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Alternative housing for rabbits in groups.
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Newbie Questions

Post Number:#1  Unread postby kotapony » Mon May 24, 2010 2:46 pm


Hi all,

I've been chewing on the idea of starting up a meat colony for several months now. I'm new to rabbits, and haven't yet bought anything (supplies or buns). I was hoping to ask a few questions and get some advice before I get in over my head. I've been lurking and trying to learn what I can. But I think I'm finally at the point where I either need to forge ahead or let this idea go.

What I'm looking to do is keep just a few rabbits. I'd like to provide a rabbit meal for my family once a week or so, and if I could sell just enough kits to break even on the feed bill that would be fantastic. For reference on that one, my husband and I make all our own hay (mostly timothy and clover, cut early for high protein) so that comes in at cost. A 50# bag of pellets is about $11.50 from Tractor Supply. And meat rabbits in this area sell from $10-20.

I've eyed out a 16' x 16' space in one of our bank barns, and conned my husband into letting me clean it out and use it for rabbits. Right now it's just used for junk storage. This is where I'm thinking of:

Picture 1 - Looks into the barn. Rabbits will be way in and down a cubby to the left. There's a big open door on the right at the same spot.

Picture 2 - Looks in the big open door I mention above. Rabbits will be straight back. There is a sliding door here that will close for winter.

Picture 3 - This is the space I've actually claimed. It doesn't look like much yet. The big post on the front right shows one corner. From there to the left wall or the back is 16'.

There is plenty of ventilation there, and the cement floor will prevent digouts and help keep bunnies cool in the summer. We live on a hilltop and I can count on one hand the number of summer days without a nice breeze, so it shouldn't get too hot there. I'm a little worried about drafts in the winter, but I can always work with tarps or something to seal the colony off better.

To actually make the colony cage I'm trying to find a chain link dog kennel. My plan is to run some chicken wire around the bottom 2' or so to keep in the rabbits, and then I can also run some wire from the top of the chain link to the ceiling to keep out both the coons and the barn cats (we have plenty of both). I don't have much in the way of funds to get started right now, so I've been watching the ads for used kennels. I'm following up on one that is 7' x 13'. Eventually I do want to expand to use most, if not all, of the 16x16 space, but if I can get my hands on this kennel it would get me started. I can't seem to find any breeders nearby that have adult rabbits for sale, so I have some months ahead of raising stock before I could start breeding anyway. And that would give me time also to save up and enlarge the space.

I'm thinking to start with 3 does and a buck. Mr. Buck would live in his own cage, rather than the colony. Especially until I get the full space going, it would get awfully crowded should I end up with 3 does all kindling at once. I'd rather be able to control breeding so I don't have too many litters at once. Does that seem like a reasonable beginning, or should I cut back and start with 2 does? Finding adult rabbits nearby is next to impossible, as I said, so my other thought with 3 is if I happen to lose one, I still have some leeway while raising another.

I'm a little fuzzy about the process of removing kits from the colony. From what I read, weaning by 6-8 weeks is appropriate and then by 11-12 weeks they either need to be sold or transferred to the freezer. Does that sound about right? Can they stay in the colony until 11-12 weeks? Can I rebreed mama before they leave the colony, or do they need removed from the colony before she kindles again? I was hoping to have one big space for everybody except Mr. Buck, but I can divide my area off and have a separate space for weaned bunnies if need be.

My one other big concern is how much time the rabbits will honestly take. My husband and I run a dairy farm. We have no help, and a baby due in July. So while I can't get the idea out of my head, I also think I'm nuts for even thinking about starting this project right now. Realistically, how much time daily needs devoted to colony care (bearing in mind this is an indoor colony)? Obviously basic checks for clean water/food dishes and general health would go into my feeding routine, which gets done twice a day. What about cage cleaning? Any other big daily chores I need to be aware of?

The other eternal question is Californians or New Zealands? I do see ads periodically for both. The nearest I can ever find either is about 30 miles, and I have a range of up to about 70 miles I can travel. Neither breed is particularly common close to where I'm at. From what I read it largely comes down to personal preference as far as meat quality goes, but I wondered if either breed seems just a little hardier and better able to thrive under a newbie's care?

