Monday, March 3, 2014

Feeding Rabbits Organically on a Pasture-based System

** Edited July 20, 2014: We've added split yellow peas to our feed mix this summer, as well as come up with a recipe for an organic herbal supplement to provide extra vitamins and minerals.



Since posting our rabbit kits for sale on craigslist I've gotten multiple inquiries about how we feed our rabbits organically. Feeding them 100% organic has been a gradual recent transition, but everyone is doing well and staying healthy and there have been no indicators of tummy trouble in the two months since we began transitioning to organic grain as the primary feed.

I'd like to begin with a disclaimer: just because this has worked for us doesn't mean it will work for everyone. Our rabbits have been given a diversity of feed since birth -- that's why we chose our breeding pair, in fact.  We purchased our breeding doe and buck from Amy of Buckeye Rabbitry who feeds her rabbits a variety of garden forage, fodder (sprouted grains), and organic grains. The rabbit kits we sell are now third-generation "natural feeders" and as result their digestive tracts are pretty well adapted to a wide variety of feed.

If you are switching your rabbits over to natural feed, the key is to make the change very gradually and slowly. Carefully monitor your rabbit's manner (watch for signs of lethargy, not moving around as much as usual) and watch their poop any time you change their diet. Signs of loose stool / diarrhea are not good, signs of no stool or a blockage are even worse.

All this to say -- I am not a rabbit veterinarian and cannot determine how any specific rabbit will handle any specific type of feed. This is simply our experience with our own rabbits.

Our rabbits' feed breaks down into five parts: roughage, grains, fresh foods/forage, fats, and minerals. All of these are in a state of experimentation for us. We're constantly trying new things to save money, use all organic or pesticide-free feed, and keep our rabbits at the top of their game physically. Here's what we're doing at the moment with natural feed.



Roughage

Roughage is a fancy word for the fiber that rabbits need to keep their digestive tract in good working order. The most important aspect of rabbit feed is a steady supply of good-quality hay. We lost a breeding doe when we first got rabbits due to what we think was a digestive blockage -- at that time we were not feeding them any hay. We were ignorant and suffered the consequences. Don't do what we did! Each rabbit usually goes through a good-sized handful of hay daily, depending on the weather and how much they like that particular kind of hay. Give your rabbits an unlimited amount of hay. There are hay racks available for purchase or DIY versions to cut down on wastage, but as long as we don't put hay in the rabbits' potty corner we haven't had any issues with them soiling the hay.

We also like to give our rabbits tree twigs and dried corn stalks to chew on, both for fun and to get a little more roughage into their system. Make sure any tree twigs fed to rabbits are not poisonous. The trees in our yard are mostly maple and sweet gum.



Grains

Up until a few months ago, the staple of our rabbits' diet was standard commercial rabbit pellets, purchased from our local co-op for about $11 per 45 lb bag. Once our doe began producing babies (up until a couple months ago she wasn't breeding age yet) we began the transition to all-organic feed. We are a part of the Azure Standard co-op and got our first batch of organic grains and organic alfalfa pellets from Azure. We slowly transitioned the rabbits to the grain, first mixing 1/4 of grain with 3/4 alfalfa pellets. Right now we've got a tiny bit of alfalfa still in the mix, but the feed is 90% grains.

Our current mix of grains is unhulled oats and rye. It's what was on sale and available through Azure at the time. We plan on getting wheat as well as barley with our next Azure order. We will mix the grains up in equal ratios. The rabbits don't like the rye as much, so we may hold off on that in our next mix.

Update: Azure's grain prices have been fluctuating greatly due to drought conditions across the country. We've been going about 50/50 with ordering grain from Azure and getting grain from Windy Acres, an all-organic farm that's just north of Nashville. Windy Acres has some decently priced grain and we like knowing that our money is going to a local farm.



Forage and fresh foods

This category covers a wide variety of plants. In the summer this will mean a good quantity of grass and whatever else is growing in our pasture, which we hope to eventually amend with high-protein forage plants like timothy and field peas. In the spring this means whatever safe greens we gather from the lawn -- henbit and chickweed are big hits. In the winter this means kitchen scraps, though this is something to be careful about since rabbits may do better with some fruit and veggie scraps than others and quantities should be monitored. Our rabbits love apple cores, butternut squash innards, carrot peelings, broccoli stems, cauliflower leaves, and leftover lettuce or greens.

