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Feeding rabbits in the 1930s: soybean meal was required; no cod liver oil, please.

My dad had been raising rabbits for years before the Depression. He used to boil up a mixture of ground corn, oats, wheat bran and I'm not sure what else, and feed it to the rabbits as a sort of gruel.

One reason I'm not real sure what was in it (in addition to the passing years) is that my job was to go out along the road and fencelines and pick big baskets of weeds, which the rabbits got along with their gruel.

In the 1930s, a lot of things changed ... including the way we fed the rabbits.

I recall pretty vividly that all of a sudden Dad decided (and I think it was after getting a government bulletin on the topic) that rabbit feed didn't have to be cooked. Rolled grains, that was the answer. But they still took a lot of weeds, or hay when weeds weren't in season.

A little later on (but still in the 30s) the United States Rabbit Experiment Station at Fontana, California (which is no longer in existence) came out and said no, you don't have to cook grains but you don't have to roll or grind or pellet them either. Rabbits, they said, prefer their grains whole, and they make better gains on such feed too.

I've read, since then, that this doesn't work because the rabbits scratch out what they don't like to get at the grains they like best.

But what we did, on the recommendation of the Fontana Station, was provide grains in self-feeders with compartments, one for each grain. We had oats, wheat, barley and corn and while it seems reasonable to believe that if rabbits would scratch through mixed grains to get at what they like best, one or another of the trough would have gone down faster than another. I can't recall which it was.

But then, there was always the idea they animals knew better than we did what they needed to eat--like calves eating dirt--so we didn't worry much about it.

One thing stands out very vividly in my memories.

Just about everybody was raising rabbits during the Depression, but since Dad had been doing pretty well with them for many years before that, many of the neighbors came to him for advice. And I can see him yet, standing there in the rabbitry with some government leaflet in his hand and poking at it for emphasis while he said, "You got to give 'em soybean cake if you want to eat rabbit!" In those days, soybean meal was called cake and came in little pea-size pellets, or at least ours did. They went into one of the compartments of the self-feeder. As I recall, they came in cloth bags, just like the flour and the chicken feed, and my mother and sisters were delighted to have that cloth to sew things out of.

Besides the grain, and soybean cake and a plentiful supply of hay, our rabbits always had salt blocks (which we made) and especially during the winter when fresh weeds weren't available, roots from the root cellar. We had mangel-wurzels and carrots and turnips and Swedes, but of course the carrots were the rabbits' favorite.

Another thing I can recall very vividly is that you never, never give rabbits cod liver oil. Cod liver oil was a regular tonic for kids, and an awful one, and we were led to believe we'd never live to grow up if we didn't take it. When one of my special pet rabbits was looking droopy, I decided to give it some cod liver oil to pep it up.

She died.

Dad solemnly explained to me, afterwards, that cod liver oil was toxic to rabbits, but the main effect of that was to make me like it less than ever.

When pelleted feed became available (and, after the Depression when we had enough money to buy it) we switched over. I'm not sure the results were any better because all I know is that, with the old feeds, we always had plenty of rabbit to eat, when many other people weren't eating meat at all.

And during World War II, when I was trying to feed my own family, rabbit meat again set us apart from the people eating macaroni.

Maybe those memories are one of the things that have kept me raising rabbits all these years. And until all this talk of old-time ways of feeding, I really never thought back to those evenings of gathering weeds for the rabbits.

But now that I think of it those were some of the most pleasant hours of my life. I think I'm going to try it again.

Reprinted from COUNTRYSIDE 1983
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Author:Schwartz, Leo
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Article Type:Reprint
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2009
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