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Rabbit Hutch and Worm Redesign

April 18, 2017 Leave a comment

There are two things which I have been wanting to improve upon in journey towards self-sufficiency.  The first is the design of my outdoor rabbit hutch.  The other is my vermicomposting setup.  Given my engineering background, I get irritated by the slightest defect and have a constant desire to fine tune and make improvements for better results.

Building a Better Rabbit Hutch

I started raising meat rabbits in 2011.  They were housed indoors in a stacked cage setup with trays under each cage.  The trays had to be emptied and cleaned twice daily and was a tremendous amount of work.  My indoor operation started small and then quickly grew to 21 cages!  With as much as six litters going at a time, it was not unusual for me to sometimes have over 70 rabbits in my herd!  Fortunately, I was living by myself at the time because there’s no way I would get away with having   Ah, the memories of the single life.

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Due to the daily chores of clearing and cleaning the rabbit poop trays, I never went out of town during my first year of rabbit husbandry.  To simplify things, I embarked on the my outdoor rabbit project which resulted in a large, 8 feet by 32 feet outdoor hutch with galvanized roofing panels.

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While the project was a huge undertaking, it eliminated my daily half hour rabbit cleaning chores and simplified the caretaking of the rabbits so much that it freed me up leave town for extended trips.  The poop and urine just dropped to the ground and only had to be moved to the garden every month or so.  With an automatic watering system added to the design, the only daily chore was putting feed in the feeders. Even for 21 cages, this took less than minute and could be easily delegated and easily handled by anyone.

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Unfortunately, neighbors who didn’t like the look of my rain harvesting system complained to the Zoning department who, after determining that they couldn’t do anything about my rain barrels, decided to cite me for my outdoor rabbit hutch instead.

The outdoor rabbit hutch had simplified raising rabbits and made it enjoyable.  So I was really disheartened when I was forced to take the hutch down.  I ended up building a much smaller hutch that I could still keep outdoors.  Since this was built in haste I was never entirely happy with its design.  In fact, as time passed, I observed more and more issues with it.

  • The hutch spanned 12 foot long.  In an effort to prevent rabbit urine from coming into contact with the wood supports for the hutch, the entire 12 foot span was only supported as its ends.  Over time, the top beam of the hutch began to bow and sag due to the weight of the cages.
  • The rabbit manure which collected below the cage would hill up and then avalanche forward over time into the walking path at the front of the hutch resulting in a mess.
  • Rabbit manure is moved routinely from under the hutch to the garden. Over time, it became difficult to tell where the manure pile ended and where the underlying soil began so the area under the hutch was getting dug deeper and deeper each time the manure was transferred to the garden.
  • Rats would tunnel through the manure during the winter, possibly due to the warmth given off as it composts.  They would also climb on top of the cages.  One day, I even found one inside the cage and eating from the feeder.
  • The automatic watering lines ran behind the cages and were a real pain in the ass to access whenever they were dislodged and then chewed on by the rabbits.

This pile of issues made me vow to one day scrap the hastily made hutch and replace it with a well-thought redesign.

Vermicomposting Journey

The other self-sufficiency project which has been gnawing at me was my vermicomposting setup.  I started my vermicomposting journey with a Worm Factory 360 Worm Composter.  I found many limitations with this product but the one that really made it unsuitable for me was its inability to handle large food items.  During the summer, it is not unusual for me to go through one watermelon a day.  The Worm Factory just couldn’t keep pace.

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I then graduated up to the Worm Inn a flow-through vermicomposting system. The Worm-Inn comes in two sizes, 2 and 4 cubic feet. Since the inability to keep up with volume processing was my biggest gripe with the Worm Factory, I purchased the 4 cubic feet “Mega” model.

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While it handled the watermelons with ease, I was still disappointed with the results.  The worms did not thrive as I thought they would.  One of the touted benefits of the Worm Inn is that, unlike plastic bins, its canvas material breathed and encouraged aerobic activity.  However, this material also made the environment very susceptible to drying out on hot days.  This meant that routine watering was required.

