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Colony Raising Rabbits 101


11 Colony Raising Rabbits Amercian Chinchilla Kit @ Farming My Backyard

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.

The Basics

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

2 Colony Raising Rabbits @ Farming My Backyard

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.

1 Colony Raising Rabbits @ Farming My Backyard

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.

Sanitation

5 Colony Raising Rabbits Litter Box @ Farming My Backyard

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.

8 Colony Raising Rabbits American Chincilla Kit @ Farming My Backyard

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.

Feeding

3 Colony Raising Rabbits @ Farming My Backyard

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.

13 Colony Raising Rabbits @ Farming My Backyard

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.

6 Colony Raising Rabbits Nest Box @ Farming My Backyard

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.

7 Colony Raising Rabbits Fur In Nest Box @ Farming My Backyard

Growing Up

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.

Colony Raising Rabbits: Grow Out Pen

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.

Colony Raising Rabbits:  American Chinchilla Bucks

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.

2013-12-10 11.25.12

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.

2013-12-10 11.24.56

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!

4 Colony Raising Rabbits @ Farming My Backyard

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17 comments on “Colony Raising Rabbits 101
  1. Oh, my gosh! This is quite a setup you have here! I have New Zealands and just house them in individual hutches in the backyard with pull out troughs so I can harvest their poop. I did build one of the hutches larger for whichever doe is kindling at that time. I think, and I know you’ll agree, the one thing people have to do when keeping rabbits is keep the hutches clean!! All the time! Those little pellets build up faster than anyone thinks…
    This is a cool set up!
    Oh, and my New Zealands never reach butcher weight until about 12 weeks, so you’re not doing anything wrong, your breed is just a little smaller and they take longer! (They are so pretty, though).

    • Kathryn says:

      Thanks! Yup, the feeding and the clean up are a never ending cycle. : ) It’s good to hear mine aren’t taking abnormally long to make weight.

  2. Stopping by from Homestead Barn Hop. Thank you so much for sharing your experience with colony raising rabbits. I feel that livestock rabbits have been neglected in terms of humane concerns. So many, many people say that rabbits are perfectly happy in little cages, and that colony raising can’t work because they fight too much. But you have shown that the aggression might relate to insufficient space. That makes abundant sense, since their wild relatives are very social animals, but live within large territories. I have never raised them for meat, but had two pet rabbits that got along famously in our shed, which led into a large predator proof outdoor enclosure. In addition, I let them free range in our fenced in 1/3 acre backyard, with the chickens in the afternoons. They are active and curious, and seemed to very much enjoy hopping around, foraging for wild grasses and weeds. Best of luck with this endeavor, and please keep us posted!

    • Kathryn says:

      That’s so cool. Some good friends of ours had a pet rabbit that lived happily in their backyard and house for years. I really enjoy ours be able to interact with their environment instead of just sitting and staring at the world and the food bowl all day.

  3. Melissa says:

    What an amazingly thorough post! We have been thinking about getting rabbits for a while now but haven’t made the leap! All this info will be so helpful for us when we finally decide keeping rabbits is for us (notice I said when, not if ;-) ).

    Also, I’m a fellow HBNer and city farmer (we have 1/8 acre)…So happy to have found you!

  4. Absolutely LOVED this post. I tried my hand at raising meat rabbits, and threw in the towel because the normal hutch setup just didn’t fit my idea of humanely/naturally raised animals. All of our other animals are raised as naturally as possible…free range chickens, pastured pigs, rotated sheep, etc…so why are the rabbits stuck in cages.

    This post was definitely part of the puzzle for me, now I just have to figure out a good pastured method! Always something new to learn.

    • Kathryn says:

      Awesome, glad I could give you some ideas. I know people do pasture their rabbits, but I haven’t explored that yet.

  5. R. Westhafer says:

    We do live in Florida and don’t have to battle the cold- but we do have the intense heat and humidity. We have always kept our rabbits outside in an enclosure in our fenced-in yard. They spend hot days in burrows that we have created underground-like rabbits do in nature. We used to cage them at night but found it wasn’t necessary. All we have to do is clean up the droppings once in a while. Our guinea pigs also spend their days outside. There must be a way for all animals to live closer to their natural suroundings.

  6. Jenn @ Westbend Farm Canada says:

    Just wanting to clarify something. Do you leave your buck with your does all the time? I bought my first meat rabbits yesterday; 3 does and a buck. They are all together in a colony, a converted old ice shack. I figured at some point once I felt the girls were bred I’d have to remove the buck. Not looking forward to him being alone, even if he’s right with them separated by wire You haven’t bothered??
    tx

    • Kathryn says:

      I had my buck in the colony for about eight months. I pulled him out a month ago because I didn’t like not knowing when to expect babies. Some people say they will have a new litter each month, but ours spaced them out more, and I was never sure what to expect. He is right next to his ladies in a separate pen but I’m not sure yet if we’ll keep it this way, or if I will open up the wall between the two pens again.

  7. This is great! I would like to raise rabbits in the future and I love the idea of colony raising them.

    • Kathryn says:

      We love our colony. I have a regular hutch that I use when things get crowded in the colony, and I always feel so bad for the rabbits that end up all by themselves!

  8. Kevin says:

    I am beginning to breed Silver Fox rabbits and am intrigued by your colony approach. Would you recommend keeping them in a colony if someone is not raising them for meat (though we could – silver foxes are a dual purpose rabbit – stacking functions permaculture style:)?
    Have you had any problems with the buck having babies with his babies?
    As a permaculturist myself, I think the colony approach better replicates nature. This makes me want to give this a try.
    Your blog is wonderful!
    Thanks.

    • Kathryn @ Farming My Backyard says:

      I think how you would set up a colony would be affected by your purposes. If you are raising for pets or shows you’d want to make sure you could easily access all your rabbits and babies for handling. Our first set up was more of a blend of a cage and a colony and I could easily handle all the rabbits. Because I don’t want more rabbits than I had room for I only keep the litters in the main pen until 12 weeks and then I move them out. But yes, the buck would breed his own daughters. In my situation raising for meat that would not be a problem but if I was trying to have a selective breeding program it wouldn’t be ideal! My buck did not eat any of the babies, nor did they breed back immediately but he was constantly trying to breed the does even when they were not interested so he is currently not in the colony until I can get more space and hidey holes set up.

  9. Kevin says:

    Other problems I have read about …
    The bucks eating the kits, aggressive behavior, over-working the doe, double litters.
    Have you seen any of these problems?

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  1. [...] week’s From The Farm Blog Hop! This week my favorite comes from Farming My Backyard called Colony Raising Rabbits 101. If you are thinking about raising rabbits for meat, this is a very informative [...]

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Welcome! I’m Kathryn and my family and I are creating a tiny urban homestead in Portland, Oregon. With goats, rabbits, chickens, and four young kids things are never boring! Thanks for stopping by, and make sure to subscribe for email updates.
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