There are many good reasons for rabbit production: rabbit production as an alternative livestock, rabbit production as a means of utilizing small rural holdings in a profitable manner, rabbit production as more efficient means of converting feed ingredients into a healthy meat for human consumption compared to the traditional farm animals, rabbit production as an excellent learning and enjoyment experience in institutional settings (prisons, long term care facilities, etc.) and rabbit production as a family hobby for semi-rural and urban families while supplementing their meat supply in a nutritious way. Every one of these aspects of rabbit production increases food security since each of them contributes to an increase in the availability of a healthy digestible meat supply at a lower environmental cost; the environmental cost being reduced by the higher feed conversion and the ability to use low grade forage supplies as well as by the different nature of the rabbit droppings compared to normal animal manure. All of these aspects of rabbit production contribute to sustainability and resource management.
In this part of the world there needs to be many more family rabbit projects, with one buck and two to five does. This level of production gets rabbits spread out into the population, so that more people can learn about the good value and fine flavour of rabbit meat. In many parts of the world, rabbits are raised in a spare room of the dwelling unit, or in hutches in the kitchen garden, where they recycle waste parts of vegetables into excellent fertilizer, while providing the family with a supply of healthy, fresh meat. For indoor rabbit raising, a sheet of poly laid over a sloping wood shelf can drain the waste water into a bucket. A shallow slope lets the liquids run off while the manure pellets remain to be swept off into another bucket.
Rabbit breeders who have gained experience in home production for a couple years, may wish to become "commercial" - in other words, raise more rabbits than their family needs, and so offer rabbits for sale. Before going "commercial", the rabbit producer must be sure of the market situation for these rabbits for sale, and most importantly, the producer must be sure that his/her management skills are good enough, because being able to raise rabbits for home use compared to raising them to sell profitably in a commercial operation, is about the same difference in skill levels as the difference between learning to colour within the lines and overhead welding. This publication will help you learn some of the basic skills of rabbit production, but practice makes perfect, and a year or two of practice is usually required for you to get good at these skills. After that, it can take two to eight years to build up a good working herd, with a good doe in most of the cages.
In these days of greater environmental awareness, the first consideration in setting up a rabbit raising project is to have or find a use (or sales) for the manure. Rabbit droppings are an excellent fertilizer for gardens and pasture; figure on the output per 20 does being adequate to provide fertilizer for one acre of pasture for the year. Rabbit droppings are about 3-1.5-0.3 on N-P-K value, so are a good nutrient for growing pasture. Some supplementation of phosphorus and potassium is necessary for most garden plants and flowers. Rabbit droppings can be applied as supplied by the rabbit, "composting" is not needed, there are no weed seeds and rabbit manure does not burn plants. It is important to keep the floor as dry as possible so that manure stays dry; catch waste water in gutters or buckets to be emptied daily (McNitt, 1986). If you collect rabbit urine, use it sparingly, it will burn plants.
Wash-down systems of manure removal are prohibited in most areas now, unless a proper liquid manure handling system is in place with pumps, settling lagoons, etc. These expensive systems are nice for handling semi-liquids such as cow manure, but are not necessary for handling the conveniently pre-packaged (pelleted) rabbit droppings. As well, recirculating manure lagoon water for wash downs can circulate staph germs all over the barn.
We've tried the environmentally controlled type of rabbit raising, in a closed building with ventilation, heating, cooling and dehumidification, but it doesn't really work, since rabbits require more fresh air than you can possibly imagine, and you definitely cannot afford the $1 per fryer towards the electricity costs (and electric rate in BC is very low). Instead we work with the mild climate in BC coastal areas (same as in Washington and Oregon), and raise rabbits without all the unnecessary expense and capitalization. Globalisation as regards rabbit raising requires low input cost management, because the threat of low-cost imports, especially from China, is always present. If you are going to build a rabbitry in a cold (and/or hot) inland area, you should restrict the size of the operation to supplying your own needs and maybe a few selected customers; you will not be able to compete commercially with coastal breeders who don't have the high costs of creating a suitable environment. Therefore since 1992, our rabbits have been returned to an open facility designed with reference to Thomas (1983) and Harris et al. (1983). This development has been successful (McCroskey 1996), and the success of open air systems has recently been validated by Goby & Rochon (1994). Sales persons for enclosed intensive rabbit management systems consistently attempt to show that an open-air non-environmentally controlled, non-intensive system cannot give steady production through the winter. But, along the coast here, actual heating of the rabbits is not needed, and high capital costs have to be avoided to have a successful rabbit operation. Meanwhile, we breed rabbits successfully in all months of the year.
Our rabbit building is 2.75 x 24.5 metres (9' x 80') inside measure. The construction method is driven treated poles, with truss roof framing. This width allows four feet between two rows of 30" caging, allowing room for front-hung nests if desired. The roof covering is translucent woven poly plastic (10-year life). This building is depreciated over 15 years at a distributed cost of C$4 (four Canadian dollars) per year per doe, certainly within the budget of anyone. This building can be made long or short to meet your own requirements. If made 11' long (3.2 m) it will hold ten cages. Short versions of the building can avoid having an overhead exhaust fan system, by having openable gable end vents. Security around the open barn is maintained by a four-strand electric fence outside of the building to keep out the wily coyote and other stray canines. The building can easily be added on to if more production is desired. Send for construction plans, only US$1 or C$1.61 postpaid.
