Getting Started with Meat Rabbits: Feeding & Watering

We are continuing in our Getting Started with Meat Rabbit Series.  Read the first post on housing by clicking here.

Once you have your housing set up for your future meat rabbits, you need to prepare to feed and water them.

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Rabbits are very simple to feed.  All they need is show or breeding rabbit pellets, and grass hay.

Fresh Veggies?  Fodder?

Many people picture rabbits eating fresh carrots and greens.  It is true that rabbits that have been carefully brought up on this diet, or carefully transitioned to this diet, can eat it well in addition to some pellets and hay.  However, rabbit digestive tracts are very sensitive, and if they are given fresh veggies when they are not used to them it can quickly kill them.  If you have access to a lot of cheap fresh produce (that is not rotten or moldy) then you might want to consider trying to get your rabbits on this diet.  However, it needs to be a careful process, and they will still need hay and pellets.  And no matter how careful you are, you still might accidentally kill some of your rabbits with this diet.

Fodder is another option for feeding rabbits.  But again, like fresh veggies, you can kill your rabbits with it.  I know several people who have tried to switch their rabbits over to fodder diets and caused a lot of sickness and death in the process.

Do your research and be very careful if you want to use one of these diet options.

Pellets

Here at Willow Creek Farm we choose to use show-rabbit pelleted feed from a nearby feed mill.  We feed it to our rabbits in J-Feeders.  The great thing about J-Feeders is that it is quick and easy to feed the rabbits from outside the cage, and you can fill them up if you are free-feeding the rabbit and it wont need to be refilled for a couple days.  Also, they are metal and thus chew-proof.

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All you need to do is cut a properly sized hole in your cage, and then it slips in the hole and clips on the bars.

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Most of our rabbits are free-fed pellets.  That means they always have access to unlimited amounts of pellets.  This is especially important for weanlings and growing young rabbits, as well as pregnant and lactating breeding does.

Some adult breeding does, and many breeding bucks get to the point where if they are free-fed they will get fat.  Obesity in rabbits will cause them to not breed well and not give birth well.  It is important to keep your rabbits at a good weight so they are in good breeding condition.

For the adult breeding bucks, and the adult breeding does who tend to get too fat we feed approximately 1/2 cup of pellets twice a day (1 cup per day).  We check their condition often and adjust their feed amounts accordingly to keep them healthy.  Does that are on this diet and are being bred are given unlimited pellets for the last week of pregnancy through weaning.  They are only on the diet when they are not pregnant and for the first three weeks of pregnancy.  In general, our breeding does don’t need to go on this diet because we re-breed often and the pregnancy and lactation keep them at a good size.  We have only had one breeding doe in all the years we have been breeding that needed to be on 1 cup a day of pellets and she was a White New Zealand.

In contrast, we have had several does that became underweight because of breeding and lactating despite unlimited pellets, they are usually the Rex does.  When we see that a doe is getting thin we don’t re-breed her right away and we give her time to gain healthy weight before she is re-bred.

Hay

We give our rabbits unlimited GRASS hay – NOT alfalfa.  Some people will say that hay will kill a rabbit as fast as fresh veggies will.  We disagree.  Our rabbits do very well eating unlimited grass hay and we believe the roughage is good for their digestion.  However, as I said before, rabbits have sensitive digestive systems and don’t do well with diet changes.  So when we buy a new rabbit that hasn’t been eating hay we are very careful to slowly introduce it into their diet.  We don’t just give it unlimited hay right away.

To introduce grass hay into your rabbit’s diet start by just giving about 4-5 pieces of hay that are about 6 inches long.  Watch their droppings for the next 24 hours.  They should be well-formed round pellets that dry quickly.  If they become soft or very wet then the rabbit is not tolerating the new feed well.  If they are looking good and normal, then give them ten pieces the next day, 15 the next, and so on, slowly building up the amount and keeping a close eye on their droppings the whole time.  It should take 3-4 weeks to fully transition them onto eating unlimited hay.  If their droppings get soft or wet then stop the hay until they become normal again, and start back at the beginning with just a very small amount and try to work back up.

Water

Using water bottles is a very clean and easy way to water rabbits.  They hang on the outside of the cage with the spout sticking through the bars.

