Doing Versus Studying–Wherever You Live, By Fanderal

As many of us are trapped in the city, at least for now, while we work and save for the day we can escape. We spend much of our off hours learning about the things we will need to know once we make the move. The thing is though, that learning about something, is not the same as learning that thing. We can’t learn what good soil feels like by reading about it, we can’t know what soil feels like when it has enough moisture, and what it feels like when it needs water, until we actually garden. Nor can we know how to raise animals until we have some, breed them, and raise the young to table weight. We need to know, rather than know about. The SurvivalBlog site and many others are committed to motivating us, and assisting us, in not only knowing about, but to also knowing. From a strategic point of view, we can’t count on not needing our preps until after we make the move to a more rural setting. What would we do if a month before you were to make the move, the Schumer started flying? How would we get by? Eat our storage food, and then what? Too many of us (because of a “I’m trapped in the city what can I do?” attitude) are planning on learning all that gardening and animal husbandry stuff after we get moved.

Knowing how to produce food in our back yard, is a skill that can be expanded to our front yard, common areas, and adjacent lots, thereby making us less vulnerable to random Schumeresque events. If TSHTF before we are ready, we have longer term viability where we are, But only if we learn things, rather than learn about things. Not that I will abandon my plans to leave the city, but it’s nice to know that if I get trapped here, I’m still viable for longer than my stored preps. Also we will be able to teach others how to duplicate what we have done, enabling them to be less needy, and ourselves less of a target.

The cry always goes up, but I’m stuck in the city, I only have a 50’x100′ lot that I rent. What can I do? Well the truth be told, you can do a lot. I have about the worst possible situation (shy of an Apartment) I live in the heart of a city of over 1,000,000, in a rented house, on a lot that is 50’x100′, the front half is taken up by the front yard, and the house, both sides of my yard have nice big trees, that unfortunately shade out all but the center of my yard. My growing space is less than 20’x20′. I am still able to have a 4’x12′ Square Foot Garden unit in a raised bed, and a Rabbit Hutch.

The gardening or raising animals on rented property is easy; just get the landlord’s permission. If you have been a good tenant, for a couple of years, and pay your rent on time, most of them will not have a problem with it as long as it doesn’t involve permanent changes to the property. Frequently the problem in the city is that most cities that I know of prohibit the keeping of poultry, swine, cattle, horses, and/or most other livestock within city limits. Quite often Rabbits are not classed as livestock or they are exempted from a general ban, although sometimes you need to get a Hutch Permit. You can find out by going to your city’s web site, or by calling the county health department, they are usually the department that handles animal permitting issues.

We have had gardens in the past, much larger than 48 square feet, so in my case the objective with a garden is not so much to be able to feed my wife and I off of this space, but rather to learn to grow crops I haven’t in the past, and keep old skills up. We have been raising Rabbits for a little over a year, and again my objective is not to make this our sole source of meat, but rather learn the skill of raising rabbits.

I am only going to cover a basic outline on both setting up a training/practice garden, and a basic rabbitry; there are many resources online and at your local library, or bookstore that will give you more and better details than I can in this single article. (see end of article for links) I would recommend that you get copies of the books “Raising Rabbits the Modern Way”, and a copy of “Square Foot Gardening”, and read them cover to cover before you start. Also read the FAO web page: “The Rabbit – Husbandry, Health, and Production”.

I have done, and am doing both a practice garden, and a rabbitry. They really don’t require much time once you get them set up. My web page has pictures of both my garden and my bunny barn.

Rabbits 101
Males are called Bucks
Female are called Doe
Young are called Kits
Kindle – giving birth
Kindling Box – Artificial Den used when Doe kindles, houses the new born kits, for the first 2 to 3 weeks.

Buck/Doe breeding ratio up to 1/10.
Life Cycle
Gestation 30-31 days
4 weeks to weaning
4 – 8 weeks to table weight
6 – 9 months to maturity (Never breed a doe younger than 6 months old)
Breeding stock, useful life is 3 to 4 years.

Rabbits are one of the best backyard livestock animals you can own. They are efficient meat producers, quiet, and only minimally smelly. Rabbits require only shade, food, and water to produce almost 50 lbs of lean meat per doe, per year. Rabbit droppings are a resource in themselves, which can be used directly as plant food, without the need to age as with cow, and horse manure. If you are squeamish about direct use, you can raise worms in the rabbit waste directly under the cages, which yields worm castings. Worm castings are highly prized as a soil amendment for all types of gardening. A complete cycle would be Garden scraps to Rabbits, to Worms, to Garden, and back again, with us siphoning off the lions share of the garden’s bounty, as well as meat.

