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Utilizing Natural Feed Options for Meat Rabbits

Our desire to invest in meat rabbits was a decision that was driven by a number of larger issues. To begin with it was a financial decision. We are a one income homeschooling family and every time I find myself in the grocery store I leave more determined to provide as much food as I possibly can through my own hard work. The price of food products are not in relation to the majority of families wages these days and that is putting it mildly. I also felt a spiritual/ethical need to take responsibility for the meat that goes on my families table. It is rather easy to buy meat wrapped tidy in plastic and Styrofoam at the supermarket but to raise an animal and eventually take its life is a much more intense experience. I feel that on some level I owe it to the animal I am consuming to take part in its life and death rather than just swiping my debit card. It was also a decision based on health. Take but a moment and do some research not only on the conditions of the animals you eat and that of the employees who work with them but also the completely unsanitary and medicated lives they live and it truly makes you question supporting factory farming.

With that said lets take a moment and explore the aspect of the health of the animals you eat. Managing a small private rabbitry allows you the properly care for your animals in a number of ways. Aside from housing and grooming you know exactly what they are eating. I admit that I do provide small amounts of pellets for our rabbits but I try to counter this by providing a number of natural alternatives. The truth is what the animal eats, in this case your rabbits, you eat. Also if you happen to use their manure in the garden as I do your plants then are feed the waste product of whatever your animal is eating once again eventually making its way to your plate.

If you take a moment to explore the ingredients in some of the leading pellet brands you may be surprised to find out they contain ingredients such as animal tallow and GMO crops such as GMO soy-mill waste. I realize some companies provide healthy natural pellets. I am attempting to promote the idea that you can embrace one of the fundamentals of meat rabbit raising which is self sufficiency even in the area of the rabbits food rather than handing over money for an item you can basically harvest yourself. As I said I do use pellets on a limited basis and in the winter the use of pellets can go up all of which is dependent on a number of factors brought on by severe winter weather. I also realize that if you provide your rabbits with large amounts of pellets they tend to put on weight a bit quicker than naturally fed rabbits. One has to remember the reasons they are choosing this route though. Is it to mimic the quick production of factory farming or is it to raise food in a holistic and responsible manner?

In the spring and summer we feed our rabbits any number of fresh greens. Now it is true that a rabbits GI tract needs time to develop the proper flora to digest greens so if it you are just introducing fresh food to your rabbit you want to do it slowly. You also want to spend some serious time researching what foods your rabbits can and cannot eat. In our neck of the woods we happen to harvest wild greens such as white clover, lambs quarter, which should be given in moderation due to the naturally occurring oxalic acid, grass, dandelion greens and plantain just to name a few. Plantain tends to be the bulk of the wild diet but we also include bramble such as raspberry and blackberry twigs and leaves as well as apple tree branches to gnaw on. This is a natural part of their fall and winter diet and also helps keep their ever growing teeth healthy and in check. In the spring and summer we also feed the rabbits from our garden providing such items as chard, red lettuce, basil, sunflower leaves, borage and nasturtium. Add to that list carrot greens, strawberry leaves, pea leaves and arugula as well as chamomile, rosemary and thyme. As you can see the list is rather long but suffice it to say if it is safe for human consumption chances are it is safe for your rabbit. We also plant a little garden in the rabbit run when planting the family garden providing them with options to nibble on. We must not forget that fresh hay is the bulk of their feed.

The real trick for those of us living in the cold north with short growing seasons is fall and winter. If space allows you can grow plantain and dandelion in pots during the cold months of the year. Maybe for some of you growing veggies under a light is possible. For our rabbits needs we dry plantain, dandelion, kale, young Queen Anne's Lace, grass, strawberry leaves and bramble leaves to be stored for later use. We also cut a few branches from our apple trees to store and provide at a later date as well. We attempt to harvest a little extra greens on a daily basis to dry for winter. Honestly it only takes a few minutes out of our day. It takes about four days to dry the bulk of it which in turn is either stored in brown paper bags or even old burlap rice bags to keep rodents out of the feed. This allows us to continue to provide our animals a natural healthy diet long after the weather changes and in turn keeps our pellet use to a minimum.

Everyone has their own priorities in regards to animal husbandry. Ours is to provide healthy meat in a holistic and responsible manner both for ourselves and the animals we raise. Our rabbits are well fed and I would never sacrifice their health in an effort to be too strict in dealing with my own beliefs but this does allow us to raise healthier animals, cut some cost and to harvest a renewable and otherwise overlooked resource right within our own yard.  

Tobias Whitaker blogs for Mother Earth News and Grit Magazine. Click on the Mother Earth News logo at the bottom of the page for all of his post. You can also find him on Facebook at Seed To Harvest: Bossy Hen Homestead which is a central location for his homesteading blogs and his homeschooling blog, A Mile In Her Shoes: Tales Of A Stay-At Home Dad found here



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