The days are getting shorter. The nights are slowly cooling down. I’m loving it. In fact, I’m taking my morning coffee out to the front porch about 5:30 a.m. and enjoying the early morning cooler temperatures. Autumn is my favorite time of year and here in Georgia we have long, very long autumns. It’s one of my favorite things about living here.
Fall is also the time of year we start looking ahead to next year. We review what went well, what went poorly and what didn’t go at all. It’s the season in which we breed our goats, our cows and our rabbits.
Rabbits love this time of year, too. From September through May they are in their element. They thrive in cool and cold weather. Their coats take on a warm, soft extra layer and their hormones kick into overdrive. We begin our breeding program the first week of September. That’s sort of my unofficial start of autumn.
Rabbits hate summer. They don’t do well in the heat. We try and keep them in shady locations where they can get any breezes that might blow and we put plastic jugs of ice in their crates to help keep their body temperatures down. Despite those extra efforts, over the years we’ve lost some good rabbits and even entire litters of babies to heat stroke. So we rarely have any litters from late May till we breed again in September.
Sure, it impacts our profits, but Our Edible Suburb is about much more than profits. Animal welfare is one of our priorities, too. Each of our does will have a maximum of three litters a year. This way they remain healthier, are less stressed and we prolong both their breeding lives and their lives in general.
Besides, meat is only one of the reasons we raise rabbits. Their by-product is as important to our operation as is their meat. Rabbits produce copious quantities of the finest manure on earth. It is high in nitrogen and trace minerals, but is not ‘hot’ like chicken manure so it doesn’t have to be composted. When it IS composted it is the richest, most nutritious garden food you can imagine. You can kick it up further by using it to feed red wiggler compost worms and let the worms convert it, or at least some of it, into worm castings. Talk about a feast for your soil!
Even in the dead of winter, the middle of the pile is toasty warm and the wigglers will keep working. We keep our compost pile going year round, so that in the spring we can add a nice thick layer of the stuff to our raised beds. Even the most inexperienced gardener can have success by using composted rabbit manure.
If you start in the fall, one or two rabbits will give you enough manure for a couple of raised beds by the time spring rolls around. Unless you’re looking for pedigreed rabbits for showing, you can get a pair of rabbits very cheaply at your local small animal auction, from a local breeder, or even off of Craigslist.
If you’re planning to breed, mature bunnies will cost a bit more, but will pay for themselves in just a few months in either meat, manure or both. Since most does will produce 6 to 8 offspring in a litter that are ready to be processed by 12 weeks, it won’t take long to have your freezer full of nutritious protein, or have your compost heap filled to capacity.
We started with about 12 rabbits. We had a mixed bag of young and mature. We grew out some of the young males for the table and kept all the young does along with a couple unrelated mature males. That first winter we had rabbits everywhere. There were weeks we had multiple days with two or more litters arriving. It was work, but it was also fun. That next spring we had our best garden ever.
If you have a small space, or are not interested in meat, you could consider some of the dwarf rabbit varieties. Some of them are really cute, make great pets and can be wonderful with
children. Despite their tiny size, they do a great job in the manure department.
Fall is upon us. If you’ve been thinking about adding rabbits to your farm or garden, now’s the time to get started. If you’ve got questions, please feel free to send them our way. We’d love to hear from you.
For those of you already raising rabbits, we’d like to hear from you, too. When did you get started and why? What has your experience been? Don’t be shy now. You’re among friends.