While we were down in Tennessee last weekend we popped by a few local food retailers to say hi and chat about Little Seed's plans and the potential for future business relationships. We were consistently asked if we could supply rabbits. Rabbits are something we're interested in, but it's a subject on which we've gone back and forth. For one, our vision for Little Seed involves all of the animals spending time outside, eating natural forages that they harvest themselves. In the case of rabbits we have plans for a portable unit with an open floor that would allow the doe and its kits to munch on the grass and plants below. In front of our house we have a long tract of land with fertile soil where we could easily plant a variety of crops for the rabbits to munch on and we could move their hutches up and down the land similar to what you'd see in a chicken tractor operation. It sounds great, but there's a few problems when it comes to rabbits.
The primary issue is that they can get spooked very easily. When they get spooked they are at a high risk of having a heart attack. In nature the rabbit would be long gone if a predator came near. Either that or it would be eaten. Heart attack's not really an option. In our system it would be trapped in its "tractor". I can only imagine the anxiety a flight animal would have while being beared down on by a predator. Having no ability to go anywhere it freaks out and dies of a heart attack.
So what's the answer? The best answer is to assure complete safety of the rabbits on pasture. By providing an environment free of predators the rabbits could live happily in their homes, out in the sun, eating fresh food every day. But how realistic is that? Would our guard dogs put up a good enough barrier to keep all the wily animals out? What if the dogs were on the opposite side of the farm and a predator came through unnoticed? Or, what if the dogs take an interest in the rabbits and accidentally spook them? Lots of unintended results could arise by providing what we perceive to be a better environment for the rabbit.
The other answer would be to raise them in elevated rabbit cages in a hoop-house, similar to how Joel Salatin's son Daniel raises rabbits at Polyface. You can see Polyface's method in this video and the picture above. But then the animals aren't outside. They're not in the sunlight foraging for their own food. They spend their entire lives indoors. They'd be dependent on us for food, cleaning their cages, etc. Is that our vision for Little Seed's rabbitry? Hanging in the hoop-house? When I look at Joel's operation I don't know if that's the image I have in my mind for Little Seed's rabbits.
I think we could make the mobile rabbit tractors work outdoors, but it will take time and we'll have to start very small until we work the kinks out. The bucks can't breed in the heat, for instance, so we'll have to be aware of outside temps, breeding schedules, etc. Male's infertility in hot weather is relatively common in many species, so we'll work through that with most animals. Birds and snakes would also be concerns, not just coyotes, foxes, etc.
We don't have an answer yet, but that's one of the many little things we're discussing these days. If you raise rabbits outdoors we'd love to hear your thoughts.