Thank you all so much for any help. I'm really excited about this idea, but I want to make sure I understand just what it will involve and that I'm not romanticizing it too much before I launch in. :)

~Katie
~Katie

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Re: Newbie Questions

Post Number:#2  Unread postby MaggieJ » Mon May 24, 2010 4:00 pm


Hi Katie. :)

Your plans are perfectly feasible and you have already put a lot of thought into it... I think you'll do just fine. The timing could be a bit problematic for you, but since you are starting with youngsters not yet ready to breed, this will give you until fall with just a few rabbits. A few rabbits are not going to take a lot of time.

Colonies can be very successful. Macybaby has a very successful colony in an outbuilding... you should read her posts both here and on the Homesteading Today Rabbit Forum. She posts lots of pictures and you will learn a lot from her. There are several other people who have great colonies too, but Macybaby's is quite close to what you have in mind.

Predators can be a real problem... not just dogs and raccoons, but also RATS and snakes. Rats especially can be very hard to deal with... and chain link is no deterrent. Nor will it keep out mink and weasels. Just something to bear in mind since rabbits in colonies are sometimes more at risk than those in cages. Rats usually only become a problem when their numbers jump up.

Example: We had a bad rat year last year. Then a mink of weasel moved in and killed them all off. Then the same critter began on our chickens, getting in through a hole the rats had chewed. We lost four of our seven chickens before we had all the holes plugged up. Now we are good to go until the next rat surge. My rabbits are in cages (though I'd love a colony) so I didn't lose any of them.
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Re: Newbie Questions

Post Number:#3  Unread postby Anntann » Mon May 24, 2010 4:04 pm


I think MacyBaby will be able to help you a LOT with these questions...and some good "use this as a this" type of things. I'll try to answer a few things here....let's see...

1st off..sounds like the area is about perfect, to me. concrete floor is easy to care for, although will need to be hosed out once in awhile if things get really deep or damp. You can deep bed with straw, shavings, or hay. Rabbits are quite clean critters, and will usually select one corner as a potty corner. If you're into litter boxes, they are pretty easy to train...although with a colony I've found it's just easy to let them pick a corner and clean it once a week.

My colony has 4 does in an 8x8 area. It was fine for 3..the 4th is a bit of a strain...but mine are french/english angoras, so about 7 to 8 lbs instead of the 11ish lbs for a NZ. Start looking for tunnels. I've been using chimney tiles..8x10" rectangular tube things. Bunnies LOVE to crawl thru stuff. And they like to hop up on top of stuff. chimney tiles, chimeny flues, tupperware tubs with couple of holes cut out like a house...ohboybohboyohboy!! It also gives them a place to get out of the way if they're being chased by the dominant doe.

I love the idea of a buck in with the does..but it's just not feasible unless you're not concerned with when they kindle. My buck lives in a cage next to the girls. When it's time to breed, he lives with them for a couple of weeks.

Time: minimum is making sure they have water full time, and feeding. Cleaning is "whenever it needs it". With my 4 girls, it's once a week and it's just shovel up the corner into a feedbag or tub :) I try to put down peatmoss or coir in the potty corner to soak up as much urine as possible. The poos are just round hard little things that you can actually sweep up into a dustpan if they get loose :D

you should figure 6 to 8 kits in a kindle...so if you breed 1 doe every month, you'll have rabbit meals..2 rabbits per week...starting 3 months after the first time you breed. (1 month for gestation, 2 months for growout) Figure 3lbs of meat for a 5 lb rabbit. (that's a LOT of meat). One thought on this tho....if you breed one doe, and for some reason she rejects the kits, or doesn't have milk, you'll be bottle feeding. If you breed TWO at a time, if one doe has problems, you can probably foster the kits onto the other doe.

On pellets alone, the kits should be butcher size by 8 weeks or so. With hay added, 9 to 10 weeks. (generally speaking, of course)

Before your first breeding, find a source for goat's milk. It's great as a milk replacer for the kits.(just in case) You don't need much. they drink like a tsp 2x a day.

growouts. You can leave the kits in with the does until time to butcher. Watch the boys to be sure you get them out by the time they reach puberty is all. That's around 12 weeks for most.