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We always keep two bottles per adult rabbit and an additional two bottles for weanlings.  Why?  Because in the winter here in the Rockies the bottles will start to freeze between morning and evening feedings.  So we always have one in the house thawing while there is one on the cage.  We switch them out at each feeding.  Also, depending on how many weanlings are in one cage, we often need to put two bottles per weanling cage to keep them all hydrated enough.

It is very important to be sure your rabbits have constant access to water.  Especially when it is hot, they need plenty of fresh water.

Feeding and watering rabbits is very easy and low-maintenance if you have the right set-up.

Getting Started With Meat Rabbits: Housing

This is the first post in our series about Getting Started with Meat Rabbits.  First things first…when you are thinking about getting started with meat rabbits the first thing you need to consider is housing.

Where will you keep your rabbits?  Will they be indoors or outdoors?  What type of cages will you use?  What size do your cages need to be?  How many cages do you need?  We will address all those questions and more in this post of our series.

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When deciding what type of housing to use for meat rabbits the main things you need to think about are protecting them from weather and predators, giving them enough space to live comfortably, and keeping their living quarters clean.

What you build to protect them from weather and predators will look a lot different based on whether they will be housed outdoors or indoors.

Outdoor Housing

Housing rabbits outdoors can be more of a challenge than indoors.  Your housing will need to be built to withstand a wider range of temperatures than indoors, as well as being more predator-proof.

Rabbits can tolerate cold very well, as long as they have a place where they can stay dry and free of drafts.  But heat will kill a rabbit very easily.  Temperatures over 85 degrees Fahrenheit can cause heat stroke in a rabbit if they are not given ways to cope.  So outdoor housing needs to be preferably in a shaded area with plenty of cross-breeze for summer.  And the cage or hutch needs to include an enclosed, draft free area for the rabbit to go into during the cold of winter.  It will also need a good roof and a way to prevent moisture from coming in the sides.

Almost every predator is happy to eat a rabbit.  And most of them can be quite cunning about breaking into hutches.  Where we live there are bears, bobcats, mountain lions, raccoons, and coyotes.  I have heard stories of every one of those predators breaking into rabbit hutches.  In addition, you need to consider dogs – whether stray, or your neighbor’s, or even your own.  And if they can get to the baby rabbit kits, cats and snakes will make a meal of them as well.

Indoor Housing

Due to the nature of our climate and the large amount of predators in our area we choose to always house our meat rabbits indoors.  At our old home we used an unfinished basement, and at the new farm they are housed inside the barn.  I have heard of people using sheds, garages, and even extra bedrooms in their house.  That is one of the great things about meat rabbits…they can be housed almost anywhere.

When housing them indoors you have better control over the temperature ranges that they are exposed to, and it is easier to protect them from predators.  However, cleanliness of the cages will be more tricky than outside where you can let the droppings and urine fall onto the ground under the cage.  Plus, indoors you will need to be sure they still have good lighting (preferably some that is natural) and air flow.

Housing Types & Space Considerations

Once you have chosen where you will house your rabbits you can begin to plan the type of housing.  Outdoor housing is usually more of a wooden hutch style house with a roof, a wired area for fresh air, and an enclosed area for protection.  Indoors we have found the best housing to be wire cages.

There are many opinions on how much space each rabbit needs.  We like to keep our breeding females in 36 inch by 36 inch cages – 9 square feet of living space.  Our males are also kept in the 36-inch cages, but we would be willing to keep them in 30 inch by 30 inch cages (6.25 square feet) if necessary since they wont ever be sharing space with babies like the females will.  Our weanlings also go into the 36 x 36 inch cages.  We put 4-6 weanlings in one cage as long as they will be butchered at about 3.5-4 lbs.  We really like the Bass brand of cages.  Ours have lasted many years and are still going strong.

It is very important that the housing for the females has wire with very small holes in it all along the bottom 4 inches or so of each side of the cage.  And that the floor wire not be to wide of holes either.  Rabbit kits are very small when born, about the size of a mouse.  They can end up wiggling around and falling out the holes in the sides of the cage if they are not properly wired.  We have learned this the hard way and it is very sad – learn from our mistake and be sure the lower half of the cage wire is not bigger than 1/2 inch by 1/2 inch squares.  We added the wire to our cages after our sad incident.

Note in this picture there is no wire along the bottom edge of the side wall.  A baby kit can fall out of this:

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In this picture you can see we have installed smaller wire along the bottom of the side wall up about 4-5 inches to prevent kits from falling out:

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How many cages do you need?