Our building is situated under broad-leafed maple trees so that it is in shade from about April 20th to the third week in October. This gives natural lighting all year and solar heating in the winter. The natural photoperiod is extended by single-tube fluorescent lighting which works by photocells to extend the lighting up to the limit of the timer at 16 hours photoperiod. This system turns off the artificial lighting during the day when there is sufficient natural lighting (Thomas 1983). Natural daylength at this latitude is about eight hours in winter, and 16 hours in summer. In the winters since 1997, lighting schedule has been split so that while the primary daylength follows natural daylength, from August 20th to April 20th the remainder of the missing 16 hour light period occurs during the night, centred around midnight (solar time), beginning with one hour supplemental light on August 20th, progressing to seven hours supplemental light December 15th to January 15th. The minimum dark period, morning and evening, is four hours. The does will generally have the litters about an hour after the lights come on, which means about 9:30 AM and 9:30 PM during the coldest time of the year, to coincide with feeding time. If you have a straight 16 hr day on your timer in the winter, the lights will come on at 4:00 AM and you better be up by 5:00 AM to check on new litters. Also, the light during the winter nights gives you time to dump out the water system or bottles before a very cold night, and provides lighting to do snow removal from the roofs; we consume most of our snow load capacity by the weight of the cages. Bucks can be kept in an area without extended hours of lighting. If the building has to be set in open sun, cover it with greenhouse shade (63% or higher) cloth and plant some poplar trees immediately - rabbits have low tolerance for high temperatures.
The ideal growing temperature for rabbits is 60°F (15.6C) and 60% relative humidity. Humidity is almost never that low in the outdoors here, so you have to write off humidity and ignore it or spend large amounts on equipment and energy to remedy it, all for little gain. The normal seasonal temperature variation is between -9 and +29 degrees Celsius (15 to 85°F), with temperatures outside of this range less than 2% of the hours in a year. Rabbits do better when the temperature variation is minimal, but they will breed and grow adequately in the coastal climate. If any supplementary heat is used at all, it should be restricted to nest box heaters (under the floor of the nest), these have proven to be very useful in the UK, by keeping nest temperature to about 80°F (27C) all year long (Partridge, 1988). The major concern in construction and siting of the building, is minimizing heat gain in the summer, while most people would assume that the major concern would be providing warmth in the winter. This difference shows the difference in temperature tolerance between rabbits and humans, rabbits are fur-bearing animals while humans are not. Avoiding high temperatures is of highest importance, bucks can become temporarily sterile above 85°F (29C). If this temperature cannot be avoided, give them a damp sack to sit on or place their cage on some clean soil in the shade. There are all manner of remedies that can be taken to assist rabbits in hot weather and many of these have been covered in past issues of the Newsletter, since global warming is coming. It is very important to keep the does cool and quiet during hot days. If does are about to kindle during hot periods, put them in a small holding pen in the coolest possible place until they have kindled. During hot weather, do only the minimum amount of work in the rabbitry, and do all of it during the coolest night hours. During the heat of the day, do only the things necessary to keep the rabbits as cool as possible with the least disturbance. Most of the hot spells come after the days are already getting shorter, so you can add a light period near midnight to do chores, breeding, palpations, etc.
Normally, cross flow ventilation by the wind is adequate. The building is situated to take advantage of the summer day and night breezes, with long dimension lying east-west. In dry summer weather, there are southerly on-shore breezes during the day and northerly off-shore breezes during the night. The rabbit building is set across this flow to give maximum summer air movement. In times of no wind and during close-up during winter, there is an exhaust fan at one gable end with an overhead suction duct, to remove heat build-up under the plastic roofing. The plastic could be slit open along the ridge to let out heat, but that would give the high winds something to catch. Spring and fall winds are modulated with plastic windbreak with 40% open area which is in position along the south wall from October to April to reduce the wind flow, which is frequently greater than 60 km/hr (40 mph). Rabbits must be protected from cold winds to avoid caecal impactions and mucoid enteropathy. This plastic windbreak is the "Tensar Windbreak" from Netlon Ltd., Blackburn, UK. The 63% greenhouse shade cloth would have a similar wind-break effect. During winter both sides and ends of the building are sheeted with poly film leaving a strip open the length of the building on both sides along the top of the walls (between the 2x4 truss rafters), 11 cm wide (Thomas 1983). During mild weather, the film can be rolled up on one side; then dropped at least on the windy side, in foul weather. Generally, the north side is sheeted up (fixed position) from October to April, and the south side sheeted up from November to March (can be rolled up). The 40% windbreak is removed from May to end of September, so that the sides are fully open all summer. Greenhouse shade cloth (63%) covers the south roof slope to supplement tree shade, and the wind break from the south side goes onto the north slope of the roof as a shade cloth during summer; the northern summer sunlight can get onto the full-pitch (45°) northern slope. During winter close up (sides sheeted with poly film) the upper exhaust fan runs at about 4000 cfm (113 m³ per minute) at all times while the inside temperature is over the freezing point. When the temperature drops below freezing, exhaust switches to a smaller fan low down in the middle of one side of the barn, with about 1200 cfm (34 m³ per minute). One of the fans is running all the time until one of the sides of the barn is unsheeted in the early spring. In the summer, the main (overhead) exhaust fan has a capacity of about 4800 cfm (136 m³ per minute.) and comes on when the temperature is above room temperature or when there is no wind. These ventilation values are for the size of building described, which houses 76 rabbit cages. Rabbits require a minimum ventilation capacity of 6 cfm (0.17 m³ per minute) air flow per rabbit housed.
