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Going from cages to community.

 
Andrea Gorham
Posts: 14
Location: Louisburg, NC 7
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Twenty-five days ago, my husband and I took over a hobby farm and are busting our butts to convert it into a permaculture farm venture. They(We) have a meat rabbit operation in a small cabin that hasn't been cleaned out in far too long, with hanging wire cages, and feeding store bought rabbit pellets. I don't feel good about raising animals this way. Not only is it not sustainable, but I want them to be able to graze, excrete where they aren't sleeping, play, run and have a place where they feel safe.

To make their habitat better, we deep cleaned the house the water bottles and all the cages. We scoop poop pebbles and piss syrup out of the cage catch trays daily and put it in the compost pile, near fig trees or blueberry trees.
I'd rather the rabbits spread their manure themselves, and accomplish the other goals I have for their lifestyle.

So we are transitioning the 11 rabbits (1 doe owners daughters pet/ 2 breeder does/ 4 meat does/ 2 meat bucks/ 1 breeder buck/ we ate one) to a new life. The rabbit we ate was much fatter than I would expect for a rabbit. Tuesday we had 3 new young rabbits from the owner, 1 buck and 2 doe chinchillas, they are feisty and shy.

We rebuilt a mobile chicken pen to a rabbit tractor, I have the 4 meat does in it and they have been sleeping there and it has kept them safe, even with the hungry dogs and opossums that the game camera has caught sniffing them out. It has a large wire bottomed box inside the pen with straw, their feed, and water, that I close them in at night. During the day I let them out into the rest of the pen to go in the sun and be on the ground and loose some weight, they are FAT. They are learning to eat grass but have yet to learn to burrow (probably too fat). I have been putting the two breeding does with the meat does outside during the day and back in their cage at night, for safety since I am not watching them at night and they are larger and would take up more space in the sheltered box. Maybe it is just because I am handling them more, but they seem to be less docile. My rabbits do NOT like to be handled, I swear I am sweet to them. Today my largest doe, who is super chill, loving to lay in the sun, bit me through two shirts to break the skin when moving her back into her cage. She would of taken a chunk out of me had I no protection. She tries to bite me anytime I hold her. I've watched videos on how to handle rabbits, but Shelia a large overweight heavy breathing, in furry and rage, want's to kill me.

Today we set up our electric fence to test it out. The first rabbit I put in (a young chinchilla doe) got shocked, backed off... then jumped through the fence. Thankfully she went into the garden shed where I could easily trap her. Since she is feisty and shy I figured I'd give it a shot with the four meat, cage raised rabbits, that we had been tractoring the past two weeks. The first doe shocked herself 8 times, but eventually got it. I put in an old doe that I am culling, it took her too many. The third got a hard bite from the wire, nearly fell over and was stunned for several minutes (it only took her one shock). The last one didn't try the fence as there were friends to play with. In the long run I don't know if electric fence will be feasible for rabbits especially when they get healthy. For tonight everyone is back in their normal sleeping arrangements. 4 in the mobile pen and everyone else in their cage in the cabin.

What I've learned from this experiment is that I want to minimally handle the rabbits. I can ween off daily poop tray cleanings.
I think I will only keep one or two breeding buck(s) in a small mobile pen, have a grow out mobile pen for offspring, and have a breeding doe pen. I still have 11 nice cages, for isolation or grow out bucks (I don't want to butcher pregnant rabbits). I would like to hear what you think. I know it is common to raise meat rabbits in cages, but it's kind of mean and then again, rabbits are kind of mean... but I can do better. They seem happier running and hopping over each other (fighting or playing) I really enjoy watching them outside and I can't say that about watching them in their cage.
Moving the pens daily is less time consuming and more pleasing then cleaning poop trays.

I will note how the body composition changes in the 4 meat does. 1 Rabbit is older. We had 5 does (2 bucks) born 10/2. We harvested one before making the outdoor pen. It was very fatty. I wish I had a picture. We'll soon harvest the other 3 and be able to compare carcasses.

I'll update. Share your ideas.
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Rabbit house
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Rabbit tractoring around the house
 
Matt Gorham
Posts: 10
Location: Louisburg, NC Zone 7b avg. 50" precip.
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The rabbits are getting along just fine in their electric paddock. Andrea shifted the netting a half shift to the North of our house today to give them some new forage. The feed aspect of this method is an obvious upside. The caged bunnies go through a full feeder every other day. The six day range bunnies have eaten exactly one feeder full, and just got a refill today.