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The routine care required meant that it was easy for the system to get out of balance.  When it does, the worms vacate through the bottom opening into the collection bucket and typically drown in the worm tea which collects in there.  This highlights the biggest flaw with the system.  The worms can self-regulate and leave the environment when it is not conducive to their survival and return when it is.  Once they leave, not only can they not return, the entire population dies upon exit via drowning.  This then requires starting over from scratch and buying a new set of worms.

Killing Two Birds with One Stone

While I struggled with the Worm Factory and Worm Inn, what really highlighted their failures was the fact that each time I went to move rabbit manure from underneath the rabbit hutch to the garden, I saw massive numbers of extremely lively and healthy worms.  I didn’t have to purchase these because they showed up all on their own.  Not only that, they required no work from me.  I don’t feed or water them.  The rabbits do the work by virtue of their drinking and feeding.  The environment always seems rich with biological activity.  If I routinely add carbon materials such as wood mulch to balance the nitrogen from the rabbit manure, the environment produces rich, loose soil.  Best of all, it does this year round, in the blistering heat of the summer, as well as, in the freezing cold of the winter.

In a moment of epiphany, it dawned on me last year that what I needed to do was incorporate a worm bin into my rabbit hutch redesign.  I decided on the following must have features.

  • Compact size to avoid running into issues with Zoning regulations.
  • Fully enclosed with hardware cloth to keep rats out of cages.
  • Concrete paver flooring to prevent rats from tunneling through the manure and feeding on food dropped by rabbits.  The advantage of pavers over solid, poured slab is that it would still allow drainage to keep the environment from being too wet.
  • Concrete walls surrounding the area beneath the hutch to keep rabbit manure in place rather than spilling out into the walkway.
  • Area beneath the cages needs to be enclosed by hardware cloth also so that food scraps deposited there can not be fed on by rats.
  • Urine must be kept from contacting wood framing of hutch to keep the smell from becoming permanently embedded.
  • The cages needed to be easily removable from the hutch for ease of cleaning of the cages and hutch.

In June of last year, I finally found the time to tackle the redesign of the rabbit hutch.  I used concrete pavers for the floor underneath the hutch and then laid out cinderblocks to serve as foundation for the hutch and also as walls for the worm bin.  The hutch walls were covered with 1/2 inch hardware cloth to keep rats from entering.

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Aluminum flashing was installed to act as manure and urine funnel.  This directs the manure and urine to the center of the worm bin below and away from the wood framing of the hutch.

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The cages hang off of wall hooks in the back.  In the front they hang off of EMT conduit which is attached to the rafters.

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The automatic watering system supply lines are routed to the front of the cage.  This makes them easily accessible for cleaning or repair.

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The new hutch is now ready for use and the rabbits were moved back in.

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The front of the worm bin was designed to be lower than the other three sides to make shoveling out the manure easier.  After using the hutch for several months, it soon became clear that the front wall was too low.  Manure was again spilling into the walkway if left unattended for a month or two.  So the decision was made to raise the front wall of the worm bin to be the same as the other walls.

With this design change finalize, I proceeded to make the screen doors for the cages and for the worm bin.

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The project is now completed.  The combination rabbit hutch and worm compost bin has now been in use for a month now and is working out great.  With the last change to the foundation front wall height, the worm bin’s volume comes out to about 25 cubic feet.  That is over 6 times larger than the Mega Worm Inn.  Like I hoped, the worms showed up on their own.  The environment in the worm bin always seems perfect.  Not too wet and not too dry.  With this 12 foot long prototype now completed and successful, I will be building a longer, 16 foot prototype to replace the hutch holding the remaining cages in the near future following the same design.

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Categories: Rabbits, Worms

Back To Eden Garden 2.0

March 26, 2017 Leave a comment

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Prior to my long blog posting hiatus, I had a 40 x 20 Back to Eden garden in my backyard.  I loved the beauty of the garden.  The wood mulches gave it such a natural landscape and also kept the soil most and teeming with biological activity.

However, after several seasons, I started to realize some of the drawback of the Back to Eden approach.  I will detail these in a future post.  In an effort to solve some of the problems, I decided to combine the Back to Eden approach with raised bed square foot gardening.  This gave birth to version 2.0 of my Back to Eden Garden which has now been in place for three years now.

