We’ve been raising rabbits for meat off and on for years. From the beginning, I sought alternatives to traditional cages. We started out with rabbit tractors, which worked great for small numbers but weren’t really scalable. Then, at our old house, we started a colony and it was the perfect answer, until the goats pushed on the gate and “freed” the whole colony right before we moved.
It took a couple of years to start over, but now we’re raising rabbits for meat again and have settled on a colony build that works well for us. In this article, I will answer some common questions and share the insights I’ve gained over the years.
Won’t the Rabbits Fight?
Many people have been taught that rabbits will always fight if they are allowed to co-mingle. When introduced together for the first time, there will be scuffling as the pecking order is established. Sometimes this can be a bit rough, but for the most part, rabbits will settle down and form a tight-knit group, grooming each other and snuggling together during nap time.
The exception to this is bucks. When raising rabbits for meat, my personal philosophy is to keep more than one buck on hand. This is so you have a backup if something happens to the primary buck. Many times though, the dominant buck will be overly aggressive and the lesser buck will have to be housed elsewhere. Bucks raised up in the colony to maturity seem to do alright; you may have to experiment with different bucks to find two or three that will exist relatively peacefully together.
While I have heard of overly aggressive does, I have never had one in the dozens of mature does I’ve owned. It is important to have a peaceful colony, so any bullies will be culled. I feel that way about all the species I raise – get along or get gone.
Raising Rabbits for Meat: Ingredients for a Good Colony
The first and most important key to a successful colony is the fencing. A 2″ hole is enough for young kits to escape through, and escape they will, even if there is a hungry dog waiting just on the other side. One of my favorite fencing options is wire lined cattle panels. 2×4 wire is too large but 1″ chicken wire or, even better, 1″ hardware cloth, will keep kits in. The cattle panels we use now are wired with both 2×4 wire and 1″ chicken wire. The combination keeps most predators out and rabbits in. You can see the fence in the background of this photo with our heeler looking on wistfully. Rats! Foiled again.
Rabbits are tunnelers and, given the chance, they will escape under your fencing. There are several ways around this. Our colony is on cement. No one is digging out of that! Cement isn’t always available though. When we’ve had colonies on grass or dirt, we’ve had good success laying down rolls of 2×4 wire, each strip connected to the other with J clips used for building rabbit cages. That’s how we wire the cattle panels too; J clips are great for many things.
Some folks have great success using cement pavers or tile in their colonies. Also, rabbits tend to tunnel under objects, so some people don’t prevent digging at all but instead try to focus it away from fences by putting down blocks of wood, inverted plastic storage totes or dog houses in the middle of their colony. I once read of someone raising Flemish Giants in 20’x20′ pastures set up this way, with gravel at the gate to prevent digging there.
Cats and hawks are both major issues for rabbit colonies. Our latest colony is under the roof of a pole building, so hawks weren’t an issue but we have several barn cats who really enjoyed the rabbit pen. We tried giving multiple hiding spots and layering branches over a large section of the colony for the rabbits to climb in, but the cats outsmarted us at every turn. The only solution that worked was to run 2″ chicken wire from the fence to the roof. Since then, we’ve had zero losses.
My preference is to have one or two more boxes than I have does. This gives everyone plenty of room to spread out. Shared nests sometimes work, but often will result in losses as the strongest kits of both litters will eat twice, edging out the weaker ones.
In our colony, the 5-gallon bucket nest boxes work well, but we also have an inverted storage tote, a barrel cut in half and overturned with a hole cut and a spare Dogloo dog house. What you’re looking for is any enclosed space, preferably with a single access hole, large enough to accommodate a doe and her nest. They don’t mind small spaces, just be sure there’s enough room to step. The space inside a 5-gallon bucket on the bottom is the bare minimum I’d feel comfortable with. Different does have different preferences and all of these are used by my crew.
I’ll describe how we feed a bit later. What we feed in is 4″ PVC pipe feeders, like the kind often used for goat minerals. Our goats don’t use them so we found a use elsewhere. We have 2 of these screwed to the wall at different locations. Traditional rabbit feeders can still find great use in a colony setting, but you may need quite a few of them, depending on your numbers. I have around 8-10 adults but there are usually around 50 rabbits in the colony at a time, so the ability to feed in bulk is important. We do use one larger J feeder for one of the grains we feed, but I like the larger holding capacity of the PVC feeders with 3-4′ pipes on them.
