It’s no surprise that rabbits are getting more popular among small-scale commercial farmers. They are relatively cheap to feed and have low space requirements.
There is encouraging interest from readers of africanfarming.com about rabbit farming. Apart from the convenience of size and handling, rabbit meat has a high protein content and is easy to digest with low cholesterol.
Anyone who has eaten decently prepared and cooked rabbit, will know that the meat has a pleasing flavour, a little like chicken. The principles and conventions of rabbit farming are relatively straight forward.
A big cage made of wire mesh and scrap wood lifted off the ground by wooden poles will do for rabbit housing. One source recommends a hutch size of 122cm X 762cm (4ft X 2.5ft).
Rabbits don’t mind the cold, but can battle with heat. Spraying the roofs with water when temperatures get too high will cool things down. The cages should be sheltered from wind, sun and rain, but must be well ventilated with lots of fresh air.
Stress is a big problem for rabbits so build the cages far from the noise and presence of cats and dogs, and keep the rats away.
Put the wire mesh on the inside of the wooden frame to stop the animals from chewing through the wood. Less contact with wood is better for rabbits because it reduces the chance of them picking up ear mites.
You will need nesting boxes for the mothers 45cm (1.5ft) long X 30cm (1 ft) high and 30cm wide. An opening off the floor of the box will stop the babies from falling out.
If the support poles are too expensive, rabbit houses can be lifted onto old tyres or scrap bricks. It’s not a good idea to put rabbits onto an earth floor because they will dig their way out.
The wire mesh floor of the cages should have openings small enough for the rabbits to move about comfortably without getting their feet stuck, but big enough for the droppings to fall through. Mesh size of 2.5cm (an inch) will do for the sides of the cages and 1.3cm (half inch) mesh for the floor.
Rabbit droppings make good fertiliser.
The ratio of meat to bone on a rabbit carcass is higher than that of a chicken and rabbits yield 2.7kg of meat on the same feed it takes a cow to produce 0.5kg of meat. This kind of conversion makes the rabbit a very productive unit.
Greens and water are the primary components of a rabbit’s diet. There must always be clean, fresh water for the rabbits. And there should be two feeding times a day, in the morning and again in the late afternoon. The heavier meal should be given later.
Common sense dietary rules apply: don’t feed dry food that is mouldy, leafy material that has wilted or anything that has been chemically treated.
Rabbits eat clover, lucerne and grass and the hay from these crops. To add variety feed oats, wheat, barley, carrots and maize. A block of salt in the hutch and small amounts of sulphur, charcoal and cod liver oil complete the diet.
Do not feed rabbits lettuce cabbage, parsnips, swedes, potato and tomato leaves and rhubarb stalks. Lettuce causes diarrhoea and cabbage can lower milk production in the nursing mother. Potato leaves, tomato leaves and rhubarb stems are poisonous to rabbits.
To keep things hygienic, feed the animals from small mangers rather than from the floor. You can also hang food from the side walls of cages.
Kenyan rabbit farmer Nduta Mbuthia has a small, startup operation which she has been running for a year. “It’s been a rough but a good learning experience,” says Nduta. She started off with one male and 5 female rabbits and currently has 32 adults.
“I keep California whites, New Zealand whites, Dutch and Flemish rabbits,” she explains. Nduta is trying to get a core of good breeding stock so she has not sold any rabbits yet.
Good breeders are a priority she says and aspirant rabbit farmers should be aware that people offload old cull females onto unsuspecting startup farmers. “You will get rabbits who refuse males, can’t fall pregnant, miscarry or are bad mothers.”
Her advice to other farmers is to quickly establish their own lines of strong breeding females.
Nduta prefers to feed hay and rabbit pellets. “You can supplement with green vegetables but I prefer to feed them dry. Eating wet food can cause bloat and even death.”
She adds a vitamin supplement to the water.
This Kenyan rabbit breeder agrees that houses must be well ventilated adding that they should face away from prevailing wind. “Rabbits are very sensitive and need to be away from dust, cold and dirt. All these result in diseases.”
She believes in the importance of building the houses so that dung and dirty or wet hay can be easily cleared, and strict hygiene maintained at all times.
Apart from keeping them safe from dogs, cats and wild predators, she says the danger of rats cannot be overestimated. “Rats prey on the newborn bunnies so that must be a consideration.