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I love the efficient use of space in this garden design. It more than doubles the amount of growing space while sharing the same footprint as the old garden.  The beds also make it very easy to follow the square foot gardening approach for plant placement and spacing.  Best of all, the garden look like the work an artistic engineer rather than the disorganized chaos that I often see in other gardens.

I’ve been using this garden for the past couple of years and still think that it is the best design to maximize the growing space in the southeastern 40 feet x 20 feet section of my backyard.

After a whole winter of no plantings, I’ve been eagerly awaiting the coming of Spring so I can put finally put my garden to work.  Last weekend, to my delight, I found tomato and pepper plants at Costco.  They became the first addition to my Spring garden.

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While the garden makeover did solve many problems, I have still continued to struggle over the past couple of years with squirrels plundering my crop.  They seem to love everything in the cabbage family, including cabbage, collard, broccoli, cauliflower, and kohlrabi.  And their hunger became even more ravenous during the winter when their natural food supplies are low.  I got so discouraged at seeing beds of new planted seedlings destroyed in just days that I gave up growing these crops completely.

This weekend while visiting Home Depot, I saw that they were fully stocked on all of the squirrels’ favorite delicacies.  I decided to give it a go again.  I purchased and planted close to 50 of these seedlings.

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To protect the cabbage family seedlings from the squirrels, I constructed four chicken-wire covered tunnels of 4 foot length.

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After the hard work was done, I shared a well-deserved watermelon snack with the free-range bunnies.

New Arrivals in the Rabbitry

March 18, 2017 Leave a comment

After several hectic years, I am finally finding some time to get back to writing about my journey in self-sufficiency.

Last time I posted, I had a fairly sizable rabbitry consisting of 20 breeders and was selling quality New Zealand White rabbit breeding stock. Most of my rabbits came from a show breeder in Tennesse. The remaining couple of rabbits were from other sources, including one that produced for the meat market.

In 2014, I gave away my entire herd and started over with Silver Fox rabbits.  I was interested in eventually trying a free-ranging or colony setup and wanted a rabbit that would blend in better in a natural setting. The bright white albino New Zealand Whites would make extremely easy targets for predators. Another reason for my interest in the Silver Fox rabbit was that it was listed by The Livestock Conservancy’s as under Threatened status.  I wanted to help offset the breed’s decline.

While rabbits are thought of as prolific creators, my experience has taught me that each rabbit is different.  The three Silver Fox does I started with were often reluctant to breed.  When they were finally in the mood, they would get pregnant with very small litter sizes.  I never had a litter larger than five.  They also demonstrated lackluster mothering instincts.

After two very frustrating years, I abandoned the Silver Foxes and returned to raising New Zealand Whites.  I gained a new appreciation for the value of a good doe.  While many people tout these values as large litters or fast growing kits, I disagree.  After having my patience tested to the limits by the Silver Fox does, I truly believe that strong maternal instincts are the true hallmark of a quality doe.

A year ago I purchased six New Zealand White does and one buck  and I can’t be more thrilled with the results.  The does are true nymphomaniacs.  They breed readily and have never refused to be serviced.  They also consistent produce and raise to harvest age litters averaging eight in size.  I had purchased six with the intention to cull and keep the best three.  They are all so impressive compared to the Silver Foxes that I am reluctant to cull any of them.

On Valentine’s day, I bred three of the six does and they all bred readily again.  Two were bred to Silver Fox bucks and one  was bred to a New Zealand White buck.  Today, I was greeted with three healthy litters of eight, eight, and seven kits.

Rabbit Romp

December 6, 2012 Leave a comment

I let one of the 3 months old meat rabbits stretch his legs out with a romp through the garden.

He met my Miniature Pinscher and was unimpressed:

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He then explored the brussel sprouts:

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Ran through the romain lettuces:

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And nibbled on some vine:

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Second Half of Rabbit Hutch

November 12, 2012 Leave a comment

Over the past week, I installed automatic waterers on the 7 cages which are housed in the first half of the outdoor rabbit hutch. With this completed, the outdoor rabbit hutch is now very low maintenance. In contrast to my previous indoor setup, the new outdoor setup has effectively eliminated the daily chore of cleaning out the trays underneath each rabbit crate. With the installation of the automatic waters, the only remaining daily chore now for the outdoor rabbits is to replenish the feeders which takes less than a couple of minutes.

