Rabbits and heat

The big discussion on all the rabbit blogs, forums and email lists has been the heat. How to beat the heat, how the rabbits are tolerating the heat, how to recognize heat distress and, sadly, losses due to the heat.  We’ve had some pretty bad heat waves with very little relief until tonight. With a heat index reaching 110 too often, it’s been quite a challenge to keep the rabbits from overheating.

How to Combat the Heat

The best way to deal with heat distress is to avoid it.

If your rabbits are in a barn, fans are going to help tremendously.

Fill water bottles, freeze them and put them in with the rabbits.  The rabbits will lay on them and next to them for coolness and will lick the cold condensation.  Ice bottles combined with air circulation can help lower air temps a smidge.

Ceramic tiles can be put in the freezer and then put in with the rabbits but it doesn’t seem to me that they’ll help for very long.

Misters are one of the best ways to lower the temps and keep the rabbits cool.  I’m trying to figure out how to do this with pens that are moved in the pasture every day.

Shade, shade, shade!  There’s a huge temperature difference under the shade versus out in the direct sun.  Shade your rabbits as much as possible.

Dunk your rabbit in water up to the shoulders. This gets them wet down to the skin and the evaporation is cooling.  Do not put wet rabbits next to a fresh ice bottle. Their wet fur will stick to the bottle and possibly freeze to it.

 

How to Recognize Heat Distress

Excessive panting with a wet nose
Lethargy
Grinding teeth
Crying, wimpering

 

Dealing with Heat Distress

Look at all the veins!

Rabbits ears are very vascular.  When your rabbit is in heat distress, immediately start icing the ears.  One of our rabbits was in distress. I carried him into the garage where it was cooler and pulled an ice bottle out of the freezer.  With him on my lap, I kept holding the water bottle against one ear, then the other.  I held it against the outside of the ears as well as the insides.  I could feel how hot his ears were.  After about 15 minutes, he started to perk up a little, sniffing me and moving around.  But every time I put the ice back on his ears, he immediately calmed and sat still.  After half an hour, he was back to normal. His ears no longer felt hot, he had perked up, he was curious about me and was ready to explore.  The only other thing I think would have helped would have been to have a fan blowing on us.

Once your rabbit has come out of heat distress, you still need to keep a good eye on him.  Make sure he eats and drinks on his own and regains his same level of energy. Might be a good idea to temporarily move him some place cooler and add some electrolytes to his water.

After half an hour of icing his ears, he was back to normal and loving on me


Life Cycle: Day 14 – Evicted!

I checked on the kits this morning and half of them were out of the nesting box so I evicted all of them.  Their eyes are mostly open and they want to explore.  I gave them a small container to crawl into if they are feeling the need to be contained (rabbits like close, small spaces) and I gave them their first batch of grass and clover.

Because of the heat, I placed a frozen 2 liter of water at the door to the hutch. This serves several purposes: it blocks to door and keeps them from falling out of the hutch where they might not survive; it provides them with water to lick via condensation;  and, it helps them keep cool.


Lifecycle: Day 13

 

They have furred out into such beautiful colors.  Now they are starting to open their eyes.  This morning, I found one of the kits outside the nesting box.  It’s about time for them to start exploring a little but I have a feeling he kind of “popped” out of the nesting box.  He probably popped up and ended up outside the nesting box on accident.

The heat has hit us so I keep putting a frozen water bottle in the nesting box for the kits to keep them cool.  I also put a frozen 2 liter bottle of water in the hutch itself.  With the lid cracked open, even a slight breeze will help create a swamp cooler effect inside the hutch.

The runt seems to be doing well. He’s not as big as his siblings but he’s keeping pace and growing well.

Their dam was rebred this morning and should have another litter in early July.  This kits will be about 5 weeks old by then and will be weaned off their mother.


Gotcha!

Earlier in the week, I made a disturbing discovery.  First, there was some odd scat in the garden and driveway.  Then, Greg saw a raccoon run across the driveway one night.  Finally, when I was checking the rabbits one morning I saw this….

 

‘Coon tracks on top of a rabbit pasture pen.  Not good.  Not good at all.  Raccoons are vicious creatures and I really didn’t want to wake up to a blood mess one morning. That coon had to go!

We put out a trap the night before last.  The bait was gone by morning but the trap didn’t spring.  Put the same trap out last night and guess what we found this morning?

 

 

He tried getting to the bait by digging outside the trap but eventually gave up and went into the trap and SNAP! We got him!

I bet my son would love a coon skin hat.


Life Cycle – Day 8

The kits are now just over a week old.  Their fur has come in and we’ve discovered some interesting colorings!

We have stripes

 

And we have polka-dots!

 

The remaining runt is still small. I worry that it’s not getting enough milk so we flipped Rosebud today and put him on her. He definitely had a full tummy when we took him off.  Hopefully an extra feeding every day will help him keep up with his littermates.

Although they are just a week old, a few of them are starting to open their eyes every so slightly.  It will be another week before they are keeping their eyes open all the time.  Not long after that, they’ll start exploring outside the nesting box.

