Introduction: Small Rabbit Farming
Small rabbit farming. Under ten animals. This is to document my three years of rabbit farming and to give insight to anyone who is looking to do very small farming and may have restrictions such as land, time, knowledge etc. There's a lot of books and information but many of these offer strict breeding and feeding schedule and a mono culture of rabbits. I live in a city and while I wanted to raise my own meat I was very limited in my choices. I will not be showing butchering or harvesting of the animals in this Instructable. I feel that is a private and shocking part of the process. There will however be an image of a dead rabbit to illustrate safety. There is no blood. This is not meant to treat or diagnose or advise. I'm only explaining my method and what works for me.
Step 1: Building a Hutch.
I use an outdoor hutch for my rabbits. They sit five feet off the ground in metal cages. The sides are made of 1x2 wire and the floors 1/2x1. In my First year I used 1/2x1/2 wire because I didn't have enough money to buy the right sizes. I paid for that. The floors got disgusting and caked with feces and hair. They rusted quicker and began to corrode and bow. Rabbits need steady flooring to keep their feet healthy. Not having a break from the floors or being able to distribute their weight properly seems to be what causes Sore Hocks. Cleanliness is really important for success in a project like this. Diseased animals are not good breeders.
Because I hadn't chose the right wire I ended up ripping out the wire and chewed up wood right before a snow storm and installing cages that I had bought at a feed store into the wooden frame. The cages cost me 30$ each and I had to assemble them. The J-clips are the sort of thing one should do alone over a couple of days. As it was I had procrastinated and had to ask for help from my partner so that we could get it done before nightfall. There was a a lot of bickering. We didn't finish everything until after it had started snowing.
The cages I bought were 24''x30''. The frame I built was unfortunately 71'' long so I had to cut down one of the cages. The 24x30 cages are for small to medium breeds. You will need to make each enclosure the right size for your breed. My frame is 71''x30.5''. Raised on 4 4x4's that are 6 feet tall. The frame is slightly longer than the cages so that 2 support 2x4's can be screwed in 1/4 of an inch down. This gives extra support but also stops the cages moving around when the rabbits run around.
Sturdy cages that are hard to get out of are the basics of this. I had so many escape artists my first year my neighbor named one of the rabbits Houdini (pictured).
Step 2: FOOD. WATER.
In many of the books the feeding regimen that is most used is pellets. Pellets are like pig nuts or chicken scratch for rabbits.They're made mostly from timothy and alfalfa and are supposed to provide the rabbits with the most balanced diet. I didn't find the pellets to be the best. They are expensive and rabbits eat a lot of it. My four rabbits would eat through 100 pounds of food a month. Each bag cost me 20 dollars. I don't follow a rigorous breeding schedule so feeding unproductive rabbits like that is expensive.
Once you tell someone you're raising rabbits, everyone will know someone who's done it before and offer you stories or advice. One relative sent us a book on rabbit raising written in the 1960's. The approach was very different and advocated feeding rabbits table scraps of bacon, cheese, potato skins, as well as oats and varied vegetables. I use a mixture. I was able to get a bunch of refuse greens from a local shop for about a month. Perfectly edible lettuces, kales and other vegetables all went to the rabbits. Rabbits love carrots. They also love beets and parsley and kale and shredded wheat and hay.
Hay is important. Its fiber, its something crunchy or sweet to chew on and sometimes my rabbits play with it. Since the bales are very large I will double up and use it as bedding if its going to get cold. Buying both straw and hay seems wasteful for this small operation
The water bottles that can be bought in pet supply stores suck. They just suck. They are expensive, clunky and pointless. The rabbits have a hard time drinking from them I learned. They suck water not lick it up like cats. I went through so many leaky and faulty bottles. I had bottles that would fall and shatter in the winter. One of the reasons I went to seek out vegetables was that I knew they could get more water from them and I could at least try to supplement the water bottles. I was very surprised to see that they didn't drink from the bottles as long as they had veggies. Not even when I gave them hay. That was during the winter. Hotter weather means that they need a better system. I researched and installed a gravity system for about $30 dollars. Its so easy, provides gallons of water on demand and allows for short stints away from home. Rabbits have to have water, more than anything. They aren't picky but they have limited stores unlike humans and subsist on just about every calorie. I use a 5 gallon bucket and vinyl tubing. I bought a flanged spout and some chicken nipples. Chicken nipples are a small valve that allows water to be drunk once the valve is pressed. The rabbits press with their teeth or face and the water comes out. It stops when its not being pressed. They hook on the the metal cages and are easily removed. The lines are spread using t junctions that come with the chicken nipples. All in all a very cool and reliable setup. I highly recommend it.
