NATURALLY FEEDING RABBITS
Domestic rabbits are descended from European wild rabbits and should have no problem with a non-pelleted diet that includes a variety of feedstuff. Older rabbit books are useful sources of this information. Let’s face it, pellets only came on the market after World War II.
If you are feeding pellets, I suggest you contact the feed company and ask for an ingredients list. Not just a nutritional breakdown, but a list of the actual items used. You may be in for a surprise. I was! Some years ago I asked for this list from one of the big-name feed companies that made it. I was shocked to find animal tallow among the ingredients, also listed was animal flour and animal fats. Rabbits are herbivores that eat mostly green food, grain and roots. Now what does a herbivore want with animal tallow, animal flour, and animal fat! I looked into it more and found that GMO grown grains and soy were also used in rabbits pellets. So now in most brands of rabbit pellets they include the GMO grown soy mill waste products as the main feed ingredient.
So I began to learn about feeding my rabbits a more natural type food program. By experimenting and watching the rabbits I have learned a lot, not all good! The rabbits are the best teachers and they teach you a lot. During the growing season, nature makes my rabbit food!
I am not knocking all pellets, some pellets are better than others and if you choose to use them just be informed. But there are alternatives if you are willing to learn. Most rabbits if given a choice prefer the hay and greens and will eat far fewer pellets. I have done this test myself and the feeder was always full of pellets when they had the option of a natural feed source over pellets. Where fryers are concerned, you will need to adjust your expectations slightly. Rabbits fed mainly on natural foods will grow a bit more slowly than those fed only pellets and may take a couple of weeks longer to reach butchering weight. But your overall cost per pound will be less and the fryers should have more meat and less fat. I think the reason they grow more slowly is related to protein levels, which are higher in pellets than in a diet of hay, greens and grain.
I should emphasize that I would never advocated this method of feeding in large rabbitries or for show rabbits or the commercial production of meat. It is a system best suited to the small homestead rabbitry, where the main goal is to provide good, healthy meat for one’s own table. Please, remember to be careful starting off. Natural feeding is great for the rabbits and great for the pocketbook, but you must take responsibility for doing the necessary homework to keep your rabbits safe. Please remember that while I am happy to share my observations on this topic and while I have had excellent results with supplementing commerical pellets with the green feeds listed on my webpage, I am still experimenting. Go slowly with your rabbits and be watchfull for problems. Get a good book on weeds if you are not knowledgeable enough to identify them without help. When in doubt, DON’T
Most of us started homesteading because we wanted to take control of what goes into the meat and other food that we eat. While it’s a whole lot more work, I think the only real way that we can do that is to completely ditch commercial mixtures and make or grow our own animal food from scratch. I truly think that feeding a variety of different foods is what is going to work in the long run, not some commercially prepared mixture based on some scientific guidelines which may or may not be accurate for the animals we are raising.
Natural feeding saves money but is more labour intensive. I like to save money, but I think my real motivation is the health, happiness and well-being of the rabbits. I am convinced it is very best for the health of the rabbits. Some of the results are the absence of digestive problems (No gut stasis or weaning enteritis! and the wonderful flavour of the “grass fed” meat). I have never had a rabbit that really loved pellets! Rabbits lead boring enough lives as it is, (unless they live in a colony setting more on this subject in a future post!). Why deny them the pleasures of fresh, varied, natural foods!
I now feed a combination of natural and pellets. If the source of natural food is good and fresh, it will make up for short comings in the pellets. I would just feed a natural diet if i had less rabbits and more time. I would like to stress that this method of feeding, was the only way to feed rabbits before pelleted foods were invented, it is frowned upon in today’s world and considered controversial by many. I have been getting very good results with it, but I am still always learning buy the best of teachers, the rabbits themselves! I have nothing but my own experience and some old books to base this on. If you wish to use this method you must expect to be vigilant and adaptable while you are learning what works with you and your rabbits.
I know that lots of people are going to choose to supplement with natural foods rather than feed them exclusively. There is nothing wrong with this, I do this myself. I feel it gives the rabbits the best of both worlds. I also think each breeder has to find what works best for themselves and their rabbits. Remember the sustainability of a natural food program may be the only way to feed your rabbits one day. So by just supplementing now, you will learn what works, how to grow, how to harvest, how to dry and store (for winter use) all the while getting your rabbits gut flora adapted to this “new” diet.
