Whether you’re raising meat rabbits or rabbits for show, rabbit farming changes seasonally. What works in summer may not work in winter. And though rabbits are one of the easiest livestock to raise, precautions do need to be made.
Unlike many livestock, rabbits do better in 0-degree weather than 100 degrees. Their fur thickens, their appetites increase, and they huddle together. But that resilience only goes so far.
A rabbit hutch needs to be sheltered on several sides during all seasons. In the summer it shades them from the hot and harsh sun. Winter rabbit farming requires protecting then from rain, snow, and the bitter wind. Many rabbit hutches already have wooden tops and sides. If you have hanging or stackable wire cages, cover the top with a piece of plywood. Lay rigid material such as wood against the sides to block the wind. Allowing sunlight to naturally shine through one panel can help them warm up on clear but cold days. If a wet storm blows in through the open side of the rabbit hutch, gently dry the animals off with a towel.
Rabbit cages can sit within a closed shed during both summer and winter, as long as adequate ventilation and lighting is provided. Resist the urge to add space heaters because of fire damage. As long as you don’t have baby rabbits, freezing temperatures are still safe.
If you choose to bunk rabbits together so they can keep each other warm, don’t mix males and females that have reached breeding. Two mature females may fight but they rarely harm each other. Mature males will fight and damage ears and eyes. Also, do not place additional rabbits into a cage with a mother and babies because she will defend their territory.
Additional protection can be provided by wrapping an old quilt around a stack of cages or by making a hanging canvas barrier. But remember that rabbits chew anything that touches the side. Never put material that may harm the rabbits near the wire. Plastic is a poor choice for this reason, unless it is far enough away that the rabbit will not eat it.
Do not let feces back up into the cage because it can stick to the rabbits’ feet and freeze. Keep the wire clear so both urine and droppings can fall away without leaving moisture that can cause frostbite.
Food and Water
Rabbits stay warm two ways: with their fur and their metabolism. If water freezes, they won’t eat. Soon they won’t have one of their two heat sources.
One of the easiest ways to ensure rabbits have fresh water is to keep two to three bottles per cage. When one bottle freezes, switch it out for another. During exceptionally cold months, rabbit farming may mean switching water out every hour. It’s easier to change out one bottle and let it thaw while the rabbit drinks from another than to bring a single bottle in and take the time to melt the ice before allowing rabbits to quench their thirst. Another reason to keep additional bottles is because frozen rabbit bottles shatter when dropped. The middle of winter is the wrong time to run short on functioning bottles.
Some people experienced to rabbit farming switch to metal crocks during the winter because the metal does not break when ice expands. Frozen crocks can be placed in a bucket of warm water until the ice pops out. The crock is then refilled with fresh water.
What to feed meat rabbits depends on how much money you want to spend and what you have around. Either way, they need more than what they consume during warm months. Keep commercial rabbit food as their main sustenance, protecting it from moisture in a covered container. Do not feed greens to baby rabbits but they are acceptable for adults, especially if they are nutritious leaves like kale and clover. Only feed a few treats, such as greens and carrots, because balanced feed provides the right nutrients for rabbit farming. Always keep food available. Never feed anything with mold on it.
Breeding and Babies
Rabbits may not “breed like rabbits” during certain seasons. Like poultry, they are ruled by the sun. When the days are longer they are naturally more inclined to breed. Some does may be receptive without intervention but some require that you supplement with a light until 9pm or 10pm.
Avoid kindling in the hottest or most frigid months with timed breeding. Does are more welcoming in the spring and fall anyway. If you are rabbit farming for meat, plan most of your batches during the most agreeable months so your freezer is full by the time January rolls around. Then you can let the does take a break during a season which may be dangerous for her kits.
New mothers may neglect to pull hair before kindling. Or they may give birth on the wire. Unfortunately, unless you get to the kits in time, there’s not much you can do. If you find a new batch of unprotected babies, bring both mother and kits inside. Gently pull hair from the mother’s underside and line the nest. If the kits are too cold, they will need to be warmed. Some people place the nesting box beside a furnace or wood stove. Probably the safest way to warm kits is against human skin, such as within a woman’s bra. Be sure the kits’ noses are unobstructed so they can breathe.
People experienced with rabbit farming will tell you, “If it’s cold enough for water to freeze, it’s too cold for baby rabbits.” Straw bedding and the hair pulled by the doe will keep naked newborns warm in the chilly springtime but not in the winter. If temperatures drop below freezing, kits must be kept in a shed or a house.
If you bring does into a house to kindle, keep them in the coldest room, such as a garage or basement. This allows both does and kits to easier acclimate when they have to go back outside. Keep kits inside until they are fully furred, between one to two weeks. Put them back outside during warm spells. Add extra bedding to nesting boxes so the kits can burrow down, but do not add manmade material such as cloth or quilt batting because this can tangle around kits’ necks and bodies. During the first few nights outside, you may choose to add additional protection by wrapping quilts around the cages.
Check rabbit hutches frequently. Often a kit can latch to a doe’s nipple then fall out of the nest when the doe leaves. Does rarely look for kits and put them back into the warm bedding. Shine a flashlight around all sides of the nesting box to search for kits. If you find one that has gotten very cold, gently warm it. But if the kit is just a little chilly and there are more babies in the nest, the heat from its siblings is usually enough to warm it back up.
Rabbit farming during the winter only requires a few changes but those differences can be crucial. Keep them sheltered and always have fresh food and water available. After a while you will realize it’s not difficult.
Do you have any rabbit farming tips for the winter months?