I'm planning on getting some rabbits as soon as I can get set up for them. I'm going to start off with wire cages, and I'm having a hard time thinking of where I'll put them and how I'll keep them out of summer sun, winter wind, rain and snow. I also don't have a shed or a barn yet.
Show me some pictures of how you keep your rabbits!
I can't do pictures, but I have some cages under the downwind eave of my hay shed (I also have dairy goats). The eave is wide, about three feet, and the cages are hung up as high as possible and still be able to reach inside, so they have a roof over their heads as well as a wall behind them that blocks most of the wind. I also have one double cage sitting on blocks with plywood on the top for a roof, this cage isn't used in the winter as it has no wind protection from the sides. I'm planning to build a hoop house in a few weeks which will hold rabbit cages, and breeding pens for chickens on the ground. This will be made of either cattle panels and a heavy tarp, or metal frame and metal panel roofing (probably the former). If you are in a suburban or urban area, the hoop house might not be a good solution (just for aesthetics and regulations), but you could build an arbor to shelter and hide the cages; cover it with vines so the neighbors can't see anything objectionable.
I am in Massachusetts and I house my rabbits under a deck with tarps draped to block wind. I have one mainly wire hutch and one 3/4 wood, 1/4 wire. I stapled plastic to one side of the mainly wire hutch to help with drafts under the deck. We have hit negatives this winter and they are fine with a couple handfulls of hay and the wind blocked.
I have one Flemish Giant doe (1.5 yrs) and 1 NZ/FG buck (14 weeks now). Make sure if you get a larger rabbit like these you have either wood, plastic or a hay patch on the floor for them to rest on. They have large feet and heavy bodies and wire can do some damage over time. Thicker gauge is better as well!
I think if I had any kind of outbuildings, I could do something like Kathleen mentioned. I'm really hesitant to build a shed, even a 3-sided one to hang cages in, just for rabbits because it will be relatively expensive. I really liked the arbor house idea which I also saw in a book, but it doesn't seem like it'd provide much weather protection.
I guess it depends on how many rabbits you want to keep. If you're keeping a trio for meat then I would suggest having a shelter worthy of at least keeping them dry and out of the wind. In the summer time I have my cages (6) set up on a rack made from two saw horses and a couple 2x4s. They have plywood laid across the tops to keep them cool and dry. This setup is located on the north side of my firewood pile to keep them out of the sun and there's also good tree cover. The manure falls into a swale below the cages and during rain events it's picked up and distributed to the food forests. This winter I'm experimenting with having them under my covered porch. The cages sit on top of large rectangular bins that collect manure and urine. That keeps the deck mostly clear of manure and allows me to move it to places where it will be of some use once the weather breaks and the pellets thaw. With three breeding does I have a lot of manure and it can't all sit in one place waiting for spring. So this way I'm able to move it little by little to places like raised beds, trees, compost areas, the chicken run etc. Also, being closer to the house allows me to keep a closer eye on them so water bottles get thawed more frequently and feeders stay full.
I'll likely build a permanent structure this year though. I've been keeping rabbits for over a year now and it's worth it to me to have a good place for them to live now that I know that I like keeping them. If you're not sure how much you'll like rabbits, keep it simple and cheap. Once you're committed you can invest more.
The other thing to make sure of is that t you have a good place to butcher them in the worst of the winter weather.
Craig, your setup sounds pretty cool, especially with it not being tied to a particular location on the property depending on conditions. I really know I like to EAT rabbits, and I've been wanting to get my own for a couple of years. Our previous home had an insane amount of cottontails, and I really like bowhunting. At our new place, rabbits seem scarce.
How much do other critters affect your rabbits? There's a bobcat here that likes to visit even during daylight, so that's another concern for me, too.
Perhaps I should start with building the cages and go from there. Just building the cages seems like an investment.
Honestly I would just buy all wire cages online and while you're at it get the hanging feeders too. It's worth it just in the time saved from cutting wire from a roll. And the feed saved by less spillage will save money and mess in the long run. The cages by "Pet Lodge" are pretty good though I would upgrade the latches if you are worried about smart predators working their way into them. They run about fifty dollars for the cage and 7dollars for the feeders. It's not a bad investment.
On building cages, you just have to decide whether you have more time or money. I've always made my own -- I usually get a scratch or two from the cut ends of the wire, but it's hard to work in gloves. Alternatively, keep an eye on Craigslist for cheap (or sometimes free) cages. Often they will be free with a rabbit or some other small critter; you have to decide how you are going to handle that, as the seller usually wants a pet home for their rabbit.
The bobcat could definitely be a problem. Are you out in the country? Is your property fenced, or could it be? If so, you might consider getting a livestock guardian dog -- they will protect you and your family, too, so it wouldn't just be for the rabbits. Alternatively, you will probably need to put up some kind of shelter that can be closed up at night or whenever you aren't there. The cattle panel hoop house isn't very expensive, and is quick and easy to build. You would need to enclose the ends, to keep the bobcat out, and you would need to brace the roof to make it strong enough to support hanging rabbit cages. To make the structure more useful, you could do like I plan to and put some chickens on the floor of the shelter. Just make sure they can't fly up on top of the rabbit cages (fence it off with chicken wire -- one of the few places where chicken wire is actually suitable to use), as their poop will go down where the rabbits are and it isn't good for the rabbits to be walking in chicken poop. Just make sure the shelter is in the shade and has some way to provide adequate ventilation -- rabbits can't take heat very well.
ETA: You might look into colony raising. You could build the hoop house and put wire down on the floor so the rabbits don't burrow out -- this would save the cost of buying or building cages. Add the cages later as you need them.
