OK, this came up ever so briefly in the meat rabbit thread, but I am going to ask this again. I have raised plenty of meat rabbits in the past, both cali's and NZ. I am planning on the Cali Does with a NZ buck, as it sounds very interesting. The question is, Does anyone know if I could actually Pasture these rabbits? I used to feed a small amount of grass daily, but never tried just a straight grass diet, not knowing if the rabbits would handle it. If not does anyone know of a breed or cross that could handle pasturing? Just want to try this and see exactly how the meat is going to be. I know I am kind of on a limb here but if you have experience in this area would love to hear about it.....
Straight grass diet without pellets or grains would lack nutritionally. Pellets are a complete diet, and most people spend a lot of time developing grain diets to account for deficiencies.
Straight grass would likely be hard to do, as I've heard wild rabbits need ACRES to grow up a litter, not to mention the accellerated growth (and therefore higher demand) of new zealands and calis. They will only have what small pasture is available to them, and if it's straight grass I'd say it'd be hard to ensure decent growth and avoid nutrition problems. You'd likely have to move the pastures often to accomodate the needs of mothers with litters.
I will always use either pellet or grain. If I fed a grain/hay diet I'd likely supplement with a vitamin/mineral supplement like Vi-Tal in the water.
I don't think you could raise them on JUST the grass. I know plenty of people now who do a "natural" diet (read: no pellets). Mainly greens like dandelions (high in nutrients and protein), plantain, willow, apple leaves/twigs, and grasses...but they also add a handful of grains daily and alfalfa. The grains balance things out better, and the alfalfa helps with that as well as upping the protein a lot.
You'd need a mineral/salt block of some sort. Something formulated for rabbits, or possibly for deer. Read the label to make sure it's okay (no strange stuff, and no meat products or fat)
I think they'd probably eat down the grasses/weeds REALLY quickly unless the tractor was huge. That said, you could do a portable tractor, with an area that you can toss in extra food..like a flake of alfalfa, or apple branches or grape vines, etc.
As Mygoat said, pellets are a balanced died..each pellet they eat is balanced nutrition..which is why the kits grow so quickly on pellets. When you add hay, they eat fewer pellets (cuz they're full of hay) and so usually grow more slowly.
HOWEVER....the meat takes on a different taste when the rabbits are on a non-pellet diet. It's deeper in flavour, much more similar to Wild Rabbit. (I was sorely disappointed in the first rabbit I raised just on pellets...very bland compared to my critters that got alfalfa, greens, and no pellets)
For those who are about to defend the just pellet diet...great. It IS a fully contained diet. If you're raising rabbits for meat, and want the fastest, highest weight gain, you can't go wrong with pellets...as long as you have a good source of good pellets. (been hearing a lot of folks complain about 1)the price of and 2)the contents of their pellets For me, balancing pellets with hay and fresh greens or losing the pellets completely and going with grains, etc.....that works out better. Lower cost, but longer grow out time. It all works out in the wash...although when I do the math, I'm paying less per pound of meat in the kits. BUT...I don't breed 5 times a year, either. Only 3...so if you put that into the hopper...a pellet raised rabbitry would put out more meat per year..perhaps bringing down the cost?
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Grass alone is not enough. A really good mix of weeds and other plants is what is needed, as Ann says. There is a wealth of information in the stickies at the top of the page.
Tractoring has two main problems, apart from the nutritional issues. Predators and dig-outs. You need a really good design. Remember that raccoons can reach through the wire and grab rabbits, dragging them to the wire and eating as much as they can through it. The mesh needs to be both strong and fine. Rabbits can also be frightened to death by predators, without any external signs. Just saying... tractoring is not always easy.
From April to October, my rabbits eat mainly greens, but I cut them and bring them to the rabbits rather than tractoring. I also supply hay and a small amount of grain: wheat, barley or oats are best. I second the need for a mineral/salt block.
Winter is more difficult, of course, but the rabbits do well on alfalfa hay, some grass hay, grain and some fresh foods. I give them root crops such as carrots and beets, small amounts of cabbage (can be gassy), occasional treats of apples, dried willow and poplar leaves and twigs, grain grasses grown in dishpans etc. The amounts are small but it keeps their systems used to fresh foods so when the greens start again in the spring the increase is easy for them to handle.
