Jan 21, 2014

In the Beginning...Oh the Mistakes!

A number of people  have been encouraging me lately to get a blog going for my rabbit project, so here we are!  I figure the best place to start would be with my experience first getting started.  Maybe you can learn a few things from the mistakes I made.

I first started raising rabbits,  myself, back in the late 90s.  In the early 90s, my best friend's family ran a commercial rabbitry, and I occasionally helped out.  All of the kids in that family were in 4-H, even those too young to officially compete, and were always happy to teach someone else all about what they did.  When I was first allowed to get my own rabbits (I had been asking for years), I was allowed to on the condition that I would be completely responsible for all of their care, and would have to process all of the unsold ones, myself.

The Setup

My father built a double-decker hutch for my rabbits, based off a plan that was in my Project Handbook.  It had four 24"x42" compartments, with 1/2" hardware cloth making up the front and side walls, and more hardware cloth covering up the plywood that made the back wall.  Doors were made with a 2x2 frame, with hardware cloth on the rabbit side.  They each took up half of the front of each cage, and swung outward like normal doors.  They were locked using a spring clip through a ring.  My father also had 1" deep metal trays custom made for the hutch.  He made sure that all of the wood that the rabbits might possibly get access to was untreated.  He did use pressure-treated wood for the legs, though, to prevent rot.  The roof got leftover shingles from re-shingling our house.  We also bought brand new feeders and water bottles from the local livestock supply--all of them Little Giant brand.

For those of you who are familiar with raising rabbits, you may have caught a few things wrong just with our initial setup.  First off, hardware cloth is not the ideal rabbit flooring.  1/2" squares are an okay size, but larger rabbits' poops tend to get caught in it.  Also, hardware cloth tends to have a somewhat sharp edge. I was lucky to not have to deal with sore hocks from the flooring (although my rabbits were all given plywood boards to sit on, which may have saved them).  After a few years, though, I was dealing with calcium deposits from the rabbits' urine, poop piles from overly large poops (especially from does that had recently kindled), and corroded floors (which ultimately led to us having to disassemble the entire hutch to take out the floor wires; lesson: don't build walls on top of flooring, since you'll likely have to replace the floors). We should have gotten 14 gauge, 1/2"x1" galvanized-after-welded mesh, as the best option for flooring, but that can be very expensive.  Never use anything less than 16 gauge for floor wire.  Galvanized-after-welded resists corrosion better than galvanized-before-welded.

While having the doors swing outward was handy, it was very important to always lock the cage.  Without the latch, the rabbits could quickly push the door open and hop away.  Also, having the door hinged on the side, rather than from above, meant that the door was useless for holding any kind of weight without suffering damage. (Short term weight was okay, but any kind of long-term or permanent fixture would eventually cause the hinges to sag.)  That meant that water bottles had to be hung on the non-door part of the wall, in whatever space was left after installing the feeder.  Does with litters require a feeder at least 7" wide, and I've seen 11" wide feeders come in very handy, especially for meat breeds.

Another issue with our initial setup is that 1" deep trays fill up very quickly.  Even with weekly cleanings, I often ended up dumping some of the poop from the upper cages into the lower cages as I pulled the trays out.  They might have been serviceable if the slot they went in wasn't so tight.  Also, 24"x42" pans are rather unwieldy, even for a teenager.

A related issue I came across was that the gap left above the divider between the lower compartments was enough space for rabbits in the lower compartments to jump through to the neighboring compartment, when both upper trays were removed.  The divider was 24" high, and the gap was only about 3", but it was still very easy for a rabbit to clear.  I ended up with a couple unplanned litters because of that gap.

The First Rabbits

I was very lucky not to have run into any issues with my first rabbits. My very first rabbit was a buck that my friend had been fostering for the animal shelter.  When I went to the animal shelter to adopt him, his paperwork had him down as a "black and brown Dutch", despite the fact that he was a gold-tipped black steel (we just called it "agouti" because we didn't know any better) with absolutely no white, much less Dutch markings, and weighed a solid 7-1/2 pounds (Dutch should weigh no more than 5-1/2 pounds according to the standard).  He was fully grown, but other than that, we had no clue to his age or background.  Fortunately, back then, rabbits from the animal shelter didn't have to be sold with a neuter contract.

