Rabbits for Gardeners

Tons of clay, alternately sticky and bricklike, once lay where my vegetables and flowers now flourish. When asked for the secret ingredient in my now-workable, rich soil, I have an easy answer: my "homegrown" rabbit manure. Four times more nutrient-potent than horse or cow manure and twice as rich as poultry manure, rabbit manure is a more perfectly formed soil conditioner than any I have ever known.

What's more, raising chickens or other farm animals is much more difficult, and is even illegal in some communities. Chickens cackle and crow at dawn. Rabbits, on the other hand, are as quiet as a rosebush breaking bud. After raising rabbits for 28 years, I still don't know what sound they make.

In a space no bigger than your kitchen table, you can house a buck and two does. Each year they and their offspring produce at least two cubic yards of manure, plus 100 to 125 pounds of rabbit meat.

If the prospect of raising rabbits and eating them doesn't appeal to you, they also make excellent pets. Most of the following guidelines still apply, though the specific breed you choose is less significant. Of course, one or two pet rabbits won't make nearly as much manure as the family unit of three plus offspring.

Rabbit Manure

This stuff is remarkable. It comes nicely packaged in a convenient, round, dry, pelleted form. As a fertilizer, fresh rabbit manure is approximately 2% nitrogen, 1% phosphorus and 1% potassium. Use it fresh, directly from under the hutch. It won't burn plants. Use the small marbles to top-dress your lawn, or mulch roses, vegetables or flower beds. Or supercharge your compost pile and create an earthworm population explosion.

Rabbit Meat

Domestic rabbit meat is a high-quality, gourmet food. The all-white meat contains more protein and less fat, calories and cholesterol than any other meat. The retail cost equals sirloin steak. It's easy to find a buyer for the young rabbits you produce, and often the same people will barter or sell back to you dressed andpackaged rabbit meat ready for the freezer. Some rabbit raisers I know swap some rabbit for other kinds of meat.

Starting Right

Which rabbit breed to chose can seem a bit bewildering. There are 50 breeds available, and sizes range from two to 20 pounds. Good meat producers weigh five to 10 pounds at maturity. Two of my five-pound favorites are the Tan and the Florida White. No rabbit outperforms a Florida White for percentage of edible meat per pound of live weight. Consider the Tan if you like a little color. The 10-pound New Zealand White is the most common domestic rabbit in America today. Other 10-pounders to consider are the Californian, white with black markings, and the Rex, which comes in about 15 colors and has velvety, plush fur.

Start your search for rabbits, hutches and supplies at the local farm supply store. Ask there who raises good rabbits. Most farm supply stores have a bulletin board. Check it for advertisers of rabbits. Put up your own notice. Visit a few rabbit raisers. Most of them love to talk about their rabbits. Choose yours from a producer who keeps them in spotless wire hutches.

Fall is the best time of year to get started with rabbits because lots of young stock is available and prices are at their annual lowest. Expect to pay $10 to $20 each for white rabbits. Fancy colored breeds usually cost considerably more, but they don't grow or taste any better.

Rabbits are bred for the first time when they're six months old, so you will find many "juniors" (younger than six months) for sale. You could also buy one older doe, up to a year or so in age, and have her bred by the person selling her to you. This will get you off to a fast start, but it's usually a good idea to start with young animals so you can learn about them before you mate them. For best production, keep does three years and bucks five years. The natural life span of a rabbit is about 10 years.

A buck and two does require four wire cages (the fourth is for weaned offspring). These hutches are 30 inches by 36 inches and cost $20 to $35 each. They're also easy to build. Please don't make hutches out of wood and chicken wire. These are unsafe, unsanitary and unsightly. You'll also need feeders and water bottles.

Rabbits are hardy outdoors in all garden zones but prefer temperatures below 90oF. Without space in a garage or other building, consider building a shed. A good design has four pressure-treated posts with a slanted roof to protect the rabbits from sun, wind, rain and snow. Choose a siding appropriate to the season and your climate. Or keep your hutches under an arbor or lath house. A strong fence to keep dogs out is essential.

Pick up a bag of rabbit pellets and a bottle of sulfaquinoxaline at the farm supply store. Add the latter to their drinking water to control an internal parasite, their only real pest. Your rabbits' staple diet should be commercial feed. It costs about $13 for a 100-pound bag. Each rabbit will consume a nickel's worth a day.

You can supplement their diet with feed that costs you little or nothing. Here's an excuse to let a section of lawn grow tall and go to hay, or plant some of it to alfalfa, red clover or oats. But remember to sun-dry grass or clover before giving it to your rabbits; abruptly adding these materials when fresh to their diets can upset their stomachs.

Rabbits recycle some of your excess garden vegetables, too. Carrots (especially the big, woody ones), chicory, overgrown beets, rutabagas, Jerusalem artichokes, lettuce and parsnips are all excellent. Put chunks of dried sunflower heads in the cages and the rich seeds will make their coats shine. The only vegetables to avoid are any of the cole crops, such as cabbage, mustard or broccoli.

Feed your rabbits all the pellets they will eat each day until they are six months old. Mature rabbits consume four to six ounces of pellets a day, less if you supplement the diet. Whenever you change their diet, do it gradually.

They Breed Like ... Well, Like Rabbits

At six months, take the doe to the buck, never the other way or they'll fight. Don't blink or you'll miss everything. Rabbits have earned their reputation for fast mating and reproduction. Gestation is 31 days. On the 28th day, add a nest box with two to three inches of wood shavings topped with handfuls of straw. You can buy or build one. Make it 10 inches by 18 inches and eight inches high; use the same wire as on the hutch floor, or wood. The doe will line the nest with fur from her chest and stomach. Litter size averages eight. When the litter is due, keep things quiet: no noisy children or dogs. After the birth, give the doe all the feed she can clean up in a day.

In two weeks, the litter will come bouncing out of the box and want to start eating solid food, although they will nurse for another six weeks as well. Keep all green stuff out, and as a transition, give a little dry oatmeal or whole or cracked oats along with the pellets.

Wean young rabbits at eight weeks, moving one or two a day to another cage. Once all are weaned, you can rebreed the doe. You can keep weaned rabbits together for another month or so. Females can stay together longer, but each male needs his own hutch after 12 weeks or they'll fight. Each doe typically produces four litters a year. Occasionally, a doe will fail to conceive on schedule, but well-bred rabbits are dependable.

New Zealand-size weanlings will weigh four pounds at eight weeks. About half of that is good freezer meat. A little arithmetic shows that eight litters from two does produces as much as 128 pounds of meat a year. Florida Whites or Tans produce half as much meat but need less food.

If slaughtering rabbits is unsavory for you, ask at the farm supply store who can do the job for you. Or just keep a few for pets. Either way, look out or you'll get hooked on rabbit raising, just as I did.

Photo courtesy of ArtToday (www.arttoday.com)

Article published on June 23, 2008.

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