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Tips on running a commercial rabbitry. (The rabbit barn).

Plans for this summer include building a goat shed, rabbit barn, chicken house and adding on to the cabin.

We have plans to buy commercial-quality breeding animals to begin a commercial rabbitry. We had one years ago and missed it terribly when we were forced to sell out since our rented farm was sold.

In our previous rabbitry we had 30 working does, kindling every six weeks with an average of 10-12 kits in each litter. (This is when you learn how prolific rabbits can be.) We usually had anywhere from 500 up to 700 animals at a time to tend. For those who report 30 does as a full-time enterprise, I can honestly say that it is at best only a three-hour job each day. Every morning I would check all the babies, starting with the newborns and working my way to the fryers ready to be sold. There is a misconception that you cannot disturb does with newborns for at least two weeks. If there are any dead kits in the nest, the whole litter will become sick and die, too.

The main thing to remember is that as long as all the babies smell the same, the doe will take care of them. It is common practice in a large rabbitry to pull the nest box to the door of the cage (so Mama can't see) and handle each baby to determine if they are all well fed and healthy. Any runts or thin kits are removed and fostered into another litter of kits the same size. (Make sure to mark these. I put a dot or two in the baby's ear with an indelible marker.) Remember to handle all the kits in the new adoptive family and the doe will never notice the new arrival. Rabbits cannot count and only rely on smell to tell which kits are theirs.

Checking the rabbits only takes about 10 to 15 minutes, with another half hour to refill water bottles, and maybe 45-60 minutes to clean the barn. Our barn had a concrete floor so I scraped out the manure (for the garden) and then hosed the floor down to remove any odors. The cleaning time could be cut out if a person had worm beds under the cages, which we plan to do this time around. The worms keep the manure composted and the odor to a minimum.

I spent a total of 1-1/2 hours each morning and about 30 minutes in the evening feeding rabbits.

The main diet of most rabbits consists of commercial rabbit pellets which is actually alfalfa hay in tiny pellet form. If you just have a few pets or does to supply your family with meat, pellets are excellent, but for a large number of animals, the cost cuts into profits. This can be solved by buying the large hay cubes designed for range cattle. They resemble miniature bales of hay and can be fed either in a special feeder or just placed on the floor of the cage. The cost is one-quarter to half the price paid for rabbit pellets, is the same high quality alfalfa and also satisfied the rabbits' need to chew.

The only other feed rabbits need is a little grain with molasses for the nursing does only. From the time the nest box is placed in the cage until it is removed when the kits are about two weeks old, give the mother one-to-two ounces of grain along with her regular feed. This serves two purposes: To give her the extra fat to produce more milk and to reduce the chance of pregnancy toxemia (milk fever) which will kill a doe before you even know she has a problem.

How much feed is a common bone of contention between pet owners and breeders. To keep the bucks and does in top condition it is recommended to feed the large commercial New Zealands no more than four ounces of pellets per day. If a doe becomes too fat, she will either have a very small litter or none at all. With the large cattle cubes, the rabbits have to work for the food and do not overeat as they do with the pellets. Also, when the young rabbits start eating at 10 days to two weeks of age, it is important to increase the amount of feed so they don't eat their mother's ration.

How often to feed can be a problem since rabbits eating pellets always seem to be hungry and will "ask" for food whenever a person appears. The rabbit is a nocturnal creature, meaning that it is usually active only at night. We feed in the evening and have very little wasted feed; rabbits fed in the morning tend to play with their food, spilling it, then "asking" for more. When fed at night they eat all the food and then just laze about during the day.

Breeding should also be done at night and repeated again eight hours later. This practice insures that both halves of a rabbit's uterus become pregnant. Yes, even though it's hard to believe, rabbits have two of these.

A case in point: we had one doe which we only bred once in the evening and when I palpated her, I missed the growing babies two weeks later. We rebred her and in two weeks she gave birth to seven kits. This didn't bother me much until I tried to remove the nest box two weeks later when those seven kits were ready, and I found seven newborns in the box! We were concerned that the first litter might cause problems for the second litter, but decided to wait and see if she could handle both litters. This young doe raised all 14 and the older kits were weaned at the usual four weeks followed by the second litter two weeks later. We never forgot to rebreed a doe after that and always had large litters of 10-15 at a time.

I hope this information will help solve some of the misconceptions about raising rabbits. They are very easy to raise and it's so enjoyable to just sit and watch all the activity in the evening that we never missed the tv.

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Author:Barton, Beth
Publication:Countryside & Small Stock Journal
Date:May 1, 2002
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