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  • Writer's pictureKatheryn

Rabbit Colonies, Tractors, and Hutches

Updated: Aug 3, 2021

When we first made the decision to add rabbits to our homestead, our goal was to produce a sustainable yet affordable source of protein for our family. I wanted them to have the most natural life possible, with access to fresh greens and shelter from predators. So, of course, we turned to the internet and found three main ways of raising rabbits: In colonies; in tractors; and in suspended wire cages. It's been three years since we bought our first bunnies, and we have tried all of the formerly mentioned methods. We were shocked to find which method won out in the end!

Rabbit Tractors

Pros:

our first tractor design was way to heavy and impractical

  • Rabbits can be moved to fresh pasture daily

  • Lower food cost

  • regulate a breeding schedule and monitor production

  • no need for bedding

  • low maintenance (no manure to shovel)

  • can be used in weeding/fertilizing the garden

  • tractors customizable to hold as many or as few rabbits as needed

Cons:

  • Rabbits can become susceptible to diseases lingering in pasture or soil (which can be a real issue if you have other animals such as chickens or other wild rabbits free-ranging in the same areas)

  • less protection from the elements

  • The rabbits can be a bit tricky to catch in larger tractors

Our Results:

We built several rabbit tractors, each design with more purpose and practicality than the last. We took the advice of the breeder we purchaced our rabbits from, not to place the tractors anywhere our chickens had been present. He told us, coming in contact with chicken poo would kill our rabbits quicker than anything else. Our chickens were confined to a run in a small portion of the yard, so that would be easy to avoid. We set up our buck and two does in their own tractors and set the tractors on a patch of lush green grass. I moved the tractors each morning, leaving behind all their bunny berries to fertilize the grass while giving them fresh grass to graze each day.


The routine was simple and only took a few minutes every morning. Move them, freshen their water, and give them their ration of food for the day. Before long, our girls were making nests and having their first litters. Talk about exciting! Is there anything cuter than baby bunnies? This was actually working!


Then, a few days after our mommas had their litters, all their babies died. We chalked it up to being new moms and not knowing what to do, so we bred them again. This time they had their babies in the freezing rain, and despite them being in an enclosed nest box, water washed in and froze both the litters. This was truly heart breaking. It was a loss that prompted my husband to design a new tractor so we wouldn't make the same mistake again. He raised the nest box several inches of the ground to avoid any washouts. However, all our breeders died within days of one another. We later learned the cause was likely coccidiosis.


We were still determined to make the Rabbits and the tractors work. So, we bought a new trio of buns. This time, they didn't even make it to producing a single litter before they died. It is incredibly difficult for me to loose any of my animals without purpose. We had to change our approach to raising rabbits. Sometimes you just have to know when to cut your losses. And the rabbit tractors were a loss. That's not to say it hasn't worked for others, or it wont work for you. This method just wasn't right for us. The risk of desease and weather extremes outweighed the benefits the tractors had to offer.


Rabbit Colonies

Pros:

Chris installing the electric fence around the rabbits

  • Provides the most natural environment, giving the rabbits the option to dig and exercise

  • Relatively low maintenance

  • hands off when it comes to breeding and rearing young

  • could have the option of grazing natural plants and grass

  • burrows provide a natural source of protection from the elements


Cons:

  • No control over breeding and timing

  • Difficult to manage production and costs

  • regular wellness evaluations are difficult in this setting

  • requires some sort of litter or bedding

  • requires some sort of building or large enclosure

  • Risk of disease spreading and affecting the entire colony

  • Catching rabbits can be tricky. They are fast!

Our Results:

We, were so excited about this set up. Even though we couldn't move the bunnies to fresh pasture daily, we built two colonies to rotate them as they consumed the grass in each. The enclosures were built with cinderblock and had a burried paver floor about 3 feet under the ground to prevent any escapees, while still providing the rabbits with the option to burrow and create little homes and nests. We pre-dug the burrows and added storage bins at the end to provide access in case we needed it (to count litter size, determine the health of the litter, and remove any dead kits that might prevent the mothers from caring for the rest of their young). We planted a mix of annual rye and clover for them to munch, and added a gravity fed water system in a five gallon bucket.


