Feedback on Rabbit Raising

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ILLUSTRATION: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
Detailed views of an automatic waterer (top left), nest box (top right), and hutch you can use in a rabbit raising operation.

Normally a bad or misleading article on rabbit raising
wouldn’t bother me . . . but three?

Now please don’t get the impression that I’m down on
MOTHER EARTH NEWS. On the contrary, I think you have an excellent
publication that provides me and my Peace Corps volunteer
friends with a lot of interesting reading and some good
ideas. It bothers me, therefore, when an otherwise fine
magazine puts out poor information on a subject I know
something about.

My credentials as a rabbit expert? Well, first, I’ve had
extensive experience with raising these animals in the
United States and three African countries. Since my
background is in microfarming techniques, I’ve devoted a
lot of time to correctly running inexpensive rabbit projects.
In fact, I’ve raised the critters commercially for years
and have written three books and a number of articles on
the subject. I think, then, that I ought to know bad advice
when I see it.

Let’s begin with the reprint from the HAVE-MORE Plan. I realize that you published
this material with a statement that some of the original
info was out of date . . . but, even when you add such a
warning, I’m not sure it’s wise to print incorrect
information for MOTHER EARTH NEWS’ eager readers.

Take this statement on the rearing of young by foster
mothers: “Wally rubbed a little Mentholatum on (the doe’s)
nose so she couldn’t smell the difference between her own
and the young one from another litter.” Well, Wally
shouldn’t have done that. Mentholatum really burns tender
tissue and you could actually peel a mother rabbit’s nose
by using it. If you want an aromatic substance for this
purpose, peppermint oil from the drugstore is a better
choice.

In fact, though, scent of any kind is probably unnecessary
when you’re transferring a litter. There’s no need to
destroy the smell either of the human hand or of the dam
whose offspring are being moved, because does are not
choosy in this respect and don’t distinguish among the
young even if they’re of different colors. Evidently, when
the young to be adopted are moved to the foster mother’s
nest and come in contact with her own litter and the
nesting material, any distinct scent that might be
discernible to the doe is destroyed.

Of course the young rabbits should not be over-handled, and
some breeders suggest that those to be adopted be picked up
with a clean cloth or a piece of paper. Also, when
selecting litters for fostering, it’s wise to watch
carefully for any evidence of infection among the young or
the does so the transfer won’t become a means of spreading
disease.

I’d like to move on now to the HAVE-MORE Plan’s suggestions
about feeding, which are as inaccurate as those about
handling the young. For example, rabbits don’t need
“hayracks full of hay.” Two feedings — grain in the
morning and greens in the evening — are all that’s
necessary.

Concerning grain feeds, the article says that rabbits
“don’t seem to like any grain that’s ground up too fine” .
. . whatever that means. Not so! I’ve fed the beasties
poultry mash (formulated for laying hens) moistened with a
little water and have always finished out strong
litters of eight. If any of MOTHER EARTH NEWS’ readers are using
poultry rations already, they might as well be giving this
chicken feed to their rabbits too. Generally 1/2 cup of
grain daily is sufficient for bucks and dry does, and 3/4
to 1 cup for pregnant or nursing females.

To balance their morning grain ration, the rabbits can be
fed fresh grass or other greens each night (when they eat
more and are more active). A liberal quantity should be
allowed (generally as much as the animals can consume by
morning). If stale greens are left in the cage the next
day, though, the food should be removed and less given the
following evening.

It’s best to put green food in a simple chicken-wire holder
open at the bottom and top. This container is placed on the
outside of the hutch door . . . which should have an
opening near the bottom of the feeder through which the
rabbits can pull the grass. Such an arrangement is much
better than heaping a pile of greens on the floor where
they quickly become fouled with urine and pellets.

Remember that grass/weed feeding is how you keep your cost
of production down. Greens are cheap — often free
— and once the rabbits get used to them, they’ll eat
a lot and reduce your overall expense for feed. (Start the
animals slowly on this food and increase the amount over a
couple of weeks.) On many projects I’ve been involved with
here in Ethiopia — and earlier in Nigeria —
rabbits were maintained in good breeding prime on the diet
I’ve outlined: 1/2-3/4 cup of grain in the morning and all
the greens they could eat overnight.

There are other blatant mistakes in the HAVE-MORE article,
but let’s end with its suggestion for hutch management. The
Robinsons say, “We keep our metal hutch in the barn. We
clean it out once a week, keep plenty of straw on the floor
and in the next box.” This is very poor practice, as well
as being too much work. For the best sanitation and
prevention of hutch burn, coccidiosis, and other diseases,
the animals’ quarters should be single-tiered and provided
with a floor of 1/2-inch wire mesh.

