The rabbit is a bulk feeder and can utilise all sorts of waste most successfully, but like any other animal, it needs a balanced ration, including green food. Crops suitable for rabbit feeding are kale, carrots, green lettuce, radish, cattle beet and cereals such as barley, wheat, oats and rye. Also appreciated are pumpkin, waste fruit, sunflower, willow trees, hay and lucerne hay. In addition, balanced rabbit pellets should be fed. Economic nutrition will be determined by availability, cost and quality. Avoid feeding potato or tomato tops as both plants belong to the family of Nightshades and are deadly poisonous. In addition, avoid feeding nearly all plants that grow from bulbs.
Commercial pellets containing 18 – 20% crude protein and not less than 13 – 15% crude fibre will provide a complete ration supplying all essential nutrients for milk production, rapid growth and the maintenance of good health. Good quality greens and hay are quite satisfactory for low-scale production, but will not give fast growth and commercially viable results. However, many producers dilute commercial pellets with hay or greens to cheapen feeding costs.
From 8 weeks onwards a growing rabbit is fed approximately 100g of rabbit pellets daily plus hay. A pregnant doe should be restricted to about 115g of pellets per day and hay may be fed depending on appetite. Hay is reduced gradually 18 days after mating until the doe is fed ad lib with rabbit pellets only. This continues until she is removed from her litter. Working bucks are always fed with balanced rabbit pellets and hay ad lib. Breeding animals should be monitored at all times to ensure they are not overweight or underweight. Overfed breeding does have a lower conception rate and give smaller litters. The ability to convert feed to meat varies with breeds and strains. Good strains are expected to reach over 2kg live mass at 8 weeks of age, eating about 3kg of balanced food for every kilogram of live mass gained. This conversion ratio of 3:1 includes the food eaten by the mother from the time she is mated to the time her litter reaches 8 weeks of age.
Changes of diet should be avoided, but if this is essential, the change must be done very gradually. A constant supply of clean, fresh water is essential for the maintenance of good health. An adult Rabbit consumes about half a litre of water every day. More is required by a pregnant doe and up to 3.5 litres of water for a doe and her 8 week-old litter. A restricted supply of drinking water will reduce feed intake and the growth rate of the litter because it will reduce the lactation in the milking doe.
In some parts of the country where potatoes or sweet potatoes are available in large quantities very good use can be made of the low grade product. Those which are unsuitable for the market can be washed, boiled and mashed, and to this a small quantity of high-grade fish meal is added and where available skim milk and a small percentage of calcium carbonate can be added too. This mixture is dried out and sufficient bran is added to give it a crumbly consistency. Where potatoes or sweet potatoes are not available a similar mixture may be made with yellow mealie-meal, and it is advisable to cook this well. Sunflower seeds can be added in small quantities to the feed. Scraps from the table can be mixed with bran to make a mash, but remember that any mash should be crumbly and moist rather than wet and soggy. Rabbits like dried crusts of old bread, and they will eat green maize and nearly all of the cultivated vegetables grown in Southern Africa. Never feed rhubarb leaves – They are poisonous.
Like all farm stock, the feeding of rabbits is a matter of common sense and careful observation of the individual animals in your care. To sum up, successful feeding depends on the following factors:
- Rabbits are kept under intensive conditions (e.g confined to cages) and like all animals kept intensively, they depend entirely on their keeper for all nutrient requirements. Their food must supply all their requirements for energy, protein, minerals and vitamins, otherwise they will not thrive;
- They must have a good supply of clean, fresh water at all times;
- Over 80% of the cost of keeping rabbits is the food they eat so that any regular source of cheap food is highly desirable; and
- Rabbits are like other farm animals in that they get accustomed to the type of food that they are being given. Any change in food is very undesirable, and should be done very gradually if it is necessary. Once a rabbit is accustomed to a certain food, it would have to be starving before it will eat a completely new food.
TYPE OF FOOD
Rabbits can be fed on any of the following foods:
- Pellets purchased from an animal foodstuff merchant, and balanced for all the nutrient requirements of the animal. These pellets can be fed alone and will supply all the needs of the rabbit, and this is the feeding system used by most of the large commercial producers. They save time and labour, but they are more expensive than other forms of feed;
- Pellets together with hay, green lucerne or other green vegetables;
- A mash made from cooked potatoes, scraps etc., and mixed with bran;
- A mash supplemented with hay, lucerne or raw vegetables; and
- Good quality green vegetables and hay only. This system of feeding will reduce the growth rate of the animals and is not suited for commercial production.
AMOUNTS OF FOOD
An adult rabbit weighing 3,5 kg and being fed on pellets only should receive the following amounts each day:
- An empty doe 100g
- A pregnant doe:
- early pregnancy 110g
- late pregnancy 118g
- A working buck 110g
- A growing rabbit:
- at 6 weeks old 60g
- at 10 weeks old 100g
If hay or fresh green vegetables are being fed in addition to meal, the above quantities of pellets can be reduced.
NUMBER OF FEEDS
- Pellets can be fed ad lib (to the .appetite) or rationed. Commercial producers feed the pellets in small hoppers which can hold a 2 – 3 day supply and the rabbit can eat whenever it is hungry.
- If fed once a day, the feed should be given in the evening when the rabbit is more active.
- Most rabbit producers feed twice a day, one feed in the morning and a second feed in the evening. If food is left over from a feed, the animal is being given too much and the quantity should be reduced. Mash should be mixed fresh for each feed as it will become sour if kept too long. Vegetables should be fed when they are fresh and any food that is sour, over ripe or mouldy should never be fed to the animals
- A doe that is nursing a litter can be given an additional light feed at midday.
- In general, remember that over feeding is nearly as harmful as under feeding. The rabbit should clean up its feed quickly and be ready for the next feed when it is offered.