Colony raising rabbits isn’t hard, but there are a few considerations that can make setting up a rabbit colony go more smoothly. It’s been six months since I brought home our American Chinchilla breeding trio. I researched raising meat rabbits extensively and decided I wanted raise my rabbits in a colony. I found good information on the Colony Raising Rabbits Yahoo group, and the Facebook groups Colony Raising Rabbits, and Rabbits in Colonies. What I found most useful was examples of how other people set up their rabbit colonies. I decided to share some pictures of what has been working for us, in hopes that it may help someone else.
I’ll put the some of the most valuable bits I’ve learned into a list, because I like lists. Then I’ll show some pictures of our set up, and talk a little bit more in depth about what’s been working for us.
- Provide at least 10 square feet per adult. More is better
- Provide multiple levels for jumping
- Protect your rabbits from weather and predators
- Use baby saver wire on the bottom
- Keep things clean with litter boxes and deep litter
- Provide several locations for feeding to reduce competition
- Provide lots of nesting places and materials for the does
- Include bucks who are used to a colony for higher quality of life, but you may have unpredictable timing of litters
- Have your grow out cage ready, because 12 weeks isn’t as long as you think it will be
- Colony raising rabbits is fun!
Space and Safety
This is a house rabbit cage that our neighbors gave to us. It is made up of Neat Idea Cubes and zip ties, with PVC tubes for stability. I really like some aspects of the NIC cage, but it does have a few downfalls. It has to be used for indoor bunnies. The one inch squares mean rodents will walk right in, and raccoons will have no problem reaching in for a snack. Our colony is in the garage, so they are safe and snug after dark every night.
If you’re planning on raising backyard rabbits, please, please, please make sure they have weather appropriate housing. The previous owner of this cage was trying to breed bunnies in the rain with only a tarp and a heat lamp for shelter. Major fire hazard and NOT fun for the wet baby bunnies!
If you plan to do any rabbit breeding in a NIC cage make sure you add baby saver wire. If you don’t, the baby rabbits will be able to walk right out of the cage. Make sure it goes at least 6 inches up, or the babies will reach an stage where they are big enough to hop over and squeeze out.
Most sources on raising rabbits for meat say that 6 feet of space is adequate for a doe and her litter. The NIC cage by itself is 18 square feet. I was unable to find any size guidelines for colony raising rabbits when i first started researching. I started with all three rabbits in it thinking that if it was too small I could move the buck out into a separate hutch.
I started to notice the rabbits fighting after we had our first litter. The biggest indicator was tufts of fur about the cage. I didn’t want to move the buck out though, because they were still engaging in social grooming, cuddling, and he would let the baby bunnies sit on his back. It just felt wrong to isolate him. Instead I added a metal baby yard with chicken wire and hardware cloth around the bottom. (Update, he is now housed separately.)
I’ve since learned that the minimum amount of space for a rabbit colony would be more like 10 feet per rabbit, which is the amount of space we have currently. I’ve also learned that it’s very important to have multiple levels for the rabbits to jump off and down on. Our current set up provides a lot of jumping opportunities, which is one thing it has going for it.
Since adding the attached yard we haven’t had any more indications of fighting. After we process the first litter if I want to keep raising rabbits for food, I definitely want to expand the colony quite a bit. A more humane rule of thumb would be 5 times the size of the rabbit. My rabbits are 8 pound adults, so I’m looking at potentially 120 square feet as a minimum size for my current herd.
Of course an important part of rabbit care is cleaning up. This current set up does take more effort than hanging hutches might. My adult rabbits are all litter box trained, and in the summer I dump the box once a day, wipe down anything the babies have soiled and call it good. Now that it is colder, I’ve switched to a deep litter for warmth for them. Each day I add dry straw on top of any soiled spots in the cage and litter box and dump the litter box when it is full. When it warms up I’ll muck out and give everything a good scrub.
