Integrating Chickens and Rabbits on the Homestead
In our previous “homestead,” which was really a house with a tiny yard in a suburb, we tried very hard to raise our own food—much to the entertainment of one of our neighbors and the ire of the other. In our little yard, we had both chickens and rabbits, and while we wanted to free-range both of them, it didn’t work out.
The chickens demolished all the grass (and my tulips) in about thirty seconds flat and the rabbits broke out of the backyard and escaped the property repeatedly. Eventually, we expanded our chicken run (although it was still smaller than we would have preferred) and kept the birds inside it. And…well…we ate all the rabbits.
In our new homestead, which we are calling “Blackcap” due to the plethora of chickadees everywhere here, we want it to be a more ideal life not just for ourselves, but also for our animals. So, while the chickens are in an fenced-in run at present, it is very large, and when spring comes they will probably free-range (we don’t want to risk them free-ranging in winter when predators are hungrier and braver) or at the very least we will rotate them through different paddocks allowing the grasses to regrow, the dirt to be exposed to different manure, etc.
Rabbits kept in small cages don’t seem very happy to us either. When we keep our rabbits in cages, they are very anxious and afraid of us when we come near. In a free-range scenario, they hop right up to our feet and let us touch them and literally spend their day alternating between frolicking and napping (sounds hard, right?).
Plus, keeping animals in a smaller pen inherently calls for more work. They can’t feed themselves, they make a mess that no one can escape, they don’t get exercise, and you end up having to feed and water them twice a day (automatic waterers sound great, but don’t work so well in sub-zero weather). This prohibits us from going on hunting, fishing, and trapping excursions. In other words, it all takes the fun out of things for both the rabbits and us.
As a solution to this, at present we are experimenting with integrating the rabbits and chickens in one big run. Come spring, we plan to do similarly with more rabbits, turkeys, ducks, etc. Our dream is to allow the birds to go broody on their own and sit on their chicks so we don’t have to incubate. And for the rabbits to naturally propagate and raise their kits, as well. While we do light the chickens during the winter, we don’t plan to light the rabbits as it’s just too complicated (and energetically expensive—we are off-grid, after all) in the run compared to the cages.
I did some research online about integrating rabbits and chickens before we released the rabbits, and everyone I found had great results. One rooster even adopted the rabbits into his flock and tried to herd them into the chicken coop each night. Some rabbits even slept right in the coop!
Winslow came up with the great idea of using the space under our chicken coop as the rabbit warren. He mostly blocked it off except for a small “door.” The rabbits took to it immediately. The chickens were dubious about the whole affair at first, while the rabbits remained oblivious. After a day or two, everyone settled in just fine—except for when it came to the chicken food.
Rabbits, more than any other animal we’ve raised (and we’ve raised a few at this point), love to be in the food dish. And, as it turns out, rabbits also love chicken food. And, on top of that, our chickens aren’t very assertive and so they weren’t getting any food to eat because the rabbits were hogging it all even when we threw piles of alfalfa into the run.
So my DIY homestead project this weekend was to bunny-proof the chicken food.
Note: The initial design was not a total deterrent. We had to also screw the dish to the 4×4 blocks as after a few hours two of the rabbits conspired together and figured out how to drag the dish six feet and flip it over. Whatever!