Many Geheimnisse of the humble coney, and how to well grow them.
Here we go - after such a fanfarious (is that even a word?) introduction by Alas bin C, I'll have to work rather hard to live up to the hype. A few well-chosen words on rabbits follow.
(The passages below are reprinted with permission of the author, and are NOT to be used to create derivative works. If you wish to own a copy, they are available FREE at http://oftha.com/BFZCBII in e-book (epub) format. Please do go and take a look there.)
What They Are, Why They're Useful
Rabbits are often mistakenly called rodents in classification, but they are nothing in common with rodents at all. They are lagomorphs, an entirely different species on the tree. Rabbits are supreme populators and survivors, they can now be found from the edges of the permafrost to the deserts, and they thrive for a variety of reasons, most of which are also the reason they make such a superb farm animal.
One reason rabbits are such successes is that they breed - well, like rabbits... They can populate a region to the point of eating everything, the weakest animals starve, the strongest keep breeding and eating, and eventually, if conditions are right, they also displace all the other animals in that ecological niche.
Did I just mention that they keep eating? Because that brings me to their next "feature," which is that they will eat anything. Those two things make them a very useful meat animal for farm and survival/prep purposes.
The problem with rabbits that have grown lean and mean on eating just anything, is that they are too lean to provide a balanced diet for us. That led to a reputaqtion for rabbits not being a good source meat for survival situations. BUT...
If you feed the rabbits properly, they actually have fine meat with good fat content, and then the meat is fine for continuous consumption.
They're NOT Poultry
Rabbits are often classified with poultry in farming terms and meat processing terms. They're not, and keeping rabbits and birds together will result in your rabbits dying of coccidiosis. With 99% repeatability. Don't do it...
It's the bird poo that carries the coccidiosis bacteria, so a bit of feed sanitation will work wonders for the survival of your herd. Make sure that rabbit feed comes from pasture that's relatively free of birds (not just chickens, but pretty much any bird poo, harbors the germ) and bird excrement, and your rabbits will remain coccidiosis free.
(I might add that going the other way around is fine - chickens will not catch anything deadly from scratching in rabbit poo. So there's a recycling project.)
They're NOT Rats
As mentioned, rabbits are lagomorphs, and they share very few traits with rodents. They don't eat anything but vegetables, where rats will eat meat and dairy and eggs and anything at all. When I said rabbits will eat anything at the beginning of this book, I meant in the way of vegetation and dry stubbles. Sorry for raising your hopes.
As a survival food, even rats are a source of meat, but of course they will taste of what they eat, and due to their long association with humanity, rats are carriers of quite a few diseases that taek humans out quite effectively. Even once the meat is cooked... So while I could maybe grow nice healthy rats for my diet, ummm - no thanks...
They're Not The Magic Solution
Rabbits are prone to several diseases. In the wild, you have no idea sometimes, so there's yet another reason for farming them rather than hunting them. We fully exploit their sensitivity to myxomatosis and rabbit calici virus, by using this as a biological control mechanism against them.
(Well, in Australia, at any rate. The little bastards have munched their way through almost all the fertile pasture land here, almost ruining the farmers here in the early 1900's. You could say we don't like them in the wild very much...)
As mentioned, rabbits are also prone to coccidiosis, and a disease called pasturella which affects their respiratory system and eyes and causes snuffles and sometimes puffy eyes. Also, tularemia, which can be cruising along inside the rabbits and not show up until you despatch and butcher them.
Tularemia is generally passed to the person butchering the rabbit by direct contact with an open wound (easy to get while skinning and gutting 10 - 20 rabbits) and can cause all sorts of health complications, especially in a survival scenario. Mainly, infected wounds, but also some respiratory issues may arise from infection, and I wouldn't eat the meat.
I'd say that if you see anything amiss with a kindle of rabbits, reddish puffy eyes, nostrils, or genitalia (signs of myxo and RCV) then don't risk it, destroy them and burn them. If you see mottling on the liver (sign of tularemia) then ditto - destroy that kindle of rabbits also.
But I don't want to scare you off rabbits. I've bred literally hundreds of rabbits and in four years, had four that had myxo (and that was partly my own beginner's bad luck) and one with tularemia. The rest were healthy and delicious.
The Best Situation For Rabbits
I know that rabbits live in holes in the ground, and as far as people are concerned, that should be that - right? Well, it's natural, but it's not ideal. It's how rabbits escape, and we don't want them to escape, we want them to remain close to hand.
Also, the rabbit's natural parasites live near the ground. Fleas carry myxo and RCV, bird droppings carry coccidiosis, and the proximity of all those rabbits in their burrows and feeding grounds exposes them to each other's bodily secretions and wastes, which forms another vector for diseases to spread among a herd. (A "herd" is, by the way, the correct term for a group of rabbits.)