Our standard sized cage is 24" wide x 30" deep (61 x 76 cm) for does and bucks. You will need 30 to 90% more cages than the number of working does in the herd. Besides the number hung in the barn, you should have about 10% extra to allow for cleaning several cages at a time. Fryer cages are better if larger, such as double this width or if a smaller size is preferred, 36" wide by 30" deep (91 x 76 cm) is OK. Best cages are 18" (45 cm) high rather than shorter sizes. The feeder is on the door for easy inspection. Floor is 1/2" x 3" ("parrot wire") which is 10 ga and galvanised after welding. This is the closest wire floor to what is used in Europe for production rabbitries. It also makes the best singly hung cages, since the floor doesn't sag. All cages should be singly hung for ease of cleaning. Hang them by two clips at the back and two hooks on wires at the front. Cages can be taken right out of the barn for cleaning. To obtain this wire in the USA, go to http://www.kwcages.com//wingzcatalog/s00010.html KWCages.com. Between each cage is a 1" (2.5 cm) space for a semi-rigid translucent plastic divider which hangs between the cages (Koroplast). Feeders are bin type feeders with no projection into the cage area. Caging is always in a single layer, two or three-tier caging should never be put in a rabbitry, unless there is some way to take it all out a section at a time for cleaning. The days of setting up unmovable cages and attaching all manner of devices to them (drop sheets, supporting framework, water piping, etc.) are history. Cages must be removed and cleaned regularly.
Cages are hung at about 48" (120 cm) above natural soil base. For our barn here, being on a hillside, natural soil drainage has been adequate. If you have a barn with a concrete floor, this is your cue to use that building for something that needs a concrete floor, and make another separate building for your rabbits, or make a lean-to along the side of your "good" barn. It is just a waste of a good floor to have leaky rabbit waterers and urine running all over it, and it is impossible under such circumstances to prevent ammonia vapours. On natural soil base, the manure can be shovelled out in a dry, loose pellet condition as required for fertilization of pastures or stored in bags for later use or sale. We restrict the use of copper sulfate in the feed to just the requirement for rabbits, instead of using the high levels of copper found in some feeds. This allows the manure to still be used on the sheep pastures. Use of rabbit manure on pastures for calves can sometimes be a problem because of rotavirus being transmitted to the calves (Buratto & Colin, 1992) but this does not bother sheep or any other use of the manure.
Cage capacity varies with time of year. Young rabbits (under 10 weeks) prefer to be crowded in cold weather. When it is cold, the small nest box of six week old bunnies will be just a box of ears. They prefer cramming into the box to share warmth instead of sitting out on cold wire. In cold weather a large fryer cage can be filled so that when the rabbits are sitting in normal awake position, all the floor is covered. A large cage with just a few cold rabbits in it is asking for digestive problems caused by low caecal temperature. However, on a hot day in summer, when the rabbits all spread out on their sides on the floor, 25% of the floor must remain uncovered or the rabbits will overheat.
Metal box nests are used, with perforated board floor, stuffed with soft barley straw for bedding. Metal nests are used for long life, ease of sanitizing and for summer nesting. In the summer, if the pups are hot, they will lie against the metal sides to dissipate heat. Please use ONLY barley straw for nests. Shavings and sawdust are no good, they absorb water and get damp and cold. Also, most wood product now contains some preservatives and has been banned for use as hog bedding. A wood shavings nest would have to be changed at day 14, day 21 and every three days after that. USDA rules require that a nest box stay in until day 27 (in other words it can come out on the morning of the 28th day). A shavings nest will not last 28 days. A shredded paper nest lasts less time than shavings, and pups can get tangled up in it and choke, and it is a factory for producing staph germs. Same with sheep wool, never use it, the pups "spin" themselves into it and choke. Barley straw is simply the best nesting material. A good barley straw nest can last up to six weeks without changing. It is shiny so sheds liquids, it has a hollow core so provides constant insulation value even when wet. We have barley straw nests with excellent litters born in a open area under a roof overhang in January when the temperature is as low as 0°F (-18C). Never use heat lamps over the rabbit nests, top heat is not good for them and there is no way for them to get away from the heat if they are too warm. Use steady bottom heat or best, use no heat at all, just a good barley straw nest. If any litter requires to be warmed up, take the whole box into the house to a place just over room temperature, and return it to the doe in the morning for feeding.
Our nest boxes are 16" x 10" x 8" (l x w x h) (41 x 25 x 20 cm), don't use a larger size, it leaves too much room for the doe to sit in. We've raised litters of 15 pups in these boxes. These boxes (less floor) are available for C$14 plus shipping and taxes. The perforated floors can be made out of treated masonite peg board, cut to fit then soaked in linseed oil and dried in a warm place for a couple weeks. They become impermeable. For cleaning, scrub out and rinse boxes and floors, then wash boxes in strong bleach solution. Soak floors in two waters, scrubbing in between. Then drain them off and run through a strong bleach solution, keeping them wet five minutes. Then air dry them for at least a week and re-bleach them, then dry before use.
It is VERY IMPORTANT to have some way to close off the nest. When using a loose nest box inside a cage, you can set the box on top the cage and jam an extra (perforated) nest floor into the top. Otherwise, the across-the-front nest boxes that are used in Europe are easiest to use, they have a sliding door between the cage and the nest that can be closed. NEVER use the "subterranean" OSU-style nests in a corner of the doe's cage. These are coccidiosis generators and violate the rule of never having a nest in the corner where the doe urinates! Such a box cut into the corner of a floor is also the ruination of a good piece of flooring.
