Home gardeners continue to tightly embrace backyard farming methods like growing their own edibles and raising small livestock. Edible plants and foodscaping increasingly dominate the green lifestyle conversation, and more homeowners are considering local wildlife as they make plant choices. These days, landscape designers are being asked to incorporate housing and space for backyard livestock as part of garden design plans.
As garden center professionals, we’ve all probably spent our fair share of time teaching customers how to keep rabbits out of their gardens. So the thought of incorporating rabbits into a yard may not jive with everyone; but as with anything, one gardener’s pest is another gardener’s pet. While raising backyard bunnies might be the next logical step for a more experienced urban farmer, it could also be a kinder and gentler gateway drug to backyard farming for beginners. A softer approach to urban farming, if you will.
The urban dweller can harvest a bevy of benefits from raising backyard bunnies. Top of the list for any gardener, especially vegetable gardeners, is of course rabbit manure. Rabbit fur is in high demand from crafters, and the animals make quiet and content companion animals. If you have a competitive streak, rabbits are also excellent show animals.
Irvin Etienne, horticultural display coordinator at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, has been raising backyard rabbits at home for nearly 30 years. While he raises his bunnies mostly for show, he says the manure they provide is an incredible bonus for his garden. When asked how to get started with backyard bunnies, he says to first, “Think about why you want rabbits — pet, show, meat — these are not mutually exclusive of one another.”
Livestock or pets?
If you were paying attention to backyard farming trends about five years ago, you may have read a number of articles about how backyard rabbits were going to explode as a new sustainable meat source. A few local classes sprung up on butchering and processing your own rabbits, but the urban rabbit meat trend didn’t take off quite as strongly as predicted. That’s not to say that it won’t eventually catch on among urban homesteaders. Ultimately though, most urban dwellers aren’t comfortable with the idea of personally butchering bunnies, or anything they eat for that matter. Once you raise animals for meat, a “livestock, not pet” mentality must come into play. No doubt, you’re bound to have a niche group of interested customers; tap into your local chefs and slow-food groups to gauge opportunity.
Breeding rabbits, versus just keeping a few for show or manure, does require more skill and commitment.
“If you plan to breed rabbits, be sure to definitely speak with somebody experienced” Etienne says. “Consider going to a local rabbit show to see the diversity of rabbits available.” If you’re not going to breed your bunnies, then he advocates having them spayed or neutered.
One of the main reasons rabbit is considered a sustainable meat option is that rabbits don’t compete with people for calories; meaning they don’t eat the same food we do.
Rather, rabbits eat forage. In a contained backyard environment, rabbits will benefit from a specially formulated feed as a primary food source. Then you can then supplement their diet with vegetable scraps and garden waste.
Rabbits act as highly efficient natural composters; just like backyard chickens. So if your customers are big vegetable gardeners, their backyard bunnies will help compost waste, providing excellent soil amendments or mulch. Plus, they’ll generate a steady supply of valuable manure fertilizer for the vegetable garden.
Many experienced gardeners will tell you that there’s no poop like rabbit poop when it comes to feeding their plants. With rabbit manure, you get all the benefits of cow, poultry or horse manure without the burn. Rabbit manure is considered a “cold” manure, as you don’t have to compost it down beforehand; you can apply it directly to garden beds fresh. Manures that come from cows, poultry and horses are considered “hot” due to their high nitrogen concentration and should be composted — at least partially — before using in the garden. For vegetable gardeners looking to power up their yields, backyard bunnies can be a highly effective and sustainable fertilizer solution.
How much space?
Another great benefit of keeping backyard bunnies is the minimal impact on space and resources. For those with very small urban yards, keeping rabbits is a hobby easily within reach. A backyard rabbit hutch should provide 10 square feet of space, or more, per adult rabbit. Be sure the hutch has multiple levels so that the animals can jump between them. Obviously, additional protected run space for foraging will result in happier, healthier bunnies. All in, it doesn’t take much to house a few healthy fertilizer factories.
According to Etienne, homeowners need to make shade a top priority for their bunnies with a well-ventilated structure or good shade tree cover. “Rabbits are generally physically strong animals that can tolerate cold very well; hot weather is the more serious issue,” he says. Each mature rabbit will also need its own separate hutch space.
As with any small livestock kept in a mixed-use space, customers will need to consider how to protect their valued green space. If you’ve kept backyard chickens, you know that once a hen sets her mind to your veggie garden, destruction surely ensues. The same goes for hungry bunnies. While chickens are flyers, bunnies are diggers. Enclosures will need to be secure both to prevent escape and to keep out predators.
How much time?
When it comes to time, backyard bunny keepers should expect to spend a minimal amount to care for their established animals. While Etienne says he spends about 10 hours a week caring for his multiple show bunnies, a modest pet keeper will spend much less. “For three rabbits, that time is down to maybe an hour or so per week,” he says. “Of course, that does not include time you may spend while petting, grooming or just watching them.”
Many garden centers have learned how beneficial it can be for business to have animals on the property. While on-display chickens and goats may be a bit more common at garden centers these days, bunnies haven’t caught on just yet.
Nevertheless, customers will be hard-pressed not to spend some extra time admiring your fluffy critters, and their kids will most likely make requests for special trips to see them.
While many will turn to breeders to purchase show-quality bunnies, most backyard bunny keepers using the animals strictly for manure should consider adopting from a local shelter. Who can resist backyard bunny adoptions? Invite local shelters or rescue groups to hold adoptions at your garden center.
Is it legal?
While many cities still restrict the keeping of chickens, bees or other large livestock, backyard rabbits typically fall under less scrutiny. For those unable to legally keep other livestock, backyard bunnies can be a good alternative. Rabbits are typically cleaner and quieter than chickens, and certainly won’t strike fear into the neighbors as chickens and beehives sometimes do.
“Manure and urine are low-odor, so as long as you only have a few that is not a problem,” Etienne says. However, some cities will still require a permit for any outdoor animal, depending on the number you keep. It’s always best to review your city’s ordinance before you put together an urban livestock program.
If you want to get into the bunny business, you’ll have to make sure you carry a product selection that keeps customers coming back. As always, check your local competition. Are there feed stores nearby that will outcompete you for rabbit-related hard goods? If so, keep supplies to a select few important items. If not, you may be able to support a more expanded selection of products.
Start with the basics, such as rabbit feeds (conventional and organic), feeders, water containers, bedding and how-to books. This will get the new backyard rabbit keeper started. Just as with any pet or livestock, rabbits need access to feed year-round. That will keep customers coming back to see you, even in the off-season. If the category gains momentum, you could consider adding hutches and custom caging to your offerings.
Education with experts
Ideally, you have someone on staff who understands what goes into raising rabbits so that you can responsibly teach your customers how to care for their livestock.
If not, then be sure to develop key contacts within the rabbit farming, breeding and show community. These are the experts you’ll need to recruit for teaching classes and workshops to support customer and sales.
While some see urban livestock as a distraction or gimmick to pull customers into independent garden centers, others know that urban farming has replaced traditional ideas of “gardening” for many customers. Small livestock like backyard bunnies can be an attractive option for your customers who identify as urban gardeners.