By Kelly Dietsch – My love of rabbits began at a young age. I can remember my first rabbit, a gray buck I named Wiggles. A few years later we got a smaller black doe named Sniffles. We had these rabbits as pets for several years, until the time we buried them in our small family “pet cemetery.” It wasn’t until many years later (when my husband and I bought our farm in Raymondville, Missouri in 2009) that I rediscovered my love of rabbits and sought out advice on how to breed rabbits.
Being new to Missouri and to rabbit raising, I wasn’t sure exactly who to contact and how to start up a rabbitry and learn how to breed rabbits. I talked with acquaintances and neighbors, and searched on the Internet, to find local breeders. I was interested in Flemish Giants because my husband had raised them in New Jersey, and I’ve always liked large rabbit breeds, but I found it difficult to find breeders. As I was responding to ads for outside rabbit cages, I met Mr. Krummen and realized that here was an experienced breeder, in the nearby community of Yukon. Not only did Mr. Krummen raise Flemish Giants, but he had a variety of rabbit breeds. He also builds and sells custom cages – both hanging wire cages and wooden hutches.
I started my herd with a buck and two does I bought from a local breeder. I soon added a sandy doe I purchased from Mr. Krummen. I now have two bucks and four does, which I keep in outside hutches. I’ve learned a lot about rabbits in the past two years, but my experience fades in comparison to others, such as Mr. Krummen, who have been doing this much longer than I have.
5 Tips I Wish Someone Had Told me About How to Breed Rabbits
#1: Decide what kind of rabbits you want to raise. Narrow down the decision by first deciding if you want a large, medium, or a small breed.
#2: Decide the reasons you are raising rabbits — are you interested in raising rabbits for meat, as pets or for show? This can help you decide on the breed of rabbit.
#3: Decide how much money you are willing to pay for a breeding pair of rabbits. Registered rabbits with papers are going to cost more money than rabbits without any papers. If you’re not planning to show your rabbits, you may decide to not buy registered ones.
#4: Find a reputable breeder. Go out and visit their rabbitry. See how they treat and care for their rabbits. You want to start with healthy, young does and bucks. If a breeder is reluctant to have you see their rabbitry, then perhaps you should find another breeder.
#5: Talk with other breeders and learn from them. Read information on the Internet and in your local library about how to breed rabbits. Learn from your mistakes. Have patience and enjoy your rabbits.
Over the past two years, I’ve gotten to know Mr. Krummen better, and I’ve learned a lot from him. We’ve traded rabbits; he’s helped me “sex” my bunnies (identify the males and females); and given me advice. Mr. Krummen started raising rabbits in 1971, and has been raising them ever since. He first got interested in rabbits when his wife, Ricki, bought him a New Zealand White rabbit for Easter. He kept it in a cage in his suburban Illinois backyard. He soon purchased a trio of Checkered Giants and a trio of New Zealand Reds. In 1979 he and his wife moved to Bucyrus, Missouri. They only brought six rabbits with them from Illinois, and built up their stock from these rabbits and others Mr. Krummen purchased once they moved. Two years later, they moved to Yukon, Missouri, where they currently reside.
Mr. Krummen raises a variety of breeds: Flemish Giants, New Zealands, Checkered Giants, Lionheads, Red and Siamese Satins, Rexes, Mini Lops, Polish and Dwarf Hotots. He has approximately 100 rabbits, which he keeps in wire hanging cages, as well as wooden cages and/or converted barn stalls.
I interviewed Mr. Krummen mainly to ask his advice on breeding and raising kits, since this is where most beginning breeders experience difficulty.
Mr. Krummen’s Tips on How to Breed Rabbits
When you want to breed rabbits, always bring the doe to the buck’s cage, not the other way around. This way the buck is not distracted by a new environment, and can focus on the task at hand, which for most bucks does not take long. Also, mature does are territorial, and may attack a buck in her space.
Mr. Krummen likes to wait until rabbits are “a good size” before breeding them. For most rabbits, they reach sexual maturity around five to six months of age. Some breeders recommend breeding the larger breeds at 8-10 months of age; while others will breed at six months of age. The main thing is to breed the larger breeds before they are a year old. If a doe is not bred in her first year, it may be harder for her to conceive. Bucks also reach sexual maturity at five to six months.
