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Ask the Breeder
July/August/September 2008 Issue

What methods do you use to keep kits warm and alive when they are born in the dead of winter?

From Kevin Hooper:
I have used a few different methods to keep kits alive in the dead of winter.  The best thing is to have does that build great nests and have their babies in the boxes.  If you have this, then the severity of cold does not seem to matter.
However, since we cannot always control this, I use heat lamps to provide some localized heat over the nest boxes.  I have an unheated barn, which I can keep about 10-15 degrees above the outside temperature.  Hanging a heat lamp over two cages so it can provide some warmth to two or even four nestboxes (if you have a back to back cage set-up) will make a big difference in the winter survival rate.  If I do this, I will place a board in the pen for the doe to rest on, otherwise she may want to bask in the warmth and do so in the nest box.
I have had a heated nursery in the past which I kept at about 40 degrees. This worked well and I had good winter survival rates.
One thing to be wary of is the litter size.  A litter of two or three, even in the best nest will not do as well as the warmth of several other kits to cuddle with!  So, you may consider combining a couple of litters as long as the does is capable of nursing that many.
From Ray Brewer:
Down here in South Carolina our winters are so mild that only January presents much of a problem for us. I use a moderately small nestbox for our Dutch (10W X 12L X 8H) with a 1/4 X 1/4 wire bottom. For nesting material we use Bermuda grass hay. I believe that the smaller diameter of this hay is a better insulator as it can be packed closer and denser than a larger shafted hay like oat. If the weatherman predicts a night below freezing, I put a thin sheet of insulation in the bottom of the box. (If you do this be sure to pull it out after 3-4 days - that stuff will prevent moisture from getting away from the kits - we have to keep them dry to keep them warm.) I usually put the box in the cage on day 30. This prevents the doe from starting too early or soiling the box.
    Cutting back a little on the doe’s ration for a couple of days before kindling will make birthing a little easer for her. Of course the doe is the most important part of any live birth, especially in cold weather. She has got to have them, clean them, and cover them up in a hurry.
    If I have a litter I am really counting on, I get up early and check that box early and often. Be sure to remove any dead babies as they will quickly become little ice cubes in your nice warm nestbox.
From Allan Gerhart:
We use several methods in the winter time to keep the kits alive.  A wooden nest box with lots of straw helps keep the kits insulated from the cold temperatures.  We turn on the lights at night which includes a couple of heat lamps that keeps the barn above freezing. We also close up the windows and doors during the winter months this cuts down on drafts and keeps the cold out.  And when it really gets cold we turn on an electric heater to prevent the kits and water from freezing. 
As long as the does pull fur and have the kits in the nest box we usually have good luck raising them in the dead of winter.  I would advise breeding your more experienced does in the during the winter months and save your younger 1st time does for warmer days in the early spring.
From Dennis, Barb & Megan Kline:
During the winter we do not use anything to keep the kits warm.  We have our barn heated to 40-45 degrees and then hope the mother pulls plenty of fur and keeps them covered and fed.  We actually cull mothers who do not do a good job of mothering to also insure that we do not need to keep a close eye on things.  We think that using heat lamps, especially if kept too close, are not a good thing.  Sometimes it actually keeps the doe out of the nest box because she gets too hot while trying to nurse the kits.  We hope you all are having good luck with your litters and hope to see you all in Louisville, KY.
From Bob Bergene:
The question of how you keep kits warm and alive when they are born in cold weather is one that I leave up the doe.  In my rabbitry, I heat the barn to 40-42 degrees to keep the water from freezing.  Therefore when I put the nest box in with the doe 2 days before kindling, I prepare it the same way throughout the year.  I like to use brome or prairie hay with a small amount of pine shavings mixed in.  I then leave it up to mother nature to take its course.  If she is a good mother, she will pull fur and line the nest and have the babies in the box, (not on the wire).  If she has kindled and pulled fur after an hour or so, I will pull some fur from her in the area of the chest and the front shoulder.  Many breeders have used heat lamps, light bulbs, warming pads, etc. successfully but I choose just to let the doe take care of the litter as best she can.  Occasionally I will lose a litter in the winter if they are born on the wire, despite the heated rabbitry.  42 degrees is not enough to keep them warm and alive when born on the wire in the winter time.  I love the summer time, when I can come out and find a litter kindled on the wire and just throw them into the nest box and they will be just fine!  In the winter and even summer time, I will have a doe that insists on having her next on the opposite side of the cage where I put the box.  She will take all of bedding material out of the box and place on the opposite side.  I always try to put the box on the opposite side of the cage where she goes to the bathroom.  But when I see the doe taking the nest box material out of the box and piling it up on the opposite side and pulling fur there, I use the old double box trick!  I put two nest boxes in side by side and she will have a choice of the right box or the left box.  The doe will end up having to decide on one or the other.  Good luck, and I hope you raise 100% of the Dutch babies born.