This weekend, I began work on the second half of the rabbit hutch. I managed to get the bulk of the framing done. This involved standing up six 4 x 4 posts, which were then joined by four 2 x 6 x 16 beam spans followed by eleven 2 x 6 x 8 rafters. This second section of the rabbit hutch is now just waiting for its sixteen 2 x 2 x 8 purlins, a side wall covered by eight 2 ft x 8 ft poly corrugated roof panels, and overhead roof consisting of six 3 ft x 8 ft 29 gauge galvanized roof panels.

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Categories: Rabbits Tags: , , ,

Rabbit Hutch Roof Installed

November 4, 2012 Leave a comment

The first half of the rabbit hutch is now completed. Over the weekend, I installed 29 gauge galvanized roofing panels overhead.

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Once the roof was installed, I moved all the grow-out kits outside into their new cages.

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Categories: Rabbits Tags: , , ,

Outdoor Hutch For Meat Rabbits

October 29, 2012 Leave a comment

When I started raising meat rabbits over a year ago, I started raising my rabbits indoors so I could minimize the impact of external factors during my initial learning phase. This turned out to be a great decision since it made it easy for me to pursue things such as automatic waterer and artificial lighting during the winter months. Most importantly, it allowed me to use network cameras to observe the rabbits remotely so I could learn about their natural behaviors such as nesting, birthing, nursing, etc. The drawback to an indoor setup is the additional work required with ventilation and cleanup.

15 months after my venture into meat rabbits, my operation has expanded quite a bit in size and the daily cleanup of the rabbits’ litter trays has become quite burdensome. While this daily chore is not difficult for me, it is not something that I can expect anyone else to do. This has made it very difficult for me to go on extended leave lasting more than a couple of days.

This weekend I finally tackled a project that I have been mulling over for some time and began building an outdoor hutch for the meat rabbits. While the plan initially involved building a small rabbit hutch, it soon mushroomed to building a large structure in the side that can house not only the rabbits but offer covered protection for my gardening tools, mower, and chipper. This construction project would also offer great experience for future projects such as building a pole barn at the orchard and tiny house at the homestead lot.

I decided to build a 8 foot by 32 foot covered structure in the east side yard which is shaded for a good part of the day. With their dense coats, the rabbits tolerate cold temperatures much better than hot temperatures so this side yard is ideal. I wanted this structure to be well built and to resemble a pergola so that if I ever decided to move very little modification would need to be made for it to be repurposed from a rabbitry/tool shed to an attractive pergola.

My goal this weekend was to build out the first half of the structure as proof of concept and to work out any kinks in the design and architecture which I have been tossing around in my mind. I began by constructing the skeleton of the first half section (8 foot by 16 foot) by assembling 6 4×4 posts with 4 2x6x16 headers and 2x6x8 rafters.

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I then constructed the frame for the back wall with 3 2x4x8 per 8 foot section. This was done using Simpson strong ties.

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Once the back wall frame was constructed, I then attached corrugated roof panel. I chose these panels since they offer solid rain and wind protection. More importantly, they will not absorb moisture from the environment and from the rabbit urine. As such, they should be very easy to clean with routine hosing.

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I then tested out the hanging of the rabbit cages. After some trial and error, I settled on passing electrical conduits through the row of rabbit cages and then wrapping jack chain around the conduit to hang off of the overhead rafters. Each 24in x 24in x 18in cage weighs about 10 pounds and will have a total weight of about 20 pounds when holding a 10 pound rabbit. The row of 4 cages that I tested was hung with four sections of jack chain rated for 29 pounds.

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The proof of concept run this weekend was very successful. During the next few days, I plan on finishing the first half of the structure by installing the purlins and the overhead roof panels. This will be followed with side wall construction to further reduce wind draft. Once the first half of the structure is completed, I will be able to house 7 24in x 24in x 18in cages outside and have all of my 30 or grow-out meat rabbits relocated outside. This will leave just my 10 breeders indoors.