I had the opportunity to share about my natural feeding system for my rabbits at the 2016 Spring Gathering put together by Lisa Matthews of Modern Missouri Pioneers it was a great time (even if a bit chilly for mid-May!) Posted here is a written version of that presentation.
Whether you just dream of having rabbits one day, or you have them and desire to feed them more naturally, you are not alone! Stick with me here and you will see how you can feed your rabbits a superior diet on significantly LESS cash!
Our story with rabbits began when my daughter, then age 11, began her own rabbit business in order to financially back her desire for a pet. She researched how to care for them, different kinds of hutches, all their habits and needs, and where to obtain a healthy one. She found a local breeder that had some for sale, we went and picked out 2, and her rabbit business began! She learned a lot about business, people skills, customer service, phone skills, giving directions and other valuable communication skills. Along the way, we acquired bags and bags of bunny berries! That next spring, having always wanted a garden, but being limited by my small lot in town, the shade that covered most of it, as well as tree roots and gas lines that prevented digging or tilling, I decided to try a no-till plot in a sunny spot of front. I layered straw with the bunny berries in that small plot, boy was that a productive garden! One squash plant from that garden provided enough squash for our family of (at that time) 5 – and we eat A LOT of squash! As well as quite a bit to give away, it was a monster plant. ~ So began my addiction to rabbit poop!
We bargained with my daughter for a doe of our own, so we could experiment with rabbits for meat. While loving it that we could produce meat of our own right on our small lot in town, we were not loving the idea of feeding our meat source a feed that was Genetically Modified and contained soy. I did some research, but it seemed that everything pointed to modern domestic rabbits being bred to consume a high protein feed and that they would not thrive on a natural diet.
There HAD to be a more natural way to feed, someone else had to be having success at this endeavor. After going down too many rabbit trails to count, driven by my bunny berry addiction, I finally had several leads to a plan.
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I had come across an extremely helpful book, Beyond The Pellet (The Urban Rabbit Project Book 2)by Boyd Craven, jr and Rick Worden. They feed a “recipe” of natural feeds based on the science of the pellet. Looking at fiber and other nutrients, taking into account- and educating us on the rabbits digestive system, they teach a formula for gathering rabbit feed from your own lawn! In the very broadest sense, that basic formula is:
75% leafy greens
consisting of a wide variety, because this carries the bulk of the nutrition. Roughly 1/2 cup of greens per pound of rabbit: so, an 8 lb rabbit would require a quart of greens, divided; morning and night, per day.
25% heavy fiber
consisting of twigs, branches, bark, brambles, and kitchen vegetable scraps.
It was time to try out my plan! I started with a handful of dandelion greens; they attacked and devoured! It was so hard not to run back out to the yard and give them more! The next day, I gave them another handful, they were liking this. My buck, who was 3 years old was thumping and doing a happy bunny dance! Next, I added plantain. I kept up this process of adding a new green every 2 days until they were getting a quart a day. By this time, they weren’t eating as many of the pellets, on their own, but I started giving them less. Eventually, I started them on whole oats and Black oil sunflower seeds (BOSS) They like them soaked, and sprouted, but I haven’t made it a priority to do this on a regular basis. Fodder is also an excellent option, but I haven’t been able to work that into my routine, either.
Making it Happen
Elements to make your plan a reality:
Pasture, this can simply be a back yard, but make sure it’s diverse. We’re not looking for a uniform, green model lawn. We need lots of weeds in there! I’m talking dandelion, plantain, wild carrot, clover and many others.
Garden, if you don’t already plant one, start! Basically, anything you like with a few exceptions.
some plants that I Love for the rabbits:
- Radish – for the tops, they are fast growers and keep at it all summer and into the winter, even in fairly cold weather, 20 degrees. Mine even started sprouting back this spring! I plant the daikon type for this. As soon as they’re pretty established, just go down the row, breaking off a leaf of each until you have what you need, pick up at the same place the next day, continue until you’ve finished the row, then start again!
- Amaranth greens– for the protein content, it is fairly fast and a heavy producer and loves the heat! I am planting plenty this year, and am planning on experimenting with drying it for hay. There are plenty of varieties and most are very ornamental, so you can fit them in anywhere.
- Legumes -for the protein content, Pea greens in the cool months, Austrian winter peas. Clover anywhere it can be fit in, cool months, also. In the heat, Beans and cowpeas.
- Comfrey-very high protein content, 25%! also, a myriad of uses in the garden and with many health benefits to the rabbits, you can find all the comfrey benefits at the rise and shine rabbitry plus there is a lot of information inBeyond The Pellet (The Urban Rabbit Project Book 2)on comfrey benefits and uses. at $2 for a root cutting, you can afford to go all out!
- Herbs of all kinds are extremely welcome and beneficial. Mint is nice because it’s so early, mine absolutely love Basil. There is very good info on herbs and their uses in the rabbitry here.
