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Planning Your Rabbitry
While this book is generally about housing and equipment for rabbits, it's really just as much about your backyard and the rest of your property. Most people who raise rabbits do so adjacent to their residence; if they lived on a farm they would probably be raising larger livestock. Certainly you don't need a ramshackle, smelly eyesore behind your house. You want to be as proud of the rabbits' quarters as you are of your own. To that end, we will develop an action plan for creating a successful rabbit operation that makes your home even more attractive and valuable than it is right now.
If only rabbits were as articulate as they are resilient, they could tell us exactly how to house them. But while they cannot utter any language, and indeed hardly ever make a sound, we can learn from their actions and reactions to their surroundings. I've been doing that for more than 60 years.
I have seen rabbits housed a great many ways — everything from boxes to dog houses and chicken coops. To their credit, they can survive in a lot of places, but you want more than mere survival. That's why this book is for you.
A Brief History
Years ago, in Europe and North America, most domestic rabbits ran loose in a barn built primarily for cattle, sheep, hogs, goats, horses, poultry, or all of these animals together. (Of course, in even earlier times the animals lived on the first floor of your house.) You wouldn't have to provide any accommodations for the rabbits because they burrowed into the dirt floors or under the hay or straw and formed a colony or warren. Feeding and watering was no problem, because you wouldn't bother with it. The rabbits foraged for themselves, snitching hay and grain from the other species. That was the good news.
The disadvantages of the colony or warren were numerous. First, if you wanted a rabbit for dinner, you had to catch it. And you wouldn't know if it was a tender fryer or a stringy stewer until you took a bite. Second, you couldn't depend upon a set quantity of output or the timing of production because the rabbits made that determination themselves.
And there were bigger problems. Parasitic worms penetrated the animals from the dirt floors they shared with other species. That weakened the rabbits and left them thin, unthrifty consumers of the available feed and susceptible to debilitating or fatal disease.
Foxes, weasels, and other four-legged predators devoured some. Owls and hawks swooped down and flew off with others. Mature males often fought and injured each other. Some survivors hopped about outdoors only to absorb more parasites and provide more meals for wildlife or roaming cats and dogs.
In addition, because rabbits love to gnaw, they ate portions of the barn along with whatever else they could find. So you had a Swiss-cheese prison supervised not by the warden but by the inmates and their enemies.
A somewhat better way to keep rabbits arrived in 1884. Designed and named by Major G. F. Morant, a British army officer, the morant was a portable, floorless outdoor enclosure for housing one or several rabbits of both sexes. The owner moved it around from place to place, while the rabbits took care of consuming, mowing, and fertilizing the grass. Because there was no floor, however, the parasites were happy and some of the rabbits burrowed underneath and escaped to the outside and an uncertain fate.
Improved versions included a wire mesh floor. The rabbits stayed inside but could still eat grass, which sometimes was supplemented by vegetable garden waste. In wet weather, it was dangerous. When snow covered the ground, it was useless.
You can find morants for sale today. Some are sold for poultry as "chicken tractors," but some are designated as rabbit homes. The new models are no better than the original version, and a plastic and wire edition sells for $650! You can only guess how hot the plastic enclosure part must be on a sunny day. If rabbits are anything, they're resilient, but those housed in morants will merely survive, not thrive.
On Rabbits Running Free
The idea that food animals should not be restricted in their movement seems to have broad appeal. One might easily assume that animals and birds running free are happier, healthier, and, ultimately, tastier. Many people assume rabbits should be raised similarly, rather than in some kind of confinement. While that approach may sound attractive, scientific research and practical experience prove otherwise.
Let's examine the supposed benefits of liberty.
Do we know whether rabbits are happy or unhappy? If they are well-fed and comfortably housed, free from outside predators and inside bullies of their own species, disease-free, and even playful or affectionately responsive when handled, we might deduce that they are happy, if in fact this is an emotion they are able to experience. At the very least, they are at ease.
If they are not straining at their hutch doors to escape, one can conclude that they are not pining for long-lost freedom, chiefly because they have never possessed it. Well-bred domestic rabbits have been raised in hutches for thousands of (rabbit) generations and have never experienced freedom (except, of course, freedom from the environmental misery of disease and discomfort). In short, they don't miss what they never experienced — the freedom of adventurous and hazardous exploration.
