Colony raising rabbits isn’t hard, but there are a few considerations that can make setting up a rabbit colony go more smoothly. When I brought home our American Chinchilla breeding trio, I had researched raising meat rabbits extensively. I knew I wanted to 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.
Colony Raising Rabbits: 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
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 and we thought they were safe and snug, until we realized there was a hole behind the furnace where rodents were getting in.
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.
How Much Space Do They Need?
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, so I started with all three rabbits in it. 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.
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. It’s also 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.
Keep it Clean
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. In the summer I dump the box once a day and wipe down anything the babies have soiled. Rabbits are generally cold tolerant, but when it is colder, I use do use deep litter. 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, muck it 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.
You can use any waterproof container as a litter box. For small rabbits you could even use the bottom of a five gallon bucket or other found items. Cat litter boxes work quite well, as do plastic tubs. If the walls are too high, you can cut a door into them with an exacto knife. You can use any absorbent material that’s save for rabbits to eat such as wood chips, straw, hay, or paper pellets in their litter boxes or as deep litter.
Food And Water In The Rabbit Colony
Rabbits are very territorial so it’s important to have several food bowls, hay racks, and water bottles. When our second doe kindled she decided that the entire bottom was her territory. She 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 basic feeding and watering rabbits is the same regardless of their housing.
The delivery method isn’t important as long as it’s clean. The kind of feeders that mount onto the sides tend to get spilled less, but you don’t have to start out with expensive equipment. Our first food dishes I found on an abandoned lot (bleach is my friend). Our first hay racks were made out of ice cream buckets. My favorite water bottle spouts are the kind that fit onto reused 2 liter bottles. It’s not hard to provide lots of feeding stations when you get creative. Ikea bag holders also make nice hay racks, as long as you have plenty of more attractive things for them to chew.
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. One benefit of using a deep litter method is even if they don’t build a nest, the babies will still be born on the straw. If the kits do get cold, you may still be able to save them if you find it early enough.
Should You Separate The Weaned Rabbits?
Rabbits breeds and herds can vary as to when they reach their grow out size. You may want to consider splitting your colony once they reach sexual maturity at 12 weeks. I often keep mine for four to six months before sending them off to freezer camp. It’s a good idea to sex them and separate when they are around 8 weeks old.
If you keep your colony all together, it is liable to grow very quickly. If you are growing for market, that could be a very good thing, but if you are like us and only eat a rabbit every week or so and want to select for certain traits it may be better to keep them separated. We do not have room for several colonies, so we refurbished an old chicken coop into a grow out hutch. If you must keep your rabbits in a hutch make sure they are rodent proof. There should be no spaces larger than 1/4 inch, and use wood and screws to take down any wire. You can still use a deep litter method, even over the top of a wire floor. Just make sure there’s enough head space to accommodate the higher floor.
Go For It!
There is a lot of information available on how to raise rabbits for meat. Not as many people are trying colony rabbit raising or sharing about it. I hope this post answers some basic questions for those who are considering it for their own meat rabbits.