Question of the Week
Answer: Rabbits eat only plants and are classified as non-ruminant herbivores. They recycle feed by re-ingesting the cecotropes. Cecotropes are small particles of digested food that collect in the cecum (hindgut), which the rabbit excretes once a day and then consumes. Cecatropes are sometimes called "night feces" and look softer than the round, hard pellets usually seen. Rabbits require high-fiber diets, which are bulky and low in density, unlike poultry or swine. While purchasing commercial feed is common in commercial operations, there is an increasing amount of research being conducted on forage-based rabbits and other self-sustaining means of feeding the herd.
Rabbits are usually fed a commercial pelleted diet that is balanced in the necessary nutrients (protein, energy, vitamins, and minerals). These diets contain alfalfa, grain (barley, wheat mill byproducts), protein supplements (soybean meal), vitamins, and mineral supplements.
With a small operation, it may be economical to reduce the amount of pellets by feeding rabbits available greens. Greens and succulents include fresh legumes (alfalfa, clover), grasses, vegetables (lettuce, celery), roots and tubers (carrots, potatoes), weeds (dandelions), and comfrey. Clean table scraps that fit into these categories are also acceptable. If greens complement a pelleted diet, the amount of pellets can be reduced by 50% without lowering rabbit production. However, since fresh greens are about 80% to 90% water, it is difficult to raise rabbits solely on these materials because they are not nutrient-dense. Over-feeding of fresh greens may also cause indigestion.
Rabbits can be pastured in outdoor pens placed on the ground, which allows them to harvest their own fresh forage. Fryers can be kept in outdoor pens with wooden slats or chicken wire on the floor to prevent the rabbits from digging out of the pen. Pens are moved daily to fresh pasture, and the rabbits are provided with concentrate feed. Ideally, rabbits won’t graze the same area of pasture again for at least six months to prevent the spread of coccidiosis.
There are many different production models for raising rabbits on pasture. Some producers choose for rabbits to be born and raised to weaning indoors. The weaned rabbits are then moved to portable cages on pasture. Rabbits raised on pasture may take longer to reach slaughter weight.
Rabbits that have been bred for commercial confinement production may not perform well on pasture. You may have to spend time experimenting with breeds and breeding to find the type of animal that best fits your production system. As with any livestock, you should purchase breeding stock that has been raised in a similar manner to your production system. So if you are raising rabbits on pasture, it is in your best interest to buy stock from another pasture producer instead of stock that has been raised indoors and fed only a commercial feed ration.
Growing local feed for rabbits is also an option. Research has been conducted on using water spinach, sweet potato, cassava foliage, mulberry leaves, and other plants and found that such crops can replace or be combined with conventional feed ingredients. Another study claims that growing sweet potato forage along with a small amount of cereal grain for an energy supplement can be a self-sustaining program for a small farm.
Instead of a commercial pelleted diet, producers can mix their own feedstuffs, especially if they grow or purchase their own feed ingredients. Before commercial pellets were available, people often raised rabbits on a diet of alfalfa hay and white oats. This is an acceptable diet if salt licks are also provided.
A legume hay such as alfalfa or clover provides high protein and fiber and can be included at a level of about 50% to 60% of the total diet. A concentrate for energy (grains such as oats or barley) is needed at a level of about 20% to 30%. The grain should be rolled or ground to facilitate digestion. Feeding too much grain can cause a carbohydrate overload in the hindgut and the animal may die from enteritis (diarrhea). Grain by-products that are high in fiber, such as wheat bran or wheat mill run, are also good options.
Adding hay to increase fiber and decrease the amount of grain fed will also reduce enteritis. A small amount of protein concentrate such as soybean meal or sunflower meal at about 10% of the diet ensures adequate protein. Rabbit diets need to have about 16% to 17% crude protein, as well as mineral supplements or salt spools.
The grain and hay ingredients mentioned above are relatively dry (only about 10% moisture). Rabbits do not relish eating a powder-dry mixture. If the mixture is moistened with feed-grade molasses, it will be more palatable to the animals. If the alfalfa or other forage is in hay form, it can be offered separately.
More feed waste can occur with non-pelleted rations than with pelleted rations. The rabbits may feed selectively, and the cage bottom and ground below can become littered with hay. Keep this in mind when considering the cost-effectiveness of feeding home-mixed rations rather than commercial pellets. It may be possible to have a feed mill custom mix a pellet ration.
Having a balanced ration ensures that diets contain the proper amount of nutrients for rabbits during different stages of growth or reproduction.
To learn much more about raising rabbits, consult the ATTRA publication Small-Scale Sustainable Rabbit Production.
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