The babies can be very messy, so I’ve found it works well to place a small litter box under the hay feeders. Rabbits poop when they eat, so the bunnies get used to using the litter box, and it’s easier for me to keep up with the output. They tend to use it as a nest box, but the falling hay keeps it dry enough for them.
The litter box in the picture above is the bottom of a five gallon bucket. Because I wasn’t sure if colony raising rabbits, or even breeding meat rabbits at all was for me, I tried to use recycled or found items whenever possible. The big litter box was an old one from our cats, and I’m always on the lookout for other good items to use in the colony.
I have noticed it’s good to have several food bowls, hay racks, and water bottles. When our second doe kindled she decided that the entire bottom was her territory and chased all the other rabbits up to the top. I made sure to space out feeding stations so that everyone got their fair share until I move the first litter into the grow out pen.
The food dishes I found on an abandoned lot (bleach is my friend). Our hay racks are made out of ice cream buckets, and I purchased water bottle spouts that fit onto reused 2 liter bottles. It’s not hard to provide lots of feeding stations when you get creative. I really want to try making feeders out of #10 cans. I’ve had the instructions since I started planning for rabbits, but haven’t had any cans yet to experiment with.
Breeding and Kindling
When you’re colony raising rabbits with the buck included in the colony, the breeding takes care of itself. I know this is not true for all rabbits, but my rabbits didn’t start breeding until they were their adult size, and have so far spaced out their litters further than the 4 weeks that is biologically possible. Keeping the buck in the colony means that you’re never quite sure when babies are coming. I’ve handled this by making sure there are always empty nest boxes available, and plenty of nesting materials like hay and straw. My does build very nice nests even though they are first time mamas.
This nest box was empty when I put it in the cage, and this week my doe Shota has been working hard to build herself a nest. I can either expect baby bunnies within a few days, or she has a false pregnancy. If it’s the latter she will likely chase down the buck to get bred, and I can expect babies in about a month.
Here’s a close up of the top layer of fur she pulled mixed in with the straw. There’s actually quite a bit of fur underneath the straw, but I didn’t want to mess it up too much for pictures since she had built it so nicely. One benefit of using a deep litter method when colony raising rabbits is that even if they don’t build a nest, the babies will still be born on the straw instead of wire. If for some reason the litter does get cold, you may still be able to save them if you find it early enough.
Our first litter didn’t reach butcher weight before 12 weeks. I need to do some research about the breed and find out if that was a mistake on my part in caring for the rabbits, or if that is typical for the breed. I do know that when raising fur rabbits instead of meat rabbits you butcher at a later age, so I really need to figure out what I’m doing before litter number two is ready to move out of the colony.
Here are the boys in their grow out pen, hoping I brought snacks. I should have, I might have been able to get better pictures! This hutch is a chicken coop that our flock grew out of. We took out the roost, added a mesh front instead of a solid front, and it was ready for the young bucks. On the top level they have hay and grain, plus a ramp down to the bottom level. It’s quite sheltered from rain and wind. I use a deep litter method to protect the wood floor, because they still aren’t litter box trained.
The second level is more spacious. It has their water bottle, a bucket tunnel to play in and sticks for chewing. Both levels put together equal about 12 square feet. They’re still young, so we haven’t outgrown the space yet.
Below is a side view with the ramp. Currently the sides are only stapled down. I need to add a couple of strips of wood across the bottom and top of the hardware cloth to make it more raccoon resistant. The raccoons tend to stay out of our yard because of the dog, but I’m caring for these rabbits, and I know I would never forgive myself if I could have prevented something from happening to them. I know that sounds incongruous since they are meat rabbits, but they deserve a good life, and a quick, humane death. That’s the whole point of why I’m raising rabbits, especially in a colony.
Go For It!
There is a lot of information available on how to raise rabbits for meat, but not as many people who are trying colony rabbit raising. I hope my quick photo tour of our basic colony set up may answer some basic questions for those who are considering it for their own meat rabbits.
So far I am enjoying our bunnies, and enjoying having them in a colony. How can you not love raising rabbits when you get to play with fluffy bundles of cuteness all the time!
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