- How to Grow Rabbit Feed on Your Homestead - February 12, 2024
- Why You Should Grow Feed For Your Animals on The Homestead - February 8, 2024
- How to Grow Chicken Feed for Your Homestead Flock - February 8, 2024
Today, we’re continuing to show you how much space it takes to grow feed for the animals on your homestead. In this post, I’m going to share what to feed your rabbit, the basics of their nutritional needs, how to grow rabbit feed, how much feed your rabbits need, and how much space it takes to grow your own rabbit feed.
If you haven’t already, be sure to read How to Grow Chicken Feed and Why You Should Grow Feed For Your Homestead Animals.
What Do Wild Rabbits Eat?
Wild rabbits primarily feed on various types of grasses. They also consume a variety of weeds, herbs, and other low-lying plants. Young saplings, bushes, and plant shoots are all on the menu as well. In the winter, rabbits will eat tree bark, low branches of trees, and loose twigs on the ground. These winter finds are very high in non-digestible fiber, quickly leading to malnourishment or starvation if the rabbit can’t find other food sources.
Can I Treat and Feed My Domestic Rabbits Like Wild Rabbits?
Forage is severely limited in the winter; only 30% of wild rabbits survive through the coldest months when temperatures drop and food is scarce. This study estimates that 90% of wild rabbits never reach adulthood.
Wild rabbits also weigh 1 to 4.5 pounds, meaning there are 0.5 to 2 pounds of meat per animal.
Forcing your rabbit to free range and find food independently will result in high mortality rates and very low body weight.
On the bright side, rabbits can use a rabbit tractor in the summer with ease, and they eat very little (especially when you consider how much meat is on a domestic rabbit). For the winter, it is easy to cut hay by hand and overwinter it. If you’re feeling dedicated, it’s possible to grow and harvest grains for your rabbits for the winter as well.
What Do Homestead Rabbits Eat?
Here are the basics of what your rabbits need.
- Carbs and Crude Fiber. 20-27% fiber for young rabbits, bucks, or non-breeding does. 15-20% fiber for pregnant or nursing does. 43-47% carbohydrates for young rabbits, bucks, or non-breeding does. 44-50% carbohydrates for pregnant or nursing does. Leafy greens, grasses, weeds, and leafy vegetables are great sources of fiber. Bran, oats, wheat barley, sorghum, corn, and rye are great sources of carbs and fiber, plus protein. Fiber allows for good bacterial fermentation (good gut health) and is necessary for a healthy rabbit. Some of the fiber should be digestible for the nutrients, some should be indigestible to keep the rabbit’s digestive system flowing.
- Fatty Acids. 2-3.5% fat for young rabbits, bucks, or non-breeding does. 3-5.5% fat for pregnant and nursing does.
- Protein. 12-15% protein for young rabbits, bucks, or non-breeding does. 16-20% protein for pregnant and nursing does. It is okay to overfeed your rabbit protein so long as you’re meeting the other nutritional needs. It is better to overfeed the protein rather than underfeed it. Alfalfa ranges from 12-28% protein depending on when it was harvested. Grass hay usually has about 10% protein.
- Minerals. 4.5 to 6.5% ash or mineral. Salt is a key component, make sure your rabbit has access to a salt lick or a natural salt source. Rabbits need calcium for their teeth– which never stop growing, and to maintain healthy bones. Rabbits need at least 0.44% calcium. Alfalfa is rich in calcium.
- Vitamins. Rabbits have two kinds of manure: soft “night” feces, called cecotropes, and the hard pellets you’ve likely seen. The night feces are excreted at night, usually when the rabbit is alone, and the rabbit eats these as they exit the body. They are full of B vitamins and protein, so the rabbit recirculates them back into their digestive system. This process is called coprophagy.
How Much Do Domestic Rabbits Need?
On average, you’ll get about one pound of meat for every three pounds of food you give your rabbits– a 3:1 ratio. If you feed all forage, it will look more like a 3-3.8:1 ratio. If you feed high-grain diets, the ratio will drop to 2-2.23:1. Feeding more grains means the rabbit gains weight quicker and with less feed.
I want to say I am pretty neutral in the forage vs grain diet debate. I have raised rabbits on both, and I think both are valid options so long as you’re meeting nutritional needs. I disagree with feeding a pellet-only diet because I know how their digestive system works. When people are hungry or smell food, we salivate to prepare for our meal. If we went hungry with this excess salivation, it would give us a stomach ache. Rabbits also produce saliva like this, but constantly, whether they have food or not. Because of this, I feel it is cruel for them to go without food; they need food in front of them at all times.
I have butchered a few forage-only rabbits and a few grass and grain rabbits with no discernable differences in fat content, muscle, weight, and overall size. With that said, I am running a little A/B testing and will show you specific weights and sizes as soon as I can in an upcoming post.
Our adult American Chinchillas eat around 18 pounds of forage each month. That’s true to the rule that most rabbits will eat 1.5x their body weight each month. Now, not 100% of that is going into their bodies; they are “wasting” some of it by using it as bedding or just not eating it, but I believe that 1.5x is better than feeding them just their body weight in forage. This gives them choice, and they seem happy to have the excess to play with and burrow in. The “wasted” hay goes onto the floor of my chicken coop for a few days before ending up in our compost pile. It will feed my gardens this summer, so truly, none of it is wasted.