People make hutches for rabbits, and put down netting as a flooring to prevent them digging tunnels out. But that still exposes the rabbits to all the parasites, and frankly, I wouldn't eat a dirt-floor rabbit any more than I'd take a risk on hunted wild rabbit. (In Australia, because we infect our rabbits so mercilessly, I think by all means shoot wild rabbits, but feed them to the dog and don't risk eating an infected one.)
So you see where this is leading... I've (aside from my rookie mistake that cost me a doe and three kittens) always made raised cages for my rabbits, around a metre (3ft) off the ground, with wire netting (hardware cloth) sides and a weldmesh floor (19mm x 19mm x 2.5mm) because that seems to be the best way. You may find other solutions, but I'll describe the various rabbit sheds I've had and the advantages of each.
Most important thing to remember is that rabbits have fur. They can stand cold temperatures much better than heat. I've had good breeding does die of heart failure because of heat. I now prefer to make my enclosures cool and dry rather than windproof and hot.
Rabbits are professionally raised in sheds. A shed isolates the animals from the worst weathers, from many parasites and predators, and provides you with a convenient and low workload way to raise rabbits.
The best shed for rabbits has a dirt floor. Means less smell and less cleaning to do, and also is far cheaper to arrange than concrete or whatever. The best shed I ever made for my rabbits had a basic timber frame with just the posts set in concrete, a very basic roof made of old corrugated iron.
The walls were open from the ground to the base of the rabbit enclosures, which were as indicated, a metre off the ground, and then had corrugated iron from that level to within 10cm of the roof, allowing an air gap at the top.
The section from 1 metre to the ground, I later stapled wire netting to keep predators out and also to prevent a rabbit escaping if I turned my back and accidentally left a door ajar. (Which did happen a few times, and the netting saved the day.)
The reason for the dirt floor being better is also simple - on cement floors, the rabbit dung and urine mix to a slurry that begins to give off ammonia fast. And rabbits with their respiratory systems, are sensitive to ammonia so twice weekly cleanings would be the order of the day, with water washdowns each time, wasting time, effort, and water.
On a dirt floor, on the other hand, the urine seeps away, the ammonia is converted by soil bacteria, and cleanups can be left as far as six to eight weeks apart without affecting the health of the rabbits. Sometimes, less IS more...
Rabbits are a scrappy lot, too. Bucks will fight if there are females around, does will fight if they need the nesting box or have to share an enclosure with another doe, and injured animals are a source of infection in your rabbitry. It's far better to calculate how many rabbits you really want to have breeding (and be in control of the breeding cycle) and then plan enclosures accordingly.
I've found that I need to plan for three kinds of enclosures - a buck box for each breeding buck, a doe box for each breeding doe and her kittens, and a grower box for each kindle of kittens I want to have growing to despatch weight at a time.
Each doe can in one year produce up to seven kindles of (generally) eight kittens at a time, and each kindle has to grow to despatching size for about four months. That means that for every doe you consider breeding, you will need three, or two grower boxes at least, or else breed the doe on a "hyperfertile" cycle. (Of which, more later in the "Breeding Considerations" chapter.)
One buck can service a doe a week at need, but it's better to rest them for a bit longer as well. Also, some bucks will be better than others, so it's worth having a choice. For me, the ideal size shed was one with two bucks, four does, and three grower pens.
All the pens shared a common construction, as mentioned, wire netting sides, a weldmesh floor to allow waste to drop through, and wire netting tops. The pens were all made 80cm deep and 80cm tall, and were placed side by side at the same level so the rabbits could see one another.
I used long common rails attached to the shed uprights at the back and supported on legs at the front edges, this meant I only had to put the weldmesh floor panels down in straight runs, make separating walls, and the entire front came off each box to form the door. This simplifies construction and makes a rabbit shed an easy weekend project.
The "napkin sketch" in the image appendix shows the layout and sizes I used, and which worked perfectly well for an all year around production cycle. Basically, each grower box was two and a half metres long, and arranged as the sides of a "U" shape, with a buck's box at each corner, and the doe's boxes are arranged in an island in the centre.
Doe and buck boxes are 1.5m long. The height is arranged so that rabbits can sit right up, the length and width arranged so they can stretch out and be comfortable. The grower boxes are deliberately made long so the young growers can get exercise and build some fine muscle tone.
The thick wires specified in the weld mesh (2.5mm thick at least, 19mm x 19mm squares at largest) and the opening size, are specified because they have specific purposes. The thick wire prevents rabbits from cutting their feet open. Any injury to the animal is a potential vector for illness and infections.
The use of 19mm x 19mm openings is also simple - any larger and kittens will get their legs caught or even fall through, and that can lead to kitten deaths. Any smaller mesh hole size and the droppings will not fall through, and begin building up and forming a place for parasites and germs to take hold.