You can find decent cages on CL and other barter sites and a lot of them come with all sorts of gear. On the other hand, some of them also carry a fair amount of hair, dirt and rust. By dirt I mean old poo. These of course could be breeding grounds for disease so be sure to sterilize them before introducing your new stock to them. With all wire cages you have the benefit of being able to flame clean them. Bleach is also effective. I wouldn't take a chance of infecting good animals with a bargain cage or the free rabbit that often comes with them. Most often it's not a good meat breed or it's got poor form and condition. Sometimes you will find a breeder that's just looking to downsize and that's a good time to cut a deal.
We have three does and one buck that spend all their time in wire cages. They are currently in the shed on a concrete floor, with wood chip litter underneath to soak up urine. The feces are pretty dry if the animal is "regular" so they just build up and don't cause any problem. Our rabbits mostly pee in one spot, so we can get away with a small amount of litter just where they pee, which reduces cleaning time. We clean once per week. We have also used dry grass clippings for litter. They work, but don't soak up as much moisture, so you need more of them/change more often. We also use a "soaking pan" of old paper egg cartons or similar material filled with wood chips. This prevents the urine from just running through the litter and onto the floor/soil. It gives more time for the litter to soak it up. Our buck pees everywhere, so he needs more litter.
Last summer we had the breeders outside on the north side of our house, just south of a hedge of cedars, with a plastic tarp over the top. It was adequate, but on dry, hot dusty days I felt bad for them. The flapping of the tarp was maddening, and put a lot of stress on the rabbits. I hope to build an arbor for this summer with a fixed roof and trellis beans/other vining edibles on three sides. I think with adequate density of vines, this should do a better job of cooling than we had last year.
Our weaned rabbits that are growing out for slaughter are in a portable hutch on grass. We've only been doing this for about a month, and had a loose poop episode caused by insufficient fiber in the diet. Make sure the grass is either really dry and dead, or supplement extra hay/bark/twigs to dry up the digestion. Grass has too much water in it. I imagine a slow transition to greener grass would work ok, but no experience with that yet.
Regarding sourcing hutches - we got some from a neighbor and some from the breeder we bought our starters from. None of them were ideal, but they were free. I think it's useful to get a few free designs, use them for a while, and then decide on a design for what you want to build/buy yourself. Until you have kept rabbits, it's hard to know what makes a good hutch. At worst, getting hutches for free will provide some scrap material. Cage wire is pretty expensive. You will need to do a good job cleaning any reused hutches - most rabbit keepers are not nearly as concerned with the hair/poop buildup as they should be.
I strongly recommend you buy watering crocks and J-style feeders. They save so much on wasted feed/dehydration because the rabbits can't tip them over. We buy the Fine-X feeders from bassequipment.com. They clip onto cage wire easily. Four screws and a piece of wire will adapt them to mount through a wood wall. Buy the widest size for all cages that will have more than 1 rabbit (including does). Use the smallest size for your bucks. Same rule on water dishes.
Based on your location and zone, you'll probably need to worry more about snow than I do. I found the heat (over 90 F) stresses them more than cold does. You just need to be consistent about chipping ice when it's below freezing.
This was taken right after I made the cages but before I got my rabbits. I have since glassed it all in with salvaged double glazed windows for winter and added a glass door. The windows are removable without tools for warmer weather. This is the southwest corner of our house, ground zero zone 1. A few steps behind the photographer(me) is the compost pile where much of the rabbit poo goes, some gets vermicomposted. On a sunny day at 0*F this January, I measured a 17*F rise inside the hutch, which I consider pretty good if you count the fact that I intentionally left a 4" air gap along the bottom walls and a 2"gap above the door for ventilation...rabbits are kinda stinky, moreso if you seal them up.
I kinda hope some of that solar gain helps that part of the house lose heat less quickly as well.
There are three cages in there, 30"x36"x18"h I currently have 1 buck in the cage that you can barely see in the back corner, and 1 doe each in the front cages. I previously had two does per cage, but I recently harvested and separated the does and bred them with the buck. On the 17th, I will put the nesting box in my New Zealand's cage.
Over the years, I've noticed that most hutches wear out from the floor wiring first and then it's a big hassle to replace the whole floor. All wire cages seem a bit small and boring for bunnies that stick around so we didn't want to go the all wire cage route. We keep bunnies for their fiber so we will have the same bunny for years and years.
So, for the new hutches here at the new (to us anyway) house, we started out with a modular concept. The floor plates are 3' wide by 2.5' deep and each level of the hutch has three big floor plates as well as two spacer floor plates for where the feeders go. The hutch is ten feet long, overall.
Each level will have three of these big floor plates. The floor plates fit on a rack which has the sides and back permanently covered. The rack also supports the roof and the automatic watering system.
Each level of the rack has a line of modular doors. They can be taken off as a set and moved depending on how we want the doors and feeders to be arranged.
There's movable feeders that go between each set of doors, although I don't have the feeders for the upper level finished yet.
There's a wall which can be added behind each feeder which makes the big space into smaller spaces. At the moment, the upper level of the big hutch is all one space for the girl buns to run around in and the lower level is segmented into three separate spaces for bucks and/or nesting does.
Even though they have a big area to run around in, sometimes all the buns like to be in one spot.
So far I've found the ability to take the hutch apart for cleaning to have made maintenance much easier. So far I've not had to replace any parts yet, but the hutch is still new.
I'm in the process of building my second hutch. Basic design principle was solely as a support for wire cages and to protect from rain and wind, secondary design principle was to be aesthetically unobtrusive to my neighbors since we live in the city.
We're using a deep bedding system under the hutch to knock down the ammonia smell. We'll layer it, turn it and then move it to the compost once a month.
Plan is to build another one across from this one in the next few weeks.
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