According to Michigan State University, weanling California rabbits eat about four to six ounces of feed per day. A mother and her litter will eat about 100 pounds from breeding to weaning. This is relatively similar to what I have found with our American Chinchilla rabbits.
Can You Store Grains Long-term?
Not really. Feed stored in sacks should be kept in cool (60F or 15C) dark places where they are dry, away from vermin, and fed within 3 months after milling. Feed older than six months drops nutritional value quicker. The late summer grains (fresher) will have better nutritional content than early summer grains (older) because they have been stored longer.
How Much Space Will Your Rabbit Garden Need?
Since rabbits are capable of eating forage only or forage + pellet diets, I will show both options. If you’re really interested in feeding your rabbits all homegrown foods, use this piece as a starting point and dig into your options even further than I have today. The point of this post is to get you thinking and considering new options; this is by no means an exhaustive list.
Forage Only Diet
Alfalfa has more calcium than a rabbit needs, but is an excellent source of protein for your rabbits, which is especially helpful for those growing kits and productive does.
While rabbits can certainly survive on grass/clover/timothy/bluegrass hay only or alfalfa only, it’s not ideal, so I will be showing a mix to make this more nutritionally complete. If you don’t have access to both, offer more diversity in their diets via fresh grasses, herbaceous perennials (some people call those weeds), root vegetables like beets, and limited amounts of leafy greens or veggies.
Each adult rabbit will eat 1.5 times its body weight per month. I have American Chinchillas, which weigh 12 pounds each. I will use them in my example for simplicity.
A buck and three does will eat 72 pounds of hay a month.
Their offspring will eat little to no forage during the first 4 weeks of life. During the 4-8 week mark, they will each eat up to 10 pounds (this is estimated high just for security).
A rabbit may have four to fourteen kits per birth. For this example, we’ll say each rabbit has six kits.
So between the three does, you’ll have eighteen kits. These babies will eat up to 180 pounds during their second month of life, while the parents will eat 72 pounds, for a total of 252 pounds of forage.
You may butcher the kits at eight weeks old. This is not my preference, but some people do this. Each baby weighs around five to eight pounds, giving you about 2-3 pounds of meat. At this point, you will have turned 180 pounds of hay (not including what the parents ate) into about 50 pounds of meat. Eating the rabbits here is the most optimized time for feed-to-meat conversion. A 3.6:1 ratio.
If you keep the rabbits for another month, they will eat up to 12 pounds of hay each, for a total of 396 pounds of hay since their birth. These rabbits will be 10-12 pounds each, getting you 4-6 pounds of meat. Those three litters will give you about 90 pounds of meat.
If you keep the young meat rabbits until they are four months old, they will eat up to 18 pounds, totaling 720 pounds of hay for 108 pounds of meat. You can now keep the pelts because their hides will be developed enough not to tear during the tanning process. Each tanned pelt is worth about $20 to $25 each, and the reward of tanning those hides and using them for whatever project you like is priceless.
How Much Food For a Year?
For a buck and three does to have three litters each (9 litters for the year) on a forage-only diet, you’ll need about 3,028 pounds of hay. This assumes that you grow the kits out to be four months old before butchering them. In return, you get 324 pounds of meat.
2,160 pounds of hay will go to the meat rabbits (the offspring); 864 pounds will go to the buck and three does (the breeders).
If you want the best feed-to-meat conversion, butcher the rabbits at 8 weeks old. If you do this, you will need 1,404 pounds of hay. In return, you get 150 pounds of meat.
540 pounds of hay will go to the meat rabbits (the offspring); 864 pounds will go to the buck and three does (the breeders).
Each adult breeder rabbit needs 216 pounds of hay per year.
The average meat rabbit butchered at 4 months old needs 40 pounds of hay.
The average meat rabbit butchered at 2 months old needs 10 pounds of hay.
How Much Space to Grow Hay and Alfalfa?
How much space you need to grow hay and alfalfa depends on your location, quality of the field, and rainfall.
Here in Montana, you can expect 1.81 tons (3,620 pounds) of hay per acre for hay, and 2 tons (4,000 pounds) per acre for alfalfa.
In Indiana, these numbers are even more favorable. Expect about 2.83 tons (5,660 pounds) of hay per acre, or 3.5 tons (7,000 pounds) per acre.
Bucks should have less alfalfa and more hay– alfalfa is high in calcium which could lead to urinary tract issues. Try to go for 25% or less alfalfa in their diet.
Each adult rabbit will need 2,027 square feet of forage, equal to 1/25 of an acre per year.
Each meat rabbit will need 53 to 215 square feet of forage, equal to 1/1000 or 1/200 of an acre per year.
A buck, three does, and nine litters of meat rabbits will need 13,180 to 28,426 square feet of forage, equal to ⅓ to a little over ⅔ of an acre.
These above figures assume a mixed field of grass hay and alfalfa, and assume an average yield of hay/alfalfa per acre.