Step 3: Breeding Stock
I went through two sets of breeders my first year. I had no experience with choosing rabbits. I bought them from sellers on craigslist, I bought them from sellers hours away and from poultry swaps. My advice is to go where there are more reputable breeders. Don't go too far from home, its a waste of gas.
Decide on a breed. The many books on raising rabbits are a great source of information on meat ratios and fur types. Don't get sold on the fur dreams however. In most cases there wont be enough to make it worth while. The chemicals are caustic, the process is smelly and long, and not worth it if it cannot be done professionally. That's my opinion.
My first batch were two males and a female, I was assured one of the males was female by the seller. Once I put them in the pen I had made though, I quickly realized my mistake. A $25 dollar mistake. I ended up sending one of them to the stew pot. Having two males around is nothing but trouble. They stamp around and piss on everything including each other. Since I had wanted at least two females I traveled out to breeder almost two hours from my house. I was again sold a male and also a female. This time my mistake cost gas, my time, and $40. It was a nightmare. the breeder promise to send the pedigree papers, they never came. I was at the end of my rope by the beginning of my second year.
When looking for breeding stock look at the posture of the rabbits. They should be well proportioned not hunched or weirdly long. Look for features that are desirable like bright eyes perky ears and good muscles. Depending on the coat it can be very easy to see what the loin looks like and that can bee a good indicator. Females should had a nice neck, they have kind of a puffy snood deal going on. They should be alert and assertive but not mean and certainly not overly excited. Good temperament is everything in a doe. Successful breeding, kindling, and raising of the kits all depend on their instinct and attitude
Learning to sex rabbits is important. Save time and energy by watching some youtube videos about proper sexing. When I bought my current batch from a poultry swap I requested that the breeders sex them for me, so that I could be sure. Only breeders that are trying to hide something will be offended by this request. Knowing how to sex them will come in handy when its time to separate the young so they don't begin breeding.
Males or bucks should be big, healthy, alert and a little aggressive. Not aggressive in demeanor, but during breeding. The chasing and mounting and a little hair pulling is ok, but outright meanness is never a good trait. Keep in mind the size of the doe when picking a buck. Big kits can cause complications for new or small mothers.
Step 4: Time to Breed and Get Ready to Kindle.
To have successful breeding there are a lot of things that need to be in line. Unreceptive does wont give it up, and the buck will just tire himself out. I choose cooler, quiet days to breed either in the evening or morning. I try to give my girls a few treats ahead of time throughout the week. Some carrots or parsley or a few shredded wheat squares. Content and stress-free does seem to be more receptive. For the longest time I could not get my does to accept being mounted. It takes patience.
I wont be giving a comprehensive tale of breeding here, I just want to point out the basics and what should be apparent during and after.
Always take the doe to the buck. Never switch it because the does become aggressive and can really inflict some damage. I remove anything that could get in the way or injure the rabbits when breeding. They tend to run around so any metal feeders or protruding bits can poke out an eye. When transporting the does I wear long sleeves or work gloves. I reach in and grab the does by the back of the neck much like you would do with a cat. I take them from the cage and place them against my chest supporting their feet with my arm. This is so they don't kick around and flail. At least if cuts down the incidents of the does going wild. I received many scratches and cuts from improper handling. Sometimes they get scared and they are going to act out, but cut down those times by keeping them happy and calm.
Once the doe is in the buck's cage stay to watch to make sure no one gets hurt. They might run or sniff each other, eventually the buck will get around back and begin to mount. Something I didn't learn until recently is about the lift. To have a better chance of a success the doe will lay out a bit int he cage while the buck is thrusting and lift her hind legs. Its very subtle and usually the buck will finish a few second after this happens. The sign the the buck is finished is that his whole body convulses and rolls up like a pill bug then he falls over. It takes a few seconds to get the whole business finished. I do this twice. Its just what seems to get me the right little size. However the doe can be removed after the first time, and certainly after the second so they don't begin to fight. They may stamp their feet and shake their heads but unless there's blood its all good.
