We raise a lot of rabbits for our freezer and ghave tried out a lot of feed options to see what works best.
The best diet for meat rabbits is a fresh, high-protein, leafy fodder. A more practical option for some people is a high-quality pelleted feed. Hay is a less efficient feed due to low nutrients and high waste. Other good options include sugar beet, mangel, tree leaves, and jerusalem artichoke.
The best feed for your rabbits depends on your goals and what’s available locally. First, let’s go over options than look at just what makes a good feed.
The Best Feed for Growing Meat Rabbits
Rabbits usually grow fastest on a high-end pelleted feed containing 18-percent protein. It’s a well-known fact that the balanced ration of a good pellet is hard to beat. However, it’s also the most expensive option and often impractical due to cost. Cheaper options are usually preferred.
An 18 percent protein pellet from companies like Manna Pro and Purina are higher end, higher concentrated feed than your cheaper pellets. Although, it’s not very much different. Cheaper feeds are usually 16 percent protein and have the same levels of added vitamins and minerals.
The difference in cost is usually around $10 a bad, or about 30 percent more. Basically, all you’re getting ot of that is an extra 2 percent protein, usually from either soy or sunflower seed. In a high-end operation, that 2 percent can make a difference when you’re selling animals at a premium price.
For the small-time rabbit owner, The slight additional growth that you may see won’t offset the extra expense of high-end feed. If you want to add extra protein, it’s much cheaper to simply offer a small amount of black oil sunflower seed to their feed.
Personally, the only pellet I ever use is a locally made off-brand with 16 percent protein. It’s mostly just alfalfa, distiller’s grain, and a little corn. Of course, with added vitamins and minerals. That’s really all rabbits need. I prefer to keep things more fugal and leaning towards self-sufficient.
Self-Sufficient Rabbit Feed
The most self-sufficient rabbit feed is a blend of annual and perennial pasture crops. The most popular are grass, alfalfa, comfrey, tree leaves, and field crop residue. Corn silage is another good rabbit feed option. Grains, orchard fruit, and root crops are often used to add calories when needed.
This is more how I go when thinking about rabbit feed. If rabbits were designed to eat grass and twigs, why not feed them on it? Or, at least feed them some other vegetation fodder. The whole point of what we do here as a family is to become more self-sufficient and secure. That means growing our own feeds.
The simplest rabbit feed is grass. Northern-region or cool-season grass tends to be decent as a rabbit feed. It’s higher in protein than warm season grasses and has all the vitamins and minerals that rabbits need. But even that is still quite low in protein at least half the year.
We raised a lot of rabbits that way and they were very healthy, but they didn’t grow very well. At butcher time, 8 weeks, they were only about half-size compared to rabbits fed a cheap pellet. When we added a little grain (corn, oat, or sunflower seed), they showed improved performance in growth.
I did find that broad, leafy greens gave us better growth than grass. Chickory, dandelion, burdock, and clover leaves helped our rabbits to grow better. They have a much higher protein. Another good option is tree leaves. They are higher in protein than regular pasture crops.
Coppiced (cut short) trees are gaining popularity as a feed source for rabbits. Mulberry, willow, and poplar are the most common varieties used. You only have to strip the leaves and feed your animals. We’ve done some of that and yes, it works well. Mulberry leaf itself is a complete feed for rabbits.
Besides coppiced trees, other perennial pasture crops include comfrey, clover, alfalfa, and chickory. They are all high in protein and high in vitamins/minerals. Any of them could be used on its own as a complete feed for rabbits. But, a mix of crops is always better.
Annual crops are a good option if you don’t want a dedicated pasture. Sugarbeet, mangel, and sunflower are some of my favorites. The leafy tops of mangel and sugar beet (both a type of beet) are very high in protein and vitamins. The tuber is both starch and fiber. Sugar beet is a bit higher in sugar.
Sunflower is great both for the seeds and for the green leaves. They are high in protein and great for rabbits. The seed is incredibly high in protein, starch, and oil. That’s why they are often added to rabbit feed. Personally, I just harvest the seed heads. They’re more valuable to me.
Proper Diet for Meat Rabbits
Rabbits need to take in 3 things in their diet. They are: energy, protein, and vitamins/minerals. Rabbits draw energy from carbohydrates, and fats/oils. because rabbits are very efficient at drawing nutrients from fibrous starch, they need little to no simple starches like grain or sugar.
A healthy rabbit can mostly digest tough cellulose fiber like long-stem grass and small, green twigs. It’s not that their stomach is that strong, but they harbor bacteria in their gut that break down the fiber. The rabbit in then digests both the bacteria and by-products of the bacteria.
In fact, the bacteria in a rabbit’s gut makes up about half of the protein they need on a daily basis. It’s a fermentation process that takes place in their hindgut. We can do about the same thing by making silage. So, rabbits are designed to make good use of feeds that offer no energy to us like grass and tree leaves.
Meat rabbits are bred for fast growth and quick muscle gain. That means that they have need for extra protein and energy to keep up the faster growth. You can raise rabbits on just grass and I’ve done it, but a little bit of grain and higher protein fodder makes a difference.
That’s why most pelleted rabbit feed has hay and corn (or other grain) as main ingredients. Corn is in most rabbit feeds and serves as a great source of additional energy over the alfalfa or timothy hay base. Oat, wheat, and distiller’s grain are other common additives. But, some people say corn is harmful.
Is Corn Bad for Rabbits?
Corn is great for rabbits. It’s the most common grain in rabbit feed. I grow and feed corn to our rabbits. Although many bloggers say otherwise, it’s a safe feed and has been used for centuries. It should be limited to around 20 percent of a rabbit’s diet for optimal digestion.
Whole corn (shelled corn), cracked corn, and ear corn are fed to rabbits on homesteads across the world. It’s the one cereal grain I grow, which is why we feed it to our animals. There are some concerns about it, but they seem unfounded to me.
The concerns are that corn can cause a rabbit to overheat, it can cause gastric difficulties, or that it can cause a gastric blockage. They all sound far-fetched to me and are not a concern when fed in moderation. As I said, We feed a lot of corn and will continue to do so. With the meat-breed rabbits, it doesn’t seem to pose any issue.
I also feed oats to our rabbits. We buy it quite cheap from a farmer in town. Oats seem to be better than corn for our nursing does. They keep their weight better when given a tad of oats. Either are alright.
Is Hay Good For Rabbits?
Hay is safe for rabbits, but it has much less vitamin content than fresh greens. Most hay is low in protein and quite low in vitamins. Hay by itself is a poor feed for meat rabbits. Timothy hay is a low-energy, low protein feed. Alfalfa hay has more protein, but also has a lot of waste when fed to rabbits.
Hay is just dried leafy pasture crops. After it’s harvested, a large portion of the phytonutrients and chlorophyll compounds break down, resulting in nutrient loss. It also loses some protein as it ages. Hay tends to break apart and fall through the cage floor. If hay gets dirty, rabbits won’t touch it.
Hay tends to have a 30 to 40 percent waste when fed to rabbits. Using a hay feeder and feeding smaller amounts at once help to reduce the waste. Hay is a subpar feed to all animals. It’s just sometimes the only practical option, especially for larger livestock and in winter when pasture doesn’t grow.
If you do feed rabbits hay, you would be wise to give them additional vitamins, calories, and protein if at all you could. Hay is good for a rabbit’s gut, or at least better than pellets. Fresh greens are better yet. The enzymes and bacteria of fresh greens help to improve overall digestion in rabbits.