Rabbits digestive systems are perfectly capable of digesting the greens, but they must develop the proper flora in their GI tract and that does not happen overnight. Make your transition to greens gradually, working the amounts up from a few leaves to as much as you can find for them. In the wild, rabbits eat greens from the time their eyes open and suffer no ill effects. The greens are always fresh since they are growing when the rabbits eat them and because there is always more there is no tendency to overeat. I usually transition new rabbits over a period of two months. Most rabbits, given the choice, prefer the hay and greens and will eat far fewer pellets. Grass hay can be added immediately with no problems and should be offered at all times. It is really good for their digestion and will help prevent weaning enteritis in fryers.
What I try to do is work with the cycle of the seasons. So in the spring I would feed fresh small greens (dandelions, plantain, grasses, sprouted branches etc.). All what is growing in the spring and what is available in season. In the winter The wild rabbits don’t get as much “fresh food” they depend heavily on weed and grass seeds, standing grass “hay”, roots when they can get them, tree bark and buds. (In your climate the seasons are going to be different and you will learn to work with them. Your tough time may be in a season of drought while mine is the winter)
Foods during warmer months include a variety of sedges, grasses and other herbaceous plants. Important species include panic grass, plantain, dandelion, crabgrass, ragweed, croton, clover and lespedeza. Agricultural crops eaten during the summer include clover, alfalfa, soybeans, peanuts (the green plant) and garden vegetables.
Winter foods include honeysuckle, lespedeza, blackberry, greenbrier, a variety of grasses and dried vegetation. Bark, twigs and buds from sumac, black cherry, willow, holly and dogwood also are eaten. Agricultural crops consumed during the winter include rye, wheat, alfalfa, clover, corn, peanuts and ryegrass. Wild rabbits have been known to damage fruit orchards by eating the bark of fruit trees. Buds of seedlings in pine plantations also may be eaten during the winter.
Consider a day in the life of a wild rabbit. they would spend 70% of their time above ground searching out and foraging for food while keeping an eye out for predators. As a ground feeder, a rabbits diet would be mainly made up of grasses, hay, herbs and bark – all high fibre foods! Rabbits can not climb trees to get fruit, and they would not actually go around digging up carrots either. The rabbits territory would be around 2+ acres, meaning they would get a lot of exercise every day searching out food across that area. The rabbit’s whole existence has evolved around this high fibre diet.
Rabbits from different areas eat different diets they ate what was available in and around their surroundings. Marsh rabbits would feed on leaves and bulbs of marsh plants including cattails, rushes, and grasses. They can also feed on other aquatic or marsh plants such as centella, greenbrier vine, marsh pennywort, water hyacinth, wild potato, and amaryllis. Marsh rabbits make more year-round use of woody vegetation than other species of rabbits. The swamp rabbit eats reeds, plants, and grasses native to its marshy habitat. The Brush Rabbit feeds mainly on grasses and forbs, especially green clover, though it will also take berries and browse from bushes. The desert rabbit mainly eats grass, but will eat many other plants, even cacti. It rarely needs to drink, getting its water mostly from the plants it eats or from dew. So take advantage of what type of area you live in and feed your rabbits accordingly.
When the rabbits are in cages and dependent on people, the chances of problems increase. Most rabbits, will get used to eating greens over a period of a few weeks, they will not overeat or have problems digesting the greens. If you go slowly, feed some of the regulators (plantain, raspberry, strawberry and blackberry leaves) along with the other greens. (think salad bar) Always clear out any uneaten greens and you should not have any problems. However, it is good to keep in mind that rabbits, like people, can have individual sensitivities and tastes.
Even people in urban areas can grow rabbit food! Grow in containers, on balconies, in windowsills and you will be surprised how much you can grow. See if there is a community garden in your area, and if there isn’t one, maybe you could start one! Local schools would be thrilled if you started a project for kids to start a garden and grow their own food. You could incorporate a herb and weed bed to attract beneficial insects and feed your rabbits!