One cup of fresh foods daily is the recommended amount per rabbit, though when introducing new foods it's best to start small and build up to that amount.

Here's a good list of general things it is safe for a rabbit to eat.



Fats

I usually see black oil sunflower seeds (BOSS) recommended for use in feed but I've had trouble finding an organic source that's reasonably priced. Regular sunflower seeds have what looks to be a similar nutritional profile and are about 1/4 of the price. We're going to do some experimenting with introducing sunflower seeds to our rabbits as a source of healthy fat. For nursing and pregnant does I will mix in a higher percentage of the seeds since they're in greater need of fat.

We are also beginning to feed the rabbits small amounts of flax seeds, also from Azure.



Trace minerals

Right now we are also experimenting with how to balance out minerals and salts. We're trying out some kelp granules that contain trace minerals and have salt, but the rabbits don't seem to love eating it and I worry that the granules will get uneaten and lost in the mix if I mix them up with the feed. Plus, they're kind of expensive.

I think next we'll give a try to Azomite, an all-natural trace mineral additive that is approved for use in organically raised livestock. We will be adding in 1 cup per 33 gallon bucket of feed, of course starting out with even less than that to make sure the rabbits' systems can tolerate the mineral mix. We may also go ahead and get standard rabbit salt licks, though there's some debate on whether or not rabbits need them, since ours don't consume a commercial feed mix (those already have salt added) it won't hurt to give them the option to have salt if they want ti.



Overall feed breakdown:

1 part unhulled oats
1 part wheat
1 part rye or barley
1/2 part fat - either flax seeds, sunflower seeds, or a mix

The ratios, for us, are pretty general. We use what we have and sometimes substitutions are made. This is the ideal feed breakdown as a guideline.

With the current mix, our feed costs approximately $20 per 45 lb bag. That's by no means precise but it is a decent estimate. We have been going through about a bag per month feeding our doe, buck, and three 10-week-old kits. My guess is that overall feed consumption will go down over the summer. We are currently moving our on-ground rabbit pens (I'll post more on our housing setup in a few days) every other day, as there isn't much forage anywhere right now, but as the warm weather and rains approach it will be nice to see the pasture grow more for the rabbits to eat. Pasture growth will lead to yet more experimentation about how much feed to give, what ratios to keep everyone healthy and cut costs.

Fodder is another aspect of natural feeding that we're getting back into -- right now we're just working on figuring out a good method that works for getting fodder going, since it's a fairly time-intensive endeavor. I'll post more about that as we learn, plus there's plenty of great information available online about growing fodder for livestock.



This is our rabbit feed story up to date. We are learning more daily and are always open to trying new things. Thank you for reading about our little rabbitry! I'd be happy to attempt to answer any questions in the comments.


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Products from Azure Standard:

Kelp granules
Sunflower seeds
Wheat
Rye berries
Barley
Flax seeds
Unhulled oats
Organic alfalfa pellets (non-GMO is also available at a lower price)

A note about Azure: Prices are often variable -- last month their rye berries were on sale for $17 and they're back up to $23 now. If you keep an eye on items you want you can get some good deals when they drop the price temporarily.


Further resources about natural rabbit feed:

 Joybilee Farm GMO-free Livestock Mix  -- This blog gives EXCELLENT evidence as to why commercial rabbit feed is so dangerous and gives a breakdown of the ratio for their natural rabbit feed mix.

Rise and Shine Rabbitry -- This blog has all kinds of great information about raising rabbits and goes in-depth about natural feeding.

Beyond the Pellet: Feeding Rabbits Naturally -- A fairly new book about natural feeding that I'm actually excited to order for myself!





*this blog contains Amazon Affiliate links. There's no extra cost to you, but if you purchase an item via these links Amazon gives me a few cents. ;)

1 comment:

  1. You go! Ours love sweet potatoes too. Good energy for cold weather

    ReplyDelete