In truth, if one of your rabbits escaped its hutch it wouldn't know where to turn, even if it wanted to flee. Should an escape occur in your absence, the vulnerable animal, which lacks the fear-inspired instincts of its wild cousins, becomes an easy mark for predators. Fortunately, some types of wire hutches are virtually escape-proof, and these are my primary recommendation. I want to keep my rabbits safe and secure. Only confinement will afford that kind of "happiness."
Confined to the all-wire hutch, healthy rabbits will remain in top condition when properly fed and watered, because the hutch provides freedom from parasites and ensures ample ventilation while keeping the occupants safe from predators.
Animals that live on the ground are susceptible to worms. R. M. Lockley, a distinguished biologist and naturalist who undertook an intensive study of both pastured domestic and wild rabbits in the 1950s, found that several tapeworms infested the rabbits he studied. "Stomach, liver, genitals, skin and body cavity can be infected, resulting in large cysts or liver lesions," Lockley noted.
Most other farm animals are wormed either periodically or continuously with feed that contains a wormer. In all of my years of raising rabbits I have not needed to worm one, because they live in all-wire hutches and never come in contact with the ground.
Lockley also noted that all of his pastured rabbits, despite a dusting with insecticide, carried fleas on the ears and head, probably from burrowing in the earth. His rabbits also had a great incidence of coccidiosis, a debilitating intestinal disease caused by a parasite (Eimeria steidae) that leads to diarrhea and often death, especially in the very young rabbits.
Rabbits will survive on pasture — at least some of them will. We know that wild rabbits eat grass, other plants, tree bark, and roots. We also know that nature has equipped rabbits with a knack for producing many litters in quick succession in the springtime. It's a counterbalance to the fiercely high mortality rate of their offspring. Rabbits are universally applauded as paragons of reproductive perfection. They really need to be good at making more of their own because they are so vulnerable. Long experience with wire hutches proves they keep rabbits healthy — and less prone to disease than other species that are raised in contact with the ground.
We know domestic rabbits can survive on grass, hay, and greens such as lettuce, but this results in slow growth. Many tons of rabbit meat find their way to the United States each year from China, where domestic rabbits eat greens almost exclusively, though the taste of this meat is inferior to that which comes from rabbits fed a grain-based diet. Farm-raised rabbits in the United States that are fed a balanced grain-forage pelleted ration in confinement produce a higher-quality carcass and much better flavor.
It's also clear that meat from our domestic rabbit, which is fine-grained, pearly white, and tender, is vastly superior in taste to wild rabbits' often stringy and well-muscled meat that is the result of the rabbits "running free." Just ask any rabbit hunter who has tasted the U.S. domestic product to render a comparison. Or, stop in at a French restaurant, where the hutch-raised Lapin entrées fetch upwards of $27 (and that's à la carte).
The Wood-and-Wire Hutch
Years ago, handy carpenters built wood-and-wire hutches with multiple compartments, sometimes two or more tiers high. These were widely used because neither chicken wire nor hardware cloth had any structural strength. This gets the rabbits off the ground, but this type of hutch also has some big flaws. Rabbits are death on wood. They gnaw. They spray urine. They shed their fur. They usually deposit their droppings in one corner of their enclosure. Most wood-and-wire hutches have wood supports under the wire, which create a manure buildup. Wood-and-wire structures also provide inadequate protection from rain, snow, and predators.
You can find a lot of wood-and-wire hutches for sale today, as well as plans from university agricultural extension departments, but I advise against them. The most expensive models, costing hundreds of dollars, resemble tiny barns or gazebos. The worst of them have wood supports under a wire floor, but they all have wood legs that are raring to rot. You can make modifications to improve them, however (see box on pages 8 and 9).
The Best Option: The All-Wire Hutch
With the widespread availability of welded wire mesh came the all-wire hutch. The welded wire mesh permits the construction of single or multiple all-wire hutches without the need for any wood (or nails or screws), for a lot less money than structures requiring lumber. This type of hutch provides all the sanitary needs as well as essential protection and ventilation.
