Rabbits: keeping them healthy on pellets and other foods
Rabbit keeping in a small holding
Those who keep rabbits as pets will not want to hear this but rabbit meat is white, just like chicken. Due to their prolific breeding and market value, rabbits are gaining popularity in the third world. Besides, they can be raised in very small spaces. In Kenya, beginners can get expert advice from a government farm in the outskirts of Ngong town which is run by the Kenya Agricultural research Institute (KARI). One can get advice on rearing and marketing rabbits. The station also rears and sells the weaned baby rabbits every so often. Out of the eight breeds available at KARI I chose to start my pilot project with the Flemish Giant and the Chinchila. According to the Wikipedia, the earliest record of the Flemish Giant was around 1860. This rabbit can easily attain a weight of 10 kilogrammes. My five months old specimen weighs about 5 Kg. In this hub I will tell you the methods I have adopted to keep the rabbits well fed and in good health at minimal cost.
Hay and pellets
Most writers will tell you that hay should be one of the staple foods of your rabbits. Hay ensures that they get sufficient fibre for their delicate digestive system. There are those who feed their rabbits on pellets only, while others feed on greens only. This was discouraged even by the experts at KARI. While they recommended feeding the rabbits twice – in the early morning and late evening with pellets, hay should be available for nibbling at all time. It has the additional benefit of keeping the rabbit’s incisors in check since they grow throughout the animal’s life. Without hay, the teeth may grow out of proportion and you may need to take the rabbits to a vet, a prospect that is not appealing if you intend to raise rabbits in their hundreds.
Initally I had a problem finding hay. I thought hard about the need for fibre and settled on maize leaves, the ones that cover the cob, because they were available near at all times. When dried in the sun, they are as hard as hay. Besides, the rabbits love them whether they are green or dried. After all, maize is a Poaceae – true grass, the only difference with other grasses being that it is domesticated and a source of human food. In the outskirts of Nairobi there are many vendors who roast maize and treat the leaves as waste for discarding. Making friends with one or two of these vendors will guarantee you a continuous supply of this domesticated hay.
The large rabbit market in Kenya
Hay is a rabbit's staple
Rabbits will be quite healthy with the following foods
I now have hay with plans for periodical supplies, but I still give the rabbits maize leaves for whatever nutrients that may lack in hay. Given both hay and dry maize leaves, the rabbits with prefer the latter. Below is a list of some of the foods that I give to the rabbits:
- Pellets – these are sold by animal-feeds merchants in packed quantities of 10kg and 50kg. The brand I buy is from Unga feeds and is stated to have medicine against coccidiosis included in the mix. I give each rabbit 25 grammes twice a day. This quantity will increase to 50 grammes twice a day for the Flemish and Chinchila when they become adults.
- Hay – this I tie with a string and suspend in the cage so that the rabbits do not soil it. It is available to the rabbit 24-7. Occasionally the rabbits pull the hay down and use it as a matress, which is okay as there is plenty of it. I get someone to fill a sack full of it for only Shs. 100 (a dollar is Sh. 86).
Cabbage and kale are good too
3. Green banana peels are kitchen by-products in homes where plantains (green bananas) are cooked as either a staple or delicacy. In most places, ripe banana peels are more common, but I find that they do not keep long enough. They are also more slimy and difficult to store.Green banana leaves have a thick slimy ooze that disappears upon drying. They dry fast in the sun, though they will take on a black colour – not too good looking but the rabbits love them.
4. Cabbage and Kale leftovers. Most buyers do not like to eat the thick outer leaves of cabbages and the kale stalks so they leave them with the vendor. When cooking Kale, the thick ribs in the leaves are often removed and discarded, just as well so you can take them away. To avoid a hit and miss, talk to one or two of these vendors to keep the discarded cabbage leaves and kale stalks for you. Many other vegetables have leaves and stalks that are unwanted. Some vendors will even deliver these waste free if they don’t work too far away from you - that is if you build a good relationship with them first.
Dried maize leaves
5. Maize leaves – I dry them out in the sun. I suspend this with a string in the same way as hay. Sometimes when green meals are scarce I offer the maize leaves to the rabbit while still green.
6. Sweet potato vines - If you can get hold of sweet potato vines, they make very nutritious food. In rural areas in Kenya, rabbits are fed on these vines, black jack and other weeds without pellets.
7. Peapods (Pisum sativum) and Pigeon pea pods (Cajanus Cajan). Once the pea has been removed, humans have no need for the pod. In cities, these empty pods end up in the rubbish bin. Fresh vegetables vendors have the empty pods in plenty as waste for disposal. They will gladly give them to any one who requests. Wash them first with water that has some salt and then dry them in the sun. Pisum tend to gather mold so they should be dried if they are to be used for a long period. The pigeon pea pods are excellent as they dry faster and are less prone to attack by molds.
Other foods will keep the pellets cost down
Appart from the hay and maize leaves that should be available to the rabbits at all times, the pellets or foods described below are given in small portions in the morning and evening.
One word of caution about green foods – wash them with water and then rinse thoroughly. Some pesticides may still linger in them. I usully put some salt in the cleaning water to kill some of the germs as well. Allow the green feeds to wither in the sun before using them as food for your rabbits. The KARI experts insist that rabbit’s stomachs can be upset by too much moisture in the green feeds. I find this difficult to believe but then they are the experts. I have seen people raise healthy local rabbits (not hibrids) on greens alone, uprooted and served straight from the farm with no ill effects. Maybe it is the hibrids that cannot tolerate too much nature. Since my Flemish and Chinchila are hibrids, I choose to go with the advice from the KARI experts until I gain good understanding of my own.