In a well-ventilated backyard shed, medium to large breeds will produce litters of 5 to 9 kits per doe, 3 to 4 times a year. So you can get an average of about 24 kits per year, per doe. A herd of 4 does, and 1 buck will yield 96 to 112 kits every year. For a family of 4 this would allow 1/2 of a rabbit every week per person, plus a few to sell/trade.
Setting up and operating a backyard Rabbitry has 3 components:

1) Breed Selection

The most important decision you will make is what breed of rabbit to raise. We have seen in recent months the news story about the German breeder who raises enormous rabbits that weight up 22 lbs; while this may sound impressive, the practical feed conversion is not that great; for our purposes we want a breed that makes the most meat for the least feed. The best rabbits to meet that requirement are the Medium to Large breeds; giants look impressive but consume more feed per pound of meat than do the smaller breeds. Small/Mini breeds also don’t yield enough meat per animal. Please note; just because the word giant is in the name of the breed doesn’t mean that it’s a Giant class rabbit, it may just be the largest variant for that breed. Breed size classes are defined by weight at maturity as:
Small 2-6 lbs
Medium 6 – 9 lbs
Large 9 – 11 lbs
Giant 11 lbs < lbs.
Check out the American Rabbit Breeder Association (ARBA) for a list of breeds
Select based on what breeds are available locally, and that do well in your climate. Get to know other breeders in the area, and ask questions, they are almost always willing to help someone new, and it is good networking. Other more experienced local breeders will be able to help you avoid mistakes, and deal with the inevitable issues that will arise as you learn this skill.
Keep in mind that you don’t need pedigreed animals for meat production, so it is entirely acceptable to find an inexpensive crossbreed that is popular in your area, a show breeders culls. Buy from a local or at least regional breeder so you stock is acclimated to your climate. Don’t buy from a breeder in Montana, and expect to not have heat stress issues in Texas. Barring diseases, heat stress is the greatest threat to your rabbits.

2) Housing/=Equipment
Rabbits need to be confined, and protected from predators. Cages are used for confinement, each adult rabbit will need a cage at least 24″d x 24″w x 16″h for Bucks, and 30″d x 36″w x 18″h for Does. The Doe needs a larger cage in order to make room for a Kindling box. There are plans available for making your own cages, but having tried that, I recommend that you buy your cages. While it is possible to make cages with Hardware cloth from your local home center, the wire used in commercial cages is much superior. Cages cost about $25 for the Buck’s cage, and $35 for a Doe’s cage, from outlets like Tractor Supply Company, or Bass Equipment. [The Memsahib Adds: We bought most of our cages directly from Bass Equipment. Watch for their seasonal sales. They sometimes have prefabricated cage kits with trays for less than the cost of the equivalent raw materials at you local hardware store!]

You will also need:
1- Doe sized cage for finishing the young to table weight, for every two does.
1 Screen bottomed feed tray per adult rabbit, small for bucks and does, and a large for finishing cages.
Water bottles or automatic watering system; 1- bottle for each adult rabbit, and two for each finishing cage. If your climate has sub freezing temps in the winter time, you will want to get two complete sets of bottles for winter time operations, so that you can have one set in the house thawing out, while the other set is in the rabbitry freezing.
I started with 1 Buck, and 1 Doe.

This Required:
3 Cages
1- for each adult
1- finishing cage
6 – Water Bottles
2 – Short Feeders
1 – Long Feeder
1 – Shelter

A simple three sided shed is adequate to protect your rabbits from the elements. It is important to note that while rabbits need a well-ventilated space, they also need to be protected from drafts. Beyond that you should be sure that your rabbit’s cages are reasonably clean. To make this easier for you, only use all wire cages, and don’t set them on a solid surface. My first rabbitry consisted of a table made with 2×4 hardware cloth stretched as a tabletop between 2×6’s and wooden pallets for legs. This gave me a place to set my cages so that waste dropped through to the ground. I later added plywood to the ends and back to block winter winds, and a tarp over the top that draped down the front, to provide shade and keep the rain out.