Nests MUST be closable, so that any doe that is causing a problem to the pups can be closed out except for morning feeding time (about 10 minutes) until she behaves herself. The prohibited behaviours include digging up the pups in the nest, being late pulling fur, sitting in the box, defecating and/or urinating in the box, being over-excitable, or ANY other abnormal behaviour regarding the nest. Just take it away, or close it off, except for morning nursing time. Unless the doe is due for re-breeding, first thing in the morning allow the does access to the nests for suckling. After about 10 to 15 minutes, close off (or remove) the nest again. At this time, check for any dead pups, pull the fur out from under them and distribute the fur over the litter. Do NOT touch the pups or nest materials at all before the doe is allowed to nurse them, they have opened the fur above them to be ready to feed. Only handle the pups after they have fed. Freshly suckled pups will smell like warm rubber balloons, and look like them as well. By the time the pups are turning white (fur cover) the doe should have settled down enough so that she can have continuous access to the nest.
Rabbits require easy access to fresh water at all times. The easiest water "system" is supplied by using 4-litre (gallon) water bottles on metal stands at the front of each cage, with a brass nipple inserted through a rubber grommet. Open cans, jars or crocks of water must not be used - use some kind of water nipple or you will have continuous coccidiosis problems. The single water bottles protect against disease spread since there is no possibility for water to flow from one cage to the next. In plumbing terms, these water bottles are providing a "vacuum break" at each cage, a feature that is available in certain commercially produced water systems, but at much higher expense. A continuous supply of clean water is necessary for rabbits. In times of extreme cold (-9C) 15°F and below, waterers can be taken away at night and refilled with warm water in the morning. Rabbits will get by in these conditions, but growth will be slower until milder conditions return. A normal winter here has only about two weeks that are really cold. If a water pipeline system is used, the brass nipples that screw into black poly pipe are the best way to go, any system with the "drop lines" is prone to instant freeze up when temperatures get near freezing. The benefit of the water valves that go directly into the main line is that water can be heated and circulated in the winter, while drop lines just freeze solid. But, a water line system is a luxury that can be added along behind the cages some time in the future, after you have enough production income to pay for the expense. Most water additives should be avoided, they can cause undesirable life forms to grow inside the water system; water acidifiers cause extensive damage to zinc-coated rabbit equipment so should not be used.
We finally have some good feeds now -use them! You should be able to find in your area feeds that are produced under the certification program of CCRPD; if not, ask your feed mill to look into it. The fryer feed provides high energy and high fibre for good growth and the doe feed meets the latest requirements for a semi-intensive breeding schedule. It is essential to provide all feed free choice except for out-of-cycle does, which should be restricted to 140 - 150 g per day. Otherwise ALL the rabbits should be on full feed, they eat and drink water in many small meals all day and night, with highest feed consumption just before night-fall. It is important to drop a few feed pellets into the nest box beginning about day 15 of lactation so that the young can start to nibble on the does' feed, this provides the function of creep feeding without the use of special equipment. The pups need to be feeding several days BEFORE they are leaving the nest on their own.
Feed conversion is an important number - feed conversion as high as 16:1 has been recorded for BC rabbit producers (Ference, 1981), a 4:1 total barn conversion is needed to make any money. Take your total feed used divided by total weight of fryers sold for a period of time, that gives the total barn feed conversion. Then take your price of feed times the feed conversion number, and if that price is not higher than your fryer price you are in trouble. This calculation shows the benefits of keeping your costs down, avoiding over-capitalization and using a feed that gives you value for the money spent. The cheapest feed is probably not the best buy. There are much more important ways to improve profitability, such as getting an extra litter per year from a doe, or having one more pup survive in a litter (Armero & Blasco, 1992).
Does are bred at 18 weeks, or about 3/4 of adult weight. Bucks can start breeding at 24 weeks. When starting out a new buck, limit to two services per week for first two months. After that, the best frequency of use of the buck is one mating every three days. Every second day is OK for a while but an extra rest day may be needed once a week. Bucks can be used once a day for as much as a month in an emergency, but don't expect results as good as with a better use schedule. In natural mating, one buck is required per 10 to 20 does. For example, for 50 does, always have on hand two senior bucks, two or three mature working bucks and two young replacement bucks growing up. Breeding in the morning is best, and if the doe's nest box is closed off, breed the doe before allowing suckling. These two actions avoid the circadian variation of prolactin levels around 1500 to 1900 hours, and the rise in prolactin during and after suckling; prolactin has a negative effect on receptivity (McNitt, 1992). For mating, the doe is put with the buck for two services which the buck performs within just a few minutes. The buck falls on his side after mating, from the high energy involved. At this time, the semen is sent deep inside the doe followed by a mucous plug which keeps the semen from running back out. Leave the doe with the buck for the time it takes to write up the breeding record, then return her to her cage. Young does should be bred to new bucks, old does to old bucks, to prevent disease spread. If a new buck has to replace an old buck for use with the old does, he should not be used with new does after that. Don't bother with "forced matings" the conception rate is very low even if the mating is successful. See section on "Low receptivity" below.