It was time today for another nestbox cleanout.  I gave Sammy all the instructions on what to do along with the reasoning behind everything and let her get to it.  Rosebud is her rabbit and I’m trying to teach her about rabbit husbandry as well as responsibility. Rosebud tends to pee and poop in her nest boxes quite a bit so it’s not a fun task but definitely necessary since the kits are starting to open their eyes slightly.

For now, everything is pretty boring. Kits are getting cuddle time with the kids. Rosebud is hanging out in the grass and feeding her babies a couple times a day.  Easy, breezy.  The challenge comes when they start getting out of the nesting box and when the summer heat finally hits. But that’s another post for another day!


Pasture Pens

Our farming model is to raise the livestock on as much pasture as possible.  With rabbits, this can be a challenge: they are diggers by nature and they are prey animals.  This means you have a yard full of rabbit holes and livestock that is easy pickin’s for predators.  You also have weather concerns: how to keep feed dry when it’s raining sideways, keeping waterers working in the middle of the freezing winter, keep the rabbits from overheating in mid-summer.

We did a lot of research before we decided on a design for our rabbit pens. It was really hard to find other pasture pens.  Nature’s Harmony in Georgia has outdoor rabbit pens but they stopped blogging and it was hard to get access to good photos that showed design.  I found other random photos online and on YouTube but in the end, we built based on what made sense to us.

The first pen built.

The first pen built was based on a 4′x6′ design.  There is wire around the perimeter to help keep the rabbits from digging out.  The hutch area is about 18″ deep and has a wire floor.  In the winter, we’ll put a removable piece of plywood down over the half of the floor farthest from the door to help keep it a bit warmer for any kits born in the winter.  The hutch door slides up and down which has been very helpful when we need to pick up kits or a doe.

Lessons learned from the first pen:

  • Rabbits really like to dig.  We may need to put wire across the entire bottom.
  • Wire floors inside the hutch are a must. The first hutch had a solid wood floor and it deteriorates quickly when the rabbit uses the hutch for a litter box.
  • Cut the wood thinner so it’s not so heavy. I can’t really move the first pen. Some of the later pens are so much lighter and easier to move.
  • Feeders must have lids or they need to be better protected by the pen roof. Otherwise feed gets wet and is useless.

Now that we have so many kits, we needed grow-out pens.  The grow-out pens are transitional and will only house the kits for 4 – 6 weeks until they reach butchering weight (5 lbs).  Instead of spending eight hours building a full pen, we decided on a 2′x5′ shelter.  It’s incredibly lightweight, portable, and super fast to build.  It took approximately four hours to build one which includes ripping down wood.

Chicken wire floor and a run-in shelter area made for a very simple grow-out pen

There are additional improvements we would like to make to future pasture pens.  Each pen is a little different from the last and we’re learning as we go.  There are additional photos of our rabbit tractors on our Facebook page.


Life Cycle – Day 5

All nine kits - three fawns, two whites and four grays

 

The kits are now five days old.  The pink runt died two days ago.  We had a feeling he wouldn’t make it because he wasn’t nursing right.  The remaining runt seems to be doing well and is keeping up with feedings so we’re not longer intervening or assisting him.  Their fur is coming in and they are becoming more active.  At this stage, their activity is akin to popcorn popping. They randomly pop and bounce all over the nest.  Then they’ll snuggle down for a bit until someone else gets crazy and starts moving around. The whole nest shifts and everyone repositions for a few minutes.


Life cycle – birth

I decided to take everyone along on the journey of this recent litter of kits.

Born June 7, these ten kits are the offspring of Rosebud (probably an American Chinchilla) and Davidson (fawn New Zealand).  This is Rosebud’s second litter and Davidson’s first.  With her first litter, Rosebud proved to be a great milker and her kits grew very quickly. Because of this, we will probably keep at least one doe from each of her litters for future breeding.

Ten is a pretty good size litter but does only have eight nipples so we need to be sure that each kit is being fed.  One missed feeding can significantly reduce the strength of the kit and start him on the road to starvation.  Each kit is checked twice a day.  If the belly is full and round and the skin is taunt over the belly, you have a fully fed kit.  However, if the belly has a lot of wrinkly skin, like the rolls of skin on a Pug dog, then it has not been fed.

This litter has two runts in it who are not being fed.  Twice a day, we have to hold the doe down and put the kits on her belly.  We also help them find nipples.  Normally a doe will let her kits nurse for two to five minutes.  These kits need a good ten minutes on their mom before they are full.

The gray runt seems to be filling up on milk much faster than the pink runt.  His tummy gets full and round like it should.  But after the same amount of time nursing, the pink runt does not have a full belly.  He seems to have a weak suck which could be genetic or because he’s weak.  My goal is to put these two on their mom three times a day until they are more self-sufficient.