While you could use wooden slats, be aware that rabbits will chew through those. Also, I use a lit bundle of paper to "fire cleanse" the floor in between uses, and that is definitely not cool with wooden construction...
Watering And Feeding Arrangements
Water and food arrangements are up to your particular resources, but be aware that if the food is made available in a way that the rabbit can scratch or dig it, they will, and seeing the floor is mesh, that can mean a lot of wasted feed. I found that making a manger or crib arrangement on the common walls using more wire netting was a pretty good way to provide green and dry hay feeds, while beetroot tins nailed to a foot square of heavy board made good feeders for pelleted feeds, as the rabbits couldn't dig in those and couldn't lift them to tip them.
Water was always supplied via nipples and a drum of water at roof height. Again, these arrangements will have to vary depending on your resources. I've seen good watering systems made with PVC pipes, with tins, and with bowls. The important things to watch out for are that rabbits like to pee where they drink and excrete where they eat. This will be explained in the "Feeding Rabbits" chapter.
As a design consideration, it means that you need to prevent rabbits fouling their water, getting feed dropping into it, and tipping it over. A continuous-flow system with one central barrel saves a lot of filling of water bottles, but one leak (or damaged watering bowl in a box) can mean the barrel is emptied and all the rabbits go dehydrated.
These are design considerations I leave to you. Even the "on demand" watering nipple system I used was prone to being compromised, until I wised up. In the summer, some of the more enterprising does figured out that if you lay under the watering nipple and rose up, you could jam the nipple with your head or back, and have delicious cool water running over you and keeping you cool. Needless to say, it turns out that two smart-ass does can empty a 200 litre water drum in about six hours...
When I realised, I started putting fine mist sprays into the shed for hot summer days and turning them on for about five minutes every hour. I also made wire "guard rings" for the nipples that meant they could no longer be jammed open by the smart bunnies. But all these things took time and learning, often the hard way.
The last thing to consider is the nesting boxes. Depending how you're planning to breed them, you'll need one for each doe. The standard nesting box is something about 35cm x 35cm x 70cm, with an opening somewhere large enough for the doe to enter. I've found that there are several design considerations and improvements that can be made to make the boxes more successful.
For a start, a hole at each end of one side is better than just one hole at one end - the doe feels much safer knowing there's a "bolt-hole" she can escape out of if the one she entered by is blocked.
Then there's the height of the "sill" under the hole. Make it too low and the kittens will fall out before they're ready, and since the doe won't take any care of them, they will generally die of hypothermia away from their siblings. So make the bottom edge of the hole at least 10cm up, and not more than 20cm, as that can lead to the kittens being trapped and unable to get out. (You guessed it - there's more about this particular procedure in a lter chapter, too! %)
Nesting boxes should be capable of being firmly attached so the doe won't knock it over or shift it, otherwise you'll find the nesting box jammed under the "jam-proof" water nipple, filling with waterm and drowned kittens... Hasn't happened to me yet, but only because by that stage I was getting wise to how ingenious rabbits can be...
And nesting boxes need to be removed at any times other than when a doe has kittens, because otherwise you'll find it getting used for a latrine.
Accommodations, The Conclusion
What I've described is a rabbit shed that can be built in a pre-SHTF scenario, but would probably be a bit harder to source all the materials post. I suggest in any case that if you're going to do this, do it right now and grow rabbits now, because it will otherwise take four months to come up to production.
Scrounged local materials should form part of your plans, and will dictate what you build, how many rabbits you can house, etc.
The most important considerations are covered in this chapter, being the eye towards ease of cleaning and caring for your rabbits, the protection from heat and parasites, and the need to provide water and feed in such a way that the rabbits can't foul it.
After all, if rabbits are to form a part of an off grid survival strategy, they need to be as little trouble and take up as little time each day as possible, to allow you time for other duties.
Feeding And Breeding
Two Interlinked Activities, For Rabbits...
I'll tackle these together because it turns out there are a lot of synergies with rabbits...
First, the matter of feeding them. The recommended balance of feed is 32% protein, 68% fibre / trace elements / etc pretty much as for sheep or cattle, with a few liberties and extra requirements. The feed has to challenge their teeth as rabbit's teeth keep growing and need to be constantly worn down. Calcium is a very important part of a rabbit diet, as are dried grasses (hay) and such a wide range of feedstocks that you'll be amazed.
Pelleted feeds are available now, but have several drawbacks. They are expensive, for a start, and of course in any post-SHTF scenario, will become impossible to obtain. The quality of these pelleted feeds also varies widely from manufacturer to manufacturer, and even from month to month depending on what's cheapest. Also, some manufacturers put antibiotics and other chemicals in whether you want them or not, and you don't really get much choice in the matter of whether they tell you or not...