Ann is right about the flavour of the meat... Naturally fed rabbit is far tastier.
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Pasturing rabbits is a way of having rabbits that can feed off the
land while being protected in a cage.
Check out the webpage and the links from that page to other sites for
information on pasturing rabbits.
Have a good day!
Pastured Rabbit Links:
These folks sell or are involved in research on pastured rabbits. To learn about the down-and-dirty of pastured rabbit production, I'd suggest emailing them directly. Some of the websites listed here don't go into specifics.
La Phototheque de Cuniculiculture (The Photo Library of Rabbit Breeding): This French website has a lot of pictures of a pastured rabbit operation. Very interesting. The photos are largely self-explanatory, but if you'd like to read an English translation, try Google's Language Tools. Or click here for an automatic translation (link may not work).
EcoFriendly Foods LLC: Small natural foods company in Moneta, Virginia. They are researching ways of raising rabbits sustainably and offer naturally-produced rabbit.
Hare-Today: Small pet food company in Pennsylvania that offers naturally-produced rabbit. Their rabbits are not raised on pasture, but does and litters are housed in group pens in a modified colony system.
Polyface Farms: Joel Salatin's website. Joel's son is raising rabbits on pasture. No information on pastured rabbits online, but there's an email address to contact them directly.
Rumbleway Farm: Participated in a research study on pastured rabbit, which was published in World Rabbit Science in 2005. Click here to read a farm profile. No info on pastured rabbits online, but you can contact them by email.
I did a little more research, and agree that I would indeed include some pellets and alfalfa, as well as salt. If I could go with a 40-50% grass I would be very happy with that.
As far as tractor design I would definitely use Rabbit cage wire (baby saver) at a min. and would probably go with the 1/2" x 1/2" for the sides. I am thinking that at least 3/4 of the roof would be solid, so they would feel safe from anything flying overhead. They would be movable, and moved at least once a day if not morning and afternoon. I am still working on the dig out part, and do have a call into a guy (Daniel Salatin) who is actually doing this. I will be interested in hearing how he approaches that issue specifically.
When we raised meat rabbits in the past in standard cages we always included fresh greens and grains to their daily rations. I think I would definitely leave them a pellet, grain mix in the tractors as free choice a couple times a day.
I guess the worst that will happen is we will try it, abandon it and go back to our hutches. We still have them, and will definitely keep them in them in the rabbit coop through the bitter winter months. Thanks for the input thus far, and keep it coming if anything else comes to mind.
As far as grow out times, it would have to be economical, but at 60% the feed cost, I really think I could live with a little longer time for a great tasting rabbit.
Rabbitgeek- Thanks for the other sites- there are some there I didn't find yet...
Not all grasses are the same. Depending on what sort of grass is in your pasture, it could either be almost their entire diet or they'd almost starve to death. The folks who pasture cows, sheep, horses, goats, etc., can name several dozen different grasses without even thinking about it and tell you which ones are nutritious and palatable to their livestock.
My rabbits are about 90% "pasture" raised although all the leaves, grass and weeds is fed to them in their cage. Primarily they eat guinea grass with ti leaves but they get a few pellets and other assorted greens, too. They aren't meat rabbits, though, they are English Angora. They would probably grow bigger on pellets and timothy hay, but then feeding them would be much more expensive.
My rabbits don't really care for grass, but they sure do love a wide assortment of weeds. I travel in about a 100 yard circle around the buildings to gather all the different types they eat. I also trim a few types of trees for them to eat too, elm, willow and apple.
I still give them pellets, but in the summer they don't eat all that much of them as they get a big bucket of greens each day.
I live in NE wisconsin and I do this.
all my butcher rabbits go in grass tractors in the summer. I can tell you this. I move them 2 times a day, and they get whatever weeds are growing as well. Its not enough. If I dont also feed them pellets, they will get skinny.
However, I always have a rabbit or 6 running loose because they dig out, or escape in some other fashion. the ones that are running loose, I dont feed and they grow beautifully. I have a blue silver fox doe running right now, and I have her brothers caged. she is equally as big if not slightly bigger than her brothers.