NZ or Cal? HAH! age old question. I have NZ 'cuz that's what was available. I'm very happy with them. I'm looking for a Cal to bring into the mix tho. Research consistently shows that the fastest growing, with the most meat to bone ratio, is a Cal buck and NZ doe cross. The NZ does make excellent mothers, while the Cals show a tendency to be more...finicky as mothers. (that statement is from researching the breeds, getting advice, and talking to breeders of meat rabbits...NOT from personal experience)

You can set up a pig feeder with hopper for the pellets, (or grains, should you eventually decide to go with grains and hay instead of pellets), and an auto waterer for the water. That makes life REALLY easy.

cold vs hot. Rabbits do NO do well in heat. They DO survive quite nicely in cold weather. Sounds like the cement floor and breeze is perfect. During the winter, just keep the drafts down and you should be fine. Might want to not breed for kindling during the worst month of winter OR summer. Less stress=healthier bunnies.

eta: hadn't thought about rats and snakes. right. maybe you can scrounge some sheet metal siding from a barn? put that down for the lower walls?

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Re: Newbie Questions

Post Number:#4  Unread postby kotapony » Tue May 25, 2010 10:28 am


Thank you both for the thoughts.

I do remember reading a couple posts about snakes and rats getting the rabbits. I'm not sure a good solution there, other than cross my fingers and hope. I've never seen a snake around the farm longer than a foot or so (and I seldom even see those), but that doesn't mean bigger ones aren't not here. And I know we have an abundance of rats. The rabbit area is right under where we keep our dairy calves, and is home to about 8 barn cats. The sad part is, I never see rat bodies around so I don't know how good of hunters any of the cats actually are. Most of the time it seems all they do is sit around and wait for me to feed them. I have a couple good hunters, but they spend most of their time in the dairy barn (maybe 50 feet away across the drive). I see rats there all the time, but have never seen or heard one around the calf barn. So my hope is the population there isn't as high, and that what rats there are would find an easier meal in the grain floating around the calves than in taking down a rabbit. I don't like not being proactive to protect the rabbits, and I can keep bait out in the area to help keep rats down. Although that doesn't help with snakes.

I do have plenty of tin floating around, and could probably come up with enough scrap to go around the bottom, but I wonder if that would block too much air flow. It is slick, but even if I put it on the outside of the chain link, could the rats/snakes still get up it? I did think about trying to wrap hardware cloth instead of chicken wire around the kennel, but that doesn't come cheap either. And to be effective, I'd have to wrap the entire structure (otherwise the rats would just climb right up and over it). I also thought about doing it instead of a kennel (stapling it to the posts and wall to keep it up), but I couldn't figure out how to do a door. And I also looked into building a frame, but sadly the cost of lumber any more comes out to a good bit more than I can find a used kennel for (if I can ever manage to be the first one to call - I missed out on the one I was hoping for again). The other side is even if I did save up for the hardware cloth, I'm not sure how to wrap it around the door of a kennel tight enough to seal. Which brings me back to building a pen. I might have to go back to rethinking that one again. It might work out if I started with a much smaller pen (like 8x8) and expanded over time as I saved up some funds. The hardware cloth should definitely have small enough holes to keep the buns safe from about anything I would think.

I thought really hard about letting the buck live with the colony full time, but until I feel more under control and do have a bigger space for them I decided I'm more comfortable knowing exactly when the does are bred so I know exactly how far along they are, and when to start watching really closely for problems. Maybe someday though. :)

The one nice thing about a really old farm is there is a TON of old junk (that is, "treasures" if you ask my husband) floating around that would make great tunnels and hides for the buns. And there's scrap lumber floating around everywhere to build nest boxes out of. I figure half the fun is watching the bunnies play in a big space, so they'll be plenty spoiled with various toys.

And oh dear - bump orphans to the top of the list of things I should have thought about and didn't. Here's a stupid question - will goat's milk freeze ok? We keep frozen colostrum on hand for the cows, and it keeps very well for about a year. I don't know of anyone around with goats, but I did see on a web site that some stores sell goat's milk and it could be used for orphans. I was wondering about buying a small quantity and freezing it to have on hand in emergency. The problem with the dairy is most of the time I can't drop everything and run the half hour to the nearest store that might actually have goat's milk. But if I could buy emergency rations to have on hand when needed it wouldn't be bad. Obviously I can't go buying things all the time, but if they'd keep around a year I could handle that.

I could get sucked in researching and thinking about this all day, but I need to head off and meet the farrier for the horses. Thank you all again for your help - you've given me some good new things to think about. :)

~Katie
~Katie

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Re: Newbie Questions

Post Number:#5  Unread postby Anntann » Tue May 25, 2010 2:59 pm


Goat's milk apparently freezes quite well. They (the vet type people) talk about freezing it in icecube trays, then popping them into a baggie in the freezer (replace every 6 months). Then when you need some, you can thaw just what you need.

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