Pelleted feeds also don't provide much in the way of real nutrition for the rabbits, and that means poor muscle definition, poor flavour. That's not so important for the breeder does and bucks, but a distinctly lacklustre result for the growers. Also, while the literature all says 100g of pelleted feed per rabbit per day, I found that they easily ate twice that amount in order to thrive.
Also, work out the cost - with only one doe raising a kindle at any time, that is still around 30 - 60 rabbits around the shed at all times, and that's about of 3kg - 12kg of feed a day. At around $2/kilo that soon adds up. So I tend to avoid the pellets as a main feed source, and serve it as a supplement or not at all.
So what are good feeds for rabbits? Well, I found tagasaste (tree lucerne or lucerne tree as it's known as) is a good feed stock but you need to either have a stand of them already grown or be prepared to grow a sizeable area of them. Rabbits love the leaves, and will strip the bark off branches as a bonus, thus controlling their teeth.
The same is true for leaves and branches of many fruit trees, the Australian Lilly Pilly (aka syzigium australis) and camellia leaves branches and flowers. Dried leaves and branches of any of these are also good, because rabbits as I said will eat these windfalls quite happily in the wild. Grapes, grape leaves, and grape vine clippings are not wasted either.
Dock leaves, dandelions, pretty much any herbs you can grow or find in quantity, kale, cos (romaine) lettuces, cabbages, any grass clippings, carrots, apples, pumpkin, broccoli, and hay or straw, are all grist to the mill. Carrot tops, radish tops, beet tops, trashed pumpkin, melon, and cucumber vines and leaves, and most other such garden waste, can all be fed to rabbits if you use a few simple tricks I'll shortly give you.
Kale and silver beet, lucerne hay, and other high-calcium greens, are important to nursing does and to the kittens for growth. Herbs provide trace elements that rabbits need. Fruits and carrots shouldn't be fed in large quantities because the sugars can make rabbits quite ill and they can die from a case of the scours, and some fruits like avocadoes are toxic to rabbits.
Please see the section "Feed Facts" for specifics of feedstocks and so forth.
So What Are The Tips And Tricks?
Well, here are two or three things to learn about rabbit digestive systems:
Rabbits have two types of poo. They have the dry ("fecal") pellets you seen in quantity, and they have what are known as "cecal" pellets as well. The dry pellets are mainly waste, with (as I'll postulate) a further purpose in making rabbits such successful feeders. The cecal pellets are "night pellets" that you will rarely see because rabbits eat them again right away, often right from their anus. Sounds creepy enough, yeah. But it serves a purpose.
Rabbits have a very rapid digestive system. They use calcium the way a sponge soaks up water, it and their feed goes through them very fast, and in the process it drags all the fine bacteria along out of the cecum, meaning that if they don't re-ingest those cecal pellets, they lose the ability to efficiently digest their plant celluloses, and starve to death while eating absolute bucketloads of feed. This is why a case of the scours is usually fatal, because the bacteria are flushed out, and the rabbit, never seeing a cecal pellet to reingest, never gets the bacteria back. I have a fix for this that will often work and bring the rabbit back from the brink. See the appendices for the Rabbit Remedy.
Rabbits like to excrete where they eat for a reason. I've watched my rabbits deal with a new plant in a particularly ingenious way. Is it toxic? How do rabbits check to se if it's safe to eat? Turns out, they have a working procedure...
One of the rabbits will sniff the new breed of food plant and then take a mouthful and hop way and eat other feed. The other rabbits seemed to sense this in some mysterious way, and left the new feed source away. But then I spotted the "mysterious" signal - the first rabbit left several dry fecal pellets near the plant. The others could smell that this pellet had nothing in common with the plant, so obviously someone in the herd was "testing" the food. The next day, if the same rabbit is still alive, it goes back for a longer forage. It again leaves a few pellets, which tell the other rabbits how their cousin is adapting to the new feed. By the third day, the original tester leaves a lot of pellets around, and apparently they must contain any altered bacteria that the other rabbits might need, because they all go and start picking up pellets and eating the new food.
I don't have facilities to test these theories, but I do have observations based around my own herds' behaviours and can make intelligent guesses at why they might do these things.
Should I Feed Breeders And Growers Differently? This isn't really an option for my method of breeding rabbits. Conventional wisdom says that you should feed the breeders pellets only and conserve the flavourful feeds for growers, but as you'll see later in this section, I rely on all the rabbits being able to tolerate and thrive on the same foods.
Mama Bunnies And Kittens. The other use for cecal pellets is in the weaning process. Kittens are born with gut bacteria adapted totally for digesting rabbit milk. The does only feed the kittens once or twice a day, for a maximum of a few minutes each time. The kittens must get all their nutrition to double their weight every week, and grow hair and teeth, from this miniscule amount of milk.
