Rabbits are a fabulously healthful, economical and ecologically sound source of meat, and they don’t have to be kept in hanging cages. I think every backyard homestead ought to have a few rabbits out back, and I’d like to share a method of rabbit production that goes beyond the hutch and gets bunnies back on the grass. Using the principles of intensive grazing, raising rabbits on pasture can create food for the family while also improving your land.
The traditional hutch or cage system of raising rabbits is a confinement operation. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; the hutch method has many benefits. You supply all the feed, controlling nutrition to produce a maximum of meat. You probably aren’t cleaning cages, as manure will drop to the ground below, and you have a source of wonderful organic material for the garden. Raising rabbits in cages is a simple and easy way to raise a meat animal.
However, I’ve found a pile of good reasons to keep rabbits on pasture and I’ll share them here, along with the methods that work for me.
During spring, summer, and fall at my place, the rabbits live in wire cages right on the ground. Bucks and does are housed individually, and growing bunnies live together. Every morning, each cage is moved one length down the yard to a new patch of grass. In the evening, the rabbits are offered hay, fresh vegetables as available and some pellets. This might sound familiar: The method just like maintaining a chicken tractor.
The bunnies eat the grass – six square feet a day per rabbit for me – to a close crop. As the cage makes its morning shift, the manure is spread, providing an instant organic fertilizer. The cages won’t be back on that spot for a few months, allowing the grass and other plants to recover.
When cold weather arrives (which is late in coastal North Carolina), I move the rabbit cages atop my raised beds and keep them there until spring, letting the manure drop into the garden – this keeps the bunnies off dormant pasture and saves a winter’s worth of valuable manure for next season’s crops!
So what are the benefits to raising rabbits this way? Wouldn’t it be easier to put them in hanging cages or hutches full-time?
It might be easier to raise rabbits in cages, but not by much, and the benefits for my land and checkbook make it the choice for me. Here’s why:
• Moving cages, checking water bottles and providing food takes less than ten minutes daily.
• The cost of building pasture cages is equal to the cost of building hanging cages, but without the cost of infrastructure. You also don’t need carpentry skills or tools.
• The rabbits eat significantly less purchased food, preferring lush pasture. The adult rabbits only eat about half a cup of pellets a day while on pasture, and are sleek and muscular. I like this not just because I pay almost nothing for feed, but also because that bagged feed is produced elsewhere and trucked in. It’s good knowing that this meat was produced almost entirely off my own land.
• The areas on which the bunnies have been are lush and healthy compared to non-grazed areas. • They’re helping transform a demanding, high-maintenance lawn into a tiny, productive ecosystem – no synthetics, no mowing. You don’t need acres and a cow to use intensive grazing: a yard and some bunnies will do just fine!
• It allows me to rear bunnies that thrive on this lifestyle, from day one. Rabbits have a reputation for having delicate digestive systems; I have found that my bunnies, well-used to fresh plant matter, never suffer upsets from the generous amount of garden surplus I give them – not even the youngsters, who begin grazing as soon as they leave the nest box.
There are some special considerations when raising pastured bunnies, just as with any other type of livestock. I hope to address them in future posts and provide you with the information you need to raise rabbits on pasture!
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