Some of the old misinformation tells you to return a doe to the buck five or more hours after breeding, for a "double mating". This incorrect practise would actually count as two uses of the buck. Recent research shows that the most beneficial time to do a second mating is one hour later. This means one coitus, then return the doe to her cage, then bring her back to the buck in one hour for a second coitus (El-Darawany & Siam 1994; El-Darawany & Abd-El-Hafez 2000).
Detection of oestrus (peak receptivity) by Berepubo et al. (1993) is largely determined by the turgescence rather than placing importance on various colours. Rabbits were observed three times a day for signs of oestrus (morning 7-10:00 am, evening 5-7:00 pm, night 10 to 12:00 pm). Detection of oestrus was based on three vital signs: 1) increased vascularisation and turgescence (swelling) of the vulva, 2) exposition of the rear quarters (tail goes up), 3) arching of the back (lordosis - a downward arching of the back) and frequent micturition (desiring to urinate). Secondary signs were stretching of ears, rubbing of the chin on feed trough or waterer, and aggressive restlessness. The combined observation of the three "vital signs" and any secondary signs particularly towards the end of a one week observation period was considered intensive heat, and attracted an arbitrary score of 5. Manifestation of any two vital signs with/without secondary signs was labelled "less intensive heat", and assigned a score of 3. One vital sign with/without secondary signs was recorded as "mild heat" and was scored 1. Attainment of puberty was determined on the basis of at least two of the vital signs, a score of 3. These signs correspond to the receptivity of the doe: the ability of the doe to submit to mating.
- from Pan-American Rabbit Science Newsletter, Vol. 1(1) December 1996.
A doe in low receptivity refuses to accept the buck. She runs or keeps her head up in the air. Forced matings are a waste of time, conception rate is very low if the doe conceives at all. Best to cull hard-to-breed does, ones which take many trips to the buck. Many things can reduce the doe's receptivity, such as being overweight, poor nutrition or bad feed, incorrect lighting program, suckling a large litter, health problems, moulting, etc. The natural receptivity cycle of a doe is five to seven days, with a duration as short as six to seven hours (Berepubo et al., 1993 and Cudnovskii 1957). This means that during the winter it is often necessary to check for receptivity twice per day, or you could miss it! While tipping up the doe to determine vulva condition, if the tail moves downward (dorsally) while tapping the base of the tail and urogenital opening area with a couple fingers, the doe is receptive and should be taken to a buck. A doe can be rendered temporarily unreceptive and perhaps enter a false pregnancy by handling after kindling. A false pregnancy (pseudopregnancy) is a condition of the doe in which she seems to be pregnant, can prepare to produce milk, but pulls fur and makes a nest at about day 17 or 18, and produces no offspring. She can be re- mated the day after pulling fur.
On the eleventh and 20th day after mating, the does are checked for pregnancy by palpating. On the 29th day, the doe is moved to a clean cage with a clean nest box. This is the most important hygiene measure that you can initiate in a rabbitry - it provides an all-in all-out scheme per kindling of the doe, for that cage. Any young still with the doe may be left in the doe's cage, but the doe must be moved into a clean cage with a clean feeder and a clean waterer and a clean nest box. See section on nest box and cage cleaning. If a doe has been on restricted feed during early pregnancy, be sure she is on full feed from day 20 after mating. Never restrict the doe's feed during late pregnancy, regardless of what some other previous publications may say, and never restrict feed during lactation.
Kindling normally takes place during day 31 after mating, but sometimes goes a day or two longer. If a doe is past due and (likely) no nest preparation has been done, you can help stimulate parturition by plucking fur from the doe's belly and sides, hold her for nursing by five or six pups about 12 days old, then put her in with a buck for breeding; she should kindle within five hours. Otherwise, an injection of oxytocin may be required. At parturition (kindling), the litter is checked to see that there is at least 2.5 cm (1") of straw on bottom and all sides of litter, so that the litter does not touch the sides or bottom of the box. Put most of the fur over the pups, it isn't needed below them. See section on closing off of nests. If possible, move some kits from large litters to smaller litters; try to avoid litters over 12 pups. A litter of 10 is an ideal size. Litter size does not have to be restricted to the number of teats, the pups move around all the time while nursing. Do NOT kill the largest and smallest pups of a litter as some people recommend. Pups that are not fit will die by themselves if they want to die.
The straw nests provide an ideal medium for the young to be born on. Most of the straws will be aligned lengthwise in the nest after the doe has chopped them up and arranged them. They are smooth and slippery, so when the pups are popped out, they will usually shoot right up to the doe's nose for licking. The doe is mainly interested in eating the placental membranes; it is up to the pups to do the main work of pushing the bag off their own heads, which they do with upwards movements of their hands just after they pop out of the doe. If the doe is sitting down too low, they can't push the bag off and this is when they suffocate. These suffocated ones can often be revived by lightly and rapidly squeezing their bodies and blowing into their nose so that they will take a breath. Immediately after being born, the pups want to roll around in the fur to prevent them from sticking to each other while they dry.