Forage + Grain Diet
For this diet, we will assume that half of the diet is forage (hay/alfalfa blend) and the other half is grain.
This is based on the recommendation from the National Research Council subcommittee on Rabbit Nutrition.
I already broke down the forage numbers in the above section. For 50/50 blend forage to grains, the average meat rabbit will need 5 to 20 pounds of forage in their lifetime. The average adult breeder rabbit will need about 108 pounds of forage per year. This translates to 1/50 of an acre for the adult rabbits, and 25 to 100 square feet of forage per meat rabbit for its life.
For the grain portion of their diet
- 20% of their diet will be corn
- 10% will be oats
- 10% will be barley
- 10% will be wheat
Adult breeders will need 108 pounds of grain per year.
- 43.2 pounds of corn
- 21.6 pounds of oats
- 21.6 pounds of barley
- 21.6 pounds of wheat
Young meat rabbits will need 5 to 20 pounds of grain in their lifetime.
- 2 to 8 pounds of corn
- 1 to 4 pounds of oats
- 1 to 4 pounds of barley
- 1 to 4 pounds of wheat
For the buck and three does plus nine litters each year scenario (butchering at 2 months):
- 280 pounds of corn
- 140 pounds of oats
- 140 pounds of barley
- 140 pounds of wheat
For the buck and three does plus nine litters each year scenario (butchering at 4 months)
- 605 pounds of corn
- 302.8 pounds of oats
- 302.8 pounds of barley
- 302.8 pounds of wheat
How Much Space to Grow the Grains?
Grains will make up 50% of the rabbits’ diets in this scenario– so how much space will that take?
Space needed to grow the corn:
- 209 square feet per adult breeder per year
- 9 to 28 square feet per young meat rabbit for their lifetime
- 1,355 square feet for the buck and three does plus nine litters each year scenario (butchering at 2 months)
- 2,928 square feet for the buck and three does plus nine litters each year scenario (butchering at 4 months)
Oats yield between one and four tons of oats per acre. For this example we’ll assume that you can grow 2.5 tons (5,000 pounds) of oats per acre.
Space needed to grow the oats:
- 188 square feet per adult breeder per year
- 8 to 35 square feet per young rabbit for their lifetime
- 1,219 square feet for the buck and three does plus nine litters each year scenario (butchering at 2 months)
- 2,631 square feet for the buck and three does plus nine litters each year scenario (butchering at 4 months)
Expect about 1 ton of barley per acre.
- 470 square feet per adult breeder per year
- 21 to 84 square feet per meat rabbit for their lifetime
- 3,059 square feet for the buck and three does plus nine litters each year scenario (butchering at 2 months)
- 6,595 square feet for the buck and three does plus nine litters each year scenario (butchering at 4 months)
Expect about 1,680 pounds of wheat per acre.
- 560 square feet per adult breeder per year
- 25 to 100 square feet per meat rabbit for their lifetime
- 3,630 square feet for the buck and three does plus nine litters each year scenario (butchering at 2 months)
- 7,851 square feet for the buck and three does plus nine litters each year scenario (butchering at 4 months)
Total Space Required to Grow the Grains:
- 1,427 square feet per adult breeder for the year.
- 63 to 247 square feet per meat rabbit for their lifetime
- 9,263 square feet (⅕ acre) for the buck and three does plus nine litters each year scenario (butchering at 2 months)
- 20,005 square feet (½ acre) square feet for the buck and three does plus nine litters each year scenario (butchering at 4 months)
Total Space Needed to Grow Forage and Grains for the Rabbits:
- 2,440 square feet per adult breeder for the year (1/20 of an acre)
- 90 to 354 square feet per meat rabbit for their lifetime
- 15,853 square feet for the buck and three does plus nine litters each year scenario (butchering at 2 months) – about a ⅓ of an acre
- 34,218 square feet for the buck and three does plus nine litters each year scenario (butchering at 4 months) – about ⅘ of an acre
Growing Rabbit Feed on Your Homestead: Final Thoughts
It takes ⅓ to ⅔ of an acre to grow an all-forage diet for a buck, three does, and nine litters of meat rabbits per year.
Conversely, it takes ⅓ to ⅘ of an acre to grow a mixed forage and grain diet for a buck, three does, and nine litters of meat rabbits per year.
This means that with just ⅓ to ⅘ of an acre, you can get 150 to 324 pounds of meat per year. You could also get about 54 pelts per year, which is a nice bonus.
I love how rabbits are more flexible with their diets. No, it’s not wise to change their diets often– and when you do, make the change as gradual as you can. But in a survival situation, you don’t have to frantically grow a lot of grains for your rabbits as you would a chicken. You can bale a field of grass, or hand-pick forage to keep your rabbits healthy and fed. You can also dry the grass or forage to overwinter with; during the summer, your rabbits can get their food independently via a simple rabbit tractor.
I also want to say that rabbits can have vegetables in limited quantities, and there are several wonderful greens that you can grow to supplement or 100% supply their diets. Sage Smoke Survival has an excellent video on this that I highly recommend.
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