I’ve never heard of a rabbit over-eating on grass hay. Hay ( like timothy/clover ) is the foundation of the rabbits diet. Grass hay is very good for rabbits for GI tract health. It is not so high in protein so if you are feeding pellets, this is the best hay to use. Hay is used as fiber and keeps things moving fast thru the GI tract. I would be more careful with alfalfa hay however as it is much richer. When I am feeding alfalfa hay in winter, they get a limited amount of alfalfa hay and as much grass hay as they want. I know a lot of people say not to feed fresh alfalfa or alfalfa hay because it is “too rich” but if you are not feeding pellets or have cut way back on the pellets, alfalfa becomes a valuable food source. After all, it is a major ingredient in many brands of pellets, so why be afraid to use it. Feeding alfalfa and clover is probably the most controversial aspect of feeding rabbits naturally. Legumes are high in protein and calcium. Because there is already a lot of alfalfa in the pellets, when feeding a combination it is possible for the rabbits to get too much protein and calcium. Excess calcium can result in “bladder sludge” as the unused calcium is excreted. Drying alfalfa and clover is supposed to help, I suggest, however, keeping the amount of these two excellent greens down or not at all if you are also feeding pellets!
The rabbits certainly get more hay and less green feed in the winter. In the winter I grow wheat and other grain grasses (under lights in the house), I pot up some chard, make sprouts and also feed a lot of dried greens for them (that was harvested during the spring and summer months). Just as wild rabbits adjust their diet as winter comes and eat a lot more dried grass and tree bark and buds and less grass and weeds, so do my rabbits. If you have a lot of rabbits it really is going to be hard to grow enough. You may also be able to harvest some of your homegrown wheat or barley as hay, just as it forms the seed heads and store for winter feed.
The difference between grass and hay is Grass is usually cut green and growing- So it is low in fiber and high in protein. Hay- (especially legume hay) is often cut quite mature to maximize production and the mature grass is higher in fiber. Legumes like alfalfa are also stemmy. But hay will be lower in vitamins compared to fresh grass. Timothy hay is great for GI health and for nibbling pleasure but it does not have very much protein compared to alfalfa or clover hay. You may find you need to continue feeding some pellets to supply enough protein unless you can find some alfalfa or clover hay. A mix of alfalfa with timothy is great. If you are not feeding pellets, however, the rabbits have to get their protein somewhere else and this is where alfalfa or clover hay comes in. You don’t really want to double up on the protein, so it is not so good for pellet-fed rabbits. Rabbits can live on good hay alone, fed free-choice. I don’t recommend it, but it provides a baseline for planning. In winter, some grain is a good idea. I found that the does needed it when they are lactating. The dried greens are great for the rabbits they provide variety and interest and lots of nutrients. I think if you dry the same quantity that you feed fresh that seems as good a way of estimating as any. Don’t forget that you can also feed windowsill greens to the rabbits this will be another food source if you start to run low in late winter. Grain grass is the easiest and very fast-growing you can cut it several times before it starts to get straggly.
Vegetables should be introduced one at a time if your rabbit is young. Monitor their droppings to make sure that they can tolerate what they are eating. If you notice any changes, discontinue feeding that vegetable. Make sure your rabbits vegetables are always fresh. If it smells “off” or if you would not eat it yourself, throw it out. Greens and veggies could cause a problem if fed in massive quantities-the rabbit is a pig by nature-if the uneaten greens are allowed to wilt and spoil-if fed in too great a quantity when the rabbits are not accustomed to it. Organic vegetables are ideal for rabbits since they are so sensitive to pesticides and chemicals used on commercial produce. Whatever you choose, be sure to wash it thoroughly and pick it over for bugs.
A great variety of vegetables exists and most can be found in your local grocery store.(But remember we are going for sustainability so grow it or hunt for it). Dark, leafy greens should be fed at least once a day. Carrot tops, watercress, radish leaves, collard greens, beet and turnip tops, romaine lettuce, red and green leaf lettuce, endive, chard, and dandelions are some of the most popular (avoid dandelions or other safe feeds picked from roadsides or unfamiliar yards you do not want to give your rabbits a fertilizer or pesticide cocktail). Other vegetables such as Brussels sprouts, broccoli, tomatoes (without stems! stems and leaves of the tomato plant are toxic to rabbits), sugar peas and fennel. Rabbits especially like fragrant and tasty herbs like parsley, cilantro, basil, dill, arugula and mint. You can dry most of the greens mentioned. Yes, they wilt but then they dry like hay would. Once thoroughly dry they will keep through the next winter. This really helps for winter feeding.
