Dr.A.S.Rajendiran, M.V.Sc., A.R.S.,Ph.D.
Principal Scientist (Animal Nutrition)
As an alternative to broiler chicken, rearing rabbits for meat and fur skins is gaining momentum now a days because of the fact that the meat from rabbit is low in cholesterol and the most delicious. Rabbits were reared as laboratory animals till 1970. Commercial aspects of rabbit rearing started after the import of exotic rabbits during 1970s by CSWRI, Indian Council of Agricultural Research for the first time in our country. Because of the strenuous efforts made by CSWRI, rabbit rearing has become a fascinating and profitable enterprise for meat and fur skins. Rabbits are the only ‘Micro livestock’ suitable for rearing by small farmers and landless agricultural laborers with simple housing in their backyards and can be fed with forages, agricultural by-products and kitchen wastes. In fact backyard rabbitries are best suited for our country to increase the per capita income and per capita animal protein availability.
Rabbits have several advantages and unique features over other livestock and poultry. They are considered to be superior to other livestock and poultry because of the following facts:
Fast growth rate and high prolificacy
High feed conversion efficiency and high reproduction capacity
Attains slaughter age and weight much faster than sheep and goats
Can be raised on grain free diets involving mixed greens, vegetable wastes, tree leaves and kitchen wastes
Best suited for both rural and urban environments
Reared both as small scale units and as large scale commercial units
Rabbit meat is the most delicious meat, low in cholesterol and fat, easily digestible, high in protein content and low in caloric value, hence can be consumed by heart patients and children
Rabbit skin forms good basis for a viable cottage industry
Rabbits can be easily raised by elderly and disabled people
Rabbits have shorter generation interval (30 days )
Rabbits require less floor space because of their small body size
Vaccination is not required for rabbits and can be bred round the year.
Considering these advantages of rabbits many efforts are to be made to develop rabbit rearing into an Industry. There are some constraints to be removed in the process of popularizing rabbit rearing. Government schemes and departmental programmes are to be aimed towards setting up of large number of small-scale rabbit units through co-operative movement.
There are about 35 internationally recognized rabbit breeds for meat and fur skins. The important breeds exists in our country are White Giant, Grey Giant, New Zealand white, Soviet Chinchilla, Black brown and Dutch. The meat breeds of rabbits are more adaptable to stress and can tolerate temperatures as high as 35°C to 40°C provided the rabbitry is located under or around leafy trees and sheltered in a well-ventilated enclosure.
This depends on the location rabbitry, local climate and size of the enterprise. Neat design and comfort are essential. There are two types of housing systems:
a. Hutch system
The hutch system is a self-contained cage-cum-nest box, which can be moved around as the need arises. The hutches have their own foot and roofing. There can be 2-20 hutches in a row. This system is generally used if the numbers of rabbits is small and are reared in the backyard. This system is otherwise called ‘Out door housing system’. The hutch should have foot up to waist level. Floor area should be 60 cm x 80 cm with a built in nest box (60 cm x 30 cm) on the sides or at the back. A ‘V’ –shaped partition is used for separating two hutches and also for feeding hay. The height should be 53 cm at the front and 37 cm at the back. The back of the hutch and the sides of the nest box are covered with wooden or asbestos sheets. Waterers and feeders are to be provided separately in side the hutches.
b. Shed system
In the shed system (indoor housing system), the cages are arranged inside the sheds in single, two or three tier systems. In single tier, they are either placed on wooden or metal stands or suspended by wire from the roof. In the two-tier system, they are placed in a staggered step system or a single rack with trays placed between the cages. The three-tier system is an extension of the two-tier system. The cages of suitable sizes are to be installed in an organized and planned manner. Long and narrow buildings with single tier cages are easier to ventilate than wide buildings or buildings with multiple tiers of cages.
