You can, and should, be free ranging rabbits. You neighbors, maybe even your significant other might think you are nuts, but the benefits to raising meat rabbits in this manner far outweigh the initial weird looks you will surely receive.
Free ranging livestock is the most humane, natural, money-saving way to raise your animals. Keeping livestock this way will cause far less stress on the animal, causing your meat to almost always taste a whole lot better.
We have one 4-rabbit hutch and two double rabbit hutches that were by the side of the road freebies we could have used for our new meat rabbits, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. It seemed cruel and had only one benefit, caging the rabbits would be an easier way to keep them.
When I told my husband I wanted to free range rabbits, he gave me that look he always throws my way when I step outside the conventional – a look that loosely translates to, “Wow, this is nuts, but when my beloved gets an idea into her head….”
Sometimes, once I prove how logically sound my project is, the look dissipates quickly. But other times, and the free ranging rabbits conversation was one of those, I have to put the idea into practical practice successfully before that dreaded and pointless look, completely disappears.
Our horses, ponies, and miniature donkeys have the run of our 56-acre homestead. It is not at all unusual to see a horse wander by the kitchen window in search of that special blade of greener grass. I free range our chickens, ducks, guineas, and even our goats, I saw no reason for rabbits to be an exception to our natural husbandry techniques rules.
Chickens and ducks live in flocks.
Horses and cows live in herds.
Rabbits live in colonies in the wild and can do so with just some simple and repetitive training, in captivity.
Free Ranging Rabbits Basics
Unfortunately, it is too late to start teaching a rabbit to free range after it has spent the bulk of its life in cage, unless it been given grass and other natural dietary items to eat on a regular basis. A sudden introduction and gorging of grass for a rabbit that is not used to its natural diet, could be extremely detrimental to its health.
Rabbits are an increasingly popular choice for homesteaders, especially on small homesteads for several reasons. They are cheaper to purchase and feed than larger livestock, reproduce rapidly, and take up little space to house.
Typical meat rabbit cages are only 2 by 3 square feet. When using raised hutches you can even create a compost bin underneath.
Deciding to free range rabbits does not mean you should do away with their hutch entirely, or lose your valuable source of composting material. The free ranging rabbits still will need a shelter to retreat to when the need to escape inclement weather arises and to avoid predator attacks – especially at night.
How To Free Range Rabbits
There are two common ways to free range rabbits, although one is far more like cage-free living than it is free ranging.
Cage-Free or Pastured Rabbits
Cage-free rabbits can only free range to a certain degree. Electric fencing commonly referred to as poultry netting, is most often used to create either boundary tall enough to contain a colony of rabbits.
The netting typically comes in rolls already permanently attach to thick plastic step-in posts. Electric netting comes in a variety of heights because it can also be used as a pen for goats and sheep.
The electric netting used to house rabbits must be at least 30 inches tall to prevent them from jumping out. Solar chargers designed specifically for such small livestock enclosures usually sell for about $30 to $50 each both at brick and mortar stores and online.
Meat rabbit keepers go this husbandry route for one of two reasons. One, because they do not want their rabbits to spend their entire lives in a 2X3 square foot wire covered box and dine on commercially manufactured feed.
Rabbit keepers of this type use temporary or permanent fencing of some type to allow their rabbits to get their feet on solid ground and find the bulk of their food on their own. Such pens can be as large as the keeper desires or has room for and often includes conventional rabbit hutches.
If you are not going to go all the way with the free range rabbit concept and wish to create more of a chicken coop and run style set-up, I would recommend building a wood on the ground pen with a top to prevent predators from snatching up your meat rabbits during the daytime. If the pen is going to be moved about the yard or only a temporary set up for training purposes, consider covering the top with mesh bird netting to prevent hawks from swooping in and grabbing a rabbit during daylight hours.
A chicken tractor is also frequently used to move rabbits about the backyard or homestead when they have eaten the grass down in a particular area and to fertilize the ground for growing crops.
Free Range Rabbit Training
The second reason is for free range training purposes. A ground open bottom pen allows the rabbits freedom of movement while still keeping them in a confined area while you teach them the same type of turn out and put up routine you use with free range chickens, ducks, goats, etc.
I used a healthy treat of some type when training chicks and ducklings to free range. They quickly learn to associate me with both food and safety. They learn that put up is just before dusk and if I am even a few moments late, they are lined up waiting at the coop to get their snack and be tucked away safely inside for the night.
The same type of process can, and has, been used to train rabbits to free range. Some rabbit keepers whistle or ring a bell instead of using treats to train the rabbits when it is time to gather for a head count and put up.