- Kale is abundant, available in very cold weather, high in vitamins and minerals, and they love it.
- Sweet Potato greens : they adore them! High in protein at 25-30% they are a nutritional power punch and abundant producers, so you should have plenty! If you trim a little of the ends, you should have plenty to feed and as a bonus, harvest the tubers for yourself! Sweet potato plants are very attractive with pretty purple flowers, they can fit in anywhere. Texas A&M did a study on finishing meat rabbits on sweet potatoes which you can read here. They found that the rabbits fed on pellets did have a larger final weight, 5 1/2lb versus 5 lb. But, interestingly, the rabbits fed solely on sweet potato vine had the same dress out percentage as the pellet fed rabbits!
- Winter Squash keeps well, seeds are good protein and it’s nutritious.
- Raspberries, the leaves are good for all things reproductive.
- Weeds have to be pulled anyway, it’s great to have a use for them!
Cover Crops do dwell in the garden, however they are so important to this kind of feeding operation, they require a discussion of their own. It has taken me a while to wrap my head around the usefulness of this concept, but once you get it, it is priceless. It is especially hard for those of us who grew up steeped in a monocrop culture. However, they are extremely useful to those of us with lots of mouths to feed off of a smallish parcel of land. Stick them everywhere. Do not ever leave any ground bare. A bare patch of ground between crops is a waste, and it is better for the ground for it to be covered with something. What are useful cover crops, and how do you use them? Here are some of my favorites: Buckwheat is super easy in the summer. It takes only 30 days from seed to flower! You can plant it anywhere even if you only have a couple of weeks. It likes the heat and as a bonus it dries well as hay. Clover is an easy fast grower that likes cool weather. I have a 25 foot patch and I can cut 1/3 of it successively for 3 days and by day 4 I can start back at the beginning again! being a legume, it is high in protein and fixes nitrogen for other crops! It fits so many places nicely. In the fall, you can sew it under, or in between rows of heat loving crops, like tomatoes and peppers. The young clover won’t bother these plants and when the hot weather crop is done, the clover is established and will produce for you until it is quite, quite cold. This enlarges the amount and variety of crops available to you so much! Austrian Winter Peas are another cool weather crop and they fit in nicely in many corners. Plant these in late summer to harvest the greens late fall and into the winter. I plan on planting Rye Grass this fall to harvest late into the winter. I also plan on using Diakon as a cover crop in a large area to add bulk to their diet well into the winter. I will use this in a space where the deep root can break up the soil for another crop in the spring. Cowpeas are a warm season crop that can be cut and fed. Remember, you don’t have to let them bear fruit, just cut them when they are a good size.
You can make your own hay out of anything that you feed your rabbits. Cucumbers, tomatoes, squash, etc as well as greens of all kinds can be chopped and dehydrated and stored for winter use. Herbs can be dried, stored and then added to hay. As for pasture or lawn, you can cut that and dry it just like farmers do for hay. There is a complete description of how to make hay in
Beyond The Pellet (The Urban Rabbit Project Book 2)
So, all this sounds good, but how much time does it take? When I had only 4 breeders I could pick and feed in about 10 minutes. At the moment, I have 7 adult rabbits and a run with 9 grow outs and I can pick and feed in about 20 minutes. However, many times it takes me much longer; that is when I plan on feeding them weeds from the garden. It takes a lot longer to fill a bucket with weeds that have to be pulled from between garden plants that you want to leave in tact than it does to go out to a pasture and cut or pull from there. I just count it as part of my garden chores and go for it!
The really great part is that you have control, so you can decide how dependent you want to be on pellets or whole grains. You could do a totally free, all natural diet for your buns with good planning and some work if you made use of cover crops, hay from pasture, drying all your vegetables in bite sized pieces and planting plenty of cold weather crops and maybe utilizing a cold frame. Or, on the other end of the spectrum, you could choose to feed pellets as usual but give greens as a supplement to augment their diet and cut down on the amount they consume. It’s a matter of preference. No matter what you choose, have fun with it!
Beyond the Pellet
is the go to book on natural feeding. It is worth every penny you spend on it!
rise and shine rabbitry has an abundance of good info. If it’s rabbit related, chances are, it is discussed here. Rick has been raising rabbits since he was a boy.
Backyard Meat Rabbits is a facebook group with members all over the world. If you have a rabbit question, there is someone with the answer!
Rabbits in Colonies is another facebook group with a lot of knowledge on rabbits; a lot of the members feed greens and are pellet-free. it’s a bit smaller so a littler easier to keep up with.
A list of rabbit friendly plants can be found here
more on natural feeding here
johnny’s select seeds has a cover crop comparison chart in PDF form that you can download to help you decide what cover crop best suits your particular need, including appropriate planting times.
Small Plot High Yield Gardening by Sal Gilbertie is an excellent gardening book and he is sold on rabbit manure being the best thing you can put on your garden! He keeps rabbits just for the manure!