The total start up cost for me was (in 2005)
3 cages +/-$25 each
Bucks Cage from Garage sale $15
Doe cage $35
Finishing cage $35
6 – Water Bottles @ $5 each = $15
3 – Feeders $25

2×4 hardware cloth was left over form another project (your cost)
The wooden pallets were salvaged from a friend’s storage unit
2x6s were left over from another project (your cost) $ 6
2- half sheets of 3/8” plywood were from the waste cut box at home center, $ 8
1- 4’x8′ sheet of 3/8” plywood, $12
1- 10×12’ Poly tarp $ 8
Rabbits $30
Total $ 199

Note: These prices are fairly current as I started my rabbit raising just over a year ago. However if you start your rabbitry when temps are likely to drop below freezing get two sets of bottles for each cage, it will save you lots of time thawing out frozen bottles. [The Memsahib Adds: In very cold climates, plastic water bottles will crack with repeated freezing. In such climates it is best to use two or three sets of 30 ounce steel cans (such as those used for canned peaches and apricots) as water cans. Use a nail to punch a hole just below the top lip so that you can attach the can with a wire hook to keep it from being tipped over in the cage. (Stout wire formed into a 2″ long hook shape work fine.) You can simply switch the cans each morning (or twice a day, in very cold weather) and bring the frozen water cans into the house to thaw. We usually let ours thaw out in the bottom of our laundry sink.]

3) Operations
After you have decided on what breed, you will want to set up your hutch/shed, and get enough cages for your starter stock before you get your rabbits.
I would recommend starting with one buck, and at most two does, so four cages with feeders, and water bottles.

I would give your new rabbits at least a couple of weeks to get used to their new surroundings, let the kids get bored with them, and make sure to keep your cats and dogs away from them. [The Memsahib Adds: A caged rabbit can be literally scared to death by a bothersome dog.] You will need to feed your rabbits once a day, Do not just leave food in their trays or they will get fat. Fat does don’t breed well. You will also want to check their water twice a day, once in the morning and once in the evening. This gets them used to you being around, and gives you a chance to monitor their condition. Take the time to pet the adults, and handle any kits, you don’t want them freaking out when you pick them up to process them. Always wear heavy long sleeve shirts when handling your rabbits. If they try to escape they can claw you up pretty good, and frightened Rabbits can bite.
After they have acclimated to their new home, you are ready for your fist breeding.

In order to get Kits, the Buck and the Doe must spend a little quality time together, the most important thing to remember here is always bring the doe to the buck’s cage. Never put the buck in the doe’s cage or she will beat the daylights out of him, possibly causing injury. Mature Does are very territorial, and will try to drive off any intruder in their space.
Leave the doe with the buck until he has serviced her at least twice, or for about 30 minutes, which ever comes first. Many breeders will tell you to do it again 8 hours later, some will say you only have to wait an hour. I find that as long as you put them together at least two times in the same day it works out okay. I have noticed that less than that results in smaller litters.
Mark your calendar on the day that you breed the doe, and count forward 30 days, mark that day as her due date. About 3 to 5 days prior to her due date, you want to set up your kindling box. I just used a piece of 3/8” ply wood as a partition on one side of her cage, you can buy or build a fully removable box if you wish, set up the box as described in the literature, and wait for the kits to arrive.
I leave the Kits with the doe for 4 to 5 weeks, and then move them to the finishing cage until I’m ready to butcher. I breed the doe again when I move the kits to the finishing cage, and start the process all over.
Cold is not a big problem here in the south, but heat on the other hand will wipe out your herd if you aren’t careful. If you live anywhere that summer time temps reach into the 90s or higher, then you will need to cool your rabbits, and suspend breeding as high temperatures will cause Bucks to go sterile, and pregnant does will loose litters, and may die also. The bucks usually return to full vigor in the fall, but sometimes not. I suspend breeding after mid-May to protect my does. This is why many large scale breeders set up fully enclosed rabbitries that are air-conditioned. However it would be better to avoid this type of set up, because we need our rabbitry to be able to function in a Grid Down environment, and the loss of climate control in mid-July could wipe out your entire rabbitry before you could compensate.

