- Animals: rabbits
- Animal Production: feed/forage, housing, free-range, grazing management, livestock breeding, grazing - rotational, stocking rate
- Farm Business Management: new enterprise development, marketing management
I do not own land and I have moved 5 times in the past 7 years. Therefore, rather than focus on the land, I have focused on developing a system to raise rabbits solely on pasture in a colony setting which I call “The Coney Garth.” I began raising rabbits for meat at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in the Salatin hare-pen style. In 2008, I moved to Northland Sheep Dairy and developed a completely different system that raises all rabbits(does, bucks, and fryers) in a colony (the adult bucks are separated by a fence) that moves to a new paddock every day. They rely solely on the pasture for their sustenance; I do not feed alfalfa pellets although I provide a salt/mineral lick and have experimented with small amounts of supplements, about 1 teaspoon per doe, such as mullein, elecampane, and Echinacea. In 2009, I moved the rabbits to JenEhr Family Farm in Sun Prairie, WI. In March of 2011, I moved the rabbits to Stoughton, WI and then moved them again in June of 2011 to Prairie du Sac, WI. Most recently, I moved the rabbits to DeForest, WI in November of 2012. However, despite all the moving, I have always focused on maintaining herd health through Management Intensive Grazing.
I have practiced Management Intensive Grazing specifically for rabbits since 2008.
I will evaluate the Coney Garth project by determining if I meet the following goals:
• First, by November of 2011, to have 300 fryers slaughtered and sold and 100 fryers weaning at that time to be slaughtered and sold over the winter. Therefore, for the 2011 breeding season, 400 saleable fryers will be produced.
• Second, to have 40 breeding does that consistently raise 5 kits to weaning age three times per year for a total of 15 kits per doe per year. The does will be evaluated using the following criteria that will be recorded using Evans Software Deluxe Edition:
o ability to accept service and conceive,
o ability to kindle in the nesting box with no prompting by me,
o ability to kindle at least 5 kits,
o ability to nurse 5 kits for 5 weeks (I don’t wean the kits, 5 weeks is the average natural weaning age), and
o ability to stay within the fence (as in, I don’t have to capture the doe outside the fence- barring outside disturbances in which case it is excusable to test the boundaries. These cases include but are not limited to predation, human error, and extreme weather events).
• Third, two percent escape loss for fryers and one percent escape loss for does.
• Fourth, the ability to catch all rabbits in the Coney Garth without stress in one hour by myself and handle them efficiently.
If all of those goals are met, it collectively exhibits the ability of domesticated rabbits to thrive in a rotational grazing system without feeding grain or alfalfa pellets. If the goals are not met and it is not due to human error or unforeseen circumstance, I can conclude that rabbits do not thrive in a rotational grazing system and I can put the project away for good. Finally, and perhaps most telling, are the questions “can I hand this system over to someone else and will it be successful? Is it foolproof?” I truly believe this is the best way to raise rabbits on pasture but that is futile if I am the only one able to do it. Therefore, I will look for a mentee that is willing to undertake the project and establish its replicability.
My focus was entirely on the rabbit system for this grant. Therefore, I looked for pasture to rent that was already planted into a diverse species mix. Then, I focused on each part of the system beginning with containment. I stopped breeding until I could guarantee that I could keep the rabbits where I wanted them to be. This was a hard choice as I lost sales for more than a year in order to solve this first problem. However, a 25 percent escape loss was unacceptable so I felt it was necessary to make this sacrifice.
Then, once I was confident the does would stay in their paddock for the day*, I began breeding on a rolling basis. I tried very hard to eliminate any accidental exposure to the bucks but I was not successful. There were two incidents in the 2012 grazing season that resulted in surprise litters. In both cases, I did not move anything until I could figure out how the buck made it in with the does. Most often, the buck would show me himself as he liked to pass back and forth between the doe enclosure and the paddock that he was supposed to stay in.
I made a commitment to handle every doe once a week which I fulfilled. Each doe was palpated and that way, I knew which does should kindle when. I was able to find their litters and then determine if they were taking good care of them. Each kit was handled once a week as well, and its mother’s tattoo number was written in its ear with a Sharpie marker so I knew its ancestry at slaughter. Therefore, I could keep track if some entire litters seemed sickly, grew slowly, or seemed more susceptible to other disease, such as coccidiosis, which I evaluated post-slaughter by looking at the liver. I used this information to cull over 2/3 of my herd and focus on does that performed well in the system. This was a hard management decision to make. It was tempting to keep all does around simply because of the potential for them to have more kits next year, or get along better next season, or behave differently later. I did make some exceptions to the criteria I initially created to evaluate the does because only one doe raised 18 kits in the 2012 grazing season (the goal was 15= 3 litters of 5 each; the next closest was 11). Therefore, I allowed does that conceived every time and raised some kits from every litter to remain in the system.