The floor should not be of solid concrete. Mud floor is the best. Rabbitry must be equipped with lights to provide extra hours of lighting during night. The roofing should be preferably of asbestos, wood, thatch or other locally available materials. The cages are commonly made with wire mesh and wood or iron angles.
The bottom of the cage should be made of galvanized (2.5 cm x 1.2 cm) welded wire mesh (16 gauge). It can also be made of galvanized (1.2 x 1.2 cm) woven mesh (17 gauge) or galvanized chicken mesh (19 gauge). The sides can be made of 2.5 cm x 5.0 cm galvanized welded wire mesh or woven mesh or chicken mesh.
Single cage = 60 cm x 75 cm x Height 45 cm
Kindling cage = 75 cm x 90 cm x Height 45 cm
Colony cage = 90 cm x 120 cm x Height 45 cm
Floor space requirements:
Dry does or bucks = 4 sq. feet
Kindling does = 6 sq. feet
Young does = 3.25 sq. feet
Weaners in colony = 1.0 sq. foot/weaner
Nest box measurements: Nest box measures 60 cm x 30 cm in floor area with 30 cm height up to half the length of the box. Thereafter, it tapers at the end to height of 15 cm. The point up to, which the sides start tapering, is covered and all the edges are covered with tin sheet to avoid gnawing by the doe. The bottom of the nest box should have a number of small holes to drain the urine.
Feeders and waterers: The feeders are made of galvanized iron sheets. They are ‘L’ or ‘J’ shaped and are arranged such that the feed can be poured from outside. The edges should be rounded off. The height of the feeders should be 5-7 cm above the cage floor to avoid contamination by urine, faeces and water. Hay feeders are attached to the outside of the cage. Aluminium bowl of 500-ml capacity or baked earthen bowls are used to contain the drinking water.
Coprophagy is a unique phenomenon in rabbits, which enhances the digestibility of feedstuffs and utilization of nutrients. Rabbit normally turns the head towards the anal region and sucks the soft faeces directly from anus during early morning, everyday. The soft faeces are formed in the caecum and rapidly passes out through the large intestine. It appears as clusters and contains more moisture and looks like jelly with high protein and B-complex vitamins. The act of Coprophagy is practiced after three weeks of age.
Under commercial system, rabbits can be fed with concentrate feed pellets of 4-6 mm diameter and 10-15 mm length along with 200 gms of greens/day. Generally concentrate feeding precedes greens (grass + forages) feeding. Concentrate feed has to be given in two divided doses. Rabbits generally eat more during night in summer. With the onset of winter, the requirement increases and the feeding shifts to day to time. However, regular timetable for feeding is advisable so that rabbits do not feel any stress due to the change in their daily routine. Sudden changes in feeds and feeding systems should be avoided. The rabbits must be fed at the same time every day. While offering green grass, it should be wilted for one day. Providing adequate fibre in the ration is a must to prevent enteric diseases and fur chewing.
Fur chewing can be controlled by increasing the fibre and protein contents of the ration. Further addition of 200 grams of magnesium oxide per quintal of feed helps control fur chewing. Since weaners are more sensitive to change of feed, care must be taken to avoid carbohydrate overload. Clean potable water must be provided throughout the day.
Rabbits under backyard system, can be raised on grain free diets comprising of forages, grain by-products, tree leaves, vegetable wastes, culled vegetables and kitchen wastes. Broiler type rabbits can be raised on sole feeding of mixed greens and vegetable wastes and the final bodyweight at 12 weeks and 24 weeks would be 1.0 kg and 2.0 kg respectively.
Rabbits can be bred any time of the year. They are polyoestrous animals having 44 numbers of diploid chromosomes. The ovulation is induced by copulation. Male to female ratio should be 2:10 for commercial farming. The bucks should not be overfed to avoid over weight and decreased libido. Rabbits attain sexual maturity at 5-6 months of age. Bucks should be put into service one month later than does.
