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Feeding rabbits

Rabbit pastureThere seem to be a couple of different lines of thought on how to best feed pets and livestock.   For many years I have not followed what seems to be the popular wisdom and have had good results as far as I can tell.  The competing schools of thought seem to be:

  • Measure/meter the amount of food and dispense it at regular feeding times
  • Keep food available at all times, and let the animal feed when hungry

We have been following the second school of thought with the rabbits, and as far as we can tell, it's working just fine.  I have 4 and 10 year old Labradors who have been on that method all their life and they haven't had any problems with overeating or weight.  My opinion (and it's just an opinion based on my own observations) is that if ample food is always available, the animals get used to that and then don't try to gorge themselves when food is made available.  I generally make an entire 50 lb sack available to my labs in a plastic bin.  When it gets low, I buy another sack.

Dawn found that the other school of thought is discussed a bit in the literature she read.  They also suggested feeding at evening time.  The idea behind this seems to be that most wild rabbits feed nocturnally, perhaps mostly due to predation.  I'm not sure how relevant a wild rabbit's behavior is to a completely domesticated rabbit, but that seems to be the conventional wisdom from some sources.

Dawn recently started measuring how much feed our rabbits are consuming.  As we were getting started, we didn't keep track very well.  We just filled the feeders and let them go.  Our results for the first measured week with feeders constantly full (by volume, we'll get some weights later):

  • Doe:  11 cups of feed consumption per week
  • Bucks:  8 cups of feed consumption per week

The doe does seem to be packing on more weight than the bucks, but the does seem to be heavier for most breeds according to the reference material we've looked at.  Our purchased buck is just reaching maturity, while our donated buck and doe have several weeks head start and have been mature for a couple of weeks now.  We don't have numbers on how much feed the rabbits consume while young and growing, but plan to get that once we have a litter.  As we go along, we'll start keeping better track of how much feed they consume from "birth to oven". 

Along with our initial experience with our first buck using his food dish as a litter box, Dawn has observed that it helps to keep the feeder suspended off the cage bottom.  If it is kept raised a few inches from the cage floor, it helps prevent them from soiling the feed.  I'm not sure why rabbits seem to defecate in their food source, but they seem to do it quite readily.  At first I thought maybe they were just depositing cecal pellets there, but it doesn't seem to be so.  Dawn has also suggested that keeping the feeder on the inner walls of the cage keeps rain and dew from dampening the food, thereby preventing waste.

As for supplementing store bought feed, we have been feeding them some purchased timothy hay as it is recemmended for proper nutrition in most of the references we have found (and my local vet made just this one recommendation when asked).  We have also been feeding them regular doses of fresh grass from the yard (mostly bahia grass) which they really seem to enjoy.  When allowed to graze in the yard, they seem to really go for the clover.  They also absolutely love eating fresh oak leaves.  I'm not sure it's too healthy for them (I haven't seen it come up on any toxic plant lists) but they will instantly devour any fresh oak leaves or twigs we give them.

We plan to experiment with different amounts of grass and forage as feed and try to keep track of how much it reduces their dependence on traditional rabbit pellets.  We also would like to try a portable "rabbit tractor" where they can forage within a pen.  I'm not sure how well this will work out, but it is something we intend to try.  It will be interesting trying to build a rabbit proof portable pen that can be wheeled around to the most tasty forage in the yard.

Along with regular feeding, it's also important to provide sticks, twigs, etc. for them to chew on.  It's important for proper dental maintenance, but it also gives the rabbit something to play with; they can be surprisingly playful and inquisitive.  They seem to eat greener twigs pretty quickly, but dried twigs and branches are better for them to maintain their teeth.  Just be careful not to provide a branch that could be toxic.  Walnut and a few fruit tree branches can be toxic, along with others.

All in all, we've just been having fun learning as we go and completely understand that we are amateurs at this so far.  As time goes on, we'll get a better feel for what works and what doesn't.  We're looking forward to learning all about breeding them since we believe our doe has reached maturity.  Most of all, this has been an enjoyable learning experience that we hope will provide some meat for the table and perhaps a measure of self sufficiency.

Shannon and Dawn will be sharing their experiences with raising meat rabbits on Tuesday afternoons. They homestead on three acres in Louisiana when time off from life and working as a sys admin permits.

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