September 29, 2023

Rabbits on the Homestead, Take 2

Sunning rabbit

Every homestead needs a good supply of small meat animals- something the family or group can eat in a meal or two so that spoilage and waste are not a problem.  We have tried a couple things, but for years we mainly relied on chickens because they were more cost-effective than others (like turkeys).

We still utilize spent layers and surplus roosters with dumplings and in soup, but for tender by-the-piece type eating, you really need young meaty types.  The industry standard for decades has been the Cornish-Rock hybrid.  Initially, individuals were selected for fast growth and more breast meat.  Over time, they have been further “fiddled with,” the result being that  you can now grow a bird from a few ounces at hatching to 7 or 8 pounds in less than 2 months.  Amazing, yes;  ‘normal,” no.

About three years ago, we decided that we just had to find an alternative to raising Cornish cross chickens for meat.  They are so unpleasant to take care of and you just know you are doing them a favor on “processing day.”

Beyond all the GMO type issues, there was the very practical perspective of unsustainability.  These creatures are not something you can naturally breed in your own backyard;  you have to purchase them as day-old chicks from a hatchery.  This is no good from a preparedness aspect.  About two years ago, we decided to try rabbits as an alternative.

Steep Learning Curve

drinking rabbitAs usual, I read every book, article, and blog I could find before we made our foray into rabbits.  Then I began watching Craigslist ads to find hutches and the going price and availability of various breeds.  Once we acquired some hutches, we visited a local breeder and got even more information from him.  We bought two Californians and set up our rabbitry.  We eagerly awaited our first litter.

And we waited.  And we waited.  We bought an additional doe to speed this project along.  And we did have a litter finally. It was born on an extremely hot day.  The mother did not give birth in a nesting box, but rather on the wire and most were mortally injured before we found them.  The rest died within 2 days though we had carefully put them in the box with gloved hands.

This dismal story has replayed itself in several different variations many times since then.  Either our rabbits would not breed or they would give birth on a day that it was 17 degrees or the mother would not care for them, and so on.  Whatever the particular reason for the death of that litter, it has always been the same outcome, with one exception.  Even out of that bunch, only one lived to breeding age.

In addition, we have had several other rabbits just die for no apparent reason.  We have since decided that adult mortality may have been related to water bottles allowed to run dry by the adolescent children charged with caring for them.  Sigh…

All the way around, this has been a very frustrating project.

Rethinking the old way

We are always interested in going the most natural route with regards to food and farming.  If we can simplify our operation and reduce our labor, all the better.  We decided to rethink the way we were running things.

In nature, rabbits live in burrows and warrens.  They select foods for themselves and give birth in cozy nests underground where the offspring are not at the mercy of weather extremes.

We have had our hutches located inside what was previously the henhouse and attached chicken yard on the northern and eastern walls with shade provided by large trees.  Our birds are all in “chicken tractors” now so the structure could be entirely repurposed.

After thought and discussion, we decided to give them the run of the “rabbithouse” and yard and hope for the best.  We were aware of some possible problems, including that they may dig out and disappear, but we decided we had little to lose at this point besides the feed bill.

A New Plan

We knew that we had to have a way to catch the rabbits in the future.  Chasing them around to catch dinner would be undesirable if not impossible if they had holes they could disappear into.  We took apart the hutch I wrote about here and affixed the 3′ x 3′ fence part to a wall within the structure.  We made this into a “feeding station” so that the rabbits had to come into an enclosure (where we can catch them) to get food and water.  We leave one of the little hinged doors open.  The house itself also has a small knee-high guillotine-style door going out to the yard that we can close.

the feeding stationWe made sure the yard had no easy places to dig out and then set up the food, water, and minerals.  One by one, we brought the rabbits into the rabbit house and put them into the feeding station.  We allowed each to eat and drink and then go exploring.  After one had left, we brought the next one and repeated this procedure.

Altogether, we released 6 does and 2 bucks, some of which had never met each other.  We saw one scuffle when the most dominant doe chased another out of the house and we have seen the bucks pursuing the does, but otherwise it’s gone pretty well.  A little fur blowing around, but no blood.

The house is probably about 8′ x 10′ and the yard is around 25′ x 40′.  That gives them plenty of room to get away from each other.  In addition, they can take shelter under the empty hutches and the low hanging branches.  I have even seen one doe dozing in the old chicken nesting boxes that are about a foot off the ground.

Each morning, we’ve done a head count.  So far, there have been no escapes and no attempts that I can see.  That could be in part to the big salivating dogs that patrol the perimeter.  It took 4 days for any to even show an interest in making tunnels since they were so happy with their new-found freedom.

So far, so good.  I’ve even witnessed what appeared to be a successful mating- that is an improvement in itself!  Maybe by this summer, I can give you a good update about how it’s working out.

Anyone else tried a warren arrangement and have any pointers for us?

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* This article was originally published here

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