Last Thursday we discussed factory and pet home suggestions for raising rabbits, and some complications for what we were going for. Today I am going to be writing about pasture raising, and colony raising and concluding with what we want to do, and why.
Pasture raising a rabbit is not like pasture raising a cow, it isn't out of a cage wandering in a field and eating grass. It is in a movable pen called an Ark. I don't know who pioneered this first, but the one who one most often hears about with it is Joe Salitin of Polyface Farm. His operation is one of the big ones that we drew inspiration from, especially involving the rabbits and chickens sharing space in one way or another. Here you see the movable pens that his rabbits forage in and their Raken as well as some information on that.
What Does It Requre?
Pasture raising requires substantial pasture land with good grass for the rabbits to eat, and movable shelters like the one pictured in the link above. In a lot of ways the pasture raised method is what we really would like to do. It is very sustainable, it is land friendly with the rabbit droppings fertilizing the soil quite well, and it is good for the rabbits as long as the pens are well built. However it does have some issues that make it a no go for us.
The biggest issue with pasture raising for us is that our total cleared land space is relatively small. While we do have 6.7 total acres of land, all but about 1 or less acre of it is cleared. Of that cleared land most of it is on a hillside that is prohibitive to use an ark on.
It is hard to convey the slope that we have right up to our house in most pictures, but trust me, rabbits would slide right to the bottom.
The other problem is that there are few rabbit lines bred to live on pasture grass. Fewer still are bred to live on the random assortment of grass, low growing forest plants, and strawberries we have in our yard. Our yard is not as much a pasture as it is a rough clearing in the forest. Beyond the what is in our clearing problem the issue of survival rate of the first generation to live on pasture is concerning to us. We are investing a decent amount of money into this project and we can't afford a mass failure the first time, so we have to aim for something that is more likely to be a first time success. In the future if we can clear the land and get good grass, pasture raising is something we would like to consider though.
Colony raising is the practice of having the rabbits living in an enclosed area free to dig and live within that are as one group. This particular option is the source of much debate, and has its ups and downs. The first and most obvious disadvantage to colony living for rabbits is the hugely rapid spread of disease. Rabbit diseases are passed less through the air, and more through direct contact with other rabbits. When they are all one colony you have very little window to catch diseases before they spread. As new rabbit owners, the lady of the house and myself don't know if we would be able to catch things in time.
The biggest and most obvious advantage to colony raising is that many rabbits do like to live that way. The important thing to note, make sure that if you intend to colony raise your rabbits that you are certain that they are descended from European stock. European rabbits are colony dwellers, American rabbits are solitary. As a colony they tend to be quite happy and form their own social structure. The down side to that from a meat breeding perspective is that it is hard to determine the productivity of a particular doe, and it is impossible to accurately record the results of particular breedings, and you can't plan which rabbits will breed if they all live together.
Other disadvantages of colony raising include catching your slaughter rabbits. I've heard that once you get used to it it doesn't take too long to do, and you can reliably get the rabbit you want. I'm sure that's true, but it seems a bit daunting to me. This method also would require that we regularly dig out the warrens to deal with the waste chamber in the colony because during winter they will all go in one place below ground. If left it can cause health problems for the colony because in the wild they'd move. Finally for our purposes chickens will kill small kits if they can get to them. This means that either chickens and rabbits have to be in separate runs, or we have to accept a loss rate in the kits from the chickens which I am not comfortable with.
Financially this option is in a lot of ways the worst of all worlds for us. We'd have to have two runs which is not cheap, still have to have rabbit cages for when I was clearing out the winter warrens, and we'd still be feeding pellets which would lose all of the benefits that pasture raising would give. We'd also be dealing with a higher mortality rate, and likely more medications.
Our Conclusion (In Progress)
To come to our final conclusion on rabbit housing we factored in information from as many places as we could to find a good way for the rabbits to live while being functional for a meat operation. We will discuss feeding and other things at another time, this is just housing.
Our Principals For Housing:
* Rabbits need room to move both for their mental and physical health.
* Being on a wire cage bottom has significant benefits for the rabbits health through immediate removal of their waste, but they do need a place to rest off of wire, even if they are well bred.
* Rabbits should have out time to run around, and as long as kits aren't too young they can share space with the chickens in the run.
* Breeding females will live in hutches large enough for them to stay with their young comfortably with enough space until weaning.
What does this mean?
We are going to be housing the rabbits in roofed outdoor hutches inside the chicken run. The hutches will be raised off the ground and will thus help protect the rabbits from predation by our abundant wildlife, and have an enclosed area to allow them to get out of any sideways blowing weather. With the hutches off the ground the droppings will mostly fall through to the ground and reduce how much maintenance we have to do. In addition to that the chickens will take care of scratching the waste into the ground. We will for the good of the rabbits have the hutches be 3' x 4' with a high roof allowing a small second level for them to perch on and be off the ground, as well as giving more functional space. For our convenience we will have the hutches be taller inside so we can easily fit ourselves into the hutch so it is easier to clean, and so we can interact with the rabbits more easily. Finally we intend to have chewable toys inside the hutches for the rabbits to play with so that they get intellectual stimulation beyond what we can give.