No other livestock has such a high reproductive rate as rabbits. Does will rebred immediately after kindling and in fact, their receptibility is very good at that time. But under commercial systems, does should be rebred 30 days after kindling to get 6-7 litters a year. Depending upon the condition of the doe and number of kits the breed-back schedule may be advanced to even 7 days after kindling.
Oestrous signs: Does in heat are restless. They rub the chin on the cage, water trough and feed trough and try to join other rabbits in nearby cages. The vulva will be pinkish red, oedematous and moist (normally, in does that are not ready to mate, the vulva is small and whitish in colour with very little moisture).
Mating: Mating is done either early in the morning or in the evening. The doe is taken to the buck cage and never vice versa. The doe, if ready for breeding will allow the buck to nuzzle and mount, and will facilitate in mating by lifting her rump. After successful mating the male usually produces a typical sound and falls down to one side of the doe.
During winter, the conception rate decreases. To prevent this, the daily feed allotment to does should be increased by 50 per cent. A longer lighting period of 16 hours in the rabbitry helps in efficient reproduction. The does can be retained up to 3 years for production. If the does have been kept in groups, they should be separated and kept in individual cages at least 18 days before mating to avoid pseudo pregnancy.
Pregnancy diagnosis: This can be done 10-15 days after mating. Place the doe on top of the cage and restrain the doe by holding the ears and the fold of skin over the shoulders in one hand and the other hand under the abdomen. The foetus can be felt by palpation with the thumb and forefinger. If there is no sign of the foetuses, the doe can be re-bred. The gestation period is 30-32 days.
Nest box arrangement: A nest box should be placed in the cage on 28th day after mating. It should contain bedding like straw, wood shaving and coconut fibre. The doe will make a nest using the bedding materials and her own hair. A doe will consume less feed for two or three days before parturition. Generally kindling occurs during the night. As each kit is delivered, the doe licks it and may nurse it immediately and cover with hair.
If kindling is delayed beyond the 32nd day of gestation, injection of 2 units of oxytocin intramuscularly will help in getting live kits. To avoid young doe syndrome, the feed should be gradually raised after kindling.
Care of newborn kits: The newborn kits are hairless with closed eyes. They start developing hair 4 days after birth and open their eyes after 10th day. Dead or deformed kits should be removed immediately after kindling. Examine the kits to make sure that they are nursed, as shown by a full stomach. Full stomach appears as a white band seen beneath the surface of the abdominal skin. If the doe does not have enough milk, the kits should be fostered to other lactating does. The nest box should contain adequate bedding and drainage. During cold weather, the kits should be properly covered with nest material. The nest box may be removed 21 days after kindling. Does usually nurse their litters once a day.
Sexing: The sex of young rabbits may determined a day or two following kindling. Restrain the kit on its back in the palm with its head facing towards us. Using fingers gently press the genitals, to expose the reddish mucous membrane; if it is a male kit the mucous membrane protrudes sufficiently to form a circle. If it is a female kit, the mucous membrane will protrude and form a slit that will have a slight depression at the end. Generally, the distance between the penis and anus is greater than the distance between the vulva and anus. Until the technique of sexing rabbits has been perfected, it may be good to sex the kits at weaning.
Weaning: Kits may be weaned at 28 days of age. Sometimes it may be extended up to 42 days. To avoid weaning stress, the kits should be weaned at a young age. While weaning, the doe should be removed and the kits should be left in the cage in which they were born.
Rabbits are very gentle and timid animals. They are scared of almost everything and can be spooked by any sudden action or noise resulting in injuries. It is advisable to keep only that familiar to the animals and avoid visitors. Rabbits require regular attention and a fixed timetable.
Handling: They should be lifted gently by the scruff of their neck. They should be gently handled. They should not be lifted by their legs or ears alone. Broiler rabbits can be handled by firm and gentle grasping of their loin region upto 15 weeks. Other rabbits may be handled by grasping a fold of skin over the shoulder with one hand and placing the other hand under the rump to support the weight of the animal. While carrying, they need to be supported from the bottom. Care should be taken as not to startle the animals.
