I was the coordinator for the Southeast Minnesota Sustainable Farming Association in the mid to late 1990s. It was a wonderful position for a dedicated homesteader to be in; I got to see lots of other people’s farms and homesteads and learn about the newest/oldest, most sustainable, least expensive techniques for raising livestock and growing so many vegetables and fruits.
On one visit to a gal’s farm, we observed that she was raising her chickens and rabbits together in the old chicken coop. Well, that is not so rare to have caged rabbits with chickens under them, but no, this was “free range”! They all lived happily together with no cages or fencing! And they had lots of babies! She often gave away baby rabbits and chicks! I was totally inspired! This I must try!
Well, I didn’t have an old chicken coop, but in the winter I did bring in the hens, ducks, pigeons, and rabbits into the greenhouse I had built off my barn. I had already lined the floor of the green house with chicken wire to keep out predators. Her tip was to be sure to have at least 10 inches of straw down on the ground for the rabbits to burrow into. Well, I didn’t have that much straw, but I did have some small wooden houses they could go in. She also recommended that you start with young rabbits, like less than 16 weeks old, and let them grow up together. And be sure your rooster is a sweet old guy.
Come fall she ended up giving me a couple of female bunnies and an old rooster (at that time he was only 8 years old—did you know that chickens can live to be 30 years old!). I had a young buck rabbit that I kept and butchered my other rabbits. I was going for this!
Do understand that I live in the great white tundra. Forty-five below zero, yeah… One year with the wind chill it got to eighty-three degree below zero, ohhh was it cold! My barn was like an ark! When it is below zero, I close it up and the heat from the horses and whatever else I am raising at the time (cows, goats, sheep…), keeps it above freezing. And just having to go into the greenhouse to do poultry chores is sooo nice compared to tramping around in three feet of snow! Plus, I finally got electricity to the barn, so the water I had to carry to the animals could be kept thawed (I had a creek which I just needed to occasionally maul open for the horses).
Well, this was truly layered husbandry in the greenhouse. Pigeons on top, chicken roosts about four feet up, ducks on the surface, rabbits under the surface! I set up a heated chicken waterer and everyone drank from that. Hay is the cheapest feed for chickens and rabbits, I just shaped some chicken wire into a basket and shoved it in there. Any alfalfa chafe that feel out got eaten (I would occasionally clean out the horse troughs (they won’t eat the alfalfa fines) and gave it to the crew in the greenhouse. A chicken feeder with some cracked corn, some grit for the birds’ gizzards, and leftovers from the house and they were fine! No rabbit pellets or fancy feed here! Just make sure you don’t get any feed with antibiotics or you may make the ducks sick (hence, just cracked corn, hay and leftover dinner scraps). I also gardened for the chickens—cabbage. Chickens LOVE cabbage and it keeps well. Actually, for chickens you can get by with just hay, cabbage and leftovers all winter! If you have no predators you can just keep them with the horses and not feed at all!
The chickens kept the top layer scratched up and dry (you know how ducks are—not dry!), eventually the little wooden hutches became covered with straw and looked like hobbit houses. Rabbits do chew wood, so the houses did get chewed up but then I just started throwing them sticks and branches and that stopped the chewing, along with some salt chips that were left over from the horses and goats.
Sometimes the rabbits had their babies in the houses, sometimes under them. If some hen got clucky (stayed sitting) I would leave a few eggs for her. The hens usually hatched their eggs in the houses, ducks too. I had baskets tied in the rafters for the pigeons. Boy did I have babies!
Occasionally someone would get out of line. A hen pecking on a duck, bunny or another hen or egg eating. Sometimes just cutting off a quarter of her beak would solve the problem (painful for them to peck and sometimes the pecking is just a phase they go through), sometimes not and in the pot she went! If someone was pecked or bleeding I just slapped pine tar on the wound, that usually solved any problems and let them heal. The rooster was wonderful! That old guy made it to eighteen before a ‘possum got him, and the whole flock in one night!
Male ducks—drakes, you can usually tell them by the curl in their tail, but I favor Muscovy ducks (best eating, most prolific, and least likely to get it by a predator because they can fly)—are usually pretty good.
But critters are all individuals, so you just have to keep an eye on the mix of personalities. And don’t think those pigeons can’t be nasty either! Sometimes the smallest critters can have the biggest personalities and be true bullies!
I liked this set up so much, that in the spring after I put the poultry out I cut a rabbit hole in the greenhouse and just let them fend for themselves and continue the breeding of it all. Heck, I was giving away rabbits too!
Now, I will warn you that you will see some very odd things going on… Yes, for a couple of years I had a hen chicken, a hen duck, and a hen turkey all decide to sit on one nest! That was very strange, and it was outside so they had a lot of choices but preferred to brood together. However, the babies followed the right mom’s, so I guess whatever works!
Also, do not be shocked at the cross species sex… No, they cannot actually cross and have babies, but a drake will chase a hen or doe rabbit; I had a rabbit that was totally enamored of cats—male or female, he didn’t mind; pigeons courting young hens, little chicks chasing baby bunnies, a tom turkey that would hump any person’s foot if they were wearing white shoes—he also chased cars…
And then you see the gruesome side too, young roosters raping baby chickens, snapping their necks and throwing them to the side—his head came off quickly! Necrophiliac ducks… the hen died with her head in a hole and they came back to her faithfully until she started literally falling apart—yeah… hmmm….
Actually, the homestead is a great place to raise kids and teach about sex. No romance here! It is urges and procreation and that is it. Wow, maybe that is why both my son and daughter were virgins at 21! Poor kids… LOL!
If you are showing rabbits or trying for a specific breed and keeping them caged, in the summer just pick plantain for them. Terrific high vitamin rabbit food—yes, it is edible for humans, but I prefer to pick it for the rabbits and most people just see it as a weed anyway. Dandelions are also good forage. If you rake your grass, that is great also.
I’m assuming you have all heard of chicken tractors. Easier, softer way, bend two hog panels at the six foot mark in a 90 degree angle. You now of two Ls. Fit the Ls together and tie off with cable ties. Cover top, bottom and sides with chicken wire. Attach some cheap wheels at the back. Shove some sticks through for roosting perches. Tarp the back end for shade and storm shelter. Create a waterer and feeder out of whatever you have around like old dishpans, gutters, etc. Attach a rope to the front end. A woman or child can move this! You can now freely move your chickens, rabbits, etc. around the yard, let them eat and fertilize the grass!
Ah, I will also tell you that this works great as an outside playpen… Just minus the chicken wire! Gotta keep those little ones safe!