By Mimi Mason
Our tiny, backyard homestead grew last summer and with our garden finally experiencing success, we decided it was time to take on homestead livestock. Not being in a place to house a cow, or even a pig for meat, we turned to rabbits. Rabbits are quiet, require little space, easy to feed, and are absolutely adorable. What’s not to love? Sure we had to figure out what to feed rabbits but that seem simple enough. We scoured listings for rabbits, and soon found a couple to help us learn the ropes before we moved on to a larger operation. We did everything by the book, just as the breeder has instructed us. The rabbit food was pellets fed in measured amounts. Water in plastic bottles. Small handfuls of hay doled out every evening.
Then one morning while I was knee deep in tomato seedlings, I watched our daughter walk over to the rabbit hutch, her arms laden with weeds and flowers. She sat down, and began poking the tips of the weeds into the hutch, letting the rabbits nibble away. I was panicked. What if the weeds made the rabbits sick? How long had she been feeding them like this?
How I Decided What to Feed Rabbits
That night, I began to read up about the history of rabbit husbandry. I learned that manufactured rabbit food pellets were introduced sometime around the World War II. Before pellets, Depression-era rabbits were fed an assortment of weeds and kitchen scraps, gleaned fruits, and vegetables. I researched local native plants, identified the weeds and flowers the rabbits had been eating, and discovered, not only were they perfectly safe for rabbit consumption, but that we were sitting on an entire yard filled with weeds, err …a treasure trove of wild edibles! Little did I know we had a field of all natural organic rabbit food ready for consumption.
Inspired, I poked around a number of online forums and read through the forums on feeding rabbits naturally. I was able to find lists of safe foods for rabbits, and consulted a local holistic veterinarian to make sure that the rabbits would get optimum nutrition.
Inspired by my findings and the Rabbit Food Cookbook, I decided to replace our store bought rabbit food with my own recipe. From all my research I knew what to feed rabbits. Our system was implemented over the course of a month, to ensure we didn’t upset the rabbits’ digestive systems. I opted for a mixture of orchard grass and alfalfa hay for our rabbits, fed free choice. Alfalfa hay has high protein content, and because our bunnies are not getting the protein from pellets (which are made from alfalfa and other unmentionables) we can use this hay to keep that nutrient prevalent in their diet. Along with the orchard grass and alfalfa hay I made the recipe below.
My Homemade Natural Grain Based Rabbit Food Recipe:
- 6 cups rolled oats
- 3 cups golden wheat berries
- 3 cups pearled barley
- 3 cups hard red wheat berries
- 3 cups split peas
- 3 cups black oil sunflower seed
I combine this all well, and then fill their feeding crock to the brim. Although this may not be true for all rabbits, our rabbits regulate themselves, eating only what they need. Monitor the rabbits’ weights to ensure they don’t overeat. A simple diluted syrup of black strap molasses and water can be added to this grain mixture to encourage reluctant rabbits to take to the feed. Mine were eager to eat without the molasses, so I excluded it.
During months of fair weather, we pasture our rabbits in mobile tractors and move them as needed. They do a wonderful job of eating all our weeds and keeping our yard healthy. They also fill the gaps between mowing, which is very welcome. The rabbits also get handfuls of leafy green veggies, harvested weeds and plants from our garden, and some fruits and vegetables as they are available.
Feeding Rabbits Naturally Without Pellets
My daughter and I often harvest weeds such as dandelion, plantain, blackberry leaves, and chickweed to dry for feeding during the winter months for supplementation. I have also sprouted wheat berries as fodder. Keeping a small portion of fresh food in the rabbits’ guts during the winter ensures that they will be able to properly digest fresh food in the spring when they are moved into tractors. I begin the transition by increasing their hay as the greens dry up for winter, and by increasing their grain ration amount. I also harvest and dry weeds and lawn clippings throughout the summer months to feed them during the winter.
For rabbit growers who prefer switching to pellets for the winter season, the transition could be done by adding small increments of pellets—approximately in tablespoon-sized increments—to their grain ration, increasing the amount weekly until the ideal pellet ration has been reached.
Our rabbits have supple pelts and well-muscled bodies. They race to meet us at their gate, excited to see what new goodies we are bringing. We can trust this rabbit meat we are growing is organic, and GMO-free. The feed bill dramatically decreased when we began natural feeding, giving us one more reason why rabbits are the perfect livestock choice for our small backyard homestead.
We now have five breeding rabbits, plenty for supporting a small family. We’ve left the days of pellets behind us. We spend our time picking weeds, much like our little daughter that one spring day that lead me to question our methods. Natural feeding has been a wonderful choice for our family, and I encourage all rabbit growers to give natural rabbit food a try.
Mimi Mason is a homemaker, homeschooler, and micro homesteader. She chronicles her family’s experiences with sustainable living on her blog, The Simple Survivalist. When she’s not elbow deep in garden soil and bread dough, she can be found hidden behind the pages of a good book.