It’s an incident I’ll surely remember for as long as we garden. One day last summer, I walked out to the backyard – either heading out to feed the hens or towards the garden for an early-afternoon watering, I don’t remember which — and something caught my eye in our lettuce patch.
One of the neighborhood rabbits, belly apparently as full as could be, lay there, passed out amongst the greens. As I got close, he came to, struggled to his feet like an overweight hobo waking up to catch a train, and — looking more like a tortoise than a hare — ambled off, leaving behind a barren patch of greens and garden soil that my sweat had fallen upon during early season preparation.
In the moments that followed, I started thinking about rabbit traps and bunny recipes.
Then, a funny thing happened while cruising the pages of GRIT’s 2012 Guide to Backyard Rabbits and seeing the efficiency and logic in raising rabbits in small spaces: I began entertaining the idea of having my own backyard rabbitry.
Be it chickens, bees, pigs or rabbits, the first step towards keeping any type of backyard animal is looking at the required housing and equipment. When it comes to raising rabbits in your backyard, multiple options lend themselves to creatively deciding which type of structure will provide your rabbits the highest quality of life.
The first major decision is whether your rabbitry — or really, your location and space — is better suited to keeping rabbits inside or out. These critters are most comfortable at 50 to 69 degrees Fahrenheit, although they can withstand temperatures well below freezing and higher than 100, if their cages — the place where they will most likely spend nearly all of their time — are set up to make conditions most optimal.
In really hot climates, a good rabbit husband has to make the most of airflow, so a garage or indoor setting probably isn’t ideal unless the ventilation is great and you can cool the space. In any indoor operation, for that matter, excellent air ventilation is a must.
By the same token, in an outdoor setting owners need to provide shade so that a hot July sun isn’t beating down on a doe or buck all day long. Airflow must be maximized by placing a cage in an open area, so the wind can help cool the animals.
In cold climates, an outdoor cage is still an option, just pay close attention to ways to make life easier on that rabbit. Giving access to winter sunshine with a wire ceiling, attaching plastic sheeting around three sides of the cage to protect against strong winds or precipitation in the worst conditions, and designing a secure roof that will keep rain and snow out are three simple ideas to make your structure work the best for your animals in the cold; just like using fans, attaching misting fans to garden hoses, and filling plastic jugs with water and freezing them to place in the cages can help during the heat of summer.
In short, any type of shelter will provide a layer of protection from two things: predators and the elements.
Since indoor rabbit cages require a significant amount of space, most small operations at least start out with outdoor housing structures.
Last year in my part of Kansas, we saw winter temperatures as low as 9 below zero and as high as 112 during the summer. To keep rabbits here, we need a housing structure that can run the gamut as far as optimizing the comfort of rabbits in extreme conditions.
Read on and learn about do-it-yourself plans for a conventional wire rabbit cage, a hutch frame for protecting outdoor rabbits from predators and the elements, a rabbit shed, the best nest box, and a plan for employing an automatic-valve waterer.
When it comes to rabbit cages, you have two options: wooden or wire. Eric Rapp, rabbit farmer and owner of Rare Hare Barn, which supplies rabbit meat to local restaurants in Kansas, recommends wire rabbit cages, without question.
“Pens made of wood look nice, but rabbits will chew them up in less than a year,” Eric says. “The type of wire used in the making of pens is important. Some people will use cheap wire that is rough and light gauged. These types of materials will cause sores on the feet.”
Besides the damage a rabbit can do to a wooden hutch, consider that wooden frames get soaked with urine and become a breeding ground for parasites and disease.
Before getting too far, let’s consider what a rabbit needs to stay healthy. Cleanliness, light, ventilation, protection from extreme heat and cold, dryness, and enough room to rear a family, although domestic rabbits aren’t suited to hopping great distances like their wild cousins.
And secondly, what do you, the steward, need in a hutch? Easy access for the handler — for cleaning, feeding, watering, handling and observation — is important, as is being unescapable,
durable, affordable, and adaptable to both indoor and outdoor use in case anything changes.
Starting out, let’s aim to build an affordable, durable wire rabbit hutch for the outdoors, in a spot well-ventilated and lit, but that also can be adapted to limit the draft in colder weather (having fur, remember that rabbits can withstand the colder temps more easily than they can the hotter ones).
A wire rabbit hutch (or cage) is just that — all wire. Don’t start with a little lumber and chicken wire, and start stapling it all together. If you don’t have time to do this right the first time, when will you have time to do it again?
Also, it’s important to note that it actually can be cheaper for a first-timer to buy prefabricated wire rabbit cages and merely assemble them. Consider that manufacturers nowadays can buy bulk material at a cheaper price than you could get a lesser amount of the same material. Also factor in that if you’re buying raw materials, you will undoubtedly have excess materials, whereas with the prefabricated hutches, you buy the exact amount of materials needed. But if you want to get busy with your own hands, check out the following plans for as good a rabbit hutch plan as you can find.
