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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.

Categories: Rabbits, Worms

Sun, Rain, Earth: A Journey In Self-Sufficiency

January 1, 2012 Leave a comment

This blog will document my journey towards self-sufficiency.  I’ve always had an interest in living a more self-sufficent lifestyle and recently arrived at a point in my life where I can finally dedicate some time and the resources to this passion.  I started this pursuit in July 2011 with the goal of removing my dependence on meat from industrial farming due to its negative impact on human and animal health.

This first step lead to the raising of meat rabbits.  By Thanksgiving 2011, I had completely replaced my meat source with meat rabbits that I raised on my own.  Since then, I have only purchased meat from the stores for my dogs’ raw meat diet.

Shortly after I started raising meat rabbits, in Fall of 2011, I started a barter arrangement with two friends who run two different community gardens in nearby neighborhoods.  On a weekly basis, I supply them with the manure from my rabbits and in return they supply me with fresh, organic vegetables grown in their garden.  Soon, I was no longer purchasing my vegetables from the stores.

The beauty of the symbiosis further spurred my interest in self-sufficiency.  No longer purchasing meat and vegetables from stores, I became interested in growing my own fruits, as well.  Since fruit trees require lots of sun and space, I concluded I would need more space than my urban backyard to pursue this successfully and soon I came up with the idea of growing my own orchard on a vacant lot.

At this point, there is still some significant amount of work remaining before I am completely self-sufficient for my food consumption.  Some current and future projects I hope to explore and pursue for this effort are:

  • Convert my yard into an edible garden
  • Setting up rain harvesting to supply water for my edible garden
  • Use rabbit tractors to supply meat rabbits with natural forage
  • Convert a large, empty, 0.75 acre city lot to an orchard/dog park
  • Set up rain harvesting at the orchard as its only water supply
  • Capture and release wild rabbits into my orchard for vegetation control
  • Use friend’s domestic goats for vegetation control at the orchard
  • Establish wildlife food plots at the orchard for wild rabbits and domestic goats
  • Establish a pond in my yard for raising Tilapia
  • Raise worms (vermicomposting)
  • Raise chickens
  • Raise quails

In addition to being self-sufficient for my food supply, I am also very interested in being completely self-sufficient for my water and energy supply.  Some projects I hope to explore and pursue for this effort are:

  • Solar power
  • Rain harvesting for potable water
  • Convert a large, wooded, 2.5 acre urban lot into a totally self-sufficient homestead
  • Compost toilet
  • Tiny house

There’s lots left to be done and I hope others will enjoy sharing in my journey.

Sun, Rain, Earth: A Journey in Self-Sufficiency