The first couple days of trying to get them back in there pen to safety were tough, but every evening they are becoming more accustomed to being penned at night. I put all 6 up tonight in less than five minutes. Before it was taking 15 or more. Much of this time can and will be reduced when we revamp there mobile pen. It needs a better door and some structure alterations.

The next step for us is to get the males out on pasture in a similar fashion. I'm building a mobile chicken coop for our chickens that are arriving later this week, but they won't need it for 3-4 weeks. So I'll put them in that until we can get them a pen going.

On a side note we installed our first swale today and planted 5 fig trees into it...
 
Andrea Gorham
Posts: 14
Location: Louisburg, NC 7
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Starting to think rabbits with electric fences are not optimum.

When introducing new does, the habituating does are not welcoming. One rabbit has escaped the electric fencing and was caught after 4 days of freedom. Two rabbits escaped and were caught the same day of escape. An incidence where a larger rabbit tried to escape through the fence went wrong when she got stuck and the fence post came out of the ground allowing the fence to tangle around the rabbit shocking her every second.

The new plan is to develop a permanent home with a pasture into the orchard where we can alternate does/bucks/growouts to pasture. The housing will have deep bedding and allow them a place to build permanent burrows which is a more natural habitat for rabbits.
 
Thomas A. Cahan
Posts: 20
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..Hello! - nice to see someone else 'uncaging' their buns.. I am new to rabbits- I started 15months ago with local 'garage rabbits' and 3 common, used, home-made hutches.. I came up with my unit hutch design, with the buns trained to litter pans, which has been 98% successful so far.. I constructed 2 poultry-net outdoor playpens, which work well only under supervision! - for 'Bun + Dirt = Hole'.. I now have both a concrete-floored 12x13 deep-bedded barn pen for does, and am also running bred does in the chicken rooms, with kindling areas under the nest boxes.. I will be posting the results when they do kindle.. I have found that my buns will hop right into a cat-sized pet taxi- which makes moving- and the occasional round-up- very easy.. as to aggression- newly- bred does- especially first-timers- can be grumpy.. or trash their furniture.. and introducing unfamiliar pen-mates takes a bit of skill- you need to know each individual's personality.. siblings that get along great sometimes cannot stand one another after they've been bred! - they sometimes cannot even be in adjoining hutches.. I'm looking forward to trying a pasturing set-up this season.. I'll keep everyone informed!
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Cotton in her office :)
 
Claire Kerwin
Posts: 2
Location: Klickitat, WA
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Hi folks,

We are in the process of transferring a few of our caged rabbits to a colony. Because of rabbit social dynamics (aggressive does, quick breeding) we are starting with 9 rabbits from the same litter. For now, the breeders and other litters will stay in cages so that if something goes wrong, we won't lose too many rabbits.

As for the colony set up, we have a shaded outdoor space about 12'x22'. To prevent much digging (for now we want to be able to monitor closely) and escape we dug up the sod, laid down chicken wire, and put the sod back. We will have three boxes above ground (that can be opened from above) with PVC pipes covered in dirt leading to the entrances. We will also have quite a bit of dirt built up in the caged area for digging and access to higher spaces. There will be an area where we give them alfalfa that can be closed off to easily catch the rabbits when necessary.

We will be introducing the litter in about a week.


Before building the colony I did quite a bit of research. For fencing, it was suggested burying chicken wire 3' down in the ground. If you don't want to allow digging, the chicken wire under or above the ground was suggested. Some people have built tunnels for their rabbits by burying PVC pipes or setting them above ground.

This was a great resource:

http://raisingrabbitsessentials.com.s3.amazonaws.com/Raising-Rabbits-in-Colonies-fljaoy.pdf
 
Matt Gorham
Posts: 10
Location: Louisburg, NC Zone 7b avg. 50" precip.
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Cool trick for rounding up rabbits, stomp like the rabbits warning signal and they go to their safe place.
 
