Fast growth and a high reproductive rate make rabbits suitable as meat-producing small livestock in developing countries. Good breeding practices and diligent management are the key to successful rabbit farming.
THE MATING PROCESS
Female rabbits, or does, are more productive in spring, summer and early autumn. Most breeders don’t breed during winter because lower temperatures can cause mortalities in the baby rabbits.
Does are ready to breed at between five and six months, while males (bucks) are sexually mature between five and seven months. The pregnancy lasts for one month (30 days – 33 days).
Rabbits are highly territorial. When they are to be bred, the doe must always go into the buck’s cage. If he is taken to her cage, there will be trouble.
After mating, the buck will roll over; a sign that the mating went well. The doe ovulates (releases eggs) eight to ten hours after mating with the semen more or less waiting to complete the fertilisation process.
A doe that is not ready to mate will run from the buck. Just keep putting her back into the buck’s cage for the following week until the two animals breed.
BIRTH AND LITTERING
The birth of the rabbit young is called littering.
The doe needs access to a clean, dry nesting box lined with grass, a week before littering. The mother will add some of her fur to make the nest more comfortable for the hairless babies.
At this stage it is a good idea to leave the soon-to-be-mother rabbit alone.
Rabbits commonly have their babies in the early hours of the morning. This is when the rabbitry manager should be on hand to check for live and healthy looking babies. He (or she) should immediately take away any dead baby rabbits.
When there are too many for the doe to handle, some can be given to another female with fewer babies, that are the same age.
SUCKLING AND WEANING
Teat attachment and suckling is critical in this early stage – as is the case with most livestock animals.
Good quality milk of sufficient volume gives young animals that all-important start, and puts them on the path to health and growth. So, check that the baby rabbits are suckling well.
The micro-stock manager can wean the rabbits at between 30 and 35 days and take them away from the mother. Male and female rabbits must be separated at this stage.
The doe should be ready to mate again from three days, to one month, after the babies have been born, depending on the feed quality and level of management.
KENYAN MANAGEMENT NOTES
Nduta Mbuthia, Kenyan rabbit farmer, says it’s difficult to tell if a rabbit is pregnant. “Only vets or people with lots of experience can do this,” says Nduta.
“I’ve found that its easiest just to chart the whole thing from the mating, so you can work out the birth dates,” she adds.
When the mother is about to give birth she will stop eating, and start pulling out her own fur for the nest, Nduta says. “Without a nesting box, the bunnies will end up on the wire mesh and will likely die of cold since they’re born totally hairless.”
According to Nduta, there are times when a rabbit may not pull out her fur or make any sort of preparation, but will just give birth on the hay.
In cases like this, she has lined the nesting box with cotton wool to keep the babies warm.
“You have to take care to wash your hands and remove any scent. The mother may refuse to feed her babies if they have any strange scent; sometimes she may even kill them,” Nduta explains.
If the mother refuses to suckle the babies there’s nothing for it but to hold her down and force her to do it.
“Once I have washed my hands thoroughly, I lay the bunnies onto a clean sack. Then I rub the mother quite firmly to get her scent only my hands, and hold her front and back legs and feet down, very firmly. The babies can now get to the teats and start suckling.”
Nduta says that it may be necessary to do this for a few days until the other gets used to it, but often it only takes one feed. “Breeding can be quite difficult at first but with experience it gets easier. I have a well trained staff member who helps me.”
Reference: Rabbits: Keeping rabbits by Karoline Steenekamp and Tjaart Steenekamp (National Department of Agriculture (SA).