Training the first generation of livestock to free range is always going to be the most difficult and time consuming. Once you have a mature flock, herd, or colony trained, their offspring will meld in with their parents and peers and learn when and how turn out and put up occur rapidly.
Rabbit Pen Cons
Meat rabbits love to dig as much as any other type of rabbit. Whether is takes them all of five minutes or five days, once a single rabbit decides to dig in the dirt around the borders of their new fence home, the others will embrace the same natural instincts as well.
The best way to prevent your rabbits from digging their way out of their yard area is by using hardware cloth. Why this wire, the same wire that is commonly used on rabbit hutches, is referred to as “cloth” I will never quite understand.
The wire is sturdier than chicken wire (which is only good for keeping chickens in and not predators out!) and has far smaller openings. Placing hardware cloth around the perimeter of the pen, with some of the wire covering both the inside and the outside around the fence, won’t keep a rabbit from attempting to dig, but should thwart the animals efforts. Once the rabbit grasps all that time spent digging will result in only being stopped by a wire wall, most colony members will decide to stop tunneling antics and simply enjoy the clover at their feet.
To prevent a rabbit escape for thoroughly, dig a trench 12 inches wide by 12 inches deep and sink the layer of hardware cloth. Even if the ground pen is only going to be temporary, lining the boundaries of the pend with buried hardware cloth will substantially prevent an escape hatch from being dug by the rabbits while they are either in training or waiting to be relocated to their next grazing spot.
Rabbits have an innate desire, perhaps even a need, to dig. Allow them to embrace this attribute safely while they are in a ground pen. Use your tractor to dump a load of dirt inside the pen to the rabbits to burrow into to make themselves a natural home. The dirt pile can become a compost pile for your garden – you can never cultivate too much compost. Toss rabbit-safe scraps into the pile for the colony to munch upon at their leisure, creating ample droppings into the dirt for you to put to good use later.
A bucket turned sideways and filled with dirt or partially buried, also makes a superb burrow inside a small rabbit pen. If the colony members are going to be spending all day in the pen or inside a chicken tractor, they will need both shade and a steady supply of clean water.
Getting Rid of Rabbit Hutches
There is no reason to pitch the rabbit hutches you already own, but you do not have to keep them or purchase them, if you are new to raising rabbits.
Some folks may argue to the contrary, but you can typically keep chickens and rabbits together. I raised out chickens, ducklings, and guineas all in the same brooder and then keep them at night in the same coop – or did until the chicken flock literally flew the coop and demanded to sleep in the barn rafters.
Starting the shared living arrangements from the day the flock members were hatched or purchased a day-olds at the store made this process likely go far more smoothly. But, we have had multiple new generations added to our original flocks now and the new additions meld nicely into the fold.
I keep three roosters at all times for backup, and initially worried about them being mean – or worse, to the new flock members, but again, never had any negative results from the communal living, feeding, and free ranging scenario on our homestead.
Keeping all of the small livestock in the same coop saves space, saves money, helps them to all stay warm in the winter, saves habitat cleaning time and may help teach the rabbits the turn out and up routine far more easily. Following the crowd is not a good attribute in humans, but it can make training and raising critters significantly less problematic… unless the leader of the flock, herd, or colony is up to no good, which let’s face it, definitely happens on occasion around any homestead.
You can also make use of any empty barn stall by turning it into an evening housing unit for the free ranging rabbits. I am in the midst of converting a barn stall to house my duck flock. They are rather irritated that the chickens can stay out all night and they cannot. I have told my flock that the chickens can fly to high spaces and to get away from predators, but they so far are ignoring my pearls of wisdom.
I will be retrofitting the barn stall with hardware cloth trenched into the ground to cover the entire ground base area of the stall and covering it with dirt to deter digging predators. A layer of hardware cloth will also be firmly affixed to the stall door and walls, as well. A metal roof will cover the top of the stall and fit on top of the wood-framed out hardware cloth that will extend above the stall walls.
This same type of set up would work for free ranging rabbits. Once my stall makeover is complete, the chickens (that are willing) and the ducks and rabbits will all be sharing the same sleeping quarters.
• Teach the rabbits their boundaries. Even though we have 56 acres, our free range flocks never venture any further than the barnyard area to the shelter house situated just past a pond by our home. They have been trained that this is their area. I did nothing special, or really much at all to teach them where they should be roaming. Their natural instincts, once stalled by being caged, alert them to the desire to keep to a familiar area where their nightly shelter and steady food and water supply also exist.