Andrea Gorham
Posts: 14
Location: Louisburg, NC 7
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So far digging isn't a problem, the holes don't get very big before we shift their paddock. I've yet to bother with back filling any of their holes, and like that they are digging and not lying down all the time.
I like the paddock shift as it takes the responsibly off me and allows the rabbits to spread manure, self-harvest, and mow.
If I had less other farm responsibilities (new chicks, putting in garden beds/planting, ect.)
I'd provide them with a better hutch, stationary and compartmentalized with a buck "dorm" and doe "dorm" and space for expecting mothers/new families. The rabbits would be locked in here when the dog or Matt and I are not out keeping predators away. Moving the fence around for different grazing, it's right next to the orchard and will have a lot of good grass around to eat.
Currently With 4 rabbits going to bed in the mobile tractor and grazing the shifting electric net it's pretty easy now that we've learned some tricks (stomping to let them know to get home), and 4 less poop treys to clean every day and a lot less feed to provide.
 
                          
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I remember reading about a man who found himself with a lot of rabbits and no help (during World War II) so he converted a shed, filled it with straw and lots of nesting boxes and plopped in his bunnies. He said it was incredibly easy. He went in a few times a day with food and water and the rabbits hopped right up to him to get their dinners. This made harvesting very easy, too. He'd just pick one up, no fuss, no muss. I guess his weren't very aggressive! He had several bucks and a lot of does. He said the males didn't fight much and the females were fine as long as they had their own nesting boxes. I think he figured he put in about 10 minutes a day on a LOT of rabbits. He mucked out the deep litter twice a year, as I recall.

It would be even easier (and of course healthier) to keep these critters if they had outdoor access to pasture. If I ever keep rabbits, I'll do it this way. I've been spraying LABS on my chickens' deep litter and would do the same with rabbits. Also ferment their feed. I'm doing that with chickens, dogs and sheep, so far.
 
David Miller
Posts: 280
Location: Harrisonburg, VA
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Please discuss fermenting their feed, I've read on it but not for rabbits.
 
Matt Gorham
Posts: 10
Location: Louisburg, NC Zone 7b avg. 50" precip.
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Guess its about time for an update.

The outdoor setup is working great. Instead of keeping only does in the paddock setup, we are keeping our breeding does with our new friendly chinchilla buck. We have stopped putting them up at night due to a lack of predator pressure. We just recently stopped feeding them their alfalfa pellets, the pasture consists of clover, fescue, vetch and many other grasses and 'weeds'. They are stable and seem to really be enjoying this style of management. We keep their water full, but the don't drink it. I suppose the get enough water from the grass.

They have started to burrow which is fine with me. Our plan is to keep them in the same paddock until they kindle, and eventually remove the new kits to their own paddock for fryer rabbit. Then start the process over with the several breeder does and buck. We have started fermenting our 5 week old chooks feed, but the bunnies eat grass, pine needles, pine cones, privet, so no need there.

If anyone has specific questions I'll be lurking around here.
 
Claire Kerwin
Posts: 2
Location: Klickitat, WA
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Amazing! Wonderful that you've gotten them off the pellets. What do you plan to do in the winter?

Here's an update and discussion article on our rabbit colony situation:
http://windward.org/2.0/notes/2014/2014claire02.htm

We had a stray do attacking our chickens, which are near the rabbits, and decided to put the colony rabbits in cages until we catch the dog. We have a very secure colony setup but this dog is pretty clever. I'll be weighing the colony rabbits and comparing their growth with rabbits that we are raising in cages. Overall it seems like the rabbits are loving the colony!
 
David Miller
Posts: 280
Location: Harrisonburg, VA
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A colony is a great thing but what interests me most about Matt's setup is the forage in the colony paddock.
 
Matt Gorham
Posts: 10
Location: Louisburg, NC Zone 7b avg. 50" precip.
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David Miller wrote:A colony is a great thing but what interests me most about Matt's setup is the forage in the colony paddock.


Okay, the forage for them consists of red and white clover, chick weed, burr clover, dandelion, and other grasses and weeds that I don't know. We also place privet slash into their paddock, they chew the wood and leaves. They love pine cones and pine needles.

I'm by no means any kind of expert in rabbit keeping. We moved to NC 3 months ago to manage a farm, which already had meat rabbits and here we stand. It's all an experiment to see what works. One observation I've made is that the pasture rabbits don't drink from there waterer. They get there moisture from all the fresh greens.

We are cutting hay from our meadows for the winter. We plan on culling off any non breeders before winter, and will see what needs to happen when the time comes.
 
Rachel Watersong
Posts: 5
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Congrats on a neat setup, as a friend to bunnies for many years (mine are house pets) I dig the notion that they should have space to run around and be rabbits.

One factoid from the house rabbit world is that they are OBSESSED with biting through electrical wires... so use that info how you will when it comes to trying to wire-fence them!
 
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