March 2014
Simple Times

I Was in Love ...

 
A mixed breed “meat” rabbit  

Rabbits on the Homestead

I was instantly in love.

It was the mid-1990s. There on the cover of my Country Woman magazine was a woman holding what appeared to be a giant cotton ball with upright ears and two beautiful eyes.

I quickly tore open the magazine to the short article inside to learn the amazing looking creature was an Angora rabbit - and my life was changed forever.

Here was some livestock I could get serious about.

I couldn’t imagine shearing a full-size sheep by myself. But these small bundles of wool could be sheared with simple scissors while they sat docilely in your lap.

 
  Half lop-half Angora

I began asking around. (This was shortly before everyone was hooked to the Internet where just about everything imaginable is available at the click of a button!)

There weren’t that many in north central Alabama, but I soon located EIGHT for sale at a petting zoo which had decided the small beasts were just too labor intensive for their farm. I bought the rabbits complete with cages with special nesting boxes that hung lower than the actual cage and I was in Angora rabbit heaven!

My son Nathan came in shortly afterwards and asked why there were cages full of Ewoks in the backyard.

They did look a bit unusual!

But whether you share my love for fiber or just want a general all-purpose animal for your farm or even your city lot, rabbits might be your answer!

There are approximately 50 breeds of rabbits recognized by the American Rabbit Breeders Association.

If you want a general-purpose rabbit to provide meat for your family and wonderful manure that can be placed directly on your garden or flower beds WITHOUT having to compost it, then you’ll likely want what is called a "meat" breed. (I’ll quickly add that I wouldn’t ever be able to eat any of my rabbits. So they have to "earn their keep" with their manure and fiber!)

 
Granddaughter Cali and Tadpole the rabbit (Cali is now grown with a 4-year-old of her own!)  
   

If what you want is mainly pets (or are just experimenting to see how you or your children will do in caring for small livestock), just about any rabbit breed will do.

If you do want to consider a "fiber" animal, you can check out the four main types of Angora rabbits.

A wealth of information is available on the Internet. Just type in "rabbits" in any search engine and you’re on your way.

My bibles to begin with were Bob Bennett’s "Raising Rabbits the Modern Way" and the Northern California Angora Guild’s "Angora Handbook."

There are even forums on several homesteading sites on the Internet now where you can ask questions and glean all kinds of rabbit know-how.

Just about everything you will need to safely house your rabbits is available at your local Quality Co-op store! Every current cage, water bottle, metal feeder and the feed for all my rabbits was, is and continues to be purchased at Blount County Farmers Co-op. If your local Co-op doesn’t keep a full line of cages in stock, they have catalogs and you can pick out exactly what you want and get it within a couple of days!

But my actual "rabbit raising" began long before my life with Angoras.

 
  One of my rabbits with my Ashford traditional spinning wheel which was made in New Zealand.

When my children were little, my parents kept a couple of huge white rabbits as pets for the grandchildren. They would actually put tiny harnesses on them and my kids would walk them around the farm on long leashes!

When Nathan was about 10, he threw a ring around a small bottle at the Blount County Fair and won a tiny brown rabbit!

Now I don’t condone rabbits being given as prizes and PLEASE don’t buy rabbits and baby chicks as Easter presents because they are usually doomed to a quick and certain death, BUT that little brown rabbit lived a long and productive life!

Nathan named the rabbit Jack and, to begin with, he had the free run of our large screened-in back porch. He quickly learned to use a litter box (house rabbits can be trained easily!). And he lived happily there for several weeks.

Then one day Nathan was near hysterics. Jack had climbed the long pipe into my then-clothes dryer (this was in the early 1990s when I still HAD a clothes dryer!) and had cut off his nose!

Thinking Jack was doomed, we rushed him to the local vet. After some repairs, Jack came home to live many more happy years, although he never again had a proper rabbit nose.

Rabbits are bad at cribbing. They will chew on just about anything wood. If you try letting a rabbit have the run of your house, they will also chew on electric cords which can have disastrous results.

 
Baby Angora bunnies  
   

If you’re going to have a house rabbit, it’s best to keep it contained in a cage except when you can be with it to watch it roam and run.