It was difficult to see my herd shrink, but I am hopeful that it was the right decision in the long run and that I will see better results in the 2013 season. In short, I committed to the goals I had set out for myself, spent a lot of time observing and recording those observations, and tried hard not to let the setbacks disappoint me to the point of paralysis.
*It must be noted that the physical barrier fence is effective as long as the rabbits are given sufficient space to meet their nutritional requirements, territorial wants, and psychological needs. In short, the fence needs to be moved every day or the rabbits will get hungry, cramped or bored and dig out.
Namely, I solved all problems put forth in the original proposal except one. Problems solved include: Inability to catch and handle does efficiently SOLVED: I built handling equipment and I can catch all rabbits by myself with minimal stress in one hour. I used it 33 times, every week of the 2012 grazing season, thus enabling data collected on does, kits, and litters to be accurate, informative, and therefore an invaluable tool to manage the herd. I plan to continue using it in the off-season.
Keeping track of data collected on individual does SOLVED: I purchased a new computer and Evans software, and use it to analyze data collected on individual does during routine handlings. The data I collected is set forth in the second bullet of the Goals portion of this report with one exception noted in the Process portion of this report. Through this analysis, I have culled 16 does, 2/3 of my original herd.
Escaped fryers and does SOLVED: Escape loss went from 23 percent to 0 percent due to abandoning electric fence and building a physical barrier fence.
Kit mortality rate NOT SOLVED: Although I now breed does on a rolling basis and they are with the buck for one week at a time and are therefore able to breed at their consent, kit mortality is still a problem. Four hundred saleable fryers were not produced; however, 304 were born in the 2012 season from 20 different does (4 does were complete duds) but only 75 kits lived past 5 weeks. I do not have 40 breeding does of reliable productivity; instead I have selected 8 to begin the 2013 grazing season.
These were not the results I was hoping for in terms of productivity. However, in conventional caged systems, mortality rates are still high, around 25 percent.
The greatest hurdle for any grass-based rabbit system is keeping them contained and I believe I have effectively solved that. Regardless of whether the does are on pasture or in cages, the physical barrier fence will keep their offspring where they are supposed to be. This, in turn, tremendously increases the number of fryers that make it to slaughter age, and therefore increases number of fryers sold and hence profit. The physical barrier fence also reduces stress, time and labor for the farmer because s/he does not have to try to catch and contain the rabbits.
The advantages of raising rabbits in a system like this is that they are 100 percent grass-fed and command a higher price at market. They are an excellent addition to systems that already pasture other animals and allow the farmer to earn more per acre by stacking multiple species on the same land base. The advantage of raising rabbits in a Coney Garth versus the hare pen is that the farmer does not have to invest in two types of infrastructure, that for pasture and cages for the does. Instead, once the infrastructure is in place for The Coney Garth, it is relatively easy to scale between 8 does and 37 does. In addition, the larger the herd, the easier it is to take care of does in a colony. It takes an hour to move them regardless of whether there are 8 does in the enclosure or 40.
The disadvantage is that the quirks are not worked out entirely. There is a high kit mortality rate that takes an emotional toll on the farmer. I suspect the kit mortality rate is linked to nutrition and herd dynamics, both of which need more study.
Since being awarded the grant, I’ve performed the following outreach: I participated in the NCR-SARE Farmers Forum at the National Small Farm Trade Show and Conference in Columbia, MO in November of 2011. I presented for 55 minutes and it was attended by approximately 60 people. It was very well-received, with numerous people asking questions immediately after the talk for over an hour and a half. I also continued answering questions for the duration of the conference.
In addition, I participated in the Wisconsin Grazing Conference, an annual event sponsored by GrassWorks in January 2012. I presented for 15 minutes as part of a panel that included two other producers of lamb, beef, and cheese. The title of our session was “Beyond the Norm” and in its entirety, was only an hour long. We all found it difficult to convey much information in such short period of time. It was attended by approximately 20 people and my presentation was less well-received, perhaps because its brevity did not allow enough information for people to formulate a question.
Due to both events, I receive numerous emails investigating my system. I always respond and have taken to consulting over the phone or skype. I don’t know how long I’ll be able to do that, but for now the interested parties are few enough that I can take time to speak to them personally.
Other opportunities for information dissemination are an article that appeared in Edible Madison online edition about the Coney Garth, nomination and election onto the GrassWorks Board of Directors, participation in a panel on March 16, 2013 for a Permaculture Design Certificate specifically speaking about farming, a presentation on May 1, 2013 to the Culinary History Enthusiasts of Wisconsin (CHEW), and I’m in the very slow process of writing an article.