Daily vegetables are a vital source of nutrition for your rabbits. Amounts fed will vary by the rabbit’s size, weight and preference. Some people feed vegetables both in the morning and evening, others alternate meals of pellets and vegetables. Some people mix a variety of veggies together like a salad (i do this), some feed one vegetable at a time.
Mangel beets should be stored before feeding, the old books say never the tops of the mangels for rabbits and never before Christmas. Feed mangels in moderation. Mangel beets, sugar beets and garden beets are all useful for feeding rabbits and are a great food that stores good for winter feed.
Plantain and blackberries. Both great as food for rabbits, both good fresh or dried and both an excellent remedy for diarrhea. Plantain is one of the very safest greens for rabbits and even young kits can eat it. I’ve dried raspberry leaves on the cane and it works well, but i think it might be better just to cut off the leaflets. The thorns on the blackberries are truly vicious.
I highly recommend red clover in a rabbit greens garden. You can get an awful lot of greens off a small patch and in season it recovers from a cutting in no time.
Sunflowers you can plant as thickly as you please and then pull the extra seedlings for an early spring green. Leave some a little longer and use them as “cut and come again” greens. Let the best ones mature for seeds. And they do provide shade once matured keeping the rabbits cool as well as feeding them you can remove leaves to feed during the summer I’ve never dried sunflower plants, but my rabbits love them fresh. No reason they couldn’t be dried. You probably lose a bit of nutrition drying them, but they are still excellent. An airy place in light shade might work better
and also dry and save the seeds.
Grape vines, even wild grapes, are another good feed plus shade plant
Many plants contain a naturally occurring chemicals called an alkaloids, which are mild toxins that protect plant in the wild. The one most talked about with rabbits is oxalic acid and it is completely harmless to animals or humans when consumed in small amounts. The amount of oxalic acid within each plant can vary significantly due to several factors including the composition of the soil the plant grew in, the time of year and the age of the plant. Most of the fresh vegetables we feed rabbits have a low to zero level of oxalic acid, but a few, most notably parsley, mustard greens and spinach, lambsquarter,comfrey have relatively high levels. (Note that kale, which is often implicated as a high oxalate food is actually very low in oxalates when young). The toxicity of oxalic acid comes with feeding large quantities of foods high in this chemical and can cause damage to the kidneys over time. These foods are nutritious and should not need be excluded from the diet if you feed them proplery.These vegetables should be fed moderately as they are high in vitamin A (that a rabbits needs!) I recommend feeding a minimum of at least 3 types of leafy greens a day (and only one of them should be from the group listed above) Don’t feed the same greens all the time from week to week if possible, mix it up. For instance if you feed parsley this week, then leave it out of the diet for next week and use something else. Rotating the greens will also give your rabbits better all around nutrition!
Never feed rabbits iceberg lettuce, rhubarb, raw beans, apple seeds, peach pits, potatoes or corn. These items can cause illness and even death. Likewise, never feed anything that you are uncertain about. Most rabbits love fruit, but it must be offered in small amounts due to the high sugar content. Peaches, nectarines, papaya, pineapple, apple, grapes (and raisins), pear, banana, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, apricots and strawberries are some of the most popular fruits. A one-inch slice of banana, or two blackberries, is plenty for a treat. Be sure to remove any pits or seeds as they may be poisonous(Check out the February 2012 post SAFE FOOD LIST FOR RABBITS and POISONOUS PLANTS TO RABBITS)
Now that your rabbits are accustomed to greens, they can have a lot. Mine barely bother with their hay or grain when they have lots of greens and they do just fine. Baby rabbits that have access to greens from the beginning, when they first pop out of the nest box and begin tasting solid foods, should have no problems with greens. Also if the mother was fed greens while nursing, it seems to have gotten the kits to adjust early. They sort of “grow into them” as their taste for solid foods increases, just as with baby wild rabbits.
A holder or manger is best to feed your natural feeds to your rabbits, but sometimes I just stack it in a clean front corner of the cage. They don’t mess it up if you feed them only as much as they can eat before the next feeding.
