Well, we've had to do a bit of troubleshooting with our natural rabbit feed system. It's been almost six months since we began mixing our own grain-based feed for our rabbits and the transition went pretty smoothly. No one had any tummy issues adjusting to the grain and though our two new rabbits took awhile to adjust to living on pasture rather than in cages off the ground, both eventually adjusted digestively to the new feed.
Unfortunately we had a few problems that may have to do with vitamin deficiencies, most likely either Vitamin A or Vitamin E. First we had a litter of kits that had two kits who didn't develop normally. They weren't putting on weight and seemed to have some muscular coordination issues. Their mother's next birthing was prolonged (it began two days early and ended two days later), unsuccessful (all six kits ended up dead, and fairly gruesome, with some decapitation. This doe had had two litters and been a great mama, so our speculation is there was something wrong with how the kit fetuses developed and they just didn't come out right. Vitamin deficiency is often a factor in aborted / unsuccessful kindlings.
We began brainstorming, feeling terrible that our rabbits were having these struggles but still hoping to stay close to our natural feed aspirations. We realized that part of the problem is although our rabbits are in pasture pens, they aren't getting the amount of forage daily that they need to. We've remedied this by beginning to collect a big bucket full of plants to give to the rabbits daily. We've also slacked off on feeding fodder and are beginning to add that back into our feed system, as it should have been all along.
In addition to adding those extra greens in the form of forage and fodder, we've looked for a vitamin and mineral supplement solution to feed the rabbits daily. Another issue we realized was that we were not incorporating healthy fats (flax seeds, black oil sunflower seeds) into the mix as we needed to be. We had planned to do it originally, but had failed to execute getting those seeds into the mix. Without those good fats, our rabbits weren't able to absorb vitamins as efficiently. We've since remedied that issue and our rabbits are looking chunkier in a healthy way now.
As a short term fix we ordered Vitadrops, drops that can be added to the rabbits' water. It is cost prohibitive to use this long term (it takes 32 drops per rabbit water bottle and we fill five water bottles daily!) but we'd like to bulk up on vitamins short term to get back everyone back to healthy condition.
After finding Vitadrops for the short-term, I searched all over the internet for a good long-term vitamin solution. There aren't many vitamin supplements of any kind out there for rabbits, as most folks feed their rabbits commercial pellets which are formulated to provide a balanced diet including all vitamin and mineral needs. So when I stumbled across this organic supplement for rabbits I got excited. I was even more excited when I realized I could easily mix up my own version of it using bulk herbs for less than half the price.
1 cup dried stinging nettle
1/2 cup red raspberry leaf
1/4 cup dandelion root
1/4 cup dandelion leaf
1/4 cup rose hips
1/4 cup hibiscus
This mixture costs about $17/lb, compared with $30/lb that the premixed organic supplement cost. I think a pound of the mix will last us at least 4 months, maybe longer.
I throw everything into a quart-sized mason jar, shake it up, and keep the jar in our big feed bucket. Each rabbit cage (which has either one adult rabbit, or up to 5 kits) gets about a tablespoon of the supplement sprinkled on top of the feed daily.
The herbs I chose for the supplement have a variety of medicinal uses and lots of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
Stinging nettle is a powerhouse herb that has been used to treat a variety of medical ailments including congestion, arthritis, anemia, and internal bleeding. It is a natural multivitamin containing plenty of vitamins A, B-complex, and K, plus calcium, magnesium, manganese, and iron.
Red raspberry leaf is most widely used for its health benefits for pregnant and nursing women -- it can strengthen the uterus, enabling more effective labor, and helps balance out hormones. It is also known to be an overall reproductive health tonic for both women and men. I'll increase dosage of this for our does during breeding season to support healthy pregnancies and kindlings. The vitamins it contains include vitamin A, B-complex, iron, calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, and potassium.
Dandelions are considered a nutritional powerhouse, labeled by a 1984 study as one of the top green vegetables in terms of overall nutrition. Dandelion root can be used to treat anemia and high cholesterol and contains vitamins A, B, C, and D as well as calcium, zinc, iron, and potassium. Dandelion leaf is helpful to the liver and gallbladder, aids in digestion, and contains vitamins A, B, C, D, folic acid, and riboflavin.
Rose hips contain high levels of vitamin C and also are a source of vitamin A, B, lycopene and other antioxidants, bioflavonoids, and zinc.
Hibiscus is often used to treat high blood pressure, has anti-inflammatory properties, has high levels of antioxidants, and is a good source of vitamin C.
I may add in some other herbs, specifically yarrow and chamomile, once they become available via Mountain Rose, but for now this is the mix we're trying out. I think there's a good balance of vitamins and minerals, all from whole plant sources.
The major benefit of using herbs as a vitamin supplement is that not only are they natural sources of vitamins, they also do not cause any toxicity due to too-high levels. Rabbits are particularly susceptible to "overdose" of vitamins and having too much of a vitamin can cause just as many problems as having too little.
It's a long-term goal of mine to establish a establishing a medicinal herb bed full of all the above herbs plus others like echinacea, chamomile, calendula, and yarrow. I've been poring through The Forest of Wild Fruits on etsy, as they've got an extensive selection of medicinal herb seeds. The rabbits would benefit from freshly picked herbs and we could dry and mix herbs for a winter supplement. And of course we'd get to use the herbs for ourselves, too!
In closing, I want to state a disclaimer that I am not a veterinarian or medical professional of any kind. This is simply the herbal mixture we are using for our own rabbits and as always we are doing this as part of a learning process to care for our animals well.
It's tough having to go through some trial and error to figure out what will work best for our animals and our farm, but my hope is that in several years we will have learned to be better caregivers of our livestock and our land. Farming is such a learning process and one that takes time, a lot of reading and research, and grace when mistakes are made.