Management: Cleanliness, ventilation and close observation of rabbits are important. Rabbits should be purchased from reputed breeders. Pregnant and old females should not be purchased. A quarantine period of 2 weeks is required for rabbits purchased from different sources.
Beginners should start with 2 males and 10 female rabbits only. After gaining the experience, the unit can be expanded up to 100 to make it economical. However, one labour is sufficient to look after 500 caged rabbits.
Identification: Tattooing in the rabbit’s ear makes a permanent system for identification. The inner side of the ear is cleaned with alcohol and perforated with a tattooing instrument. Tattoo ink or Indian ink should be rubbed over the spot.
Herd replacement: One doe for every 12 does in production and one buck for every 5 bucks in service should be replaced per month.
Avoid heat stress: Rabbits are susceptible to heat stress, as they don’t have sweat glands. They respond differently to sudden acute exposure to high temperature than to chronic exposure to high temperatures. Shady trees around rabbit sheds helps preventing heat stress.
Sanitation: Cages should be cleaned with wire brush daily. Ammonia production should be minimized. Lime powder has to be sprayed underneath the cages. Adequate ventilation and close observation of rabbits are important. Isolate the sick rabbits immediately. Start the colony treatment if required.
Backyard rabbitry: Rabbit meat is a wholesome, tasty product. Compared to most other meat, it is high in protein and low in fat, cholesterol and sodium. The meat is white, fine-grained, delicately flavoured, nutritious and appetizing. It is low in caloric content also. Hence, backyard rabbit rearing is a potential means of improving the nutritional status of low-income people. A unit of one male and three female rabbits can provide one slaughter per week round the year. The edible meat per slaughter will be about 1 kg, which is sufficient for small family for one time meal. The meat can be stored in the animal without slaughtering it and when it is needed the animal can be slaughtered.
Rabbit is the only food-producing animal, which could thrive entirely on greens, forages and by-products. They can convert forage into meat more efficiently than ruminant animals. From a given amount of Lucerne fodder, rabbits can produce about five times as much meat as beef cattle. Villagers can keep few rabbits in their backyard to produce enough meat to satisfy the needs of a family. Weeds, tropical forages, vegetable tops and table scraps can be used as feed for them. Apart from meat, rabbit skins are used for various apparel items such as fur coats, fur garments, fur trimmings, toys, hats and fancy items.
Ventilation, sanitation and observation are three of the most important factors involved in disease control. Control measures are to be resorted prior to the occurrence of clinical symptoms. A sick rabbit does not eat and drink, lethargic, has a dull appearance in its eye, has rough hair coat and is generally unthrifty. Rabbits should be examined closely every day for signs of disease, especially signs of nasal discharge or diarrhoea. All the sick rabbits should be isolated and a Veterinarian should be approached immediately.
The important rabbit diseases are Wryneck, Enteritis complex, Snuffles, Pneumonia, Hairball occlusion, Dermatomycosis, Paresis, Sore hock, Ear canker and Body mange.
METHOD OF SLAUGHTERING RABBITS
Render the rabbit unconscious by dislocation of the neck. Hold the rabbit by its hind legs in one hand and the thumb of the other hand is placed on the neck just at the back of the ears with four fingers extended under the chin. The rabbit is stretched by pushing downwards on the neck with the hand. The thumb is then pressed down and with a quick movement the head is raised which dislocates the neck. Then suspend the animal downwards while a second person cuts the head off with a sharp knife. The animal is allowed to bleed off completely before it is skinned and eviscerated.
Rabbit rearing is the only way to produce delicious and quality meat from forages in a shorter duration with out much capital investment on small scale as well as large-scale production. Hence, extensive extension measures and departmental programmes are must for popularizing rabbit farming to give livelihood to millions of rural folk living below the poverty line and thereby improving their nutritional and economic security.
THANKS TO GOD.