My first doe was a meat crossbred from a fellow 4-H member.  The doe was a couple days short of 11 months old when I got her, and had never been bred.  Twelve months old is the oldest you want to breed a doe for the first time. Their rabbitry was dark, with piles of poop under the rusted cages.  The doe's granddam had wry neck (and apparently had for some time, but was functional), the doe's sire was aptly named "Killer", and several rabbits in the rabbitry had malocclusion which required frequent teeth trimming.  Do not buy foundation stock from unclean rabbitries, especially if any rabbits have signs of disease or poor genetics.

Serene, my second doe.
Later that year, a neighbor came by with a rabbit he had caught in his garden.  He knew I had rabbits, and thought it might be one of mine.  He had a rabbit, himself, but no extra cages, so if he kept it at his place, it would have to stay with his buck.  When I looked the rabbit over, it was a doe, so it was a good thing that I had an extra cage available, even if it was in the same hutch with my other rabbits.  She looked healthy, but looking healthy and being healthy can be two different things.  It's very important to quarantine any new rabbits, at least 20 feet away from any other rabbits, for at least 30 days. Like I said, I was lucky.

First Breeding

As soon as I got my first doe home, I put her in with my buck, who was all too happy to complete his job.  (Remember what I said about quarantine?)  I left the doe in with the buck for three days to ensure that she got bred.  At the time, we operated under the assumption that a doe won't go more than two consecutive days of being unwilling to breed.  Fortunately, the doe didn't harm the buck, despite being ill-tempered toward people, and the buck didn't injure the doe, despite his verve for breeding.  Never leave two rabbits together unattended; does have been known to castrate bucks, and bucks can cause injuries to does.

For a nestbox, we built one out of scrap plywood and 2x2s, using a plan in my Project Handbook.  We stuffed it full of straw.  One time I tried using timothy hay, and it was eaten up within a couple of days. I've also used newspaper in a pinch, but it quickly gets soiled.  I gave the box to the doe about two weeks out.  Does may use their nestbox for a toilet if given their box before day 25.  Fortunately, the doe was rather clean, and the box stayed clean.  She delivered 9 kits, only one of which was born on the wire.

I rubbed vanilla extract on the doe's nose so I could take a look at the remaining kits.  Most does really don't care if you mess with their kits.

My sister and I with a couple kits from one of our first litters.
Two weeks later, I rebred the doe (just a visit this time, since she still had nursing kits).  I weaned the kits at 5 weeks old to make room for the next litter.  Weaning younger than 5 weeks can result in weaning enteritis and other health issues; 6 to 8 weeks is ideal.

Through this whole process, I did keep good records, including breeding dates, birth dates, number born, number died (and how), and weights at 3 and 8 weeks.  My records also had spots for how many males and females, but I was terrible at sexing for a long time, so those slots didn't usually get filled out.

Moving On

Celeste, my first Flemish Giant, enjoying the house.
From there, I continued to collect a number of crossbred rabbits, as strays and from other not-so-reputable sources.  I used my crossbreds to produce Grand Champion market meat rabbit trios from my 2nd year of 4-H on.  I also took several champion placements in 4-H showmanship, got close to winning Small Animal All Around a couple of times, and even got a Best In Show with a doe of my own breeding.  I was invited to compete at the state level twice, but never got to go because of other activities.

Eventually, I ended up with a tort mini rex doe bred by Kathy Zaloudek, which launched me into my ARBA show career.  I also acquired a pair of fawn Flemish Giants from Robin Gamroth.  My rabbits became my FFA SAE, with which I was able to compete at the state level (took 1st in District, and then Regional), and helped me earn my State Farmer's Degree.

During college, I was able to keep a couple rabbits as pets, but didn't breed.  After I graduated, though, I got right back into it.  The old hutch has been gutted and turned into a frame for holding buck cages, another hutch has been acquired, and a shed is full of stackers of cages.  This time, I only bought sound stock from apparently-reputable breeders.  I've also decided to stay away from crossbreds, so that I can continue showing and hopefully have more consistent results.  For the time being, I have Californians, white New Zealands, and several colors of Rex.