Each breeding male and female will need their own cage.  In addition, you will need approximately one additional cage per breeding female for weanlings, depending on how you plan to stagger your breedings.  If you plan to breed two females to kindle within a few days of eachother (which is recommended and will be discussed in the breeding post of this series) then you will likely have 12-20 weanlings growing out at one time.  That would need 2-4 grow out cages.  And they will be in the grow-out cages for approximately 6 weeks.  If you plan your breedings carefully, you could use those same two cages to wean kits from another set of 2 does bred at the same time, but it can be tricky to have it work out just right.

If your cages are 36×36 I would recommend having 3 weaning cages if you have 2-4 breeding does and 6 weaning cages if you have 4-8 breeding does.  Then carefully plan your breedings to efficiently use your weaning cages.  Larger weaning cages will mean you can get by with less than that, smaller and you will need more.

For our small backyard farm we generally keep 1 buck and 3 does and get by with 6 cages.  Occasionally we have to use one of our other pens in the barn for the weanlings when our breedings don’t fall just right and we run out of cage space with the 6 cages.

Cleanliness

The easiest way to be sure your rabbit housing stays clean is to use cages with wire floors to let the waste drop through.  But wire flooring can be hard on rabbit feet, so make sure they have a non-wire resting place.  This can be a piece of scrap wood (make sure it doesn’t have glue in it and is safe for rabbits to eat because they will chew on it).  We prefer to use 12-inch ceramic tiles.  These can often be found at thrift stores, or leftover from your own house remodel project.  We put one tile in each cage.  They are a cool resting place for them in the summer, give their feet a break, and can easily be cleaned when they get soiled.

There are many options for where the rabbit waste can go after it falls through the wire.  Some people have them suspended over the dirt ground and then let chickens scratch through it.  Or you can have trays that slide under the wire to catch the droppings.  We used to have trays under our cages and we lined them with shavings to absorb the waste and keep the smell down.  Here is a picture of what our set up looked like when we used trays:

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The downfall to slide-out trays is that a 36 inch by 36 inch tray full of shavings and waste can be very heavy and tedious to pull out to clean.  Our children love helping with the rabbits and because of the weight and size of the trays only my husband could clean the cages.  So after using trays for a few years we decided to switch to a set-up that was easier to maintain, and that the whole family could help with.  That is when we put in this set-up:

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In this type of set-up the waste drops onto a slanted shelf covered with metal and then falls down into a gutter.  The gutter slants towards a bin that collects the waste.  Each morning and evening we run a squeegie along the shelf pulling any extra waste down into the gutters.  Then we run a specially cut squeegie along the gutter to run any excess down into the bin.  It is super quick and easy and doesn’t require any heavy lifting or awkward trays.  Once a year or so we give all the cages and the shelf a good scrub down to remove the urine film and gunk that slowly accumulates on them over time.

Whatever you choose, it is very important that your rabbits are not living in their waste, and that it is cleaned often enough to keep the ammonia smell away so they are breathing clean air.

Now you are ready!

Careful planning and building of your rabbit housing will lead to many years of hassle free use and will keep your rabbits safe, healthy, and happy.

In our next post in this series we will be discussing feeding and watering your meat rabbits.

 

Getting Started With Meat Rabbits Series

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Raising meat rabbits is becoming more and more popular among backyard homesteaders these days and is a great option no matter what country you live in around the world.  Rabbits are an extremely efficient source of meat and fit on almost any size homestead.  They don’t take up much space can be raised in anything from a barn to a garage, shed, or even an extra bedroom for those who don’t have much property.  Their feed conversion ratio (how much feed it takes to produce how much meat) is very good and the meat is nutritious and can be used in most all the ways chicken is used.

In addition to human consumption, there is also the raw pet food aspect.  Many people feed their dogs a raw food diet, and rabbit is one of the best options for that as well.

With that in mind we decided to do a series on how to get started raising meat rabbits.  We have been raising them off and on for over 8 years now and know the ins and outs of it.  We have learned from books, other homesteaders, and our own experiences.  We thought our readers would enjoy a complete series that can help them start and raise meat rabbits successfully on their own homestead.

As we add posts I will add clickable links below for each post in the series.

So let’s get started with raising meat rabbits!

Post #1: Housing

Post #2: Feeding and Watering

Post #3: Buying Breeding Stock

Post #4: Breeding

Post #5: Pregnancy and Kindling

Post #6: Birth to Weaning

 

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