Ugh… I sure didn’t want this to be my first blog post. My new website isn’t even finished being set up (that should be another ranting blog post, it is NOT as easy as those Kindle ebooks claim, LOL).
California’s droughts always either start or end because of me……really! I started a drought when I spent $1000s on new gravel to relieve the soupy mud the horses had to deal with in previous years. Now I end a drought by starting a new meat rabbit pasture pen experiment. I am better than the Farmer’s Almanac!
For years I have wanted to add meat rabbits to the homestead. We have all heard and read of the benefits of growing our own food and meat. Rabbit is one of the healthiest meats and with its small size you can harvest as needed which is paramount for someone like me that is off grid with no refrigerator nor freezer. Having access to food on the hoof (or paw in this case) means you don’t have to worry about preservation of large quanties of meat at one time.
Raising rabbits in cages and being forced to feed commercial pellets were the main factors holding me back. I am lazy and dealing with caged animals was not attractive, let alone that caging animals goes against some of my fundamental beliefs. My horses, llamas, goats, and chickens are all free range, I didn’t want to start caging animals now.
Nowadays there is a lot more info on pasture raising rabbits. Between Joe Salatin’s rabbit tractor ideas and forums on permies.com about natural feeding, and the current world environment, I decided to take the rabbit plunge this year. I obtained my breeding trio (one buck and two does) on January 31st of this year (2016). My first litter was born during the night of February 1st. Yikes! I wasn’t planning on that! When I arrived to pick up the breeding stock, the seller told me one of the does had started pulling her hair out to make a nest and she might give birth that night. I almost backed out of the purchase but he convinced me it would be far worse to attempt to move her soon after birth. Since he had to get rid of all the rabbits before the next weekend due to city zoning laws, I also agreed (got suckered) into coming back later in the week for the 6 newly weaned babies from the other doe. So I went from a newbie meat rabbit raiser with 3 breeding stock rabbits, to having 17 rabbits by the end of the week! More yikes!
I initially had 3 large metal wire dog/cat cages/crates set up for the breeding stock. I already knew that normal rabbit tractor designs would not work for me since I have some narrow gates and too much junk around to be able to wheel or drag pasture pens around. The dog crates were going to be the basis since I “thought” that I could just lift them up rabbits and all and move them around to new grass/weed areas. When I slid out the plastic pans on the bottom, I discovered that the wire spacing was different for the floors. Instead of about 1-1/2″ by 4″, it was more like 6″ x6″. One aspect of this was great, the cage would crush far less grass and allow for easier eatting but still disuade digging. BUT….when I lifted the cage up to move it, the rabbits fell out the bottom!!!! Ugh, LOL…. The plastic pans were handy to zip tie to the top of the cage to make a rain proof roof. Tip = when you drill the holes in the four corners to zip tie or wire the pan down to make a roof, don’t drill the holes in the bottom of the pan, but on the lip. You never know when you will need to slide the pan back in to use for its intended purpose. You don’t want it leaking in the future. Also make sure the pan is upside down so it doesn’t catch and hold water on top.
So none of those things caused today’s troubles. After about one day I realized that even the 36″ x 30″ and 42″ x 32″ cages were not big enough. Sure it was larger than they had in their old hutch, but the grass got trampled too fast and they didn’t have enough room to run around. My next genius idea was to use those same black metal “playpens” that are sold at the same place as my crates. They come in different heights and I first tried the 30″ height because I wanted be be able to easily reach in to catch a bunny or retrieve a feeder they had dragged off the wire wall (have you seen rabbits play soccer with their feed dishes?). I discovered that I am either not as tall as I thought, my arms are too short, or I am getting old (I am sure it is the latter). So the next pen height was 24″ tall and works great for the young bunnies. I will use the taller pens for the breeding stock. The genius of using these pens alone or hooked to the cages is that they fold up in 2 foot sections and are light to carry around. Used alone they can be a 2′ x 6′ or a 4′ x 4′ pen. Attached to the crate cage they form a 4′ x 6′ pen by utilizing the door and the wire divider that comes with these larger crates. My first doe pen was 2′ x 6′ but future ones will be 4′ x 4′. Why?
Pros of 2′ x 6′ =
1. Narrow so easier to move and position in tight places.
2. The typical lexan/plastic or corrugated metal roofing panels come in 24″ or 26″ widths. I recommend the 26″ width when possible since it gives you more coverage to cover the wood frame that holds the pen to your shape and allows you to bungie the roof panel down in high wind areas like mine.
3. The extra 2′ or so that you cut off a standard 8′ roof panel can be zip tied or wired to one side as a wind block.
Cons of 2′ x 6’=
1. If Feral cats or other predators are a problem, they can easily reach in and 2′ wide doesn’t give much protection or feeling of safety for the rabbit.
2. Where as the rabbit can hop down the 6′ length, they can’t run around in circles playing like they can in the 4′ x 4′ or 4′ x 6′ configuration when crate cage is attached.
I know you are yelling “Wait, you can’t have your bunnies exposed to all those Feral cats, Hawks, and coyotes by leaving them in an open topped pen!!”. You are right. The Feral cats were already sticking their paws thru the wire crate cages to “play” with the rabbits. That was temporarily fixed by putting shade cloth on at least two sides and I have now upgraded to pieces of coloured lexan/plastic roofing panels that provide shade and a wind block. The pens all have roofs to protect the bunnies from predators, rain, and sun/heat.
It is my various roof designs causing the disaster today. My 2′ x 6′ pen roof is fine because it is screwed to a wood support frame that locks the pen to that shape and is the normal 24″/26″ roof panel (I am using lexan/plastic instead of my normal metal roofing since heat is such a problem for rabbits). It is the 4′ x 6′ pen roofs that failed today.
I “thought” I was being smart when I found 4′ x 6.5′ roof panels at Lowe’s. They are made from a strange composite material that would provide shade and great cooling in the summer as compared to metal roofing tin or even the plastic/lexan panels. I wouldn’t have to trim them down as the extra 6″ would be used to screw 1″ x 3″ wood to the ends so that I could use eye bolts and bungies to keep the roof in place and protect from wind lift (hopefully). I didn’t want more wood framing since the panels were already heavier than other roofing options and a bit ungainly to move around by myself. Well this is what happens after heavy rains. The weight of the water collapsed the roof allowing a couple brave bunnies to escape. Don’t worry, those escapees are caught. Another post will tell of other escapes without the happy ending.
So back to the drawing board for easy to move pen roof panels. I have some designs for the future 4′ x 4′ pens and will now have to figure out what to do with these 4′ x 6′ roofpanels. If you have recommendations or other suggestions for pasture pen ideas, please post them in the comments below. Thanks!