Mr. Krummen will try to breed a doe at least twice in one day. This helps to ensure that the doe is bred; and also produces larger litters. If the doe won’t accept one buck, she may accept a different buck. Therefore, it’s good to have several bucks to use for breeding. He’ll breed the rabbits in the morning, and again later in the day, maybe four hours apart. If the doe was bred in the morning, she may accept the buck again in the afternoon, or she may not. Usually if they’re not bred within one to two minutes, it isn’t going to happen, and it’s best to just try again later. When the breeding has been successful, the buck will usually squeal and fall off the doe sideways. I usually watch the rabbits and remove the doe right after a successful breeding. If doe doesn’t breed in one or two days, try her again in a week.
Some folks will put a doe with a buck and just leave them for several days. This is a practice neither Mr. Krummen nor I recommend. Mature rabbits are usually solitary animals. If kept together, the doe may attack the buck, or the buck may hurt the doe.
Keep good records of breeding dates, kindling dates (kindling is when the doe gives birth), size of litter, survival rate, and other important facts. This information can help you later decide which rabbits to keep, which ones to sell, and which ones to cull. Keep in mind, though, that with age, older does (four years and older) will have smaller litters, and older bucks will have a lower sperm count. Hot temperatures will also decrease sperm counts. For this reason, rabbit breeders in warmer states will not breed during the summer months. The heat is also hard on younger and older rabbits. If you live in a warm climate, you may want to consider raising smaller breeds, or provide facilities to keep your rabbits cool during the summer.
Preparing for Kindling
When learning how to breed rabbits, it’s important to know the gestation period (the length of time for a litter of kits to be born) of rabbits is between 30-32 days. It’s best to put the nest box into the doe’s cage around day 28. If you put it in too early, the doe may use it like a litter box, making it an unclean nest. If you put it in too late, the doe may make her nest on the wire. If the kits are born on the wire, you need to put them immediately into a nest box. Does will pull fur and make their nest mixed in with straw. Some does will do this several days before kindling; however, most will pull their fur right before giving birth. During the first two weeks, sometimes kits will fall out of the nest box and will be unable to crawl back in. Don’t be afraid to pick up and replace kits into the box. If a kit is outside the box, it will stay outside the box until you pick it up and move it. The doe will not pick up and move her kit, you need to do it for her. At around 10 days, the kits will start opening their eyes. And within two to three weeks, the kits will be able to hop into and out of their nest box. Most breeders will remove the nest boxes by the third week, since rabbit waste will accumulate, creating an environment in which disease can spread. If the temperatures are cold when the kits are between two to three weeks old, I will clean out the nest box and turn it upside down, leaving it in the cage. That way, it provides additional shelter from the cold and wind.
Nest boxes do not have to be anything elaborate. Usually they are wooden boxes, just large enough for the doe to fit into. They could be open or partially covered. It’s best for the opening to have a ledge, so that the kits cannot easily fall out. Sometimes kits will be nursing and the doe jumps out of the nest box, carrying her nursing young along. To prevent kits from falling out of the nest box, add a “lip” or “ledge” to the entrance that will knock the kits off the doe. The kits will be knocked off into the box, and not outside of the box.
Before each use, I disinfect the nest boxes with a mixture of bleach and warm water. I let it dry in the sun, then I fill the box with dry, clean straw.
Mr. Krummen lines his nest boxes with feed sacks (he cuts two pieces the size of the box and layers it on the bottom of the box). On top of this he places a piece of rabbit wire (1/4 inch x 1/2 inch) just the size of the nest box. Then he fills the box with straw. The rabbit wire gives the young rabbits friction (for when they start crawling around), and the feed sacks absorb most of the urine. If you put in feed sacks and don’t cover it with rabbit wire, the doe will just chew it all up and make a mess. He removes the nest box when the kits are out and about, around three weeks of age. He usually doesn’t have to disinfect the boxes, since they are fairly clean, once he removes the feed sacks, straw and rabbit wire.
