Bunny Love

Hello everyone!  Sorry I have been offline, I spent the summer looking at farms and taking as many trips as I could afford, as next year I hope to have my nose to the farm grindstone during the growing season.  Got in a great trip on the Rogue river again, and a beautiful long weekend sea kayak trip on the lower Columbia….my two favorite rivers in Oregon.  Haven’t found the farm yet….possibly because I was also doing stuff like this:

my old stamping ground, a rubber raft on the Rogue River

I thought I would do a post on breeding rabbits.  One would think that breeding rabbits is a no brainer, and mostly it is, but rabbits like every other creature have their cycles and their preferences.  Rabbit fertility is keyed into day length, and they are hard to breed when the days are short unless you have them under artificial lighting (which we don’t).  Our goal is breed our does 3 times a year:  the gestation period is 31 days and we wean and harvest the baby bunnies at 58-60 days and then mate the does again, so 9 months out of 12 our girls are working, with a three month break in the dark of the year.  We usually start breeding in February or March.

Rabbits ovulate after mating, so my theory is the less stressful the mating, the more likely the breeding will be successful and the litter of good size. We have two breeding does and one buck, and everyone lives in their own cage.  When it is time to breed we will put the doe in the “date cage”, a smaller cage that we attach to the side of the buck’s enclosure.  The bunnies can visit and touch noses but not get to each other.  We leave the doe in the date cage for 2 days, which gives her time to get in the mood and the buck time to work on his pick up lines.  After two days when the doe is showing some interest we will put her in with the buck for about 15 minutes.  This procedure has made a big difference for our one Momma bunny, who really does not care for the buck at all.  Before the date cage, we would have to hold her down to be mated, which wasn’t fun for anyone.  Now, she will lie down for the buck, but as soon as she feels she has been successfully mated Momma bunny starts chasing and biting poor Poppa buns, and we put her back in her own cage.  Snacks the brown doe has always liked the buck, and she will engage in all kinds of trampy and seductive bunny behavior in the date cage when she is in the mood (this mostly involves stretching out like a playboy bunny in front of him showing him her belly and rubbing her chin on everything).  Once the rabbits are mated, the does usually lie down and “pant” for 45 minutes or so after-wards, I always take this as a good sign….hopefully it means they are ovulating.

A pregnant doe can be a very touchy rabbit, you want to keep them out of sight of the buck and reduce stress as much as possible.  Every bun is different….my books all recommend giving the does a nest box at 28 days, but I like to give the does a bunny box as soon as they are bred.  Snacks will start nesting within two days of being bred, another sign that she is successfully mated.  Momma likes to keep me guessing for two weeks usually, before she seriously starts carting hay around.

sure sign of a pregnant bunny, a mouthful of hay and a crazed look in the eye

If they do end up using the bunny box as a litter box, I just change it out at day 28 for a clean one.  In my experience once the girls have had a litter or two they know what the box is for. There are plans for simple rabbit nest boxes online, if you have an especially large rabbit you may need to scale them up.  Snacks for example, is a gloriously large girl, and has a special box to accommodate her size.  This go round she was quiet until 8 days bred, and then spent about a week building and perfecting her bunny nest.  We try to mate the rabbits fairly early in the morning, this usually leads to a night time or early morning kindling.  Right before or even during kindling, the doe will pull fur from her chin, chest and sides and line the bunny nest, making a very soft and warm resting place for her kits.  Snacks had 8 kits in July, including two brown spotted ones that are especially adorable.  Momma’s june kits are ready for harvest, we are just waiting for a break in the heat.

When the kits are about 16 days old, their eyes are open and they are just starting to hop in and out of the bunny box on their own.  I swap the bunny box for a clean one at about two weeks, and that is often when I get a first full count of the babies (before then I just check to make sure everyone is moving and alive).   In the next week the babies will be everywhere and into everything, this really is their most adorable stage.

I feed my bunnies an organic commercial feed that is fairly high protein (17%), and the does get all they can eat when pregnant and nursing.  A doe nursing 9 kits will eat quite a bit…and 9 kits at 6-8 weeks old will plow through the kibble.  The rabbits also have free choice timothy hay at all times, and I will feed them greens, rose and berry cuttings, orchard prunings, vegetable trimmings, grass, root vegetables, windfall apples and fresh alfalfa once or twice a day when available.  The kits will start nibbling at the green stuff as early as two weeks, as well as the timothy and the pellets.  I have not yet (knock on wood) had any issues with baby bunny diarrhea, though I have read it can be an issue when the bunnies are transitioning to solid food.  I check on the bunnies food and water twice a day.  When the kits are new this is especially important, as sometimes a kit (or three) will hang on to a nipple and get dragged out of the nest box before it is big enough to hop back in.  It is up to you to get those kits back into the warm bunny nest with their litter mates.  Typically does only nurse once a day, and they won’t nurse a kit that is out and about on its own.  I spot clean the cages weekly, and do a big muck out as needed or when the babies are harvested and mom is transferred to the ‘date cage’.

Future plans include trying a more communal/social living arrangement at least for the does, as bunnies are fairly social animals and enjoy the company of other rabbits.  I would also love to get the rabbits out on pasture, to get the adults more fresh food, exercise and an improved quality of life.  Our bunnies have large cages, and very stress free lives, but I can’t help but feel the chickens have a better deal, as they get to get out and run around for a few hours every day.  The other goal would be to reduce or get rid of the commercial feed altogether, as that is my greatest cost.  I know pet rabbits can easily live on vegetables and hay with no feed at all, but to come up with a good diet that can support production meat does from food that all comes from the farm…..

Another option will be to mix my own feed:  one recipe I have seen is 6 quarts oats to 1 quart each corn, sunflower seeds, wheat, and barley, if I can find all of those ingredients in bulk and organic (or grow my own…oats are easy to grow but hard to clean without equipment, but I could certainly grow the corn, wheat, and sunflower seeds).  I should be able to grow timothy hay and alfalfa (with irrigation) as well.  I would also like to pasture the rabbits, which should reduce their feed needs considerably, although it will probably slow their growth rate.  That would up my labor costs some, but if I could raise the youngstock almost exclusively on pasture, that would be well worth an extra couple weeks of hauling cages or fencing.
Pictures to follow….we should mate Momma bunny this weekend so I will try to document the date cage set up.
Also, Portland’s Tour De Hives is this saturday!  Buy your tickets, get on your bikes and visit the bees!  I will try to have some home brewed mead chilled to sample if you are out North Portland way.

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