Partly, this is due to the extreme formula of rabbit milk, a formula we can't duplicate artificially it's so rich and complex. And partly, it's because the gut bacteria are so well adapted to digesting that milk. And that leads to the weaning problem: when it's time to eat solids, the kittens don't have the necessary bacteria to digest them.
So what nature has arranged is that when the kittens show up above ground, the doe feels she must drop cecal pellets all over the place for the kittens, to inoculate their guts with the bacteria needed to digest the local feedstuffs. The kittens smell these and start eating them, and in the process their gut bacteria is replaced, bit by bit. Their mother's milk no longer satisfies, whereas solid foods do, and the weaning is accomplished quite gently.
That gives us some strategies for introducing new feeds. Introduce the new feed to one rabbit's diet, give it two to three days to take, and then introduce the feed and some of that first rabbit's fecals and cecals to the other rabbits. You can of course also immediately see the problem with wire mesh floors, as any "poo signals" that rabbits might wish to share, get lost because everything falls through.
So any rabbit that a new food gets introduced to, should have a few thicknesses of newspaper laid down to cover the floor. Leave a few sacrificial sheets as well, because they like to play with newspaper and tear it up into shreds and nibble on it. If you only use newsprint or butcher's paper, this won't affect them. Avoid glossy colourful papers and magazines, these aren't as safe.
The procedure then, is to "carpet" a bunny's cage, introduce the new food, and wait a few days. At that stage, gather all the feces and ceces that the rabbit has dropped, mix with water and allow to form a medium liquid, and administer a few ml of this to each other rabbit. I use a syringe body for this, because that makes it easy to dose each rabbit.
All I can say is that newspaper is a much under-valued rabbitry resource... %) The food test rabbit will eventually shred the paper and it will fall through to the ground, where it can be incorporated in whatever process you use to utilise the droppings and shreds of hay and greens.
Some Breeding Tips Also - and this is IMPORTANT - is the effect that wire floored cages have on weaning. Follow me through on this. The kittens are born and have very no bacteria to process solid food. They do howbver have bacteria superbly honed to digest the doe's milk. So after about ten days to a fortnight, in normal circumstances they'd show themselves above ground, the doe would begin to drop cecal pellets for them rich in bacteria specialised in digesting the local foods - and the kittens would normally thrive.
But in a cage, the problem is that mum's cecal pellets also fall through the floor and are lost. Kittens are reduced to licking up the traces that adhere to wires and surfaces, and you'd expect them not to thrive particularly well. That in fact is the case. Commercial rabbit farmers expect to lose several kittens due to weaning, and another few in the growing out process. Proving once again that we outsmart ourselves time after time.
The answer is of course simple - when the kittens are seven days old, lay newspaper over the floor of the doe's cage, five layers or more, and again provide a few sacrificial sheets of newspaper, as the doe will most likely shred the paper and use it to fill the nest with. I've kept weaning losses to one kitten in every two to four litters just with this simple trick.
This way, when the kittens are born, they will not get legs entrapped (an often overlooked source of weaner mortality - they literally die of fear with their leg caught) and they will get every crumb of the doe's probiotic cecals to help them adjust to solid food.
As long as they've had one gutful of the new bacteria, I've had kittens as young as ten days thrive and grow to healthy fryers if the mother should happen to die. (This doe only had four kittens, was old, and suffered a heart attack from heat stress when the kittens were ten days old. The kittens thrived because they'd come out early due to a design issue with the nesting box.)
The issue with the nesting box? I'd placed the entry too low, and the kittens tumbled out at seven days, and, acting on ancient instinct, the doe began dropping cecals which the kittens nibbled. I put them back in the nesting box and raised the entry by tacking a piece of cardboard across the lower half, but the kittens actually scrambled over that because they now had the hunger for greens. This is how I worked out how important the probiotic effect of those cecals was.
Growing Them Up. The average kitten doubles its weight every week for the first four to six weeks, after which growth slows down. If you start from large healthy parents, you'll have table-ready growers at about 14 weeks of age. At this stage they are referred to as "fryers" because they will be at their peak. By about 16 weeks onwards, they will be becoming sexually mature and the flesh will harden up. At this stage onwards they are referred to as "roasters."
The best way to grow them fast is to give them a long cage to run in, with "perch boards" around some edges so they can jump up and down and generally have room to exercise. They should have taken in their mother's bacteria and be thriving on all the feeds that are given. This is why the does should be getting all the same foods as the growers will be getting, so that the growers don't need to adjust to a new food.
The best time to move young growers to the grower runs is when they're five weeks of age. Acting again on instinct, the doe will start harrying the kittens from about four weeks of age to get them to leave so she can have the next kindle. Remember that the gestation period is five weeks, and in the wild, the doe would have mated within hours of kindling.
Switching To New Foods. This is the tricky one, but if you've been following everything so far, you'll already be forming a plan similar to mine...
