The Coney Garth: Effective Management of Rabbit Breeding Does on Pasture
Fence: In early 2011, I sewed a skirt to the bottom of 4 of my 6 rolls of electric fencing using fishing line and free fabric from a local canoe shop. I was interested to see if the rabbits escaped more frequently out of one type of fence or the other. Later, I bought landscape fabric staples to staple the skirt to the ground and also staple the bottom line of the fences that did not have a skirt. There seemed to be no remarkable difference and regrettably, the rabbits were still escaping at a rate similar to the year before.
I then moved the rabbits to Prairie du Sac, WI and ordered a different energizer than the one available to me at the previous property. I chose the IntelliShock 506 110v AC Plug-In Energizer from Premier 1 due to the high internal resistance of the rabbit. I chose wide-impedance (vs. low-impedance) to best match the characteristics of the rabbits and resolved to keep the perimeter fence absolutely weed free, which I did, because wide-impedance does not perform well in weedy conditions. The new energizer was not producing the voltage I expected to see on my fence line, so I bought 12 gauge aluminum wire to reduce resistance by both getting as fat a line as possible and using aluminum, which is highly conductive. I strung the aluminum wire along the current perimeter fence and the voltage of the electric fence did not go up. I then bought and installed all new fence insulators and moved the aluminum wire up substantially to reduce any chance of unwanted grounding. I saw an increase in voltage, but never consistently over 3000V, the magic number at or above which the fence must remain to create enough of a psychological barrier to contain the rabbits. It would be an interesting test to try a low-impedance energizer that has the ability to carry a charge even in weedy conditions. Even though I mowed the electric netting fence line every time I placed a new fence, the sagging of the fence and the high-moisture of our climate still allows significant loss of voltage, neither of which I felt I could do anything more about.
Premier 1 suggested mowing the fence line and keeping it from sagging, both of which I was already doing, along with sinking more and better ground rods to improve voltage output. As I was limited in the ability to place more and/or better ground rods due to the location of the electrical plug for the energizer, I abandoned electric fence and created a physical barrier fence. This, I believe, in the single greatest achievement in my working with the rabbits. I had a 0 percent escape loss during the months of October, November and December, the only months the fence was in operation. It will be interesting to see its performance over the entirety of the next grazing season. Although it is very effective in keeping rabbits where they are supposed to be, it is not ideal for me as a grazier. It is heavy and time consuming. Therefore, as I work with it more next year, I hope to begin to have some idea how I can make it better for me and others who wish to use this type of system.
The physical barrier fence is made from hog panel flipped upside down and cut in half (8 feet). Chicken wire is zip tied to cover the big holes at the bottom; I placed one zip tie every 8 inches, the space of the hole in the hog panel, on both the top and the bottom of the 32-inch tall 1-inch chicken wire. At the edges, I placed one zip at every cross-piece of the hog panel which are different lengths due to the graduated spacing of the panel. There are no zip ties in the middle. Then, I sewed a weighted skirt and zip tied it every 16 inches to the bottom of the hog panel. To make the weighted skirt, I cut strips of fabric that were 19 inches wide and 10 feet long. I folded the top down twice in 1 inch increments and sewed it shut to reinforce the connection between the skirt and the fence as it would be getting a lot of stress while moving it about. The bottom I folded in 1 inch and then again 9 inches and sewed at the top and one end leaving a long empty tube. I filled this with sand and hand-sewed the end shut. The end result is 10 feet long, 10 inches wide, and weighs 35 lbs. I built 22 panels that are assembled 12 at a time into a square that is 3 panels on each side. Then I set up 9 more panels for the next day so that it is easy to open up one panel and let the rabbits into the next area and move the houses. Then I close them in and leap frog the panels from behind to the front and create an area for the following day. It takes about 40 minutes to move all the panels. Most interesting to me was the reaction of the rabbits to the new fence: they did not test it. They seemed to sense its impermeability and gave up trying to find a way out. The result was they seemed, as a group, calmer and more content.
New computer- Although not included in the budget, it was a key purchase for me.
