By S.E. Smith, Networx
For those interested in expanding their microlivestock beyond chickens, rabbits are another species to think about. While they can be sensitive, they generate manure that is ideal for composting and fertilizing, and they can also be used as a source of meat, though not everyone is comfortable with this use of rabbits. As a plus, in urban areas like Chicago where concrete contractors' work characterizes the densely populated landscape rather than spacious backyards, there are often few to no restrictions on keeping rabbits, unlike larger livestock.
Mendocino County farmer Gowan Batist, who has extensive experience with microlivestock and loves exploring the ways in which animals like rabbits, chickens, worms, and goats can be integrated onto working permaculture farms, has a lot of good things to say about rabbits. She recommends them highly for people who want to graduate to keeping slightly larger animals around a farm or urban garden, and notes that they can be a great way to get children interested in farming and gardening.
Rabbits produce “exceptionally wonderful fertilizer”, said Batist, because their droppings are rich in nitrogen, but they aren’t “hot” like cow and horse manure. In other words, rabbit poop doesn’t need to be stored to allow it to age, and it can be applied directly to ornamental plants and fruit trees. It can also be integrated into compost to help it break down more quickly and produce rich, productive compost, which makes for very happy plants.
The real benefit of farm rabbits, she says, lies in keeping them with red wriggler worms in a vermicomposting operation. “The combination of rabbits and red wriggler worms is pure beautiful garden gold,” and the resulting processed droppings are “one of the most perfect fertilizers that you can ever use.” She compares it to rocket fuel for plants.
To combine the two, she recommends keeping bunnies in a hutch directly over a worm bin. Keeping rabbits solely on wire is inhumane, because it’s hard on their feet, but farmers can use an insert to create a custom carpentry platform for the rabbits, with an area of bare wire to allow stool to drop through. Rabbits can be taught to eliminate in that corner, providing a steady supply of poop to the worms below. To enrich the environment, a multi-leveled series of platforms and nest boxes can be provided as well.
Rabbits and chickens also pair well. She notes that Joel Salatin, celebrated permaculture innovator, uses what he calls a racken house: a rabbit/chicken house. Rabbits live in suspended cages above deep straw bedding, which the chickens regularly aerate by turning and scraping. Worms also live deep in the bedding, and the result is a very rich, rapidly broken-down compost. As a bonus, the regular aeration cuts down on the uric acid in the rabbit urine, which can create sharp and unpleasant odors in confined spaces.
Like chickens, rabbits can be tractored, by moving them outdoors in a play pen to allow them to play in the grass. The rabbits can cut down on unwanted plants or just mow the lawn while turning the soil and fertilizing. She does have some notes of caution, however. It’s a good idea to cover the pen in shadecloth to make the rabbits feel safer, and she suggests using a wide wire that sits directly on the soil and prevents tunneling. Otherwise, a tractored rabbit may make a bid for freedom. Rabbits also cannot be tractored on grass where pesticides have been used, as their nervous systems are extremely sensitive.
It’s important to be aware, she says, that rabbits are easily stressed and startled. They should be kept in a calm environment; one advantage to a racken house, for instance, is that the chicken sounds can act as white noise to help the rabbits stay calm. Too much handling can cause agitation, and rabbits prefer an environment with some holes to hide in so they will feel safer.
They also should eat a mixed diet; pure greens are not a good idea for rabbits, which also need hay and pellets to stay healthy. Otherwise they can develop bloat, colic and other problems.
People who are interested in trying rabbits as combination pets/farm animals might want to consider talking to a rabbit rescue in their area. Rabbit breeders also regularly have rabbits for sale; those who plan on raising and slaughtering rabbits for meat as well as using them on the farm may want to consider large breeds like New Zealands and Californians.