• An open pasture will not be a friend to your free ranging meat rabbits. Once you are ready to take the big leap and turn them loose, keep them in the barnyard or other designated boundary area. Being out in the open is one sure way to lose small livestock that can be carried away by hawks, a fox, coyotes, or mink.
• Provide them with plenty of natural and man-made ground cover to protect them from both the elements and predators. Allow them open door access to their nightly shelter, the barn, overturned buckets or barrels, a downed tree, or a wood pile – be prepared for snakes to also use your rabbit shelters as temporary lodging.
• If you do not have a natural water source in their designated boundary area, put out a watering station in a set location.
• Meat rabbits are not pets, but you will need to handle them frequently before turning them out to free range and allow them to get used to the sound of your voice and your scent as well. Everyone who might become responsible for caring for the rabbits should handle them so the animals will run towards instead of away from them when danger is near, for first aid, and for nightly put up. Make sure to handle the kits of your meat rabbits so they too grow accustomed to being around you and being handled by humans.
• Some free ranging rabbit keepers allow their colonies to remain outdoors even at night and to sleep in any one of the natural or man-made shelters they place inside their boundaries. Can this cause a higher ratio of loss to predators? Yes, is the simple and short answer. But, surprisingly some folks have had a decent amount of success going this route because of the presence of a livestock guardian dog and/or other larger animals on the homestead that help deter predators from venturing too close to the barnyard.
• Worming free ranging rabbits does not need to be problematic. You can go the natural route and put diatomaceous earth in the little bit of supplemental feed you choose to provide at night or handle the deworming with commercially manufactured products after they colony has been secured for the night.
• Rabbits tend to multiply even more quickly when left to their own devices. Create a butchering or selling plan before releasing the rabbits to free range. Ideally, you want 1 buck for every 8 does. This prevents the does from being overly taxed and from losing a buck to fighting over a small amount of does.
• I have always found that the losses of free range livestock due to predators, both wild and domestic, is far smaller than the loss of livestock due to the diseases which spread from living in confined spaces – even in a large coop with a spacious run. Also, when the livestock is permitted to roam about the land at God intended, they develop a far better and natural immunities to the germs they regularly encounter in the barnyard, in my personal experience.
• Grassfed animals tend to put on weight more slowly than animals kept in cages and pumped full of medications. You should adjust your butcher weight expectations accordingly when deciding to free range or pasture raise, meat rabbits.
• If you are a horse person you have surely heard the phrase, “You can’t ride color.” This old saying is often uttered to remind folks not to look at a horse and choose it as your mount simply based upon its beauty. In the horse world color does not (or should not) matter, but in the free ranging rabbit world, color could mean the difference between life and death.
When a rabbit spends its entire life confined to a cage, it does not need to blend in with its surroundings. But, once that same rabbit is released onto the grass, the hue of its coat will either help hide it from predators or serve as a flashing light alerting all comers that dinner is about to hop past. Choose a breed of rabbit that is not only best suited for your particular climate, but one that will be able to conceal its presence as much as possible in the natural surroundings on the homestead.
Free or Pasture Raise Rabbit Husbandry Benefits
• When you raise rabbits in a penned pasture or allow them to free range, even the youngest members of your homestead can become more involved in their care. Sure, you run the risk of the kiddos thinking of the rabbits a “pet bunnies” and wanting to name them, but that same risk is present with every other animal the children come into contact with in the barnyard. The small and typically unaggressive livestock are a perfect starter animal with young children who are just starting their husbandry skills journey. Now, rabbits can bite, especially when startled. Allow the children to play around but not go into the rabbit pasture until the animals become accustomed to their noisy ways and quick movements.
• Rabbit meat has fewer calories, fat, and cholesterol per pound than pork, beef, chicken, and even turkey meat.
• Rabbit meat boasts an incredibly high protein county, giving you a lot of bang for your buck when it comes to putting dinner on the table.
• A 10-pound meat rabbit doe can produce up to 320 pounds of meat during a single year thanks to their highly reproductive nature.
Selling trained free ranging meat rabbits, either to others who want to raise rabbits or for butchering, just might be a quality money maker for your homestead. Yes, even you, small backyard homesteader, could now become a livestock breeder! The demand and price for
“Pastured meat rabbits” is on the rise. Naturally and humanely raised livestock, be it chicken, cattle, or rabbits, almost always carry a higher price tag than factory farm and caged animals raised on commercially manufactured feed.
Do you have any experience free ranging rabbits? Share you journey with the rest of the New Life on a Homestead community so we can all advance our knowledge and skills together.