The most common type of wire used for sides and tops of hutches is 14-gauge wire woven in 1-by-2-inch mesh. Use a smaller size for the floor, to protect rabbit feet from getting stuck and resulting in broken or dislocated feet and legs. Rabbit feet, particularly the padded rear hocks, are perfectly suited to perforated floors. You might have the choice between 14 and 16 gauge, but I would go with 14, as it’s heavier. Also, metal that is galvanized after being welded will be stronger and smoother for the rabbits’ feet. These plans are adapted from Storey’s Guide to Raising Rabbits by Bob Bennett.
1 length of 1-by-2-inch 14-gauge welded galvanized wire fencing, 18 inches wide by 11 feet long
1 piece of 1/2-by-1-inch 14-gauge welded galvanized wire mesh, 30 by 36 inches
1 piece of 1-by-2-inch 14-gauge galvanized wire mesh, 30 by 36 inches
1 piece of 1-by-2-inch 14-gauge welded galvanized wire mesh, 12 by 13 inches
Latch, dog-leash snap fastener, or wire coat hanger
J-clips or C-rings (about 80)
J-clip or C-ring pliers
To prepare the sides, first lay the full side piece of wire on the floor. Do not cut it. Using a hammer, make the four corner bends of the cage sides by bending each around the length of the 2-by-4. The sides will be 2 1/2 feet, while the front and back will be 3 feet (11 feet total from the one length of wire). Don’t bend against the welds.
Fasten into a rectangle by clamping J-clips or C-rings with pliers every 3 inches or so. If possible, use J-clip pliers.
For the floor, fasten the 1/2-by-1-inch floor mesh piece to the four sides to make the bottom, using rings or clips and pliers. Again, fasten clips or rings about every 3 inches.
For the roof, fasten 1-by-2-inch roof mesh piece in the same way. You now have all sides of the hutch assembled.
Preparing the door
Using wire cutters, cut a door opening 1-foot square on a wide side of the door piece; this will be the front. Leave 1/2-inch stubs.
Bend the stubs back with the pliers so there are no sharp edges.
The wire piece for the door is 13 inches square so that the door will overlap at least 1/2 inch all the way around. Attach the door to the hutch with the hinge at the top, so that to open the door, you push the door up into the cage. That way, even if you forget to latch the door, the rabbit cannot escape by pushing on the door. Galvanized metal door latches swivel left and right to open or latch the door in place.
Now that the hutch is made, owners who plan on keeping rabbits outdoors will need to think about how they’ll protect their critters from the elements and predators, and that protection often comes in the form of a hutch frame. The hutch frame plans shown at right (adapted from The Backyard Guide to Raising Farm Animals by Gail Damerow) are for a single hutch, but they can easily be adapted to accommodate multiple hutches.
Wooden frames are good for several reasons: They can have removable sides for added ventilation in summer or extra protection during winter; the hutch can easily be removed for cleaning; the hutch can be moved if an expectant doe needs extra protection from the elements during winter; and the hutch cleans itself for the most part because, being off the ground, all urine and excrement fall out of the cage, giving you excellent fertilizer.
Four 10-foot lengths of 2-by-4 lumber
One 8-foot length of 2-by-4 lumber
One 4-by-5-foot sheet of exterior-grade plywood (3/4-inch thick)
12d common galvanized nails
6d common galvanized nails
Cut two 60-inch lengths from one of the 10-foot 2-by-4s to form two front legs. Cut two 56-inch lengths from a second 10-foot 2-by-4 to form two shorter back legs.
From each of the two remaining 10-foot 2-by-4s, cut:
• one 33-inch piece (side of the cage-support frame)
• one 36-inch piece (front and back of the cage-support frame)
• one 42-inch piece (front and back roof support)
Cut the 8-foot 2-by-4 in half. These pieces will be the side roof supports. You will later recut them to length.
Lay the four cage-support frame pieces on edge on a flat surface. They should form a large rectangle, with the 36-inch front and back pieces between the 33-inch side pieces. Drive two 12d nails through the outside face of a side piece into the end of the back piece to make the corner. Nail the three other corners together in the same fashion to complete the cage-support frame.
Screw the L-brackets to the inside face of the cage-support frame (see illustration in the Image Gallery). The bottom of each bracket should be flush with the bottom edge of the frame.
It’s a good idea to mark the bottoms of each leg to prevent confusion during assembly. Now measure up 32 inches from the bottom of the legs and draw a straight line across the inside edge of each leg. The cage-support frame will rest at this mark.