The first problem we ran into, was with the storage bins. we wanted to add a layer of dirt to the top to help insulate their burrow from weather extremes ( like our lovely florida summers that can reach triple digets). Any time rain fell from the sky, the lids fell in from the weight. So, we got rid of the bins, hoping the rabbits could naturally regulate the cleanliness of their nests, and we could get a head count when the babies started exploring the outdoors.


Next, was how to protect these vulnerable creatures from predators. While we installed an electric fence to deter ground predators, the top was left wide open. We planned on adding a net roof to help with winged foe but sourcing the netting at an affordable rate was proving difficult.

Turns out the need for roofing was outweighed by the health of our rabbits. Their health started to deteriorate before overhead predators became a problem. Once again our rabbits contracted coccidiosis, and while I was able to spot the symptoms sooner, catching the rabbits in such a large area to treat them became extremely difficult. By the time they were slow enough for me to catch, the disease had done its damage, and we lost yet another set of rabbits. By this point, I felt completely defeated, I didn't want the heartbreak of loosing any more animals. I was done. But, I have an extremely determined husband. He never quits. NEVER! we still had one more method to try. Wire cages. The thought brought chills to my soul. Could I really doom these rabbits to such an unnatural life cooped up in a tiny wire cage?


Wire Cages

Pros:


  • lower risk for the spread of disease

  • Identify illnesses in individual rabbits with the ability to isolate and treat the affected

  • regulate a breeding schedule and monitor production

  • collect manure for use in the garden or worm bins

  • enclosures can be located just about anywhere with the option to stack in small spaces

  • cage sizes can be customizable to suit individual needs

  • catching rabbits is much easier

Cons:

  • maintenance and husbandry consumes more time

  • The rabbits are living a more unnatural life, with little room to move ( my biggest issue)

  • upfront costs can add up quickly

Our Results:

I was whole heartedly against this last method. If I couldn't give my bunnies a happy healthy life, why should we raise them. Cages seemed so unnatural and cruel to me. My husband, the practical one, pointed out something I hadn't considered before. Was exposing our rabbits to diseases on our property and in our soil merciful, when we could eliminate the risk entirely? My reluctantly short answer, no. These rabbits had been bread unnaturally, to achieve unnatural results, and more than likely couldn't survive in the wild. Their purpose was still to provide us with a more sustainable source of protien and wire encloseres were our last option.


We bought the cages, waterers, feed dspencers along with 10 rabbits. The rabbits were extremely cheap and riddled with ear mites, skin mites, and soar hocks. I spent more time in our new rabbitry attending the rabbits and returning them back to health, than with any other task on the homestead. Each day I expected to walk in and find that we had failed again. Each day I was pleasantly surprised to find the rabbits improved more rapidly than the last. before I knew it, we were breeding them. The love and care I gave them each day was returned in the form of large happy litters from healthy bunnies.


We did hit a few bumps along the way with wired cages, some we solved, and others have been put into our plans as we grow our rabbitry. One of our most frustrating issues was leaky water bottles. We tried almost every style and brand of water bottles out there and they all seemed to fail us. The ball would get stuck and the poor rabbits

couldn't drink a drop of water with one style. On another style, the springs would malfunction and the bottles would leak all over the place, leaving the rabbits without water once again. Then we came across these little gems on amazon. These gravity fed water cups are similar to the chicken watering cups, but have a larger well for the rabbits to drink from and are made of metal, so the rabbits can't chew through them. The only downside was how long they took to arrive from china, and how much money we threw away on those useless water bottles.


We have now successfully been raising bunnies in wire cages for nearly three years. Our future rabbitry plans include relocating the cages and suspending them so their waste can be shoveled off the ground and into our worm bins for composting. A project I look forward to sharing with you.


Until then, sweet homesteading,

Katheryn Williams


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