Jack moved to a metal cage outside. He later sired several generations of offspring and lived to be a healthy old age, dying in Nathan’s arms many years later.

So I had some rabbit experience before getting my original Angoras.

Whatever kind of rabbit you decide on, a metal cage is best. Wood can harbor disease and is a haven for ear mites! Chicken wire can be easily chewed through by rabbits and rabbits running free don’t last long thanks to coyotes, hawks and speeding cars.

Jack and our brown lop Tadpole lived for a time under our back porch in their wire cages sitting on bricks so their cages were off the ground.

 
  An Angora rabbit that posed for one of our Christmas cards years ago.

Eventually, my husband Roy helped me build an addition on to the back of another barn building which we now refer to as the bunny barn.

I hung cages from the back wall and from the front.

Hanging them from the back wall was not a good idea because the wood did harbor dampness and other things. The rabbits hung near the front that were just hanging from the ceiling on small chains did better.

At one time, I had as many as 35 Angoras housed that way.

I do not like watering systems where the water goes to each cage in small tubes. I prefer individual water bottles (available at your local Co-op) so I can see if a rabbit is not drinking enough, and, if a rabbit has to be medicated, I can easily place the medicine in the rabbit’s individual bottle.

I usually have at least a couple of "rescue" rabbits in the barn as well. Rabbits someone got their kids or grandchildren as pets and then realized they were messy or just not good fits for their family.

Tadpole was a brown lop I bought at a local flea market just because I thought she was cute. The seller "guaranteed" she was a buck ... Tadpole proved him wrong when she built a nest of hair and fur and had seven half-Angora, half-lop babies about five weeks later!

Since I do not show my rabbits and do not generally sell the babies, I didn’t worry about them not having babies and not being pure bred. I was excited to see the results of the breeding between the white buck and the brown lop. I wound up with two brown, two black, two gray and one kind of spotted!

Some of the kits (that’s what baby rabbits are technically called) had upright ears like the English Angoras and some had the lop ears. A couple had one ear that stood straight up and another that hung low like the lop!

Since I was mainly interested in their wool or fiber, I began breeding to get different colors.

As for breeding, there are a few simple things to remember. ALWAYS take the doe (the female rabbit) to the buck’s cage because females are very territorial and love can’t happen if the doe is beating the buck up!

Watching a doe build her nest is amazing and is a fantastic learning experience for youngsters. The doe will take hay and hair she pulls from under her chin area, and build a warm, soft, cozy nest to have her babies.

My rabbits always did better having kits in the winter, even on the coldest days, than they do in the summer.

Rabbits do not do well in the heat, especially long-haired bunnies. But any bunny must be kept in the shade in the summer. I also freeze two liter drink bottles and alternate them each day of the summer and the rabbits lounge around on the cool treats.

I keep two box fans blowing on low, but NOT blowing toward the rabbits.

In the winter, I make sure the rabbits are kept out of the wind and make sure they have hay in their cages to burrow down in.

Rabbits are generally inexpensive to keep, and to me are fun and rewarding.

If you have children, especially young children, teach them to never ever pull a rabbit’s ears or pick them up by the ears. Also, some rabbits like to be held, others don’t. But most all enjoy petting and you feeding them an occasional treat.

In all my years of rabbit raising, I’ve only had two biters. And both of these came from other places where they didn’t have the best of care and so I believe the biting was developed as self-defense measures. Wearing big gloves helps me when I have to handle them.

If you are trying to develop a more self-sufficient homestead or farm, there are lots of tutorials and information on butchering rabbits on the Internet.

If the thought of butchering and eating such a cuddly critter is not to your liking, rabbits can still pay their way with their great manure! I have grown some of the biggest cabbages and juiciest tomatoes using rabbit "fertilizer"!

So I guess you might add another title to this simple, gray-haired homesteader’s names: in addition to being called the "Chicken Lady" and the "Goat Woman," I guess you can call me the "Rabbit Woman" as well!

Suzy Lowry Geno is a freelance writer from Blount County. She can be reached through her website at www.suzysfarm.com.