Firstly, introduce the food to one rabbit for a few days, save their fecals and cecals and make an oral probiotic inoculation for the other rabbits. Now dose the bucks and does with this, and any weaned but not yet separated growers. If you can't avoid feeeding existing growers the new food stock, then inoculate them too, but the best plan for them is to keep them on the old food regime until they're at despatching age. This should hopefully reduce any dip in their conversion rates.
I also like to feed the bucks the same as all the others because it simplifies feeding time, and also there are trace elements in the green feeds that improve the health (and thus breeding success) of all the rabbits.
A Word On Doe Fertility Cycles. Does have no equivalent of the menstrual cycle that other animals have. The buck induces an ovulation by being quite rapid and powerful in his mating. This is called "shock ovulation" and is another reason why they are such successful breeders.
The doe is, however, in a state much more sensitive to shock ovulation as soon as she's kindled, which is why she's generally pregnant again in the wild before the kittens are a day old. The second such peak sensitivity occurs 21 days after kindling, and these two events are known as the days of "hyperfertility."
If you intend to breed the doe and get best performance, the ideal situation is to sned her to the buck three weeks after kindling. By this stage, the kittens are already eating greens so they will not miss a milk feed for a day, the doe is on her hyperfertile day, and she's had a rest. At this rate, though, a doe will only be an asset for a year to eighteen months before she needs retiring.
A better scheme is to not worry about the hyperfertile days, and instead wait until the kittens are fully weaned at five weeks before putting the doe with a buck again.
A Word On Importance Of Doe Health. Much more important than you might think, the actual physical health and fitness of the doe has a direct bearing on the success of your rabbitry venture. If the doe is vibrantly healthy and unstressed, she can produce a kindle very easily. The kittens will be of good weight when born, which (remembering they double their weight every week for the first few weeks) can add up to a sizeable final weight difference.
The doe will also be able to stand and feed the kittens for longer, meaning they will get better nutrition at the most critical stages of their growing. She'll resist diseases and failure to thrive much better, and in mating, she'll be more likely to become pregnant after the first mating, with the other matings that day serving more to ensure that ALL eggs are fertilised.
A Word On Importance Of Buck Health. The buck (remember "shock ovulation" above) needs to be vigorous in his mating. That means he has to be in good condition, and that means actually exercising bucks where possible. I've used a fenced area of the garden to exercise rabbits, and this factor alone I reckon increases your success rate by up to tenfold.
The other thing is that in order to mate powerfully and successfully, the buck has to be able to hold the doe in the first place. Remember me saying they can't see directly behind them, either? Well, the doe is rightly nervous about letting anything into the blind spot behind her. And if you've doen the right thing and allowed her to exercise and get buff, then the buck is going to need to be pretty strong to hold onto her and mate.
It can be seen that exercise is important. The hard thing to balance is how much time do you have to devote to this in the average month. Most rabbits in commercial farms get maybe eight hours of attention over their entire lifespan, and they produce adequate meat, although a bit lacking in texture and flavour.
More importantly, the rabbits themselves deserve more attention to their wellbeing. I suggest that if you're in a homesteading situation, that you involve the children in the exercising of the adult rabbits. Since these can expect a three to six year lifespan, there won't be quite as much of an impact to the youngsters, but they'll gain an understanding of where their food comes from, and you'll only need to manage feedings and recording of figures.
As children my sibs and I had charge of chickens and orphan lambs that became table meat and eggs, and we understood perfectly well the need to care for the animals with love, but accept that their place would one day be in the freezer. I venture to say that a lot of people in my generation missed this lesson, and are now the poorer for it.
How To Get The Mating. ALWAYS put the doe in with the buck. Does are the ones that get territorial over nests and burrows, and she will hurt the buck if she finds him suddenly "invading" her space. An exception to this is once a pair of rabbits have been together a few times and have been able to see and scent one another regularly, quite often the doe will relent to that buck being in her territory.
But don't rely on this unless you have permanently assigned pairs, because when the buck mates another doe and gets her scent on him, all bets are off, and you risk having the buck injured if you try to then put him in with another doe.
It's always better to put the doe in with the buck, and to make sure the buck and his box have had time to lose some of the scent of any other doe. I generally let a buck have a fortnight's rest at least, before I put him with another doe. It's not because of stamina problems, it's because of the scent / aggression problem.
How Long Can They Live And Breed? If going on best practices as above, a doe can provide good service for about two years after maturity, that is, she can be useful up to three years of age. The harder you breed a doe, the shorter her fertile lifespan will be, so you may find that you have to retire a hard-worked doe at one year nine months or even less.
Bucks similarly have a peak performance period and then go downhill. A good rule of thumb is to despatch the breeders after about two years of breeding, and replace them with a preferably non-related pure bred. (See a bit further on, "Breeding Strategy For A Small Operation.")
