Our growers raise rabbits in wire pens. The does (mothers) have numbers on their pen doors, so we can keep track of who was bred and when. We give them nest boxes full of straw to raise their litters in. A doe rabbit about to kindle (give birth) will pull some of her fur out with her teeth and line the nest box with it. This makes a very warm and soft home for the newborns. The baby rabbits grow for about three weeks in the nest box before they are ready to live in the open cage. Then we pull out the nest box to give them more room.
At six weeks, the rabbits are ready to be weaned. We pull them out and put them in a larger pen with other weanling rabbits. During the spring and summer, we chop comfrey, clover, and green grasses for all our rabbits to munch on each day, in addition to “Big Red” alfalfa pellet feed that constitutes their main ration. They love the greens and always get excited when the see a big handful of fresh succulent forage coming their way. The grow-out bunnies are ready for harvest at 12-14 weeks old.
All the rabbit cages are up off the ground at least twelve inches, and some are suspended from the ceiling so they’re easy to service. This way, all the manure falls clear of the pen onto the floor below. The solid pellets can be collected and used for fertilizer or composted, or the farmer can add carbon and let chickens run around on the floor. Polyface’s “Raken” (Rabbit-chicken) house is a good example of the second method. The chickens keep the bedding scratched and spread around, so it composts nicely, and once a year, the Salatins clean it out for some of the finest compost on the farm.
Our ultimate goal is to be able to raise our rabbits on pasture, like the pigs, cows, and chickens. However, there is a major obstacle to accomplishing that goal: Rabbits are diggers. They can squeeze through very tight spaces and dig out of any open-floor cage. On Polyface, Daniel Salatin runs the rabbit enterprise, and he and Joel have tried many different approaches to growing a pastured rabbit. None of these attempts have really worked. So, for now we have a system that’s comfortable, controllable, clean, healthy, and humane. And of course the rabbits taste really good, too.
We at EcoFriendly Foods have been raising our own rabbits for a few years now, from stock we bought from Daniel Salatin. Bev and Janelle are both thinking very creatively about how to effectively, controllably, and sanitarily offer access to pasture to the rabbits. Watch for updates on this page as our models develop.