From Theresa Schwandt:
During the winter is actually a great time to raise rabbits.  Well, it has to be, since most of your NDS prospects are born during this time.  The does do much better in the cold, raising bunnies than the heat of summer.   First of all I work on saving extra fur all summer long when it is not needed.  This is important since sometimes the does will prefer to keep their winter coat on and not pluck as much as they should.  I just take some of this fur and add where needed.  Don't worry, your doe won't mind.  Another quick fix for this is cotton balls.  You can pull them apart and "fluff" them and add 'em to the nest if you don't have any extra saved fur.  Some breeders do make use of nestbox heaters, but I have never tried one.  Our barn is an unheated pole building for now and it gets cold.  Another recommendation is to keep does that have the very best mothering instincts.  I have had litters born in subzero conditions and my experienced does have no problems saving the hole litter.  This is quite amazing, but credit must be given where due - Mothering instinct is so important. 
During the winter when we have litters due, which is most of the time, we are out there checking those does even late at night right before bed.  Sometimes it means playing a game of Rock-Paper-Scissors to decide who gets the honors of venturing out into the dark and cold...thank goodness I am better at that game than Dan:-) You have to be attentive and frequently check those nestboxes to make sure that your kits are in the warm nest of fur, not in the front of the box alone and cold or even worse on the wire. 
Good luck with your winter litters, but keep in mind that winter is a very unnatural time for rabbits to reproduce so you will lose some, but maybe you will produce the next NDS BOB!
From Julie Hume:
I wanted to share something that our family has created to give our babies the best chance of survival. We have only been breeding Dutch for about six years. The first year we did not have a very good rate of survival. The second year we would bring the moms into the basement to kindle, but then had the problem of deciding when to move everyone back out to the barn while it was still cold. It was also more difficult to keep things clean and limited how many litters we could raise over the winter. Insulating the barn helped, but we still lost the newborns if it was really cold. We asked a lot of questions and eventually decided to try a nest box with a sub floor that contained a light bulb. The first attempt, we tried two bulbs, a 25 watt and a 15 watt, thinking that would really keep the babies warm whether they were in the front or back of the box. Well, let me tell you, two bulbs are too hot, don’t try it. We didn’t try this method again until the following year, using one 12 watt bulb at the back of the box. This was successful; the litters seemed to do well as long as there were three or more babies.
About this same time we also tried creating a bowl affect in the bottom of the nest box using cardboard. We had problems with the kits getting separated in the nest box and losing one or two. Dave came up with the idea of forming a bowl so that gravity would help keep the kits in one area of the nest box. This has been very successful if the doe doesn’t rip it all out before she gives birth.
Another problem we had experienced was when a very young baby jumped out of the nest box or was dragged out hanging onto a nipple. If not discovered very quickly, the baby was a goner. I came up with the idea of dropping the nest box down so it was just above the floor of the cage. We bought a triple stacked cage and Dave started modifying it to accommodate a dropped nest box. So it did not interfere with the lower cage, the nest boxes had to be built on the outside of the cage. The nest boxes also had to be easy for us to remove, so the babies could be inspected periodically without have to go in through the cage itself and run the risk of the doe ripping our hand off. And then he created a door that would drop down when the nest box was removed so the doe would stay in the cage. These nest boxes have the false floor and the light bulb at the back. The bulb is unplugged when the weather is warm enough and with the box on the outside of the cage, there is not the chance the does can chew on the cords.
As long as the doe births in the nest box, our success rate of raising babies is almost 100% even during the coldest months. I do have to qualify that we keep our barn temperature at 35 degrees during the winter. Just with the insulation and body heat of the rabbits, we can maintain this temperature as long as the outside temperature is about 10 degrees.  If it falls below that, we use a heater on a thermostat to maintain the temperature.

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