At KARI they have a three day training programme which takes place every two or three months. I haven’t attended one but from what I hear, they train on how to rear rabbits; how to market them and even how to make a meal from rabbit meat.
There are numerous other vegetables that can be useful meals for you rabbits. I have only included the ones that I have used with good results. Having alternative food other than pellets means that you can suppliment the pellets or give the rabbits a break from time to time. You will not only save, but your rabbits will be healthier. Alternative foods will help you control obesity in the female rabbits, which I am made to understand should not be overweight for good breeding. Neither should the buck if you ask me. Besides pellets have animal protein included for quick growth of the rabbits which is not their natural food.
When I make use of other kinds foods with good resulsts, I will let you know by updating this hub. Enjoy rabbit keeping.
Which is your favourite rabbit breed?
How to know if the bunny is a male or a female
The experts will tell you that it is easy. I have had to change my mind so many times with the one method that they say is foolproof, I have investigated two more that will make your decision almost certain. Experts recommend looking at the reproductive organs. I recommend that you include watching out for ‘the stomp’ and using a braille reading technic to feel the tips of the mammary glands in the female.
1. Looking at the reproductive organs - most reliable
For the female (doe), her reproductive organ will be very close to the ‘poop’ hole and will appear to be ‘V’ shaped when a little pressure is applied. The male (buck) will appear round and if the bunny is close to maturity a little pressure should reveal the male organ and it is a little further away from the ‘poop’ hole. Mature males should have one kidney shaped hairless lump on either side of reproductive organ.
Sounds like common sense but I have marked a bunny as female one week and then changed to male the following week. Maybe you will have better luck, but if you turn out to be like me, you need a second method- the stomp. Use a felt pen to write ‘F’ or ‘M’ on the inside of the ear to identify females from males in a group.
2. Watch out for the stomp - not reliable
A buck is territorial and becomes aggressive to other males as it approaches maturity. Adult males should be kept in separate cages to avoid fighting. Male rabbits will want to tell everybody, including you that it is ‘the man.’ They do this by raising their rear feet an inch or so and then bringing them down hard to make a clapping sound. They start this display at two months or slightly later. Unfortunately, even females will stomp when frightened which makes this an unreliable method. Confirm by checking the reproductive organs again.
3. Search for the tips of the mammary glands - not reliable
This technic helps to confirm that what you have identified with earlier methods is truly a doe. Use this method on a bunny that is at least two months old. Make the bunny relax with the tummy facing up. Run your fingers slowly on the lower left and right side of tummy looking for tiny pimples or bumbs. You will need to have the dexterity of a braille reader since they will be quite small – about pin head size. When you find one, look for its counterpart on the opposite side. Two symmetrically placed bumps are a sure sign that the other six are present and that, probably you have a female. I say probably because the person who showed me swears by the method, but I have had to revise a female into a male when the developing genitals sprung two kidneys shaped hairless forms confirming a boy. It would appear that males too, just like humans have vestigial female organs. Look at the reproductive organs again for confirmation.
4. Let the male rabbits give themselves up - fairly reliable
When raising rabbits in a group, you can wait until they are about three to four months old and look out for gender role playing. Any rabbit that starts to playfully mount another is a male. Unfortunately, I noted that one dominant female was mounting other females in the same manner which can be quite misleading so other methods must be used to confirm.
5. Let a known male rabbit identify other males and females for you - Very reliable
If you have one rabbit that is a confirmed male, you can introduce the other rabbits to it, one by one for some 'sniffing out'. If it becomes aggressive to some of the rabbits after sniffing at them but appears to 'neck' or mount others, the ones that are received aggressively are definitely males and obviously the others are females.
This method is full proof but will not work if you have only one rabbit whose gender is unknown.
When to breed
When males and females are mature, you the rabbit farmer, decides when they should breed. Unlike cows and goats which have to be ready at a specific season, a mature doe is always ready. Just take it to the buck (male) when YOU are ready to start counting down to 31 days. You must watch the action and note down the date. You will know your buck has been successful when he falls on his side.
The consequences of not noting down the date are dire as I learned the hard way when I lost three broods. Since I was not sure the babies were due, in one case they were born in a cage that had a male and they were possibly eaten. The evidence was in one dead kit. In the second case, I found four dead, after trampling by the mother and exposure to cold. In the last case, I rescued one live one but the others had been trampled and exposed to cold. A nesting box ensures that the kits are contained in one warm place and are not easily trampled.
Three days before the thirty-first day put a nesting box in the cage. Most sites recommend making a box with timber and plywood but I have been quite successful with cartons. See the pictures below. I use about two inches of saw-dust and a layer of grass. The rabbits are able to burrow under the grass when cold and then come to the surface during feeding time. I give the mother a double ration of pellets and more green feeds when she is nursing to ensure that there is enough milk for the kits.
Blood in cage!
I saw what looked like blood in the cage and went into a panic. Fortunately I always read widely before a I take any action, and you should too. Google is the search engine of choice. First, I confirmed that rabbits do not have monthly periods. Remarkably their pee can range from white to red/pink and even green depending on the food they eat. Pine shavings (sawdust) will turn their pee a red colour so there is no need for panic, that is unless the red turns to a dark brown after sometime, which may indicate the presence of blood. I do use saw dust in the rabbit pens so that could be an indicator of where the red colour came from. Since all the bunnies seem in perfect health I took no action.