Raising Rabbits for Beginners
By Callene Rapp
Rabbits are one of the most rewarding livestock species to raise. They are quiet, don’t require large tracts of land, and can consistently produce high quality food for the table. But they do differ from other livestock species in some pretty significant ways. If you are thinking about getting into rabbits, or are just starting up, here are a few things to keep in mind as you go down the rabbit trail.
Rabbit Math: 1 + 1 = 42
Okay, that’s a little extreme, but there is a reason rabbits are the poster children for being prolific and reproductive efficiency. A young litter of rabbits grows up fast, so make plans to separate the litter by sex at weaning.
Learn to sex rabbits when they are as young as possible, and separate them early on. This saves you the frustration of finding out the hard way when a promising young doe is bred by her brother. These sibling love litters will often not survive, or will be poor performers. And if the doe was not as physically mature as she needed to be, it can be hard to get her rebred to the buck of your choice later.
Does can begin to cycle at 4 months of age, but should not be bred until they reach about 75 to 80 percent of their mature weight. For example, the mature weight of an American Blue doe should be 10 to 12 pounds, therefore she shouldn’t be bred until she’s around 8.5 pounds.
Sexing rabbits can be tricky, but with a little practice, you can become a pro. Grab the kit firmly by the scruff of the neck. Don’t be too delicate or hesitant. Grasping the kit firmly will reduce the amount of wiggle room the kit has, and reduce the potential for injuring itself. Turn the kit over. It will take a little practice to feel comfortable here, but you can hold the kit by the scruff and balance the hindquarters on your palm and wrist. Place the fingers of your free hand on either side of the genitals, and spread them apart. The external genitalia should stand out then, and the shape will tell you whether you are holding a male or female kit.
With a little practice, you will become fairly comfortable with your accuracy. If you have any doubts, mark the kit in the ear with a permanent marker with your best guess. Come back in two or three days, no longer, and see if you still agree with yourself. If you still have doubts, repeat in a few more days.
There are jokes throughout the rabbit community about the “sex-change fairy” visiting and turning girls into boys and vice verse, but with time and a few consecutive checks, you can decrease the likelihood that you will be visited by this particular little mischievous sprite. Younger kits are a little harder to distinguish than older ones. The challenge in holding the rabbits steady increases as they age, as well as your chance of getting scratched during the process. Again, hold them firmly to minimize risk to both rabbit and handler.
Home Sweet Home
Ventilation is one of the key considerations when designing your rabbitry for both winter and summer. Having windows and doors that can be opened on your building and which are situated to take advantage of natural airflow will give you a huge advantage.
Rabbits are able to tolerate cold much better than they do heat. With their thick coats and inability to sweat, they mainly cool themselves with their ears. That’s right, those big ears are full of blood vessels that will act as a radiator to help dispel heat from their body. Like other animals that cannot sweat, such as the family dog, they exchange heat by panting. Summer ventilation is critical for the rabbit’s health. Depending on your area and your maximum summer heat range, your rabbits may do well in a shady spot under a tree or overhang, with a prevailing breeze blowing over them.
Make sure you have a backup plan in case the breeze fails. A simple electric fan with an enclosed motor can make a world of difference to the rabbit. As long as rabbits have a breeze blowing across them, pulling that body heat away, they can tolerate most summer temperatures. Many breeders freeze plastic bottles of ice and put them in the pens with the rabbits. Again, make sure that airflow moves the cool air over the rabbit or the frozen bottle won’t do much good. If you have a lot of rabbits, this might not be practical on a large-scale. You should also factor in the time necessary, as well as making sure you can monitor and change out the bottles as needed. If the bottle gets put in first thing in the morning on your way to work, it will have melted and do no good when the heat of the day hits. Time your chores for the early part of the day or after the sun has gone down and cooled off for the evening. That way, they can move as little as possible during the heat of the day.
Ventilation is equally important during winter. Barns that are closed up with no good ventilation will become unpleasant quickly because of the concentrated rabbit urine and the fumes produced from it. Make sure it is not a draft straight down on the rabbits, though. If your pens are off the ground, a fan placed to blow under them and set on a timer can move fumes out of the barn without creating too much of a downdraft.
Windows in a barn can also add natural light, which will make things more pleasant for the rabbits as well as easier for you to see them and monitor their health.
Rabbits have a unique strategy for making the most of their dietary intake: coprophagy. This fancy word is Latin for consuming their own feces. This strategy, while it may not appeal to us, has given rabbits the advantage as far as making the most of high fiber foods. Rabbits will in essence defecate twice. The first fecal is the soft, undigested “night pellet.” These partially digested small, soft fecal balls are then consumed, passing through the digestive system again and eventually being passed again to form the dry, hard pellets we commonly see.
Gross? Maybe to us. But for the rabbit, it means a digestive strategy that can utilize high forage diets without the need for complex multi-chambered stomachs of true ruminants like cows and goats. This keeps their system fast and efficient but eliminates the need to lie down and ruminate for hours.
This digestive strategy means the rabbit must have high fiber levels in his diet, because sugars will go through too fast to be utilized. If you feel like you must give your rabbits greens, carrots, or other items, keep it to a minimum, and if you give them fresh greens, remove what isn’t eaten before they begin to wilt. Wilted greens have already started to ferment, and that’s hard on a rabbit’s digestive system. Quality grass hay is fine if given in small quantities.
What’s that you say? You see rabbits all over the yard perfectly healthy eating grass all the time? Well, they eat more than grass. Forbs, bark, seeds, and many other things make up a portion of the diet. And domestic rabbits are an entirely different species than the common cottontail rabbit. Our domestic breeds have been selected for several centuries to work within the confines of domestication, and while they share many similarities with their wild cousins, they aren’t the same animal.
