Everywhere you read or talk to older breeders, you will see or hear from other breeders the recommendations for the feeding of hay to rabbits. Give your rabbits all the hay it can eat, Do not restrict your rabbit’s hay diet. I believe this to be true! The main component of every rabbit’s diet should be fresh grass or hay (dried grass).
Hay is good for your rabbit because the long fibers that hay is made from help the muscles of the rabbits gut stay good and strong. It’s high fiber content is the single most important thing in maintaining good dental and intestinal health. Without fiber, the digestive system cannot move food through the gut and your rabbits teeth, which grow continually, will not wear down and could grow painfully long. Hay fiber is the number one defense against intestinal blockages. Hay stimulates normal gastrointestinal processes, including digestion of food, absorption of necessary nutrients and excretion of normal feces. Without hay in their diet, the intestinal tract of rabbits may slow down or completely stop moving.
Hay not only meets some of the rabbits basic nutritional requirements, but it helps to keep rabbits occupied, reducing boredom. Rabbits will chew on almost anything, They seem to have little concept of what they can digest and what they cannot digest so keeping hay available will give them something to chew on that they can digest. Hay is an essential part of your rabbit’s diet, and you should no more leave your Rabbits without hay than you would leave them without water. Rabbits need lots of fiber, and hay provides it to them. A good quality hay should not be too expensive, and is really essential for your rabbit’s health and well being.
Proof of the diet playing an important role in gastric stasis is seen when wild rabbits are compared to domestic rabbits. Wild rabbits don’t succumb to hairballs or most GI problems so why should domestic rabbits? The primary difference between wild and domestic rabbits is diet. In the wild, there is plenty of grass, leaves and other plant material for the rabbit to eat. With a domestic rabbit, the diet is frequently offered as pellets or a few vegetables and fruits. Without sufficient hay, these rabbits tend to succumb to various illnesses, including gastric stasis and hairballs. So for the health of your rabbits feed them hay!
Hay is just grass that has been cut and left to dry out. It has the same health and digestive benefits that fresh grass does. There are many different hays available; popular types include meadow, timothy, oat, and orchard grass. Any of these hays will provide a good source of fiber for your rabbit’s diet, but you don’t need to pick just one type. Mixing several different hays will provide your rabbit with a wider variety of flavours and even out differences in nutritional values. Timothy hay is the most popular rabbit feeding hay, and probably the easiest for you to obtain, but oat hay, wheat hay and bahia hay are all also okay. Alfalfa and Clover hays are tastier to your rabbit, but contain a great deal of calcium and protein, neither of which your rabbits need in large amounts.
You may be offered a choice between first and second cut hay. The terms first and second cut refer to the number of times that hay is harvested. First cut is better for your rabbits digestive system , but second cut is tastier. An old farmer once described the difference to me as follows: First cut is like the main course; Second cut is like dessert.
Rabbits like the second cut better, much better! First cut has more body and fills their stomachs up quicker. In Maine, we usually have two cuttings per year, depending upon the varieties planted and environmental factors such as rain. Generally, first cuttings are more mature, stalkier with less leaf, resulting in coarser hay. Subsequent cuttings grow back with fewer stalks and more leaf, resulting in softer hay. The longer hay is allowed to grow before being harvested, the more fibre and less protein it will have. Some rabbits seem to prefer a courser, stalky hay, while others have a preference for softer hay. If legume hays are grown in the field with grass hays, second or third cuttings will also have more legume hay than the first cutting.
First Cutting: The first growth off of a field for the year is the “first cutting.” Many people feel that first cut hay is not to be considered as good feed. I tend to disagree, provided it is of good quality and was cut when relatively immature (pre-bloom stage), before the plant is allowed to mature to the point where the stem becomes larger and coarser. This is when the lignin (an indigestible part of the fiber component associated with cellulose and hemicellulose in the cell wall) content has become sufficiently high so as to make the hay more unpalatable and indigestible and the nutritive value has declined greatly. This can happen with 1st, 2nd, or any cutting of hay if left growing too long.
Second Cutting: Depending upon the temperatures of the days and nights, it typically takes 40-45 days for regrowth of alfalfa, mix hay, and orchard-grass , and 55- 60 days for regrowth of timothy. This is termed the “second cutting,” which usually has a larger percentage of leaves to stems, has a finer and softer stem, has increased percentages of crude protein and crude fat, and has a lower crude fiber percentage (depending upon the stage of maturity at which it was cut) . More non-structural carbohydrates (starches and sugars) and protein are in the leaves than in the stems. These starches and sugars are very digestible and make the hay higher quality.
Legume hay- Noticeably different than grass hay. A stalky plant with brittle, crumbly, flat leaves. Clover or alfalfa flowers may be seen as well. Alfalfa hay smells rich.