I sometimes check to see if the doe has sperm on her genitals or on her tail if I suspect the buck hasn't met his mark, but most of the time I don't worry; they know what they're doing. Breed one doe a day until they are all bred then mark it either on a calender or a index card attached to the cage. This step is very important it lets you know when to breed again 15 days later, and when to put the nest box in.
Nest boxes are made of different material. I use wooden boxes that are made with plywood and some wire for the bottom. Good clean boxes are important to keeping the kits healthy and the doe from getting an infection in her teats. After each use clean them with a mild cleaner or diluted solvent them let them dry completely in the sun if possible. I store my in a closet until I need them again. Once the box is in the cage I add shredded paper and straw. I once used hay to line the box but the doe ate most of it before she gave birth. The does will move everything around to the way she wants creating a burrow and will pull out belly fur to add to the straw and paper. I place my boxes in a the 30 day mark. I have read to put it in at 31 days or only when you see the does taking their hay that they eat and making a little nest. I've had does give birth on day 30 so its better to be safe than to lose 8 kits. If its a cold season I add quite a lot of paper to the bottom, since its wire mesh, to minimize drafts.
Step 5: Babies!
Between 30 and 34 days after the first breeding date is when the doe will give birth. I give my mothers as much water and food as they can digest.
The babies will be hairless with closed eyes and ears the first week to ten days depending on the breed size. They will get hair before their eyes open. They will shuffle and make noises in the the box, its uncanny how strong they are.
Once they are born I make a cursory count make sure there aren't any stillborn and then I leave them alone. The doe can take care of herself and I only pull one or two of the kits out to make sure they are being fed. They will have big, full bellies.
If all goes to well there won't be much to do for the babies until they start to eat solid food. Since I was feeding my does greens at the time when the kits began eating solids they went after them too. Rabbits have delicate digestive systems so I keep an eye out for diarrhea and try to get them eating pellets and hay more than the greens. I give them a wide variety and lots of it. Feeding an nursing does and 8 kits requires a lot of fodder.
After 3 weeks everyone should be up and gamboling around the cage. they should gain about a pound or so depending on the breed per week. I don't weigh my babies but I keep a very close eye on their development and how heavy they feel when I pick them up.
Step 6: The Bad, and the Worse.
Kits should not be lethargic. They should play and explore and eat well. Sometimes however thing go wrong.
Sometimes the doe will cannibalize her kits. The cause might be stress, or not enough food or water, or she might just be a cannibal. Watch for the same behavior in subsequent births and if the does continues then its time to get rid of her. Losing kits and passing on that trait is not going to get good stock.
Sometimes a doe will have her kits outside of the box. If you're lucky you'll get to them before they freeze to death. If they are born outside they may crawl out of the cage and drop to their doom. I check my does early in the morning if I can when they are expected to kindle, and as soon as I get home from work. I've only been able to successfully save one batch of kits from freezing. Death will happen, despite best intentions.
The first three days are critical for the kits, if they can get past that threshold then incidents of death from exposure are less likely.
As the kits get older, keep a mental or written log of their features, their attitudes, and anything that might be useful to monitoring their development. Make sure the doe isn't spending a lot of time in the nest box. I've had two kits crushed to death by their mothers. Its pretty grisly. Keep the box in until after the kits are weaned. If the doe can't get a respite from sucking babies she might lash out. I lost two babies that way. One's neck had been broken the other had been kicked so hard it was paralyzed and died an hour later. Its an unhappy thing to have happen especially if they had gotten through a brutal winter storm.
Everything might have been done right.Might have the right doe, buck, and the right temperatures, and calenders marked meticulously. Something might go wrong. The kits might develop diarrhea from over wet produce, or diet change or tainted water. They might develop the sniffles, a respiratory disease that causes the nose to always run and and paws to be wet and raw from wiping the moisture constantly. They might all die for no reason that can be readily apparent.
The best thing to do is keep the cages, boxes, food and water clean, mitigate where possible and let nature take care of the rest. At 2 to 3 months the babies will have put on enough weight and be ready to harvest.
Step 7: LINKS AND RESOURCES
Nest Box assembly
Nest Box plans
Storey's Guide to Raising Rabbits by Bob Bennett
Rabbit Housing by Bob Bennett
Rabbits Keeping by C.F. Snow
Your local extension office may have literature and breeders that you can contact for questions or help. Also look for feed stores in you area they usually have better prices than pet supply stores for feed, hay, bedding etc.