By Charlcie Gill, Zodiac Rabbitry – I read with interest Mary Kilmer’s article “Gleanings from Woodland Rabbitry” (Countryside – Volume 88/2). I have been breeding and raising rabbits for meat for 38 years, and I think I have some insight into why Mary is having trouble getting her does to successfully rear their litters. If you’ve been looking for advice on what to feed meat rabbits, I think this article will benefit you as well.
I believe it is the feed. Mary states, “I mix rabbit pellets with dairy sweet feed that we give to the goats.” It has been shown that lactating does (especially with the size litters Mary talks about), need a good 18% protein pellet to support adequate milk production. Most folks feed a 16% pellet, which works alright if you are not pushing your does too hard. I like to top-dress the pellets once a day with a high protein supplement pellet (such as Animax or Calf Manna). I give one teaspoon to one tablespoon, depending on the breed and individual needs of the doe.
I’m guessing the sweet feed Mary is feeding is somewhere at 9-10% protein. If she is adding this to a 16% rabbit pellet at a 50/50 ratio, she is providing only 12.5%-13% protein—far too little for a doe’s requirements. Mary also mentioned she felt a vitamin E deficiency was involved. Possibly. Again, it is not recommended that pellets be cut with other grains or feed. A lot of research has gone into formulating rabbit feed in order to provide the best balance for all stages of a rabbit’s life. Yes, I know, wild rabbits eat grass, bark, berries, etc. However, they are not being asked to produce marketable fryers every three months or so either. (An average rabbit fryer by far outweighs a typical cottontail.)
Another problem with sweet feed (or any high starch grain), is that it is simply too fattening! Studies have shown that does with excess internal fat not only may have trouble conceiving and kindling but do not lactate well either. Grains such as these can be given as a top-dressed treat (I give a pinch of rolled oats to my bunnies in the morning.) Agreeing with Mary, hay is a must in the rabbitry. It keeps the digestive system in good tone. I feed a good quality grass hay. (There’s plenty of alfalfa in the pellets already.) I think Mary’s New Zealands are trying to do a good job (with 9-10 in a litter). They just need the nutritional support to take those kits to the weaning stage.
For production purposes, crossbreds can be ideal, with their hybrid vigor. However, you can only work with what is in the genetic pool to begin with. The parent stock of that crossbred needs to possess good meat type (if that is the goal), and good productive capability. Like begets like.
The age one decides to breed does depend on the breed or cross and what your individual goals are. Some good commercial strains do well at five months for first breeding. I currently raise Satins (a commercial breed), and MiniRex (a compact fancy breed). Meat is a by-product in my situation. I breed to improve the type and fur on my animals. I have a lot of fun exhibiting them at rabbit shows around my state. All are purebred and all are good producers.
I live on 40 acres, off the grid, and haul water. I generally breed my Satins at six months of age and my Mini Rex at five months. I may alter this in the summer as I find both I and the rabbits can do without the stress of seeing pregnant does through the summer heat, which is very labor intensive in my current situation. When I lived on the grid, I bred all year round.
Raising rabbits in winter can be challenging since most mornings, my water bottles are frozen. (I use a semiautomatic system the remainder for the year.) It’s a lot of work, but I thaw each bottle in the morning and fill with warm water. I don’t like crocks. They take up valuable floor space and young bunnies always manage to use them as a toilet. Water is the single most important element required to keep rabbits healthy and producing well. No matter what you feed the doe, if she doesn’t have adequate water she will fail to produce properly.
After raising, showing and breeding meat rabbits for 38 years, I still (like Mary), find I learn something new all the time. Raising rabbits is a great hobby or even a good small business. I also hope this helps answer the question “what to feed meat rabbits” for anyone who is new to raising meat rabbits.
Published in Countryside May / June 2004 and regularly vetted for accuracy.