Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Sustainable and humane rabbit keeping

Two aspects of common small-scale rabbit operations have kept me from seriously considering keeping them for meat: the prison model (each adult rabbit in his or her own tiny cage, allowed each other's company only to mate) and the importation of alfalfa pellets or hay as feed. I dislike having to buy in feed for our animals, as I'm a cheapskate by nature, and I don't know any easy efficient ways to close the nutrient loop to make the importation of such resources sustainable. We get around that problem with our chickens by only feeding them waste products from civilization--excess bread donated by the bakery down the street, and produce scraps from the local food co-op. But I don't know of any waste streams to tap for protein-rich rabbit food, and I can't even come up with a good model to have the rabbits free-range for some of their own food.

I assume I don't have to go into any detail about why the one-rabbit-per-cage model turns me off. I don't visit commercial animal prisons (AKA "zoos") and I don't intend to start one in our yard.

Many months ago I stumbled across this article (PDF) that changed my perception of the food supply for domesticated rabbits. Basically, researchers fed Soviet Chinchilla rabbits nothing but black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia) leaves at a rate of about 14 ounces per rabbit per day for 56 days, and the rabbits not only didn't die, but actually gained an average 10.4 grams per rabbit per day!

Black locusts grow like weeds in our yard. We have an existing hedgerow of them which we plan to coppice for rot-resistant lumber and for firewood. Now when I look up into those trees, instead of leaves I see rabbits all over the branches! The locusts also grow like weeds through the rest of the yard, popping up all over the place and needing the occasional cutting or yanking. Definitely a low-maintenance supply of leaves! Obviously we wouldn't want to feed the rabbits 100% black locust, but it could probably form the backbone of their food supply. We can supplement by growing some alfalfa (we have some growing already for the chickens, but they don't touch the stuff?!), comfrey (I haven't read it yet, but the freely downloadable book Russian Comfrey by Lawrence Hills goes into great detail on its use as animal fodder), the nitrogen-fixing tiny floating aquatic plant azolla,and possibly Paulownia tree leaves (supposed to be good fodder for rabbits, chickens, and other livestock--though again our chickens haven't taken to them in my couple of tries to feed it to them.) And of course miscellaneous excess greens from our garden or trimmings from veggies could go to the rabbits.

This method will take a bit of time per day to cut the fresh material and take it to the rabbits, but as long as enough black locust trees are managed properly in rotation, it should provide fairly efficient ongoing leaf cuts, while also providing firewood a bit at a time.

Inspired by this new information on rabbit feed possibilities, I did some research into alternatives to the prison model, and quickly found a few references to keeping rabbits in colonies. I haven't researched enough to really say much about it, or even to provide links to the best sources, so just search for yourself if curious. Basically you just have to provide a predator-proof fenced area over soil, or a decent sized building with plenty of straw, and the does will create their own burrows and set things up how they like. You can provide nest boxes, which the does may or may not use. Some people successfully allow their buck to live full-time with the does; others find that the buck over-breeds the does, not allowing them any down-time between litters to recover from the last batch. Of course you still have to provide food and water, but you can do so for the whole colony at once instead of having to put food into individual cages or buy expensive automatic systems.

My first thought for our yard was that we could keep a rabbit colony on our garage roof, which has convenient access to overhanging black locusts. We could also provide a ramp to the ecoroof over the sunspace, and occasionally allow the rabbits up onto the roof to graze. Just an idea for now; we'll see if and when I have time to pursue this further! (Our highest priority homestead expansion right now is to add ducks; the slug populations have exploded this year and made it nearly impossible for us to grow any annual veggies. Good thing we hardly bother with them anyway, but still...)


sealander said...

Whenn I was a kid I had a pet rabbit, and having very little pocket money to buy commercial feed, I kept her fed with grass (movable hutch on the lawn), collected weeds like chickweed (I had permission to forage in the neighbour's untended garden), kitchen scraps (carrot peelings, cabbage leaves, carrot tops, scrapings from the morning pot of oatmeal, stale bran muffins - she loved bran muffins with sultanas in them and would carefully pick out the sultanas). I also used to get the offcuts from the local grocery store - when preparing cauliflour for example they'd cut off all the green bits. This worked okay for one rabbit but for a whole bunch of them you'd have to specifically grow some food. Note they can do well on root crops like turnips too.

redtitan23 said...

Thanks for posting this article! I have a couple large black locust trees, and its great to know they have forage value. I would have never thought of using black locust leaves before this. 20% protein is pretty high too - and considering that black locusts are nitrogen fixers, you wouldn't need to fertilize the ground to grow the forage, and they're perennial, so no tilling. Thanks again!

PS: You might already know about this, but I found a really interesting article about using scotch broom as forage for ruminants, and this blog post reminded me of it:

Anonymous said...

I have raised rabbits in the herd method for 17 years and they de-stress this way. they are herding animals and they breed better, they are mellow, they feed communally and water communally (we have a lixit or two) . The bottom is lined with hardware cloth. The fence is lined with solar electric line since we have badgers and dogs, this fixes their wagons. Also we run it along the top to keep the cats out. The kit boxes are roomy with cement covering them. This saved their lives when my first badger attack broke in to the pen, they hid in the end of the roomy boxes and the badger couldn't reach them. Cement is good. it also helps them stay cool in summer and warm in winter. When they have kits, they will push dirt and old grass into the doorway to protect them, and go in to nurse twice a day. They will pull fur from each other for nesting material, so we also throw in some sheep wool and they stuff their nests with that and are easier on each other.

Jonni said...

I once tried raising rabbits in a colony over soil, and found that they were extremely difficult to catch, since they could go down into their burrows. Also, the buck behaved very badly, being very aggressive towards the does. They never got a minute of peace.

I definitely recommend the hardware cloth over the soil - better yet, place a thick mat of straw or hay under the hardware cloth to catch the urine, and figure out a way to harvest the mulch at regular intervals. This might keep the ammonia from killing the soil under the rabbit pen.