You can also dry weeds and other plants in time of plenty for use in the winter. I did not get as much of that done last year as I should have and hope to do a lot better this year. I dry on racks and combine in tubs with grass hay I do not worry if the dryed herbs and greens are combined uniformly. I basically mix them and store in old grain bags or pillow cases ( Use the paper grain bags as they can breathe). I then have a small bin that I fill and keep in the barn with the feed (this gets used up fairly quickly). The seeds obviously want to settle to the bottom, so I give it (the bin) a shake to keep them mixed up. I make a Botanical blended hay for the winter rabbit “blahs” by mixing some of the regulators (plantain, raspberry, strawberry and blackberry leaves) with some dried fragrant herbs they love this stuff! You can dry things like rose canes, raspberry canes and weeping willow whips in bunches with the leaves on for winter use.
Greens can simply be air-dried for winter, but in a damp climate you must ensure that they don’t go moldy. Mold appears on hay or greens as a white powdery coating that will get into the air when disturbed. Not good for either you or the rabbits! Good air circulation during drying and storage in containers that breathe are good. Use large onion bags or pillow cases you can also just bundle larger branches and hang to dry. Those blackberry canes with the leaves on should dry well, as will willow whips with the leaves attached. Smaller plants and wonderful weeds like dandelion, chicory, sow thistle, mallow etc.(see the SAFE FOOD LIST FOR RABBITS for botanical names just be shure you are harvesting the right plant).They can be dried on screens or in onion bags.
Try to find a spot in breezy shaded area that would be ideal. NEVER store hay in closed plastic bags. Fresh hay still holds moisture that may mold if kept in plastic. Plastic garbage cans with lids are adequate for storage providing the can is not left in high heat or direct sunlight. Card board boxes or woven nylon feed sacks allow the hay to breathe rather than sweat. Hay in bales will stay fresh for a year or more but loose fill bags will become stale very quickly
Certain trees can be used as forage for rabbits and dried for winter use as well: willow and poplar are two that are excellent and easy to find. Their leaves are quite high in protein and the rabbits will eat the bark from small twigs and branches as well. Here ia a list of trees that I know are safe. These include: Alder, Birch, poplar, willow, sugar maple, silver maple, apple, pear, mulberry, sycamore, ash, hackberry, rose, and gooseberry are all good for rabbits. My rabbits love the tree branches! Especially when they are budding out. Any native safe listed tree branches are good for your rabbits, The rabbits will chew all the buds off, then peel the tender bark, then throw the stick around in their cage. So plant a weeping willow, They grow very fast and provide a lot of forage for the rabbits can also be used as shade for rabbits as well as a food source willow is high in protein, and very palatable to rabbits.
How much to feed that is the toughest question? You will need to experiment. Give them what you think is about right. If there are leftovers, cut back a little. If it is all gone, increase it a little until you know how much they will use. There will still be some waste, but not near as much as if you just feed it free choice. Rabbits are funny what you have to give them NOW is far more attractive than the same item that is already in their hay rack or dish. If you visit them twice a day, feed them twice, but only half as much. They will enjoy it more and waste less.
There are a number of unsafe/toxic food lists out there for rabbits, (also check our blog for POISONOUS PLANTS TO RABBITS) which one should be aware of when foraging for rabbits be shure to know what you are feeding rabbits! Oak leaves and pine needles in particular are tasty for the rabbits but not good for them Pine needles because they can cause tearing and internal lacerations if the rabbits don’t chew them fully and oak leaves, like apple seeds, can cause cyanide poisoning.
The useful wild plants for rabbits include young trees, leaves and shoots. Clovers and vetches are legumes (but watch out some of their seeds are poisonous). The useful wild plants are: coltsfoot, comfrey, chickweed, cow parsley, docks, sorret (sour dock), dandelion, fat hen, groundsel, heather, Plantain, Shepherds Purse, sow thistle, watercress, bind weed, celandine, wild iris, fool’s parsley, henbane, and lettuce.