Timothy hay- Resembles flat, dried blades of grass. The color ranges from soft green to grey/brown green. Timothy has “solid cattail” tips for easy identification.
Orchard Grass- This hay has a similar appearance to timothy but has broken or open “cattail” tips, rather than solid. The tips tend to be pale brown
Generally, hay that is grown for horses is good and can be fed to your rabbits. Good hay should smell sweet or like fresh grass. It should be low in weeds and, although color varies with the type of hay, it should be green to greenish-grey in color.
Excessive dust or hay that does not smell sweet may indicate mould. Do not feed your rabbit moldy hay. Never, I repeat NEVER feed moldy hay, because it can make your rabbit seriously ill. Moldy hay may contain white dust, or black and/or white spots on the bale. If you drop the bale and a lot of white dust flies up, it could be a sign of mold. Thistles and other weeds should be picked out of the hay before serving, because some weeds, such as milkweed (a thick, fibrous stemmed plant with broad elongated leaves) are toxic and can make your rabbits sick or much worse.
GROWING YOUR OWN HAY-
Whether you’ve got a patch of long grass which you think would make good hay or are planning to sow a patch of timothy grass or herb mix especially to make hay for the winter months, similar rules apply to those of growing a herb patch or rabbit lawn but with the added considerations of cutting, drying and storing. Many herbs were traditionally dried for the winter months by rabbit breeders many years ago so why not today.
Any herb or wild plant you would feed fresh in season can be dried as herbal hay for winter use. Herbs you may want to consider drying include agrimony, avens, borage, thyme, rosemary, lavender, chamomile, calendula (the flowers are a good source of vitamin A), chickweed (a good natural source of copper), cleavers (an excellent spring tonic), coltsfoot, dandelion (but don’t feed too much as it is a diuretic), goat’s rue (aids lactation), golden rod (a great plant to feed as the plant grows back even bushier when you harvest the tips), lemon balm, common mallow, marshmallow, meadowsweet (a natural source of salicylic acid – the active ingredient in aspirin), melilot, mouse ear, plantain, shepherd’s purse (good for scouring) and yarrow.
Always harvest when fresh and green, as with grass for haymaking, dry well before storing. The rabbits love this in the winter and it helps them with the winter blahs! The trick is to make good hay so every mouthful packs a punch. So a good variety mix is the best! So prepare, fertilize and plant a small hay plot. Just like the big hay makers, harvest at the best bloom and during a time of warm, sunny days.
If you mow your lawn weekly, you might want to skip a week to let it grow out a bit. If you don’t have a lawn, you could try asking your neighbors. I am sure if you offer to cut their grass in exchange for keeping the clippings. Just make sure they don’t use any weedkiller/pesticides. Once you have located your patch of grass, next you need to cut it. It’s important not to use a lawn mower for this. Mowers chop up the grass and crush it which encourages it to begin fermenting. This is great if you want to compost it but no good for feeding to rabbits. If you’re cutting a big patch you could use scythe or sickle but you could also use a string trimmer/weedwhackers this will save your back and do the work in a fraction of the time. I have even used scissors or big hedge clippers, I can fill a pillow case or a feed sack very fast. Next is the difficult part, the grass needs to dry out (and turn into hay). There are a few options for this. You could leave the grass where you cut it and turn it a few times to help it dry. Our forefathers used wooden peg-toothed haying rakes; if you’re handy with tools you could make one, but a wide-toothed garden rake will do. Check frequently and when the turned hay is fully dry, but still green and sweet smelling, hook a cart to your lawn tractor, grab your pitchfork and bring in the harvest.
The trouble with this is you are at the mercy of the weather. It’s important the air gets to it so I made a shelf out of some wire mesh. You could also use a covered deck, greenhouse, shed with windows etc. or you could lay it out on a sheet and just pick it up in the sheet when rain is forecast and pop it out afterwards. The top of a wire rabbit cage or run would be great if the weather is good That’s it for the hard work, now you just need to wait for it to dry. It dose not take to long for this. In less than two weeks it will smell and looked like tasty hay. Once it has dried out you can store it like you would normal hay. Something that breaths (like a pillow case would be best) just in case there is any moisture left. If you leave it out in the sun it will loose the hint of green and go golden brown (still edible but less nutrients). Store your hay in a well-ventilated area, out of direct sunlight. Don’t fork it directly on the floor, place it on top of wooden pallets to prevent ground contact. Pack it down and pile it high. It’s best to leave new hay uncovered for a few weeks until it finishes curing, but then top it with tarps to preserve cleanliness and quality. So grow your own good quality hay for you rabbits! By adding the herbs it is a nice change for your rabbits and a great healthy tonic. I hope you like this post and any questions or ideas are welcome!