Pastured Rabbit Integrated Farming Project
The purpose of my project was to explore my theory that rabbits could be raised on feed other than commercial rabbit pellets namely vegetable waste from production of market vegetables. Rabbits, as a species, should be able to convert less-than-ideal plant material into valueable protein. In turn, their manure can be used as fertilizer on both pastures and market vegetable plots.
Initially, my rabbits were kept in movable pens on the ground, but the extremely wet and cool spring resulted in completely unacceptable losses of the fryer rabbits living on the ground. In late April, I took all of the rabbits off pasture and installed them into deep-bedded, stationary pens and I brought the pasture to them. The deaths (likely due to coccidia) have all but ceased in the fryers which is momentus. After I clean out a pen (processing the fryers), during the wamer months, I burn the area with a flame weeder to kill any bacteria and parasites, lime it well and then rebed the pen and install another group of fryers. During the cooler months, bacteria and parasites are not as much of a problem so I just lime and rebed the pens. I breed heavily during the cooler months and when the warm weather returns, I allow my breeder rabbits to rest.
Our vegetable production did not amount to much in 2013 because of the excessive rain and lack of sun, however, I took full advantage of the scraps from other local farmers and the rabbits ate virtually free during the growing season. In addition to vegetable scraps, I harvested pasture grasses and weeds using a scythe.
In early fall, we purchased a tractor with a tiller which will enable us to till our own property during the growing season. Because of all of the rain, we were unable to get a local farmers to do any tilling for us. Whenever it was dry enough to till, they were out tilling their own fields and did not have time to help us which was perfectly understandable.
During the colder months, our rabbits consume locally-grown grass hay (formerly I was feeding them an alfalfa-mixed hay that was trucked here from Canada), locally grown whole grains (oats and barley) and a small amount of non-GMO alfalfa pellets. They are thriving on this feeding plan.
My goals were to (1) prove that meat rabbits could be raised on feed other than commercial rabbit pellets; (2) increase my production; and (3) add market vegetables to our offerings. Except for (3) which will be accomplished in 2014, I met my goals. My rabbits are still growing out slower than their pellet-fed counterparts, but the quality of their meat far exceeds the pellet-fed rabbits so I am able to command a higher price for my rabbits.
When I clean out a rabbit pen, the spent straw, hay and manure gets composted and then added to our raised bed garden plots. Currently we have over 30 8 x 4 raised beds as well as another open plot which is approximately 1/2 an acre tilled and ready to plant this spring. When the rabbit barn (where does kindle) is cleaned, that matter gets spread on our pastures where my dairy cows graze and where I'll begin harvesting pasture grass for the rabbits. Now that the farm owns a tractor, we will be able to till these pastures if necessary to plant cover crops for the rabbits.
The major accomplishments have been that I have been able to more than double my production of rabbits and that I have been able to get them completely off commercial rabbit pellets. They are breeding normally, having large litters that the does raise to weaning age. I am now into fourth generation of rabbits raised here on the farm.
While I still breed both Silver Fox and American Chinchilla rabbits, we have a line of broken-patterned 7/8th Silver Fox that are proving to be extremely hardy and grow out a few weeks faster than the pure American Chinchilla and Silver Fox rabbits.
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
We have had numerous farm tours throughout 2013. The farm was featured in an article published in Organic Gardening which has resulted in many inquiries as to how the rabbits are raised. I expect 2014 will bring even more inquiries given how expensive commercial pellets have become.