In natural mating, does are best rebred on the 10th day after kindling, with a few qualifications. The does must be evaluated to be acceptable for breeding. At the breeding for the second litter, or if the doe is under weight or out-of-condition (at later breedings), or if a feed is being used that is not specifically formulated to be used with intensive breeding, then more time must be given as follows: If the litter size is nine or more, does are bred at 39 to 41 days. If litter size is five or less, does are bred at 9 to 10 d post-partum. If the litter size is five to seven, depending on doe condition, she might be re-bred in the area of day 9 to 12 postpartum, or at day 21 postpartum. A litter of eight would be rebred at day 29. The litter size is re-evaluated at nest inspections up until the removal of the nest box. Thus the date the doe is to be rebred is adjusted to suit the number of remaining young. This keeps a consistent but flexible and not excessive breeding pressure on the doe, adjusted by the number of the offspring currently in the litter. Another way to understand this approach is to see that the does' receptivity decreases with increasing numbers of pups in the nest (Torres et al., 1987), so she will be resistant to breeding for a while. This method also avoids the arbitrariness and lack of consideration for the reproductive load on a doe of a set breed-back schedule. A doe that produces a litter of 10 rebred at 39-41 days will produce five litters per year, or 50 pups. If she is forced to rebreed at one of the earlier dates, for example to produce eight parities per year, she will not produce eight litter of 10 pups (80 for the year), rather she will go down in condition and be culled, for no reason other than not conforming to an arbitrary re-breed schedule. The big problem is in trying to avoid a negative nutritional balance after lactation of the first litter (Xiccato, 1996). The young doe is not quite up to adult body weight, she has not yet gained the full eating capacity of a fully grown doe. Even allowing a longer interval between first and second litter might not help, since the does naturally decrease feed consumption at the end of lactation. Perhaps one of the best remedies is to try if possible to reduce (by fostering) the number of pups in the doe's second litter.
Otherwise, the 10 day rebreed (11 day for artificial insemination) is used to maximize production when conditions are right to support high production. The value of ten for the days after kindling is selected since it is close to the 12 day period suggested for reducing the lactation load (Xiccato, 1996) while being close to the peak receptivity at 9 days post partum as described by Díaz et al. (1987). This schedule helps reduce the lactation load on the doe (lactation period is then about three days shorter), because the milk output decreases on a doe that has been bred, and the lactation load on the doe is higher than the pregnancy load (Xiccato, 1996). But again, this system only can be used if the doe maintains her condition and the feed meets the requirements of intensive production AND the feed is palatable enough that the doe ingests the necessary QUANTITY of each nutrient required. Looking at the feed label and reading the percent protein, for example, is meaningless unless you know the doe's daily feed consumption. Percent protein in the feed times grams per day feed consumption gives you the actual grams of protein consumed per day.
Start trying these right away, don't wait until some later time, since they take some practice to get any good at. You have to forget about the 14-day test that some books tell about, rarely anyone gets good at that, too hard to find those little lumps. But at 10 to 12 days, the usual test period in Europe, you just feel for a bulge in the lower abdomen, it will feel like what you would think a full bladder would feel like. In early pregnancy, the litter is still a compact mass in the lower abdomen. At about day 13, the uterine horns stretch out lengthwise so that this bulge is gone. Always do the palpations with CLEAN HANDS, you are touching right where the young pups are going to be nursing next time! I check them at 11 days, and if I can't get a positive (or negative) test then I re-check them on day 12. Never handle the doe on day 13, a placental change is going on. Check a doe at day 11, and compare with a doe you know is not yet pregnant, until you can feel the difference. The day 14 test is very hard to do, and since you don't know when the doe actually ovulated (somewhere in the next 24 hr after you bred her) what you think is day 14 may be her day 13 and you had better leave her alone. Then, on day 20, if she is pregnant, there will be a bulge on her right side, where the litter is pushing the caecum outward. This will not be so noticeable on the first litter, but will be obvious on later litters. Then from about day 25, you can feel some irregular lumps behind her ribs, its usually easier to feel these on her left side. These lumps are the little pups. Don't feel her on day 23, another placental change. These things (not handling on day 13 and day 23) we learn from the lab-animal people (Harkness & Wagner, 1983), the rabbit production and pet rabbit people don't know that yet, although it's been know by the lab people for years, communication has broken down somewhere.
Neither the does nor their young are ever actually weaned. It is difficult to wean (stop milk production) of a doe except by prolonged dehydration and fasting, so the young are left with the doe until the next kindling time, at which time the doe is moved to a new cage. Rabbits produce no colostrum, so there is no "start" to the milk cycle. Keeping the young with the doe as long as possible reduces the space requirement of fryer caging, allowing more cages to be used for does thereby improving profitability as described by Patton & Ayers (1992).
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When breeding, record the doe and buck on the Barn Chores sheet, putting the doe cage number into all the columns for test "A", "B" and Nest Box for the proper due dates. Write doe, date and condition (vulva colour, receptivity) on the Buck Record sheet and buck number and dates on the Doe Card. The Doe Card should show the date bred, the date for 11 day test, 20 day test and date for nest on day 29.
When pups are three weeks old, the cage should be marked with a small card showing the age of the pups, so an age card saying "3" is put on the cage. Also enter the number of pups on the Doe Card, and see that the Buck Record sheet has the data of how many were born, died at kindling, how many remaining at three weeks and how many added or subtracted (fostering) for that breeding. Every Friday (or your day after sale of fryers), change up all the age cards by one number.
At pregnancy tests, put a "+" or "-" in the appropriate column on the Buck Record sheet. If the test was negative, check the doe for receptivity and either breed her again, provide some male presence and mark her on the Barn Chore sheet for breeding in a few days.
