set of wheels, you’ll need to have a prop on hand to shim the cage when you get it where you want it.
Pastured Rabbits Q & A
You’ll end up with your own challenges depending on your environment, specific rabbit traits, and your setup. Here’s what has worked for us.
How much ground does it take? Five or six rabbits in an enclosure of about 40 square feet exclusively eating pasture grass will need to be moved every 24 to 36 hours.
Most of the literature claims pastured rabbits will become infested with parasites from eating wet grass. Is that a big risk? Our rabbits have never shown signs of internal parasites, but we have several factors working in our favor. We live in western Maine, where winter temperatures are regularly minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit or colder. Perhaps this helps kill parasites off from year to year. During a single rabbit-pasturing season (early May through the end of October for us), we’re also careful to move the rabbits over the same ground only twice, and if we had more cleared land, we wouldn’t ever put them on the same ground in a season. Our rabbits are also being raised at a very low density.
What about predators? This is a valid concern, and one we’ve been extremely lucky with. We initially locked the rabbits in the cage at night, only letting them graze during the day. We knew that, given the choice, they’d be out all night eating, and then rest during the heat of the day, so we began to leave the cage door open at night as well. We’ve occasionally lost a rabbit, but the predator never came back to target us. We’re in a spot with very low predator pressure. If we develop trouble in the future, we’ll go back to locking the rabbits up at night, or look into a livestock guardian dog.
Are there really no escapees? Human error has been our only downfall with this pasture system, and the biggest areas for mistakes are the connections between the cage and the chute, and between the chute and the pen door. These connections need to have no places rabbits can squirm out of, which will require some fiddling around with the cage door and around the pen door. Sometimes the chute will slide out of either the cage side or the pen side, so we’ve started securing it at both ends with a tension clip. Also, sometimes the fabric strip along the bottom edges of the panels doesn’t lay all the way flat, and the rabbits squeeze under it. This can be avoided by walking over the fabric every time you move the pen.
Don’t rabbits jump? Our heavy meat breeds are uninterested in jumping over the 3-foot panels. If jumping became a problem, we’d install taller panels or add a section at the top of the panels that’s angled inward to discourage jumping.
What about digging holes? The does will make extensive ankle-breaking tunnels in just one day. Because of this, we now raise the does and kits together outdoors until weaning — around 7 weeks — and then move the does into regular cages in the animal barn. Filling their excavations every day had become too time-consuming. For whatever reason, the young does don’t dig, so it works to leave those growing youngsters outdoors.
How do you handle breeding and fattening up? Pellet-fed meat rabbits reach market weight at about 3 months. Pastured rabbits grow slower. Ours reach market weight at 5 months, but that’s fine, because free forage means there’s no feed-to-meat ratio to worry about. It does mean, however, that the rabbits will need to be sexed and separated to prevent the boys spending all their time and energy going after the girls, which they’ll do even if they aren’t quite old enough to breed. Once the babies are 3 months old, we split them up and have two pasture pens that we move around the field. This certainly adds more time and work, but it’s worth it to provide food off our land and give our rabbits great lives.
Do the indoor does get fresh greens? Though the adult does need to be indoors to prevent tunneling, they can still enjoy fresh grass. We clip a 1-gallon bucket to the sides of their cages so it can’t tip over, fill it halfway with water, and then top it off with grass and greens. Like cut flowers in a vase, the grass stays fresh and hydrated, even on hot summer days. This method also keeps the grass from being spread around, stepped on, and wasted by the animals.
How do you pasture rabbits in winter? Our rabbits only have pasture from early May through the end of October, but we provide them with quality roughage year-round. We thin our woodlot throughout winter and use the saplings for rabbit browse. They love the twigs and eat them whole. They’ll gnaw the bark off larger branches. Maple is a favorite at any time, beech is only eaten in the spring, and they don’t like oak or any kind of birch. Also, they haven’t shown an interest in softwoods. The browse we get from pruning our apple trees is the most beloved of all! Every day, three rabbits will eat a handful of branches that are a few feet long. This adds up to a lot of skinned wood, which we pile up through winter and eventually burn, using the ashes as a soil amendment. The large-diameter branches become firewood.
Moving Rabbits onto New Ground
- Cage the rabbits. Herd the rabbits through the chute and into the cage. You can train them to go through the door when you say “Shoo, shoo!” and tap the ground with a stick. You can also train them to run into the cage when you shake a few rabbit pellets in a dish. They’ll need some help finding the doorway, though. When the rabbits are in the cage, remove the chute and shut the cage door.
- Separate the panels. Pull the dowels out of the eye bolts.
- Move the panels to your new pasture. When you set them up, make sure the flap of fabric is lying on the ground on the inside of the new pen. Walk around the inside of the pen, stepping on the fabric to push it firmly down. Reinsert the dowels.
- Move the rabbits. Wheel the rabbit cage to the new pasture, open the door, and reattach the chute. This part is a little tricky, because you’ll have to open the cage door before you’re ready for the rabbits to run out. They’ll learn to wait, especially if you wave your hand in their faces to get them to back off until you’re set up for them.
- Release the rabbits. Stand back and watch them all race out onto the new ground. Take a moment to enjoy how happy they are! This is what makes it all worthwhile.
Ashirah Knapp lives on a solar-powered homestead in Temple, Maine, with her family. She and her husband have 20 years of education and homesteading experience. She also co-founded the Koviashuvik Local Living School, where they teach folk arts and sustainable living techniques.