Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
Since we began raising rabbits on our homestead, the phrase "breeding like rabbits" has taken on a whole new meaning to us. I, like so many other rabbit breeders, had one heck of a time trying to breed my first few tries. What on earth am I doing? I wondered. And eventually I became so frustrated that I wanted to give up. The sad fact is that domesticated rabbits don't "breed like rabbits". And if you're stressed out because your rabbits aren't breeding like you think they're "supposed" to, then this might be a breath of fresh air for you.
First of all, let's just get this out of the way — rabbits don't breed every single time you want them to. Yes, you heard that right. Just because you stick a doe (female rabbit) in a hutch with a buck (male rabbit), it does not mean that they will do their thing and then poof, you have kits (babies) in 31 days. Quite the contrary.
While in my honest opinion, I feel that rabbits are the easiest livestock to breed, it is not always an easy task to accomplish. The typical scenario is when a rabbit breeder tries to breed a doe, and either the doe doesn't lift (a term used when she willingly breeds), the buck isn't interested or can't figure it out, or the doe lifts but is never bred.
Here are a few things that might help you along this journey.
The Unwilling Partner
One day the doe isn't willing, the next day the buck runs around like he's forgotten what he's supposed to be doing. It is a never ending process, but there are various true reasons why either partner is unwilling. Your first objective is to make sure your rabbits are ready to mate. Many times we believe that rabbits are always "ready". Here are a few questions to ask yourself and investigate before breeding.
1. Are they old enough?
Depending on age and breed, a rabbit should not be bred any younger than 6 months of age. Small and medium breeds can be bred between 6-8 months. Larger breeds, such as Flemish Giants, should not be bred before 8-10 months of age. However, larger breeds should be bred before 1 year old (does), as they can accumulate too much fat around their ovaries which can cause infertility issues. Breeding them before a year old helps keep excess fat at bay. When your doe is ready to breed, her reproduction area will be bright pinkish-red. The same with a buck. Virgin does can sometimes be shy and unwilling. In this instances, you will need to allow her to spend 5 to 10 minutes in with the buck each day for a few days. After that, she should be comfortable enough with him and understand what is happening. You can also have a shy buck — this can be due to the fact that he's been snapped at before by a doe, or just isn't an aggressive breeder. Try pairing him with older, more willing does, and then work your way down to the younger, less willing does.
You can also have rabbits that are too old to breed. We typically retire our does at 3-4 years of age, and our bucks a little longer unless they begin to tire out quickly. If you are buying an adult rabbit, I would suggest not purchasing one over 18 months of age.
2. Are they stressed?
If your rabbits have been moved to a new hutch, have been stressed by the neighbors dog, or have a nutrition deficiency, these are all things that can cause them to be stressed. Make sure that your hutch locations are thought out extensively, and that you are offering your livestock the best possible option for them. While most rabbits are domesticated, you must keep in mind that they are still very much instinctual. They need an area of their hutch that allows them to feel safe rather than out in the open.
3. Are they healthy?
This is one of the biggest things that you'll need to keep track of and investigate on a regular basis, whether you're breeding or not. A common issue is vitamin and nutrient deficiency. Are your rabbits eating enough and getting enough nutrition? Most people don't realize that a rabbits main source of food should be hay (such as Timothy hay or orchard grass) or pasture, rather than just offering feed pellets. On the other hand, you could also be feeding too much. A tuna fish size can full of food each day per rabbit, and free feed hay is all they need. If a rabbit is underweight or overweight, it will not be willing to breed, nor should it.
Another health issue is vent disease, which can affect both doe and buck. When inspecting your rabbits before breeding, make sure their reproductive area's are not swollen, blistered, and bright red. If they are, you will need to treat your rabbit before breeding, as just with an STD, it can be spread from rabbit to rabbit during breeding times.
Check for ear mites and clip nails if needed -- this ensures that they are feeling their best and can move around efficiently. If they are in the middle of a hard molt (shedding of fur) then they will be less willing to breed as well. Let them rest up for a few weeks, and then try again.
4. Is the weather bad?
Weather can play a large role in breeding. In the Winter months, it can be too cold. The rabbit uses all its resources to keep itself warm, never mind the thought of adding babies to the mix. However, given the proper tools, you can very efficiently breed rabbits in the Winter time. In fact, it's easier to breed in the winter than it is in the dead of Summer, while Spring is the easiest of all. The Summer heat can cause bucks to go temporarily sterile, and the stress from the Summer sun can cause neither party to be willing to breed. In the Summer months, you'll notice that the doe puts less work into tending to kits, and rarely has a lot of fur covering them in her nest. In the Winter months, it takes a lot of preparation and nest building on the doe's part. Never underestimate the time that she spends preparing for her litter.
Make sure that your hutches are winterized when it is cold (wrapping with plastic wrap or surrounding with straw) and in the shade during the summer months. This will help make the weather less probable to interfere with your breedings.
When All Else Fails
If your rabbits are healthy, happy, and active, then sometimes it seems like nothing will help get them to breed properly. In which case, you can try adding Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV) to their water (especially the does) for a week before trying to breed again. Organic ACV is great for any livestock. We offer it to our chickens in their water in the Winter, Spring and Fall -- one tablespoon per gallon. You can give it to your rabbits as well, as it helps their body become more alkaline -- it is also anti-bacterial, anti-fungal and anti-viral. So if something else is going on inside of your rabbit that you cannot see, this should help take care of that issue.
Another thing you may consider is bringing the buck to the doe. In most breedings, we take our doe to our buck, otherwise our buck spends too much time sniffing the does cage rather than paying attention to the doe. If the doe becomes hostile, remove the buck immediately. There's no need for anyone to get hurt. Otherwise, if everyone plays nice and the buck doesn't try breeding within the first 30 minutes, you can try separating them -- doe into the bucks cage, buck into the does cage for the evening. Once the doe is comfortable with the bucks scent by morning, bring the buck back to her and she will most likely be more willing to breed.
Whatever you do, don't over do it. If you are not standing there watching for the notorious "fall off" the entire time, then you won't know if your doe is bred or not. If you continuously keep trying to breed her, she can become pregnant with two litters at once, as many rabbits have two uterus'. This would be extremely difficult for her to handle, and will most likely result in losing one or both litters. We always watch for a fall off. If there isn't one, then we re-breed. If there is a fall off, we wait 2 weeks and then palpate the doe. If we do not feel babies, we give it one more week and then palpate again. If there are still no babies, we re-breed.
No matter what the outcome, patience is necessary when first getting started with rabbits. Often times people become frustrated because they have an idea of how it's "supposed" to work, but that assumption just isn't true with domesticated rabbits. After you get the hang of it (which most likely won't be until your third or fourth litter), the successful breedings certainly do outweigh the unsuccessful ones. Whether breeding for pets, show, or meat/pelts - the reward is incredible, and it's nice to know that you're one step closer to being self sufficient.
Amy Fewell is a work-at-home mom, homesteader, blogger and writer. Her and her family live on a mini-homestead in Virginia where they raise Icelandic Chickens, standard Rex rabbits, ducks, and more! For more information about their homestead, visit them online at The Fewell Homestead.
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