Update: We moved to a garbage can feed system where each of the three whole grains is fed in a separate garbage can, using the 4″ PVC elbows for access:
Rabbits are relatively inactive creatures and don’t need a lot of space, but when you’re designing your colony, it is important to factor in the additional space requirements of their offspring, plus any new rabbits you might bring in. In my opinion, the more space you can designate, the better. Our colony is about 15’x25′ and the 50 +/- rabbits have plenty of room to run, hop and play. They really appreciate platforms and tunnels, which gives them more room without taking up a larger footprint.
Raising Meat Rabbits in a Colony: Feeding Your Rabbits
I’ve experimented with a lot of ways to feed and a lot of different feeds. We have now moved completely away from commercial feeds and feed only whole grains, hay and kelp, along with picked greens in season.
Year round, rabbits have access to free choice grain, which changes based on what I have available. Ideally, they will have barley and oats at all times, with peas as needed for more protein. This is the mix I feed all my grain eating animals and we buy it in bulk by the ton from a local feed mill that sources unsprayed grains. When I have it, I like to give them a small amount of sunflower seeds, but I save this more for deep winter when other foods are gone.
We’ve also begun growing sunflowers to feed the rabbits and chickens through winter. Next year I will save the whole stalk and leaves because the rabbits really love sunflower leaves. We can put the whole stalk and head in there and let them harvest the grains themselves, something they enjoy.
Rabbits really love grass hay. We hand cut some grass hay for them, but mostly they eat alfalfa because that’s what the other animals get and that’s all I buy. A goal for next year is to cut enough grass hay to supplement their other feeds all winter.
Kelp provides all the vitamins and minerals most species need. We feed free choice organic kelp to the rabbits fall through spring, omitting it during summer when they get a variety of greens and vegetables.
I have a small hand sickle and when the grass is in season from spring to fall, I cut an armful of grass to feed the rabbits instead of putting out hay. Once the garden is coming on strong, they get most of the plant trimmings and veggies if I can spare them. I also bring a bucket out to the garden daily for weeding and feed that to the rabbits. They love the variety and I love the cost savings!
Some greens that can be grown in your garden to save for later include comfrey, amaranth, sunflower leaves, mallow (it’s a weed everywhere and they LOVE it), all brassica leaves, spinach, kale, chard, mustard and almost any other plant that you might grow as a green for yourself. Just add a couple more plants for your rabbits and they’ll be most appreciative!
Wood really helps rabbits keep their teeth trimmed down. They also get vital nutrients from the bark. We have plenty of trees, so in addition to greens and veggies all summer, I break off a handful of willow branches daily. I also bring them larger branches for the bark, then replace the branches once they’ve eaten all the bark off.
This is one area where you really save time over having caged rabbits. For my colony, I have two dog watering bowls that I fill up once a day. In winter, I add heat coils to the bottom of the bowls and they have ice free water all winter. No breaking ice, no replacing bottles or crocks, just a couple water jugs brought out once daily during chores.
Raising Rabbits for Meat in a Colony: Regular Maintenance
In summer, the floor of the colony is bare concrete. I sweep this regularly and dump the droppings onto plants that need a little help. Rabbit fertilizer is almost more valuable than rabbit meat on our farm.
In winter, we leave the hay they waste until spring. This hay will decompose at the bottom layers, a deep litter method to help produce heat and keep everyone warm. Rabbits are very cold hardy, but a little extra heat can be welcome in the bitterest of cold.
In spring, the waste hay and droppings are scooped up to use in the garden, providing nutrients and water retention for better yields. Rabbits are one of the best small farm animals!
Raising Rabbits for Meat in a Colony: Harvest Time
I walk amongst my rabbits frequently and they are not overly skittish, so when the time comes to harvest one, I can usually walk up and pick it up. If you have skittish rabbits, place your feeders in a cage that you can close remotely, like a dog crate with a swinging door. Then, when the time comes, you can simply close the door and collect the one or ones you need.
Having raised rabbits in both cages (briefly) and colonies, I can say that raising meat rabbits in a colony is hands-down the easiest, lowest maintenance and most rewarding way to raise them. Whether on pavers in a small section of your barn or in rotational grazing fences out on pasture, you can find a way to colony raise your rabbits in a way that fits your goals and circumstances.