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Winter Breeding


by Theresa Schwandt (Kortbein)

Wintertime is again upon us here in the Midwest. With the coming of winter, so come the added challenges of breeding Dutch. During this time of year, a breeder will possibly see lower conception rates in does as well as a higher mortality rate in kits. Being that our National Dutch Show is usually in April and you want your juniors to be at least 4 to 5 months old, this means that breeding during the winter months for your prospective show winners is necessary. Luckily, Dutch are a very hardy and maternal breed that can successfully kindle and raise a litter even in the freezing conditions. As most experienced breeders know, the lower conception rate during the winter is due to the shorter length of daylight. Winter in general is an unnatural time for reproduction in rabbits. Some breeders will leave the lights on in the rabbitry to extend the day for the rabbits, which can be very effective. This is something that I have not tried as of yet, but someday when I have my dream rabbitry I will do so, until then...
What I am doing now seems to be working fine or at least well enough that I have been content with the results for the last few years. Currently when breeding during the winter I will breed the chosen pair together and then repeat the mating in maybe a half hour to an hour later. I also like to do this the next day as well. With doing this I don't have too many missed litters provided that the doe is receptive. I do not do this multiple breeding during the warmer months with longer days as I have found that this will increase the litter size and I prefer a litter of 5-6 kits, not 10. When it is warm and the days are longer I only breed once. A non-receptive doe is another challenge of winter breeding but as we all know this can happen any time of the year, just more in winter. If the doe is not receptive to the buck that I have chosen, I will try a different buck and see if that makes a difference, sometimes the doe is just picky believe it or not. I have also found that taking the doe and placing her in the buck cage (without the buck, basically switching cages) will do the trick as the new smells may get her interested. Another trick, if the timing is right, take her to a show. With all the stimulation of smells and the change in the environment (temp/noise level etc.) the doe may become receptive. Of course there is also the method of table breeding, which is giving the pair assistance by a controlled, hands-on technique on a solid, carpeted surface. I don't particularly prefer this method and rarely use it, as the results that I have gotten or should say have not gotten do not impress me. After about 2 weeks I will check the doe back with the buck. If she is not receptive at that time and seems upset by the whole thing (growling and grunting), I progress as if she is bred. Keep in mind that this check-back is not always reliable and I don't solely rely on it. In addition, I also use palpation as a tool to assess whether the doe is bred. I will do this around the 3rd week of gestation, at which time you can easily feel for the unborn kits. When my doe is ready to kindle I place a nestbox in with the doe filled with at least 1 inch of pine shavings in the bottom and then stuffed with soft grass hay. I like to stuff it full because I figure that she will eat some and some hay will be lost due to "rearranging" by the doe. I know other breeders will utilize heat lamps and nestbox warming pads, but I have not done so up to this point. I will not claim that I haven't lost litters, but I will say that I do raise a lot of bunnies successfully during these cold Wisconsin winters. Dutch make great mothers and they have little trouble kindling successfully in temperatures down to the single digits. When you get below zero is when I have more of a concern, although amazingly enough I have had success at that time too. Once the doe has kindled, I check the box frequently and make sure that the kits are warm. If the doe has not plucked enough fur to keep the kits warm, I will either use fur from another doe or if unavailable, cotton balls make nice addition to the nest for warmth. In the past I have tried bringing the boxes into the house and only returning them to the doe daily, long enough for her to nurse them. I have had good and bad results with this method. It has worked well for some does and I have also had a few that quit taking care of their litter so I ended up fostering the bunnies to another doe. Due to this, I no long utilize this practice. I prefer to just let the doe raise her litter while keeping a watchful eye on the process. As the bunnies mature I will continually add soft grass hay to the nestbox for added bedding/insulation and they like to nibble on it too. I free-feed the doe and litter, just watching them grow.
As the bunnies mature it is important that they stay in the nest until they are ready to leave, meaning they can get back in as well. It is unfortunate but common for a bunny to get out of the nestbox and then is unable to get back into the warm nest. This can happen as the doe hops out of the box while nursing them and they are pulled out still holding onto the doe or just jumping out on their own accord. Either way, if they are not returned to the warmth of the nestbox, especially with winter's cold temperatures, the kit won't last long out on the wire. This is yet another reason for a watchful eye. It seems to me that when the weather is milder the kits will be more adventurous and come out of the box too soon as opposed to when the weather is frigid. Using a taller nestbox can help with this but there are no guarantees. As we know, bunnies can be lost on the wire or out of the nest during the summer months as well, just not as frequently. In conclusion, I try to be aggressive with my winter breeding program, as in my opinion it is the best way to be effective and successful on the spring time show table. Yes, you may lose some, but you will also produce some. You never know, those winter bunnies may lead to a win at the National Dutch Show.

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