When checking a litter just after kindling, be sure that there is 2.5 cm (1") of soft straw under and around the litter. Count the pups. Enter number of viable pups born in the "born" column on the doe card, the number that could have lived if they had been cared for properly. This does not include miss-formed pups or aborted pups. Viable ones that died at delivery go in the "DOA" column. The number alive at three weeks should equal the number born, less number dead at kindling, less nest deaths, plus or minus additions.
Each visit to the rabbitry, morning and night, first check for new litters or small pups that are out of the nest before they know how to get back in. In the morning, let any closed nests be nursed. If it is breeding day for any of those closed off does, BREED them before letting them nurse! Then do feeding and watering, followed by regular breedings, palpations, changing cages and moving does to clean cages with nests. Always handle younger animals before older ones, always handle "good" stock before culls, always get done with everything else before taking out any dead rabbits or shovelling out manure. Washing hands between things will not hurt you, but can stop the spread of problems!
For the past several years replacement does have been selected from parent does which have successfully raised a litter of 10 (to three weeks old) on their first litter. This trait seems to have a good rate of selectability. This practice significantly reduces losses caused by primiparous does. Some does have produced these large litters (9 to 14) up to age five years. Selecting for large litter size (above average performance for first three litters or first six months in production) also selects for does which have a longer reproductive life (Szendrö et al. 1996), so litter size is the first priority, followed by 70 day weight. Ideally rabbits for replacement (and bucks for sure) should be five pounds or more at 70 days. If the litter was large, and you are short of replacements, you could reduce the weight requirement to 4.75 or 4.5 lb for a while. The best rabbit breeds for meat production are the New Zealand Whites and Californians. Don't bother with "giant" breeds or their crosses, they will give a poorer meat-to-bone ratio and produce a rabbit that doesn't fit the standard meat cut sizes for packaging. Maintain the requirement under OIE regulations for a minimum 60 isolation of any new animals coming into the herd from other rabbitries.
It is essential to produce enough replacement stock to keep the herd at a stable number of does which are in good to excellent production status. Good production can be considered to be 35 pups per year of production or more. Excellent production is 48 pups or more per year. Remember that your fryer rabbits are not potential replacements, they are your culls from your replacement stock. You must select replacements from does with good record, from does which have daughters with a good record (called progeny testing), and from a good active buck. Try to save from a large (8 to 10) litter which are uniform in size at 8 to 10 weeks of age. Saving less than three rabbits from a litter is not usually cost effective, because of the fixed costs associated with having less than three non-producing rabbits in a cage for three months. None of the litter should have any bad teeth, sore eyes, snuffles, scours or thinly padded hocks. The replacement buck must meet these requirements plus come from a good line of bucks; the buck must be from the top 2 to 3% of the herd's quality. If I was buying a replacement rabbit, I would want to see that it's parents and grand-parents were still alive and healthy and producing. Replacements must be saved three months in advance of need, so you must always save more than you think you will need. In fact it is best to never sell for a fryer any top quality young rabbit; save it for a potential replacement. Extra replacements, if they end up being truly extra, can be sold to other breeders. The practice of breeders trading fryer-quality stock with each other does nothing to improve the overall genetic pool in production.
Random mating means the mating of randomly chosen individuals, and neither improves nor decreases the performance of the offspring.
Inbreeding involves mating of closely related individuals, such as father and daughters, brother and sister. Be sure that there are no weaknesses in the line or they will be intensified under this scheme. Inbreeding also reduces the genetic diversity in the stock, and if repeated for too many generations, diminishes the vigour of the stock. But dominant and recessive genes can become fixed, so along with strict culling, this method can eliminate undesirable traits.
Linebreeding is the mating of less-closely related individuals, such as a buck to his grandmother (should you be so lucky) or to his half-sister. This intensifies the characteristics of a line with less chance of intensifying some undesirable trait. The common ancestors of the participants of these matings must be outstanding individuals. There is less depression of reproductive performance and vigour with linebreeding than with inbreeding.
Outcrossing is the bringing in of unrelated animals of the same breed.
Crossbreeding is the mating of individuals of different breeds, such as using Cal bucks on New Zealand White does to produce a terminal cross fryer which has "hybrid vigour" for faster fryer growth and feed conversion. But this vigour is mainly expressed in this first generation; production of hybrid fryers requires the maintaining of the two complete parent lines separately, you don't save replacements from the Cal-NZW crosses.
Besides the normal health considerations, there are a few other considerations for culling. Eliminate hard-to-breed does, this is an inheritable trait. These are most noticeable in the fall and during periods of bad weather. Does that have misses or alternate between a litter and a miss should be culled. Does should produce uniform litters with good weights at three weeks and eight weeks. At birth, seven pups should weight one pound (454 g), at three weeks they should be at least 4.9 lb (320 g each) and at eight weeks four pounds (1.8 kg) each. Three-week weight gives a good indication of milking ability. Every November do a doe and buck census, summing up the work of every doe in the herd, and determining their production of pups on an adjusted 12 month's production period. By November each year, you should have culled out and replaced all the old and bad does from the previous winter. The rabbit production year begins in January, by breeding lots of good does with good bucks, for lots of February births, from which to select lots of good replacements which will be ready to start breeding in mid-July, so that you have good fryer production beginning in October, the time when unorganized rabbit producer's production slacks off, because they have over-bred in springtime, over worked their does through hot weather, not saved winter-born replacements and so have carried last-winter's producers beyond their working life. The replacements that were born in February, were born from does that actually BREED in the winter, ensuring that your herd will continue to have good winter production. The producers who keep outputting the summer glut of fryer rabbits have locked themselves into having a summer-rabbit producing herd, something which has always been undesirable in the marketplace.
