Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Esther, a rex doe, bunkered down in her straw filled hutch on a cold winter’s day.
We often talk about preparing our chickens and other livestock for winter, but rarely about preparing our rabbits. It could be the fact that rabbits are pretty resilient when it comes to winter weather, but believe it or not, they need extra warmth and tending to as well.
I have heard plenty of horror stories from people who were unprepared, or not tentative enough to what the weather was doing to their herd. For these reasons, I would really like to get the proper information out there as to what we ourselves do for our rabbits in the winter months.
When we first started our rabbit journey, I maybe went a little overboard on protecting them through cold weather. But I would rather be over protective than not prepared enough. Last year I read on a social media site where a local "homesteader" lost all her rabbit herd to a big freeze. But the reality is that she was careless. Her rabbit's living areas were not covered in plastic or stacked with straw to help break the winter wind. They didn't have extra straw to burrow into. And their water was frozen and only changed once a day. This is the wrong way to do it.
With just a few simple tricks, your herd will be ready to go this winter!
1. Replacing Water Bottles with Crocks
We aren't fancy enough to have heated water bottles, so this means we must check on our rabbits twice a day to switch out water. The metal spout on water bottles freezes too quickly, so in the winter months we exchange our bottles for crocks. In the event that they freeze, the rabbits can still lick the ice. And we change the water in the morning and evening — they must be changed twice a day in order for your rabbits to remain healthy.
I have found it easier to fill a bucket up with as hot of water as you can stand, dunk the frozen crock in, and then put the crock full of water into the hutch. Yes, the water is hot, but it cools down quickly, and our rabbits never go straight for the water anyhow, they go for the food. You can always leave a very small chunk of ice in the crock if you're concerned. I highly suggest using plastic or metal crocks. Ceramic ones can crack and break easily.
2. Wrap the Hutches in Clear Plastic, or Stack With Straw
I stress clear plastic so that there is more sunlight coming into the hutches. Rabbits needs vitamin D just as much as we do. And they definitely will not mate without a good source of it. This can prove a challenge in early spring months. With that said, we do use tarps over many of our hutches. Just about anything can go around the hutches as long as it breaks the winter winds from coming in. If it's not too windy or well below freezing, I lift the tarps and plastic up during the day, on one side, so that they rabbits can get extra sunlight.
If your rabbits do not get enough sunlight, it can make them easily sick as well. This is why I prefer clear plastic. If you are using plastic or a tarp, make sure it's removable, but also make sure it is tightened down. Wind is a major threat to rabbits!
A rex doe sunning herself in the winter sun.
Your other option can be stacking straw around your hutches, but this can get pricey. Straw insulates as well as breaks the wind. Many people prefer this as it is the warmest option. In order for it to work properly, the straw needs to go on the outside of the hutch, otherwise the rabbits will burrow into it and rearrange it for you.
3. Pack Your Hutches with Plenty of Straw
And make sure there is always enough straw for them to keep warm. We go through a few bales of straw every winter for as few rabbits as we have. Straw is only $6 or so per bale. It's not that expensive to add extra if necessary. Because straw is an insulator, your rabbits can arrange it in their hutches the way they wish, and they will burrow into it to keep warm.
4. Consider Giving Them BOSS
Black Oil Sunflower Seeds (BOSS) are a treat for rabbits. We call it a "treat", rather than a "meal", because if they were to feed on it every day, they would be extremely over-weight. BOSS causes your rabbit to gain fat in their body. While this is bad for mating, this is wonderful insulation for their body in the winter months. Consider giving them a few extra handfuls of BOSS each month to help them gain a little weight to keep warm.
5. Add ACV to their Water
Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV) will help keep their bodies alkaline and healthy in the cold months. Make sure you use organic ACV with the Mother. In fact, it's a great way to keep them healthy all of the time. I find that we tend to give it to them more in the winter, however. The measurement should be 1 tbs. to a gallon of water. Or you can just top off each crock or bottle with a few drops. This doesn't need to be an everyday ritual, but can be done several times a week.
Meat kits huddled together in a straw packed hutch to keep warm.
If you find that you have a litter in the winter months...
Many good rabbit mamas will tend very well to her babies, as long as she has the proper tools. Make sure you are feeding her plenty of food, because not only is she trying to keep her body warm, she is also going to eat more while pregnant and nursing. Given a good amount of straw, she will do just fine. But make sure you are giving her straw every few days as necessary, as she will build and re-build her nest as her babies grow.
I'm sure there are other things that you could do to pamper your rabbits in the winter months, but these are the basics of what we do. This method, diligently kept up with, has allowed us to keep our rabbits healthy and happy during these frigid days. We have never once lost a rabbit to the cold or winter months. And I feel like that's something to take pride in. However, it happens. Even to the best rabbit breeders and keepers. Sometimes, winter is just incredibly mean, and there could be other health issues that you were not aware of with your rabbit. Don't beat yourself up too much—just continue to strive for better!
Amy Fewell is a work-at-home mom, homesteader, blogger and writer. She and her family live on a mini-homestead in Virginia where they raise heritage breed chickens, standard Rex rabbits, ducks and more! For more information about their homestead, visit them online at The Fewell Homestead. Read all of Amy's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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