Rabbits for Gardeners (cont)
By: Bob Bennet
Which rabbit breed to chose can seem a bit bewildering. There are 50 breeds available, and sizes range from two to 20 pounds. Good meat producers weigh five to 10 pounds at maturity. Two of my five-pound favorites are the Tan and the Florida White. No rabbit outperforms a Florida White for percentage of edible meat per pound of live weight. Consider the Tan if you like a little color. The 10-pound New Zealand White is the most common domestic rabbit in America today. Other 10-pounders to consider are the Californian, white with black markings, and the Rex, which comes in about 15 colors and has velvety, plush fur.
Start your search for rabbits, hutches and supplies at the local farm supply store. Ask there who raises good rabbits. Most farm supply stores have a bulletin board. Check it for advertisers of rabbits. Put up your own notice. Visit a few rabbit raisers. Most of them love to talk about their rabbits. Choose yours from a producer who keeps them in spotless wire hutches.
Fall is the best time of year to get started with rabbits because lots of young stock is available and prices are at their annual lowest. Expect to pay $10 to $20 each for white rabbits. Fancy colored breeds usually cost considerably more, but they don't grow or taste any better.
Rabbits are bred for the first time when they're six months old, so you will find many "juniors" (younger than six months) for sale. You could also buy one older doe, up to a year or so in age, and have her bred by the person selling her to you. This will get you off to a fast start, but it's usually a good idea to start with young animals so you can learn about them before you mate them. For best production, keep does three years and bucks five years. The natural life span of a rabbit is about 10 years.
A buck and two does require four wire cages (the fourth is for weaned offspring). These hutches are 30 inches by 36 inches and cost $20 to $35 each. They're also easy to build. Please don't make hutches out of wood and chicken wire. These are unsafe, unsanitary and unsightly. You'll also need feeders and water bottles.
Rabbits are hardy outdoors in all garden zones but prefer temperatures below 90oF. Without space in a garage or other building, consider building a shed. A good design has four pressure-treated posts with a slanted roof to protect the rabbits from sun, wind, rain and snow. Choose a siding appropriate to the season and your climate. Or keep your hutches under an arbor or lath house. A strong fence to keep dogs out is essential.
Pick up a bag of rabbit pellets and a bottle of sulfaquinoxaline at the farm supply store. Add the latter to their drinking water to control an internal parasite, their only real pest. Your rabbits' staple diet should be commercial feed. It costs about $13 for a 100-pound bag. Each rabbit will consume a nickel's worth a day.
You can supplement their diet with feed that costs you little or nothing. Here's an excuse to let a section of lawn grow tall and go to hay, or plant some of it to alfalfa, red clover or oats. But remember to sun-dry grass or clover before giving it to your rabbits; abruptly adding these materials when fresh to their diets can upset their stomachs.
Rabbits recycle some of your excess garden vegetables, too. Carrots (especially the big, woody ones), chicory, overgrown beets, rutabagas, Jerusalem artichokes, lettuce and parsnips are all excellent. Put chunks of dried sunflower heads in the cages and the rich seeds will make their coats shine. The only vegetables to avoid are any of the cole crops, such as cabbage, mustard or broccoli.
Feed your rabbits all the pellets they will eat each day until they are six months old. Mature rabbits consume four to six ounces of pellets a day, less if you supplement the diet. Whenever you change their diet, do it gradually.