Smaller breeds will have smaller litters (two to four kits), while larger breeds will have larger litters (6-12 kits). Most does can only raise around eight kits at a time. Larger breeds can have 10-12 kits, but cannot produce enough milk to keep them all alive. Mr. Krummen and I try to breed several does at the same time. This way, if need be, you can swap kits. If the kits are young, another doe will accept them as her own and nurse them and raise them. So if one doe has a litter of five and another doe has a litter of 10, I may put two kits in with the doe of five. It is okay to pick up the kits, but try not to handle them excessively. I try to switch kits while they’re less than a week old. Mr. Krummen has switched them up to a month old, with success. The kits should be close in age and size to the litter you are adding them to.
I usually pet the doe before handling her kits, so that her smell is on my hands. Mr. Krummen will sometimes use baby powder to disguise the smells (especially if the kits are older than two weeks). He rubs the powder on the kits and also on the surrogate doe’s nose. Depending on the temperament of the doe, you can handle the kits and move them into or out of certain litters. It’s important to check the kits daily, to see that they’re healthy, and to remove any that are sickly and/or dead. If you have a first-time mother, or a skittish doe, you will want to give her privacy. Provide a calm and quiet environment for her and her kits. Keep strangers and other animals (such as dogs) away from the nest box.
Some breeders will wean kits as young as four weeks old. Usually the kits are eating solid foods by their third week. However, Mr. Krummen recommends keeping the kits with their mother until at least eight weeks old. If weaned too early, the kits don’t grow as well. Even though they are eating solid foods, they will continue to nurse their mother. Also, don’t wean a large litter all at once, this may cause the mother to get mastitis, an inflammation of the mammary gland. Instead, remove the larger ones first and leave the smaller kits with their mother for several more days. Or leave one kit with the mother, to help her dry up.
What to Feed Rabbits
Since Mr. Krummen goes through roughly 50 pounds of feed a day, he buys it in bulk. What makes the best feed for rabbits? He feeds pellets (at least 15 percent protein), along with an occasional handful of alfalfa hay. Since I have a small rabbitry, I buy bagged pellets from a local feed store. I also give my rabbits hay and, as treats, apples and carrots. I give my pregnant and nursing does a higher quality feed, which seems to help them produce healthier litters. Mr. Krummen has not had a problem with his feed, and gives all his rabbits the same pellets.
Facility and Waste Management
Of course, 100 rabbits will produce a lot of manure. It’s important to keep their cages clean, as well as the floor space underneath the cages clean. Mr. Krummen keeps a layer of straw (he chops it up with his lawn mower) under the cages and mixes it with the fresh droppings. The straw absorbs the urine and cuts down on the ammonia smell in the barn. He periodically removes the fresh droppings to a larger pile of manure outside the barns. He sells the manure (by the bag, or by the truck load) to local gardeners and farmers.
It’s important to have good ventilation in your rabbitry. In the warmer months, Mr. Krummen has ceiling and box fans circulating the air. He keeps a radio playing at all timeshe finds that this keeps the rabbits calmer and not so skittish to loud or new noises.
As with most areas of farming, if you’re planning to raise rabbits to get rich, look elsewhere. You need to raise rabbits because you truly enjoy it. With that said, my small rabbitry does make a profit. However, it’s a small one. I advertise mainly on the Internet and have sold rabbits for pets, for meat, and for breeding purposes. I also sell at some local swaps. Mr. Krummen, on the other hand, does not have a computer, and sells his rabbits mainly at local swaps and by word of mouth. Find out where and when the small animal swaps are in your community, and get to know other rabbit raisers. Good luck as you begin your journey to produce healthy, fine rabbits! I hope this tutorial on how to breed rabbits was helpful.
In addition to raising Flemish Giant rabbits, Kelly and her husband, Andrew, raise beefalo, cattle, elk, chickens, goats and pigs. They also own Splitlimb Ranch Guest Lodge, a family-friendly lodge. Their farm is located in Raymondville, Missouri. Kelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; or visit their website at: www.splitlimbranch.com.
Originally published in Countryside May / June 2011 and regularly vetted for accuracy.