So expect about three years of total out of any rabbit from kindling to despatch. In the wild, this is actually the average normal life expectancy of a rabbit, for reasons of stress, pressure, insufficiently nourishing food, and predation.
An animal kept in a shed situation can quite often approach five to six years of life expectancy, and you may find that your animals still breed effectively at this age - what I'm recommending above is the peak productivity timing as established by Australia's CSIRO in their "Crusader" rabbit project.
A rabbit kept as an indoors pet can reach eight years or more of age, so if you're careful not to introduce too many stressors (hunger, aggression, crowding, heat, thirst, etc) then I can't see any reason for not breeding the animals for up to five years. Expect lower kindle sizes though.
I got a lot of my initial information and data from the CSIRO Crusader project. It served as a good starting point, and also gave me some interesting facts about farmed rabbits. There was also one video an the ABC TV site from a Landline show devoted to rabbit farming, which made me aware of how much ignorance there is about rabbit farming.
For example (and I'll probably hark back to these things at various points in this book) it seems that farmers who put in rabbit sheds did so as almost a "hobby" level exercise, albeit a very expensive one. They imported stainless steel cages from Spain, built aquaponics systems for feeding them, and in one case the entire operation was based around artificial insemination because of the "lack of breeding success" the farmer felt they were having. Almost without fail, these farmers didn't blink an eye when reporting that they lost up to 50% of their product before despatch day.
A single cage / pen / box (whatever your terminology) in that highly expensive Spanish system cost around five hundred dollars. It was a bit small for the rabbits, offered no advantages over a homebuilt solution, and did not increase breeding or growing success, because there was no provision for different sized boxes for different rabbits. The pens I build at home cost me around $70 per pen, which includes a better water system than the imports.
The man who had an artificial insemination laboratory built at his rabbit shed, probably wasted several tens of thousands of dollars on that when he could have spent a few thousand on more suitable boxes where the animals could exercise properly and thus be able to mate successfully.
The chap with the aquaponics was probably the closest in his approach, but he was a very small producer, his boxes were too close to the ground, and while he claims he was having salmonella problems with the aquaponic greens, I suspect that soon after the video was filmed, would have found that he had a myxomatosis outbreak...
What's All That About Scent And Socialising Then? Well, rabbits are a herd animal. They like knowing there are other rabbits around them. This is why I recommend having all the boxes on the same level, with only wire netting between, so that the rabbits can get to know one another and have the feeling of being in a good sized herd.
Rabbits have a strange synthesis of sight and scent. Because of the placement of their eyes. Like many prey animals, the eyes are placed at the sides so that they can see predators approaching from all around the sides. Because of that, they can't have stereo vision, because they can't see directly in front of their nose. (Nor directly behind their butts either, incidentally.) Because of this, their nose is the only way they can identify what's directly in front of them, and scent is their primary sense.
I've often had the situation where I've handled a new doe, then gone to pick up one of the regular does, and been lunged at and nipped. They know who I am, they know that I feed them and am kind to them, but the sense of smell overrides what their eyes are telling them and they react. This is why a buck can be attacked if you don't give time for the scent of other does to abate between matings.
Once the does and bucks know each other's scents, you'll find that things get much easier in the shed. Matings won't be as stressful, and even putting two does with a buck in rapid succession won't be quite as dangerous. The use of "poo probiotic" inoculations also helps in this process.
I'd go so far as to say that you should do this by collecting fecal and cecal pellets from each breeder in turn and inoculating all the other breeders on a regular basis. Make sure the rabbits are healthy so that you don't spread disease between them all, mix several samples together at a time, and inoculate all the breeders, then repeat this four to six weeks later using samples from three or four other breeders, and always inoculate new rabbits ASAP and then use their pellets to inoculate the rest of the shed once they've proven to be healthy.
Rabbits thrive better, convert feed better, breed better, and grow better, if they are in a herd environment. Because of their eyesight being somewhat limited in two directions, they feel more at ease if they have othe ranimals "watching their backs" as it were. They become accustomed to one another's scents and sounds, and all these things serve to increase contentment and peace in the shed.
Since a great deal of rabbits' communication is via the scent and content of their fecals and cecals, the concept of probiotic inoculations should not turn you off, and is important for the health and wellbeing of the animals. Rabbit feces doesn not smell bad, is clean and easy to to pick up and make into a probiotic inoculation, and the benefits should outweigh your prejudices.
Probiotics should be gathered, mixed, and administered within an hour of production. The bacteria are not long lived outside the rabbit gut, and need to be administered alive.