To compound the HAVE-MORE Plan’s errors, further
misinformation on rabbit housing appeared not long
afterward in MOTHER EARTH NEWS under the title “Pequoda’s
Rabbit Hutch.” Even if Pequoda has been living in
the woods for 30 years, his article was a disaster.

The sketch accompanying Pequoda’s piece headed, “Here is an inexpensive coop with which you can
gain maximum results from rabbits.” Well, it’s nothing of
the kind and the author’s calling a hutch a coop gives a
clue to the quality of the advice.

First of all, I don’t see how such a building could be
called “inexpensive” . . . all that black building paper,
shingle cement, etc., just aren’t needed. And as for
“gaining maximum results,” the sketch shows a two-unit
hutch . . . one for the buck, I suppose, and the other for
the doe. Now, I can’t believe that anyone would want to
start with only two compartments, when you can build a
considerably cheaper and better three-unit hutch for half
the effort and expense. What’s more, three animals are just
as cheap as two considering building costs for the hutch,
the meat raised from the feed, etc. Also, two does are a
benefit in that they’ll provide the buck with more exercise
(fat males are not good breeders) and will permit a
staggered breeding program to insure meat on the table year
round.

One final comment on the Pequoda hutch: I’m very much
surprised that Mr. Peterson likes to bend over every time
he breeds, inspects or feeds his animals. Rabbit shelters
should be waist high for easy and practical management.

You see, MOTHER EARTH NEWS, printing this kind of information is
giving a lot of eager homesteaders a false start
in an amazingly easy practice.

I’ll finish my remarks with some comments on the excerpt
from Grow It! in MOTHER EARTH NEWS. Now, this
article wasn’t bad . . . it was the best of the three but
still, unfortunately, by no means complete. Like the other
two pieces, Grow It! is especially misleading on the
subject of housing the animals.

The worst omission in Langer’s advice is the failure to
mention the correct sizes for individual cages. This is a
serious matter, for I can’t begin to tell you how many
people have failed with rabbits because they think these
animals need only a minimum of space. The truth is that the
project is doomed if the rabbitry is overcrowded.

Adequate space for rabbits varies with the breed: heavy,
medium and small. For medium-sized varieties, the space per
doe and nest box should be around 3 X 2-1/2 feet. The cost
of hutch building can be greatly reduced, though, if the
nest boxes are attached to the doe’s cage to leave the
floor space completely available to the mother and the 6-8
young that will be sharing her quarters for several weeks.
(Though its dimensions were sufficient, by the way, the
nest box in the Grow It ! article was a bit too
elaborate. I much prefer a nail keg — or the model
I’ve drawn — for the purpose.)

While we’re on the subject of nesting, I think Langer’s
suggestion that clean scraps of cotton be provided for the
doe must have been left over from some former experience
with raising kittens. If straw is supplied about three or
four days before the female rabbit kindles, she’ll make a
comfortable nest, and will also pull hair from around her
teats to make the bed even warmer and cozier. Save yourself
the time and trouble of offering her special materials.

After kindling, when the doe is ready to breed again,
she’ll give signs of being in heat. Since a lot of people
aren’t around their rabbits enough to catch these signals,
I thought I’d mention that the female can in fact be bred
any time (except for a couple of days before and after
estrus . . . but don’t worry about that). If she’s not in
heat, however, it may be necessary to restrain her by the
loose skin over the shoulders until the buck mounts. (He’ll
get used to this help in no time.) Also, many breeders
assist in mating by sliding their free hand under the belly
of the doe and pushing the tail back with a finger on each
side of the vulva. Though such restraint is often not
necessary, it’s useful when working with a nervous or young
female.

Just one last point about the Grow It! excerpt:
The automatic feeder was grossly imaginative, and I don’t
understand the use of the screen bottom, which eventually
becomes a good resting place for stale or wet feed and the
grains that rabbits don’t care for. Leave the screen out
and have the feeder easy to clean . . . or forget the whole
idea and use a heavy earthernware dish or bowl. A small
coffee can nailed to a piece of board also works well and
is cheap.

And speaking of automatic devices, I don’t see why
self-waterers weren’t mentioned in any of the three
articles. They keep a constant supply of fresh water
available and are easy to make.

In conclusion, there are many points of confusion in all
three articles, and I’m sorry my time doesn’t permit me to
write a better, more comprehensive paper for you. I hope,
though, that this letter will prompt a more thorough review
of your contributions for accuracy and practicality. Don’t
skim over your subject matter, but give the reader what he
will need to know to make a correct and knowledgeable
start.

Harlan H.D. Attfield
Agricultural Program Representative
Peace Corps, Ethiopia