One of the problems with rabbits is providing "natural" food. Most rabbit production models use a pellet feed of some kind. While this is sufficient for nutrition, it fails to provide what I think is a very important aspect for all livestock, normal eating habits. What I mean by normal eating habits, or mastication, is the act of actually obtaining the food. For an animal to be able to express itself to the fullest, and therefore providing the healthiest, tastiest meat possible, it needs to be able to live to life that nature intended.
For example here on the farm we are always talking about chickens and their ability to express their chickeness. Chickens are omnivores by nature, so when you read that a chicken has been "vegetarian fed," to me that is horrible. As Matt has said numerous times to customers, "There is nothing more unnatural than a vegetarian fed chicken. Chicken are designed to eat plants and animals, and when you take away the animals, something is wrong with the system. A vegetarian fed chicken can only occur in confinement. If they aren't confined, then they are eating some sort of animal product, i.e. insects."
Back to rabbits. Rabbits are herbivores. They don't have a rumen like cattle and sheep. Instead they preform Coprophagia which is the act of eating their feces. Now before you get grossed out and never want to eat rabbit meat again or for the first time, let me explain. Its really not that disgusting. After a rabbits eats, its food (vegetation) is broken down into simple sugars through bacterial fermentation. Since a rabbit does not have a rumen, this takes place in the hindgut or cecum. At this point the feces still has vital minerals and nutrients that the rabbit needs so they eat this "first feces" (cecotropes) straight from their anus. This happens several hours after ingesting there food. Once these cecotropes have passed through a second time, the rabbit allows its feces to fall, in our case, to the chickens underneath... waiting eagerly.
Think about rabbits in the wild for a minute. How are they obtaining food? By grazing! If you take that idea and and use your imagination, something like the hare pen will appear. Below are some pictures of a Polyface Hare Pen. We just took these pics a few days ago so there is no rabbit inside, but I hope it will give you an idea of what we do. Hopefully in the spring I'll get pictures of working hare pens.
Here I am pulling the hare pen. Its light enough to just lift and pull without a dolly like we use for broiler pens. Its also much smaller than a broiler pen. If you look close you can see a feed trough on the right. We do still feed them alfalfa pellets while in the Hare Pen, but feed consumption plummets when they can graze. You may also notice there is no waterer? Usually there would be a bucket with a drip drinker.
One of the pieces of tin lifts off to provide easy access for grabbing bunnies. This is important since we only graze fryers for 6 weeks. This is the time from weaning (6 weeks old) to butchering (12 weeks old).
Here is the slatted floor. This allows for grazing without escape from digging.
Thanks again to Rachel for all the pictures.