The all-wire hutch houses rabbits under the cleanest conditions of any livestock. Your prized rabbits never sit in manure or contract parasitic worms, and they receive plenty of ventilation. Sanitation and ventilation are of the utmost importance; without adequate provision for both, rabbits experience all kinds of health problems. The wire hutch is the only type of housing that meets these needs. What's more, with individual wire hutches you control the individual's diet, the selection and timing of matings, herd size, and heritability. I'll discuss the all-wire hutch in greater detail in the next chapter.
As the president and CEO of your rabbitry, your first responsibility is the same as it is for the leader of a country: security. Your job is to provide a secure rabbitry that protects your animals from disease, parasites, predatory wild and domestic animals, and even human threats to well-being and success. Of course, you also need to safeguard your rabbits from themselves, which requires individual living arrangements for some and group homes for others. For example, to prevent fighting and possible injury, each mature male will need its own space, while growing does can be housed as a group for the early months of their lives.
To start the planning process, ask yourself these questions:
How many rabbits will I have, now and in the future?
What size should the hutches be?
What type of shelter will be around the hutches?
Where will I locate the housing?
How will I maintain a rabbit population consistent with the space I provide?
The size of your rabbitry will depend on how many rabbits you want to raise. Like most people starting out, you will probably begin with a small number of rabbits, but you ought to have an ultimate number of rabbits in mind before you start to put together your rabbitry. Each adult doe that will be producing a litter needs nearly a square foot of floor space for each pound she weighs; we'll discuss the size of hutches in more depth in chapter 2. What's more, the kind of rabbits you raise will determine rabbitry size because rabbits range from 2-pound dwarfs to 20-pound giants.
To help determine your rabbitry size, consider what type of operation you want: A few rabbits for pets or 4-H shows? Some for the family table, with perhaps breeding stock for sale? Angoras for their wool? Or maybe some meat rabbits for direct sales to friends or even processors, restaurants, and stores?
I learned that the kind of rabbits you raise should be the same ones you can consume or that somebody else might want, because you can't keep all of them, even if you wish you could. The number of rabbits you raise should be in line with the demand. As a beginner, it's hard to know how many to produce because you don't know how many you can sell. Even though you can consume the product yourself if you can't sell it (nice insurance, indeed), there's a limit to that, too.
Two important tips:
Line up some customers before you start producing, and remember that you can't sell what you don't have.
Pay attention to inventory control.
Your incentive to sell correlates directly with how many full hutches you have and how many more litters are on the way with no place to put them.
Your rabbits need protection from the elements. Will the hutches be housed simply with a roof and a little bit of siding, or in a closed building? You can place the hutches under a simple outdoor structure that might resemble a table with a pitched top or roof, inside an existing building such as a garage or tool shed that has been modified for rabbits, or a rabbitry structure that you either build from scratch or remodel from any of the many existing types of outbuildings you can buy. When choosing your structure, consider your resources (closed buildings may require more time and money to make them rabbit-safe); the needs of your rabbits (they will need good ventilation and special features); your own comfort (visiting your rabbits in a storm isn't much fun if there isn't a roof over your head as well); and the overall look of your property.
You'll need to visit your rabbits every day, so you should locate the building near your house. Later I'll discuss a lean-to style rabbitry that goes on the side of your garage.
Neighbors and Laws
Consider your family members and neighbors. Your rabbitry must meet the neighbors' approval (or be unknown to them — a distinct possibility). In addition, your municipality may impose zoning regulations that could imperil your plans.
Many municipalities have no laws specifically about rabbits. In some areas, laws may be ambiguous, not mentioning rabbits by name but merely discussing "farm animals." Others may have ordinances that are easily circumvented. The fact remains, however, that even where there are no rules against rabbits, if your rabbitry doesn't pass the sniff test of family and neighbors, it won't get off the ground, or, even if it does, it won't last long. Where specific ordinances are in effect, you can bet they were passed because one or more rabbit raisers were operating with a ramshackle, smelly eyesore in their backyard. An attractive or unobtrusive rabbitry stands the best chance of success.
Having the knowledge to build a successful rabbitry, regardless of the ordinances, is vital because such laws can always become more strict, no matter how permissive they are at present.
Excerpted from "Rabbit Housing"
Copyright © 2012 Bob Bennett.
Excerpted by permission of Storey Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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