Pellet feeds were designed and formulated to make sure the rabbit gets consistent, balanced nutrition with every bite. This consistency just can’t be present in whole grain mixes, grass that is either clipped or grazed, or other provided foods. Raising rabbits on the ground and letting them forage also presents challenges. While they can forage for a lot of their diet, it takes a really good microclimate with really good forage. If you live in a more fickle climate, or with a shorter growing season, it will present challenges. If consistent fryer size and rate of gain is not a concern for you, foraging might work. If speed to processing is a goal, stick with pellets.
Rabbits, unlike most other species of domestic animal, are induced ovulators. That means that while they do experience estrus that can last a week or more, unlike other domestics, they only ovulate after they are stimulated by the buck’s mating efforts. Unlike a sheep or a cow, which will ovulate at the end of its estrus period regardless of whether or not mating has occurred, and recycle again, for the rabbit, ovulation will not occur without mating by the buck. Eventually the rabbit will go out of estrus and cycle again after a few days.
This means that the window of the doe’s receptivity to the buck’s advances is quite long compared to other animals, too. You can increase your chances of a successful mating by making sure she is in estrus before placing them together. If you can check her vulva to see if it is red and swollen, which is a good indicator of estrus, you can save yourself some time and your buck some frustration. If she is not in heat when placed with the buck, at best she will be uninterested; at worst she may fight him. Rabbits have incredibly powerful back legs and sharp claws. If she’s not in the mood, she could potentially use those claws on the buck and injure him, possibly even castrate him. Not how you want your breeding program to start out, for sure.
Always supervise matings. If you think your buck is shy, you can step out of eyesight for a while to give them a little privacy, but don’t leave them together for days. Not only will you not know when mating actually occurred, once she gets tired of him, she may become aggressive and make him reluctant to breed in the future.
If you can place your bucks and does some distance apart, this can be helpful as well. That way they aren’t overly familiar with one another and their interest in each other can be sparked.
Take the doe to the buck’s pen. If you go the other way round, he’s going to be much more interested in getting his smell on everything and be distracted. Does can also be fairly territorial, and may not welcome visitors.
Rabbit gestation is about 30 to 32 days. Wait until around day 28 to give her the nest box. Giving it to her too early, before she’s in kindling (giving birth) mode, may encourage her to start using the box as a litter pan, and if she makes a mess of it, it won’t be the best place for her to welcome her litter to the world. Many first-time does do a great job with their first litter, some do not.
A good doe will pull fur from under her throat and chest to line her nest, and make a nice little hollow for the babies. Healthy, well-fed babies will be warm and active and pop around like little jumping beans. You can carefully check the nest the day following birth. She will generally not reject her babies if you handle them — especially if your hands are clean — but if you have concerns take a small handful of her bedding and rub it on your hands to help mask the scent. If there are any dead kits, remove them.
If she doesn’t do a good job the first time, and the litter is lost, don’t get discouraged. She can be rebred about four days after that litter, so go ahead and heat-check her and get her back with the buck. But, if she doesn’t do a good job with that first litter, take stock of the environment she’s in and ask yourself honestly if there is anything that might be stressing her out. And remember, she’s a prey animal, hardwired to respond as such. Are there dogs barking? Drafts? Lots of noise, curious children, banging doors, or other stressors? What might not bother you might be the end of the world as far as she’s concerned. Does prefer a calm, quiet environment, with consistent levels of noise to feel comfortable. Make sure her environment is suitable, and give her every chance to succeed.
When it comes to harvest time, can you do it? It’s not an easy thing to sacrifice an animal for our benefit. Nor should it be. But coming to terms with it early on in the process will make harvest day a lot easier on both you and the animal. Hesitation and second-guessing yourself will be your downfall. If you have never processed animals before, ask for help. Find an experienced rabbit person to show you the ropes, or a hunter with experience in field dressing animals. They might be willing to barter their time and expertise for a share of the harvest.
Even if you have processed poultry before, mammals can often be a little more difficult. Poultry also tend to be a little more low-maintenance than rabbits, so just the fact that more time has been spent hands-on with the rabbits can make the final process a little more difficult. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person if it doesn’t bother you in the least. It doesn’t mean you’re weak if it does. But in the interests of both the animal and yourself, be honest when making your plans, and be prepared to do what is necessary for the end result you want.
What if you got to point B and discovered you were wrong, and don’t want to process them after all? Don’t just turn them loose and figure they can fend for themselves. Most of the time they can’t, and they’ll be a meal for a predator soon. On the off chance you release them into a relatively predator free area, they can make themselves into a nuisance doing what rabbits do: multiplying when and where you don’t want them to. Take responsibility and find a place for them, or commit to having a dozen pet rabbits.
All livestock species have rewards and challenges in their management and husbandry. While the challenges presented by keeping rabbits can be unique, they ultimately give back tenfold, and keeping them in whatever form and for whatever reasons you ultimately choose will reward you for years to come.
Good ventilation will help keep your rabbits healthy and happy. Be sure there is plenty of airflow, either by natural breeze or with the help of electric fans. If summer temperatures are expected to spike, try placing frozen bottles of water in the cages.
Accurately identifying the sex of your rabbits early on will help avoid unexpected litters. When the doe approaches the kindling stage, make sure she has access to a nest box that she can begin preparing, using her own fur and other materials.
By day, Callene Rapp is a senior zookeeper, and by night she manages the Rare Hare Barn with her husband, Eric. She has learned to manage all sorts of livestock in all sorts of weather conditions at her Kansas farm
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