Evans Software Rabbit Register Designer Deluxe Edition- I have two main complaints: the comment field is too short and the inability to keep track of data on a rolling basis. When I called the company about the comment field and some other small quirks, they were very accommodating and thanked me for catching some development errors but basically said, “Yeah, the comment field is short. There’s nothing we can easily do about it.” In the second case, from talking to relational database managers in other non-agricultural fields, it seems that keeping track of data on a rolling basis (think weight gain/loss for one individual over time) is a common problem and not one easily or simply solved by a person of my capabilities. Therefore, I have resorted to the trusty pen and paper to record daily activities in a journal type entry thus negating the use of a lengthy comment field and I use Microsoft excel to track weekly body condition scores. The software is still a much needed addition and it allows me to easily evaluate does and bucks. In addition, it is used quite prevalently among rabbit breeders and lets me input new rabbits bought simply from the other breeders’ computer. I find this helpful in tracking bloodlines. It is also extremely helpful to track income and expenses. It was very easy to do the budget because I had tracked my expenses in the program and could easily extrapolate to fill out grant data.
Number slaughtered- I am far behind my goal of 400 fryers slaughtered in 2011. I began the season well, breeding on a rolling basis. I bred from March to June in this fashion. However, in June, when I moved the rabbits a second time, I had to admit that I was not able to keep the rabbits in. I then stopped breeding and focused on the fence. The majority of kits produced between March and June escaped along with 7 does, and several junior does that were being brought up for future breeding. It was a great disappointment to me. However, with the advent of the physical barrier fence, I am eagerly looking forward to this coming summer to test out the fence and breeding capacity of the remaining does.
Handling equipment- I built a ramp that is 4 feet wide and 20 inches tall and comprised of solid plywood on one side and closet rod on the other side. This serves similarly to a cattle grate that allows cars to pass over but discourages cattle from crossing. Essentially, I push or pull the cajachina (house) over the ramp into the new paddock leaving behind the rabbits. The ramp itself is able to be broken down into components and laid flat for easy transport to and from the pasture. I then sewed a curtain out of the same solid black material used for the physical barrier fence that is 6 feet x 35 inches with a weighted sand tube sewn in at the bottom. It hangs from a 6 foot stainless steel purlin used in greenhouses that has 2 holes in each end. I have 7 of these panels that link together with bolts in one hole and a pin in the other hole for easy release. This allows me to either have a rigid length or, if I remove the pin, a joint that can rotate. I built a post that has a pin sticking out that holds one end of the curtain while I am at the other. I then slowly close the rabbits into a space where I can easily handle them. They are released directly into the new paddock thus receiving a reward for enduring the handling. I still have a few kinks to work out such as stopping the ramp from wobbling, attaching the curtain effectively to the fence so the rabbits don’t push through that weak point and escape, and filling the tubes with more sand. I went light because I didn’t want it to be so heavy to maneuver, but it is too light and at certain points, the rabbits can push under.
• Result: 0 percent escape loss due to the physical barrier fence. Electricity is not an effective psychological barrier for rabbits.
• Result: Effective handling of colony due to the handling equipment designed and built. I still have a lot to learn as I use this equipment.
WORK PLAN FOR 2012
1. Focus on making the physical barrier fence easy to move and attach. I have two things in mind to make this work:
a. Weld easy attachment to each end and
b. Weld stand alone cross bars at the base of each panel.
c. I have purchased an oxyacetylene welding torch for this purpose and designed changes on paper; both of which I will take to my former welding course instructor for his opinion.
2. Focus on breeding
a. Redesign cajachina. Add extra ramp at back end to encourage does to exit when another territorial doe protects the space. This, I believe, will encourage all does to attend to their nests.
b. Place bucks in corners of pasture pen to allow nose contact therefore familiarizing the does and bucks to each other. This will allow for easier breeding and less time to accept and perform service.
c. Use handling equipment effectively
i. Monitor and make sure stress-free
ii. Make sure it’s easy for me to use frequently
iii. Make changes to design as necessary
d. Keep detailed records
i. Use computer program
ii. Keep detailed daily notes in journal
iii. Keep weekly body condition scores and other data in MS Excel
3. Sell rabbits
a. Perform market analysis
b. Provide samples to parties interested
c. Revisit cost of production
d. Determine if current price is accurate
I participated in the annual National Small Farm Trade Show & Conference in Columbia, MO Farmers’ Forum 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. 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 but usually don’t go into detail because of time. I point them to the Organic Voices website that has an audio presentation from 2009, the SARE website, a very rough audio and video version of the Farmer’s Forum presentation available on Dropbox. This was generously shared with me by the SARE staff and I thank both Joan Benjamin and Brandon Thompson for sharing it with me.