A Rabbit in every pot…In many parts of the world, rabbits are raised as an inexpensive, easy to raise source of meat. It is possible to do the same here at home, with a little effort and the right conditions.
Many people have grown up with the idea that animals do not thrive unless they are fed commercially-prepared foods. This has been a carefully crafted sales pitch during the past 70 years from pet food companies who sell over $21 billion of animal food each year. By the 1960’s, The pet food industry was spending over $50 million a year on advertising to convince pet owners that table scraps were unhealthy for dogs and cats. We now face billions of dollars of pet food advertising each year, designed to make us believe that we cannot feed our animals and beloved pets properly unless it comes out of a bag or a can. Rabbit pellets were developed for the commercial rabbit industry in 1950’s and then adopted by the pet industry by the 1960’s when rabbit meat began to go out of ‘fashion’ and bunnies became a favored pet.
Rabbits can get the nutrition that they need the same way wild rabbits do– from a variety of weeds and greens, dried grasses (hay) and veggies, flowers, seeds, twigs and bark. Add some old bread, and your grower rabbits will grow as quickly and remain as healthy as any rabbit raised on pellets.
To know if your rabbits are getting the nutrition they need, evaluate them: Are they healthy? Do they have healthy, large litters? Do they breed easily? Do the young grow at a steady rate? If the answers are all yes, your feeding strategy is working.
This method of feeding is not for everyone. I am the first to admit that I am in the perfect spot to raise rabbits with a natural diet- I have access to a LOT of weeds starting in mid-late spring, and a majority of those weeds are alfalfa which I mowed down for 20 years before realizing what a resource they are. I also live in a rural area where I can walk down the dirt roads and harvest any weeds I see. Hay is easy to purchase as well, with an 80 pound bale of excellent hay going for about $6. For those that do not have access to weeds (and don’t have a large enough yard to plant alfalfa or other feed-plants) and hay, using pellets may be the best alternative- but do supplement them with horse hay cubes so they get to gnaw a bit. Note: DO NOT feed unknown plants to your rabbits until you know what they are and if they are edible or toxic! Same with leaves, bark and other vegetation.
To feed rabbits naturally, they should have access to feed 24/7. Rabbits in the wild are grazers- they nibble here, nibble there, taste a bit of this and that. They are designed to eat constantly and when we keep them confined, they are healthiest if they have consistent access to food. Greens should be fed at least once a day, with it lasting for most of the day. If you can cut it fresh, feed it twice a day. I use a home-made feeder made of fence wire and stuff it full twice a day- my rabbits are never without access to live food during the spring, summer and fall months. In the winter, I scavenge for greens at grocery stores. Small mom-and-pop grocery stores are often willing to give away old or less-perfect vegetables. Avoid root vegetables except as treats or during the coldest months, as they are higher in starch than rabbits can easily digest. Also avoid iceberg lettuces, as there is no nutrition in them.
Bread is a part of my feeding plan. I understand that there is controversy about feeding bread to animals, however I have used bread for many years for rabbits, chickens, horses and cows with my vets blessing, and have never had a health issue. There is a bakery in town that throws away old bread and is willing to dump a bunch of it in my trunk once a week. A bread outlet in town also sells their old bread for $10 per truck. I feed the organic bread to the rabbits. Each pregnant or nursing rabbit gets 1 slice twice a day, the buck and non-breeding does get a half slice twice a day. The growers are free-fed bread. Some rabbits love the bread and eat it first, others nibble on it throughout the day.
We have cold, snowy winters here, with nothing green in sight for 3 months. For the best health and contentment, rabbits need variety, although their main diet is hay during the winter. I give each rabbit a handful of pellets as a treat each day, and to provide variety. I also buy one bag of horse alfalfa cubes per winter, to give the rabbits something to chew on and to vary their diet.
I grow wheat grass for the rabbits during the winters. They get a cupcake size handful of growing grass each day during the coldest months. I grow the grass in the house, or in the greenhouse when it is heated. Sunflower heads are another treat that the rabbits love, and can be grown in the garden during the summers.
Most of the rabbits I raise are used for our families meat needs, as well as ‘dinner gifts’ for neighbors. In order to pay for hay and a few bags of pellets each year, I advertise rabbits as pets and breeders on Craigslist and on several Facebook ‘For Sale’ pages in our area. I always breed to sell to the ‘Easter Bunny’ crowd. To avoid the ‘after Easter bunny dump’, as a condition of the sale of every rabbit I sell, I offer a ‘free return’ option. Customers can bring a rabbit back to me, although I do not refund the cost. I will go pick up the bunnies if necessary. This prevents bunnies from being abandoned when parents realize that they actually take some care.
One disclaimer that needs to be stated: Although I spend no money out-of-pocket for the rabbit meat, the time it takes me to gather and grow feed is considerable in the long run. I spend about 1.5 hours for each pound of meat that I produce. Like many people, time is valuable and extra time is scarce in my life. When weighing the time vs cost saving, however, I still feel I am coming out ahead- I eat nothing but organic, humanely raised meat. I know exactly what has gone into each and every one, I know they have lived a happy life and had a humane ending. To me, that is worth the time and effort.