Breeding Strategy For A Small Operation. I've found that the best breeding rabbits are found in the NZ White, California, and British Giant breeds. In particular, running British Giant (aka Welsh Giant or Flemish Giant in some parts of the world) bucks with NZ White or California Grey does works well, as does running Cali Grey bucks over NZ White or Cali Grey does results in young with a lot of hybrid vigour, that grow well and are quite resilient.
The best is BG / NZW, followed by BG / CG, then CG / NZW. You don't want to breed crossed offspring with each other or with pure breeds, so all the hybrids are going to destined for despatch.
Every so often, though, you will want more purebreeds to take the place of ageing breeders, or to swap with other breeders to keep blood lines from inbreeding. For this reason, I've found it handy to keep two pairs of each breed, meaning the shed needs to have extra space for a few more boxes.
The trick is to crossbreed most of the time, then do a straight pure breed kindle every year or so. The crossbreeds will all end up in the freezer, while of the purebreed kindles, you'll pick the fastest growing buck and doe(s) that you want to keep, and despatch the rest as fryers.
It's important to keep track of parentage, because you don't want directly related rabbits to breed from. So do keep records, and remember which animals are from which parents.
Then, as a buck gets a bit old for the job, or a doe starts producing progressively smaller and smaller kindles, you can replace them with young animals just entering maturity, and keep breeding rates up.
Some kind of records will be invaluable for this, it can be as simple as a blackboard in the shed or a notebook in your office. But you can record which bucks and does produce the biggest, fastest-growing, largest numbers of successful kindles this way, and then select the best of breed buck and doe to breed future sires and dams from, and put the best bucks and best does to work producing healthier better rabbits for you.
Things I recommend you record in the book are the date of EVERY mating, kindling, and first emerging from the nesting box, the number, weight, and combined weight of each kindle at one week, five weeks, and 12 weeks, for both hybrid table rabbits and breeder stock rabbits.
If you're particularly fond of figures, you could also record the amounts of feed given to the kittens once they are separated from the doe, and how much weight they gain on it. This gives you a conversion efficiency ratio, which means you can also select for the parents that consistently produce kittens that consume the least feed to gain the most weight. Why this is important is that you can stretch your resources further, and reduce costs, while producing more protein for your table.
A blackboard is actually much more useful than you can imagine - I had a year planner whiteboard, but it was the single most used piece of equipment. I could write the dates of matings on it, then pencil in when I expected the doe to kindle so that I could put the nesting box in at the right time. (Too early and she'll use it as a latrine, too late and she may not trust ot fully and try to build a mound nest outside.)
The number and weights of kittens could be written in as I weighed them. And I found that while I would have really liked to have two or more years' worth of records, a year was plenty to allow me to predict which bucks / does were the best producers and the best new young purebreds.
Exercising - Importance For All Facets Of The Operation. As I stressed, the rabbits need to be in a healthy environment. It's important not to just stick to the government guidelines for how much space each rabbit needs. They need to be able to run 10 metres at a burst, or longer. They need to have this space for at least an hour a month, preferably much more often than that.
Accordingly, I have a section of the garden fenced with netting that's turned in at the bottom, which prevent them digging out too easily, and I have a load of pet crates that I can use to take rabbits to the exercise area. I tend to let each doe run with their kittens, then each batch of growers, then the bucks.
This achieves a whole lot more than buff healthy rabbits. Because they leave their scent all over the exercise area, they all learn a lot more about each other, and so tend to be more relaxed and peaceful in the shed. Because they all poo in the area, they share bacteria and scent that way. And they have a chance to build up strength, stamina, and immunities.
I don't mean to come across as implying that commercial rabbit farmers are clueless - they most definitely are not - nor do I mean to imply that they didn't do their research before venturing into rabbitry. But there is only so much information easily available to farmers, there is no common pool of experience to draw on, and what information there is, is often patchy and incomplete.
Also, I do believe that many of the rabbit farmers only put up their sheds as an experiment to see if they could produce another income stream for minimal effort, and while the documentation available would have seemed to suggest that, it in fact isn't so. There's hard work in every venture.
All of the above sections are all well and good, but if you want to really hone your rabbit farming skills, I've made two spreadsheets that, while basic, will give you enough facts and figures to streamline your entire operation. These spreadsheets are also available wherever you downloaded this e-book from, and are also free. Check back to the site often to also find any new spreadsheets or fact sheets I may have made available since publication of this e-book.
I'd like to point out that other prepper / farming / gardening / book publishing type sites generally charge for the information I make available for free, and definitely they charge for tools like spreadsheets that serve such a useful function. I'd say that if you were to try and obtain these books from another publisher you could be up for $25 and up to $80 depending on how greedy those publishers were. Since I give this all to you for free, I'd appreciate if you found the donations link at the bottom of the page (or in the frontisplate and endplate of this book) and leave me a donation. I have worked hard to produce all of this information for you and people like you.
That's all for now - the rest of the book will be posted here when it is finished.