This is just a quick list of what to grow or find for your rabbits natural food source-
Arugala, Basil, Beets, Borage, Brambles(raspberry,blackberry), Calendula, Carrot(feed the greens,the root as a treat as it is high in sugar content), Cattails–Cattails shoots provide essential vitamins such as beta carotene, niacin, thiamine, potassium, phosphorus and vitamin C. also has sodium which is good for rabbits on a natural food base diet,
Chicory, Cilantro, Dandelion, Fennel, Fenugreek, Filaree, Mint, Mustard (wild and domestic), Parsley, Plantain (one of my favorite feed for rabbits),
Queen Ann’s lace-(Daucus carota) is pretty much the same as garden carrots (Daucus carota sativa), just in its wild form. The foliage and roots are safe for rabbits, but mature flowers and seeds may certainly cause problems and may even be toxic.(I have learned the hard way with the flowers and seeds and have killed a few rabbits).The seed of Queen Anne’s lace has been used by humans for centuries as a birth control method. Not what you want for rabbits! If you cut your Queen Anne’s lace plants to the ground frequently, they will respond by giving a constant crop of lacy greens. Let some mature for next year’s crop. Queen Anne’s lace is a biennial,
Radish- One of the things I grow regularly for the rabbits is icicle radishes.The greens to the icicles get huge (unlike red,round radishes),and the rabbits love them. I pull up 3 radishes a day and throw the whole plant to the rabbits.They grow so quickly and can be planted in small spaces anywhere,
Red and green leaf lettuce, Rose, Spinach, Shepherd’s purse, Strawberries, Sunflowers-The rabbits LOVED them.leaves and seeds. I will be planting more sunflowers next year. The other benifit is that the mature plants provided shade and it helped shade the building where the rabbits are housed,
White clover, Yarrow, and lots more!
Do not forget flowers- dandelion, clover blossoms, marigolds all are well liked by rabbits, mustard, basil, borage, burnet, calendula (pot marigold), camomile, clover, coriander (cilantro), dandelion, dill, daisy, fennel, hyssop, jasmine, wild pansy, lavender, rose, rosemary, sage, sunflower, thyme, plantain. Rabbits are built to eat grass, and only supplement their diet in the wild with leaves, vegetables, bark, flowers, etc., when available or they are particularly hungry. Flowers are very high in sugars and should only be given as the occasional treat. And some may be poisonous, so if in doubt,don’t
WINTER FEED IDEAS-
Dried plants saved from summer provide variety and extra nutrients. Still, rabbits crave fresh, green foods in winter. Rather then feed them expensive fresh foods from the store on a regular basis, try some of these ideas.
GROW GRAIN GRASS: Fresh foods are nice for the rabbits and I buy some dollar store rectangular dishpans, put about two inches of soil in them and plant grain: wheat, rye, oats. I don’t bother with drainage holes. It’s the same idea as growing “cat grass” but on a larger scale. When the grass is about four inches long you can start harvesting it and you will get several harvests from one tub before it gets discouraged. Then just start over. You will want more than one on the go so there is always some grass ready to cut.
SUNFLOWER SPROUTS: Another dishpan, this one planted with sunflower seeds. Start cutting them once they have true leaves or let them grow on for a bit. Replant as needed.
POT UP WEEDS: A dishpan of transplanted weeds – especially dandelion and plantain – will give your rabbits tasty nibbles all winter. Try to find small plants as they are easier to transplant. Sprinkle on some of those dandelion seeds too, but they wil take much longer to establish themselves.
FORCE TWIGS: Twigs cut from safe trees can be fed to the rabbits all winter long, They relish the bark and buds and it is good for their teeth. It should also be possible, however, to bring some twigs inside and put them in a jar with a couple inches of water. It will take a bit of time, but they will break dormancy and begin to leaf out. When ready to serve, remove the part that was sitting in water.It could have mould,or bad bacteria on it.
SWEET POTATO VINE: In spite of their name, sweet potatoes are not from the same family as regular potatoes. Sweet potatoes have edible vines and leaves. You can start them by pushing in toothpicks so that only the base is in water. They will soon sprout and send up lots of edible greens.(I remember doing this in school as a youngster)
WASTE FEED- Trimmings from the kitchen meals
I have fed my rabbits lot’s of natural feed sources for over my 30+ years of raising rabbits and have learned a lot! I am always looking for new ideas to feed rabbits without an outside food source, So any input or new ideas are welcome! I am planting more and trying new ideas all the time. I am now putting together some package of seeds and will offer them as a Rise And Shine Rabbit Garden These will be ready this January for spring planting I am also making up packets of fodder seed for rabbits so you can grow your own rabbit hay. Writing up posts for GROWING A RABBIT GARDEN and GROWING HAY FOR RABBITS to be ready with the seeds!