Jacob Springs rabbit program (discontinued)
Jacob Springs Farm discontinued their meat rabbit program in 2014 due to the low profitability (despite high demand and strong prices) of the program, limited success in breeding rabbit that would thrive on grass and hay alone and an incident in which one of the farm children has his finger bitten off by a buck. (The finger was successfully re-attached). The program was given over to another farmer who came to the same conclusion we did and no longer continues to produce rabbits.
Market and economics
We found a ready market willing to pay our price of initial $20, then later $24 and $28 for each rabbit, we noticed no decrease in demand as we raised the price. However we were unable to achieve success without feeding purchased feeds and so our costs were always higher than we would have liked due to feed. Time it takes to butcher rabbits is favorable, we found it was light, quick work. Ultimately, however, between the purchase of feed and the high labor needs per unit, we were unhappy with the return of raising rabbits, although we felt that there were several promising ideas that might improve these factors. When a child was seriously injured by sticking his finger in the cage to be bitten off, we decided not to stick with it and find out if we could raise rabbits profitably.
Movable grazing shelters were built in a number of different versions, each improving upon the last. One key feature was the slatted bottom allowing grazing but not escape. The ideal slat spacing was found to be 2" or less. Slats should be oriented in the same direction the shelter is intended to be moved. Unique runners and pulling handles were added to making moving the shelters easier.
Colony breeding and wintering
Successes - breeding, wintering, preventing burrow out while allowing den creation, low labor requirements, hay consumption
Challenges - rats eating babies.
Experiments in removing commercial feeds
Successes - hay
Failures - young rabbits on grass
We believe that our use of modern meat breeds, the Californian and New Zealand rabbit, may have contributed to our struggles, despite the fact that we tried to "tone it down" by cross breeding with Silver Martins. We found it difficult to find a suitable rabbit for raising on grass, and even considered crossing these commercial breeds with local cottontail rabbits, although we never attempted this.
Experiments in breeding
Initially we used a standard breeding method of housing each female in her own cage with a nest box. We were unsatisfied with this method because:
- It's labor intensive to feed and water each cage separately - especially in winter - this does not scale easily
- It's infrastructure intensive to house and provide dishes and/or waterers for all breeding rabbits
- It's difficult to feed home-grown fodder in cages, so feeding becomes expensive
- It represses a doe's natural instincts to burrow
- Breeding must be highly managed because of tight quarters
We then built a divided grazing shelter with built-in nesting boxes - our thought was that this would be an improvement upon individual cages, it was an improvement with regard to feeding grass, but the labor need actually increased (needed to move the shelters daily) and the other problems remained.
In time for winter we then moved the breeding population into colonies for winter - each colony measured about 6' x 10' (we used some of our meat chicken shelters that were empty for winter) and had one buck and four does. The enclosures were prepared by laying down sections of chain-link fence and some chicken wire under the open-bottomed shelters, bales of old, moldy hay were stacked, two high, all around the perimeter, including between colonies, as a wind barrier and visual obstruction. Each enclosure was outfitted with a tire feeder, a hay rack and a rubber water dish This system worked quite well and several litters of kits were born in this setup, however some were eaten by rats and perhaps other predators.
Being unsatisfied with the management intensity of breeding in cages or movable enclosures, we decided to try to allow rabbits to follow their instincts and kindle(give birth) in burrows. To accomplish this we made use of an area up against our house that was bounded on two sides by the foundation and on two sides by a concrete pathway - we reasoned that the concrete would prevent rabbits from burrowing out of the enclosure. Above ground, we used heavy woven wire fencing supported by stakes and blocked on the bottom by heavy railroad ties. The experiment was partly successful, but ultimately the system never reached a point of overall success before we terminated it. The rabbits quickly dug several burrows that were deeper than we could see or reach the bottom with our arms. They did kindle you in the burrows, some of which reached an age of beginning to explore outside the nest before they were killed by our farm cats. Two females died in their burrows shortly after kindling of unknown disease and another showed signs of parasite load. This may have been due to having limited access to new ground, perhaps heat stress played a part due to that location and nutrition may have been a problem since they were being fed primarily hay, grass clippings and vegetable scraps. Ultimately, it proved difficult to achieve success at breeding due to a combination of factors. We probably tried to change too much at once and never answered our questions conclusively.