The main asset in a rabbitry is the health of the animals (Thomas 1983). One thing of primary importance in maintaining health is being able to restore the building to the original condition of sanitation it had before any rabbits were put into the building. Some method of disease prophylaxis must be undertaken to renew the sanitation of the rabbitry (Schlolaut, 1992, pages 559-600) radically different than what is practiced or possible in most rabbitries. A permanent bank of caging seems to produce a rabbitry with a short useful life, while easily removed cages allow long term operation.
Using a plastic divider between cages prevents disease from spreading cage to cage. It is immediately evident, on pulling out the plastic divider, how well this system prevents material (hair, urine, feces, etc.) from entering the adjacent cage. It has been possible (this is not recommended) to have a litter in which all the young die of enteritis beside a litter being saved for replacements with no transmission of the disease. In the separately hung cages, with the plastic divider providing a visual and scent-marking barrier to the adjacent cage, the does and bucks are calmer and don't have to be defensive. Does are very territorial and are calmer and produce better when they have reduced contact with other does. The "social contact" suggested to be necessary as an external stimulus by Drescher (1992), is, in reality, the desire by each doe to eradicate the neighbouring doe. In our facility, rabbits have shallow tin cans 8 cm x 4 cm (such as tuna cans) for toys, and each doe has her own "room-with-a-view" onto a quiet green-belt area beside the building. (The building is situated right back into the "bush").
Animals with serious health problems are moved to a (much smaller) separate cull building. The usual health problems are snufflers and bubblers (Pasteurella multocida and Bordetella bronchiseptica) and enteritis problems, and other minor problems such as coccidiosis and sore feet (pododermatitis). Most of Oregon (and farther north) is north of the myxomatosis area and therefore not affected. Pododermatitis (sore hocks) is enhanced by exposure to cage wire as proposed by Drescher (1992), and can seriously affect the barn replacement rate of breeding stock. There is also a strong hereditary component to this problem. Normal "rabbit wire" has been thrown out of the rabbitry and replaced with the "parrot" wire for the floors to help with the sore hocks problem. Also, normal "rabbit wire" (1/2" x 1" x 16 ga) causes breakage of the legs of young rabbits three to four weeks of age, while the "parrot" wire avoids this problem. They drop their heel into the hole, and catch the front of the foot pad in the wire and are stuck, then turn around and break their leg bones. Ideally, a smooth PVC floor with holes should replace all wire flooring.
Rats and mice must be kept out of the rabbitry, and out of the feed and water supply, or Salmonella infection can get into the herd which is almost impossible to eliminate and the rabbits become unfit for consumption. An effective rat and mice bait must be used at all times. Rabbit breeders have to find an approved sanitary means of disposing of any dead rabbits.
The feed, the stress level and the animal's immune system are all inter-related. The best remedy for diseases is prevention, by obtaining disease-free stock as much as possible and keeping it that way by providing and maintaining healthy surroundings, keeping stress levels down, and providing good feed. Digestion and immune system have a complex relationship. Rabbits with most common disease problems must be removed to the cull building and culled as soon as possible. Antibiotics should be avoided for use in rabbits, they can affect the digestion while also causing build up of antibiotic resistant microbes. For digestive problems such as mucoid enteropathy and enterocolitis, the best remedy has been the use of bismuth subsalicylate in the water for the young rabbits, at about one teaspoon per gallon or 1 ml per litre per day. This medication's primary activity is to absorb toxins; bacteria don't kill rabbits, toxins do. A good rabbitry simply will not have a lot of diseases. A rabbitry with diseases is showing you that the diseases are symptoms of a defective environment. Treat the disease (environment) not the symptoms (sick rabbits) and the rabbits will get better, they do actually have an immune system of sorts.
Some old rabbit books talk about "self-cleaning" cages, meaning all-wire cages as compared to wooden hutches. This is a myth. There is no such thing as a self-cleaning cage, unless the "self" refers to me, meaning I have to clean them my-"self". It is this notion of "self-cleaning" cages that has brought most (North American) rabbitries into a condition unlike any other in animal husbandry, in which the doe serves a life-sentence in one cage from beginning of breeding until death. To break out of this nonsense, rabbitries must adopt some sort of all-in all-out system. The simplest form of all-in all-out would relate to the kindling cycle of the doe: EACH TIME a doe gets a clean nest box, also GIVE HER A CLEAN CAGE! This event is the critical control point in rabbit sanitation. When the doe needs the next nest box, do NOT move her old litter - take the doe AWAY from the old litter, and put her in a clean cage with a clean nest box. Do this EVERY TIME without fail. The old litter of pups stays in that same cage they were born in, until they are shipped out or saved for replacements or put into larger fryer pens. When they are finally removed, then that cage is taken down and completely cleaned. This breaks the cycle of contamination in rabbitries, each cage is treated as the production unit and is cleaned after each "batch."
Do not pressure-wash cages in the barn, it makes a mist of dirty water that floats all around. For cleaning, remove the cage from the barn, burn the hair off with a torch, then the cage must be cleaned either by pressure washing or scrubbing with detergent water and brush (soaking if necessary), then sprayed with bleach solution for sanitizing. This process is for the cage; feeders need separate treatment. Each time the cage is cleaned, take off the feeder, soak it, scrape it clean, and then bake it for 1/2 hour at 250 to 300°F in the oven.
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