As I check out a new litter, I’m looking for several things – do we have runts, are there any deformities, are all the kits alive and how many are there.  For this litter, we have two runts, no deformities, no stillborn with a litter of ten babies.  I’ll also check their genitals; poop can get stuck on them and cause sores.  I had one kit from a previous litter who had some bad sores from poop sticking to him and it took a while to get him healed.  After I check the babies over, they go back into the nesting box and I replace momma’s fur on top of them.  With Rosebud, I also have to pull as much of her poop out of the nesting box as I can. She tends to poop in it a lot which becomes quite unsanitary for the kits.

These are the things that happen in the first few days of life.  The kits are vulnerable and fragile.  Does do not single out the sick kits and try to help them along.  It’s survival of the fittest.  And while I won’t be keeping either of these runts for future breeding, they represent an end product for my customer so I’ll do everything I can to keep them alive.

It may not look like much, but this is how Rosebud feeds her babies


Introductions

We are a small farm in Winchester, VA.  My boyfriend’s uncle bought the farm in the early 80′s. Through time and circumstances, he now lives on the farm and takes care of it.  Originally this was a farm with a calf/cow production.  After being empty for several years, Greg is now trying to get the farm back up and running.  Starting up a cattle farm is expensive; very expensive.  So we’re trying to be diverse with the livestock we raise.

Raising meat rabbits was something we considered for a long time and it was always on our “not this year but maybe next year” list.  Then, all of a sudden, we had rabbits!

 

The Boys

Davidson – our original buck.  We think he’s a New Zealand but not what his official color is.  He’s very sweet and loves to be held and pet.  He is now a proven buck, having sired his first successful litter.

Happy Jack – New Zealand White, age unknown.  Happy Jack loves to eat. One night he was so excited that I was putting food in his cage that he bit my finger.  Other than that, he’s very personable but a bit jumpy and easily startled.  He has sired two litters for us.

Radar – We recently acquired Radar at a livestock auction. I was really surprised to see a Silver Fox being sold and grabbed him up. He’s a big boy, weighing in at 10 lbs!  He’s under quarantine right now but we’ll be breeding him at the end of the month once he’s given the thumbs up.  He is a proven buck (we also purchased three of his offspring that day) with pedigree.  He’s very sweet but such a scaredy cat.

Cinnamon Bun – CB is a Dutch tort buck we got for free. I’m ready to find him a new home but that’s a topic for another day.

The Three Amigos – These three Silver Fox bucks are offspring of Radar with pedigree.  Two are for sale; one is spoken for.

 

The Girls

Big Bertha – New Zealand White. She is pregnant with her 2nd litter. First litter is almost ready to be butchered.  She’s as sweet as can be while she’s nursing kits. But when she’s pregnant, wow is she cranky!

Matilda – New Zealand White.  She is also pregnant with her 2nd litter.  First litter was 10 kits, all of which have survived.  She refuses to use a nesting box and builds her nest on the floor of her hutch.

Rosebud – We’re pretty sure she’s an American Chinchilla.  She has a pretty good temperament but is very, very protective of her kits.  She just delivered her 2nd litter.  This litter is 10 kits but we have two very small runts that I’m concerned about. I’ll be trying to get them some extra nursing sessions whenever possible.

Cuddles – We purchased Cuddles at auction and don’t know her history. We are thinking she’s an older rabbit because she’s been bred twice but never kindled.  She is very sweet and gentle so we’re listing her on Craigslist as a pet.

The Growers

We have over 20 kits in grow-out pens right now. These will grow to five pounds and then be butchered.  Along with the kits that were born here, we also purchased four NZ/Californian cross kits when they were about four weeks old.


No wire hangers!

Almost three years ago, I started on the idea of raising meat rabbits. I knew the turnaround could be pretty fast especially when compared to other types of livestock.  I also knew that I wanted to raise them on pasture and allow them access to the same grass and foraged goodies they’d find in the wild.

But I was living on the second floor of an apartment. In a rather suburban area. Rabbits?  On pasture??

I discussed the idea with a childhood friend who lived on a farm and was trying to get the farm operational again. He didn’t know how to get it going either. He knew less about raising rabbits than I did and all I knew was what I read online.

Time passed. We began a romantic relationship. Lots of other stuff transpired and eventually I moved to his town to be near him, to continue our relationship and to farm with him.  Rabbits were on our “we’ll get to it” list.  He bought bull calves.  He had laying hens.  We raised broiler chickens in pasture pens (ala Polyface).  We expanded our laying flock.  We experienced a lot of setbacks.  We had some triumphs. We kept working at it.

Then this winter, all of a sudden, we had two New Zealand White does and a New Zealand White buck to go along with our other buck that had been a pet.  Our first doe had a litter in February. What a learning experience!  Then we bought a couple more does at auction.

We now have four does, three breeding bucks, three young bucks for sale, one sort of pet buck that made its way home with us and approximately twenty-five bunnies growing out to butchering weight.  One doe is overdue. Another doe is due to kindle tonight.

How did this happen?

 

They really DO multiply like rabbits – not just the unwanted wire hangers in your closet but the real rabbits too!