Use 12d nails to attach the legs to the ends of the cage-support frame, making sure that the bottom of the frame is even with the lines drawn on the legs.
Use 12d nails to attach the front and back roof supports to the legs. The top edge of the front roof support should be slightly higher than the top of the front legs to prevent the front legs from being in the way when it’s time to put on the plywood roof.
Take one of the side supports and hold it in place against the legs on the right side of the hutch. With a pencil, mark the angled cut you’ll need to make at the side roof support’s ends so it snugly fits between the tall front legs and shorter back legs. Cut the pieces to size, and attach with 12d nails to the front and back roof supports. Nail the pieces to the tops of the legs as well, for added strength. Do the same procedure on the opposite side of the frame.
Take scraps of plywood and cut four isosceles triangles, with the equal sides being 12 inches long. Nail these braces to the hutch, as illustrated in the Image Gallery, with 6d nails.
Use 6d nails to attach the 4-by-4-foot plywood roof. The roof should overhang on all four sides, to help keep rain or snow out of the hutch. A larger overhang along the front will give extra protection to the attached feeders. Nail or otherwise attach plywood or plastic sheeting to the sides and back of the frame during winter for added protection from the elements. Add on to this frame to accommodate more hutches, although if you want to add on past the point of three segments, you might consider constructing a separate frame or a shed.
Taking it a step further, larger operations might be best served by a rabbit shed. These structures can maximize space by offering owners the ability to stack cages on top of one another. Remember, you don’t want urine and excrement to ever fall on a rabbit, so take special care to maintain the drain boards and give your rabbits the highest quality of life possible.
The basic design calls for pressure-treated 2-by-4s and 1/2-inch plywood. The key with this structure will be picking a suitable location, since moving it will be a chore. Pick a spot that will offer plenty of shade in summer and will be out of the wind in winter. Additionally, you need protection from predators, so a high, sturdy fence might be necessary.
Sturdy chains hold the rabbit hutches in place, suspended off the ground and off the structure. Keep a clear heavy plastic tarp on hand and fasten it around the shed in the event of rain or snow.
One great thing about this type of shed is that it offers wide flexibility in the plans based on how many rabbit cages you want, what breeds you raise (size of cages), and your local climate. See the illustration in the Image Gallery for the plans.
Finally, the last do-it-yourself project before you’re all set to get rearing: It will benefit you infinitely to have an automatic waterer, as rabbits require clean, fresh water to grow well. When devising a plan for watering rabbits — and feeding them for that matter — consider how much easier it is if you don’t have to open the cage daily.
Disturbing your rabbits, especially the baby bunnies, is a no-no, so come up with a feeder and waterer plan that allows you to refill from the outside while not wasting food and water or making a mess.
Metal feeders are the way to go with food, and really they are quite cheap at your local farm-supply store. Waterers may be too, but here is a way to make your own waterer that keeps the water source outside of the hutch with the drinking spout protruding inside. You have to buy the actual automatic waterer valve, but then simply place it in a 2-liter soft-drink bottle, wire it in place, and those critters have fresh, clean water for two days (rabbits drink about a liter of water per day — more in hot weather, less in cold).
With a sharp knife, cut a small hole near the bottom of the vertical part of the bottle. Set the automatic watering valve in place, and seal the opening with epoxy.
Take the automatic watering valve system a step further by attaching your water source to 3/16-inch black plastic hosing and running the hose the length of all your hutches. Just make sure to employ a standoff clip to keep the rabbits from chewing your tubing. You’ll need some tee connectors that will attach each individual automatic valve waterer to the main water line connecting all the hutches to the water source.
You’ll still have to use a crock or small bowl during winter, but there really isn’t a simple solution to watering in winter that doesn’t require heating the water and spending significant time and resources. One solution that makes it less of a hassle is to use two watering bowls per hutch, so that the handler fills one bowl to give in the morning and can let the other one thaw during the day before giving more fresh water in the evening.
Replacing frozen water diligently is part of the process with most any farm animal in winter.
With all these things in place, you’re now ready to take fresh rabbits from farm to table in your own backyard. Enjoy providing your family with tasty, high-quality meat, hides and more; and perhaps even slip in the occasional garden marauder if you’re feeling up to it.
Read more about how to raise rabbits rabbits successfully in A Rabbit Nest Box.
A good rule of thumb for hutch size: Does raising a litter need about the same square footage as their weight. So the 2 1/2-by-3-foot wire hutch described in this article would be sufficient for a 7 1/2-pound doe. This rule works for owners who wean at 8 weeks. Some folks wean earlier, so does would require less space.
Each buck should have his own hutch. With young does, two does in the same hutch is OK, at least until mating time. Ideally, every rabbit should have its own hutch.
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