I deal with the heat by using 2 liter soda pop bottles filled with water, and frozen in my chest freezer. As soon as the temps hit the high 80’s we put a 2 liter bottle in with each rabbit, and then usually have to change them out 3 or 4 times a day as they thaw out. I accept this under my Grid Down requirement because I can keep my freezer running on a generator for at least a while, where as keeping an AC unit running takes a lot more energy. Also remember I’m not trying to maintain a breeding environment, I’m just trying to keep my animals alive.
Even losing 3-1/2 to 4 months a year to heat, you can still get 3 or 4 litters a year out of each doe without pushing her.

To give you an idea of what kind of production you can expect here are some numbers to think about. With a herd of 3 Does, and 1 Buck:
6 kits per litter (average) x 4 litters per year = 24 kits per Doe per year.
3 Does x 24 Kits 72 Rabbits (called Fryers)
Fryer = 2 pounds dressed = 1 meal for four people.
72 fryers = rabbit for dinner once a week all year long with a few to trade.
Plus you have the rabbit manure for fertilizer, or for raising worms, and the pelts for clothing, blankets, or trade.

There has been some research done on underground rabbitries to escape the heat see the links for a discussion of this topic. [The Memsahib Adds: This was the method used in ancient Rome. Just keep in mind that rabbits can be prodigious at tunneling, so your perimeter fences must extend 20″ underground to prevent escapes. An acquaintance of ours had the foundation of their house ruined by their colony of pet rabbits that they let loose.]

The time I spend with my rabbits is much more rewarding both in a practical sense, and an emotional one, than the description I have written here. Especially when I am standing over my grill with a quartered rabbit being barbequed.

Rabbitry Links
Rudolph’s Rabbit Ranch (Mary-Frances R. Bartels)
The Rabbit – Husbandry, Health and Production
Effect of housing system (cage versus underground shelter) on performance of rabbits on farms

The Practice Garden
I can’t give you as much detail about the Garden as I have about the Rabbitry, because; 1) gardening is easier, 2) the details of gardening vary more depending on exactly what you are growing, and 3) raising Rabbits is the newest skill for me, so I have more details in mind at the moment.

While it is possible to completely feed yourself off of the produce from a back yard garden, on the right lot, few lots are large enough to permit this. Also I for me the city is not a good long term location. What I am describing here is something that allows me to develop, and maintain my gardening skills, as they relate to the kind of gardening I will be doing on my homestead when the time comes. For more information on urban self-sufficiency check out Path to Freedom

My back yard is not good for gardening, as I only have a small area that gets enough sun. I have put in a 4’x12’ raised bed by using 4”x 8”x 16” hollow core cinder blocks, 3/8” x 24” rebar, and some weed barrier fabric. I stake out the area I want to use, with rebar and string; next I place the weed barrier fabric, and staple it to the ground using staples made out of wire cloths hangers. Place the first course of blocks using the string as a guide, and drive a piece of 2’ rebar in the end hole of each cinder block, but not all the way in; leave enough rebar sticking up to have a bit stickup out of the top of the second course of blocks. If you lay out blocks 3 across each end, and 8 along each side you will get a space about 4’ x 12’. My fill is topsoil from the garden center, mixed about 75/25 with rabbit droppings.

You will need the usual garden tools; shovel, rake, hoe, wheelbarrow. I water with a soaker hose, this saves water, and helps limit fungus diseases.
I’m not going to give you specifics as to cultivars, and such, because the point of the exercise is for you to practice growing the veggies you like.
This year we have two heirloom tomato plants, one Yellow Pear, and a Stripy tomato. Some green beans, hot peppers, black beans, radishes, beets, and carrots. We have never grown heirloom vegetables before, and we have never grown a dried bean before. My reasons for them are to find out how much different heirloom varieties are, and to learn about putting up dried beans. This is the part about learning something, as opposed to learning about something.

Gardening Links
Square Foot Gardening (Mel Bartholomew)
Carrots Love Tomatoes (Louise Riotte)
How to Grow More Vegetables (John Jeavons)
Bountiful Gardens
Acres USA

Among the specific things I have learned this year, that I would not have learned from books are:
I would not know how much meat I could produce from x number of Rabbits, if I hadn’t actually started raising them. None of my reading taught me anything about dealing with the heat in the summer time, I had to deal with the heat to learn it.
Having never grown the varieties of tomatoes that we have this year, I would not have known just how big they can get, or that I would need a much bigger cage than I expected. I will next time because now I know, rather than know about.

What I would like you to take away from this article is that we each need to develop real skills, and we can do so, in spite of the fact that our living conditions are often times less than ideal.
– Fanderal