Building rabbit "dorm cages" can help increase breeding, happiness and healthiness in your rabbits.
PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
Rabbits have always been a welcome part of our homestead. Cottontails are economical to raise, provide us with a steady supply of meat for the table and manure for the garden (my strawberries were always puny until I began to bury rabbit pellets between the plants) ... plus come in handy as bartering material.
We are, in short, mighty fond of our bunnies but I do hate to clean row after row of small cages, and place feed and water in dozens of individual pens. And I certainly don't like to see my animals shivering in their cages on a cold winter's day. (Here in Nebraska, we get a lot of wind during the winter, which makes it even harder to keep our rabbits cozy on a minus-15 degrees Fahrenheit day.)
Several years ago — after losing a number of litters to the cold — I said to myself, "There's got to be a better way to care for rabbits!" And I was right: There is a better way. All it involves is taking the bunnies out of their cages and moving them indoors ... into a rabbit house.
Our rabbit house consists of an 8-by-20 foot outbuilding with a southeastern exposure and storm windows along the east- and south-facing walls. (The building's favorable exposure — and its storm windows — made it a lot less difficult to keep warm than it could've been.) To convert the structure into a dormitory for our rabbits, we spread six inches of coarse gravel over the dirt floor ... then covered the ground completely with sheets of recycled corrugated tin, leaving about 1/4 inch of space around the edges of each 3-by-6 foot sheet for good drainage. (We anchored these sheets to the ground with large spikes.) After this, we covered the whole floor with twelve inches of straw.
Next, I gathered together all the orange crates, ammunition boxes, and other wooden containers I could find, boarded the boxes up (leaving just enough of an entry space to accommodate one doe), and arranged them along two of the building's walls. Over these nest boxes I scattered a couple feet of prairie hay and straw ... then left a large mound of the material in the center of the room. Finally, I put down one long trough for water and another for feed ... and the rabbit house was complete.
Now it was time to move the bunnies into their new home. Frankly, I was a little apprehensive: I worried that my two registered bucks (a New Zealand and a California Giant) might fight and injure one another, or that the does themselves would start quarreling. Also, the nights were already getting pretty cold (it was late fall) and I didn't know if the rabbits could take both the low temperatures and the change of homes.
As it turned out, my fears proved groundless. I installed the 18 does, then the two bucks ... and the animals had a field day! They were too busy romping around and having a good time to even consider quarreling. In short, my bunnies — at least — instantly adapted to their new "loafing barn" type home. (I suggest, however, that you watch your animals for the first few hours they're together this way to make sure there's no fighting. Other rabbits may react differently than mine.)
One thing I soon noticed was that each doe had selected a box for her own and would run inside it whenever a stranger approached the building. (Whenever I walked into the building, though, the animals milled around my feet like a flock of chickens.) Since there were more rabbits than boxes, I decided to add extra crates until there was a 1:1 ratio between bunnies and hiding places. (I also piled several ammunition boxes and boards at one end of the house for the baby rabbits to hide in.)
At the end of four weeks, we noticed our first litter in one of the new boxes. Other litters followed quickly. The nest boxes seemed to be working out quite well: The pregnant does filled their crates with straw from the pile in the center of the floor and securely plugged the entrances to their nests with more straw and hay. I never disturbed these nests (or even checked for dead rabbits) until the little ones were at least a week old. All I did was pour a pail of feed (rabbit pellets mixed with cracked corn) and a pail of water into the troughs once a day and feed the bunnies alfalfa every other day. (In addition, I added straw to the pile in the center of the room about once every seven days.)
Within a few weeks, we noticed small bunnies coming to the troughs at feeding time. When spring finally arrived, we had 70 rabbits of frying size, smaller bunnies everywhere, and babies in most of the nest boxes. Our problem now was not keeping our rabbits warm ... but keeping them from smothering each other!
To give the bunnies more room to run around, we decided to build them a large pen outside the rabbit house. We made the chicken-wire enclosure 20 feet long and 20 feet wide, and tall enough so that my six-foot husband could walk around in it without stooping over. (The top was covered with chicken wire to keep hawks, cats, and other varmints from making meals of our bunnies.) To ensure good drainage, I dug a 2-by-6-by-2 foot-deep trench in the center of the pen, filled it with gravel, and covered it with chicken wire. Then I spread two inches of concrete over the entire pen area, taking care to fill in the cracks around the posts and see that the chicken wire was embedded in the concrete.
The rabbits loved their new run. Left to themselves, they played outdoors throughout the night and early morning (weather permitting), then slept in the rabbit house during the day.
Every four or five months we had to clean the rabbit house. This, however, was a simple matter: We just pushed the wheelbarrow right into the pen, loaded it up with old litter (straw mixed with manure and alfalfa stems) from the floor of the building, and carted the load to the compost pile. Afterwards, I took care to place the boxes that had babies in them back in the same spots where they'd been before.
Our rabbits were so prolific that we sometimes found it necessary to restrict breeding temporarily. We did this by partitioning off a corner in the pen, placing an old ammunition box in that corner for shelter, and retiring the bucks to this compartment for 30 days or so.
We ate rabbits all summer, sold great numbers of bunnies, and put 65 fryers in the deep freeze that first year. Our rabbits not only bred more vigorously in their "dormitory" than they did in cages, but they seemed healthier and happier too. And my workload was cut by a good 80 percent or more.
After raising rabbits this way for more than five years now, I'm convinced it's the only way to go. If you're tired of cooping your bunnies up in cages, why not try the rabbit-house method yourself? All you need is a small building and enough hay, straw, or alfalfa to keep the animals occupied. The rabbits will do the rest!