Cold Weather Litters, Nest Boxes, Heat (and a little luck!)
By Sue Hill
This morning I went out to check on a litter that was due in my rabbit barn, which is just a separate detached garage north of my home. I heat it to 42 degrees during the winter and usually have fairly good success with litters even when it is bitterly cold outside, such as it is of the writing. Temps today are supposed to dip down into the -25 with the wind chill. My furnaces are running most of the time on these super cold days but at least the temperatures remain constant for me. After talking with a number of other breeders in the upper Midwest who are battling the freezing temperatures without the benefit of a furnace, it was interesting to hear what everyone comes up with to give babies the best chance possible during a time of the year when rabbits really aren't designed to even be having litters. Since these were the sort of articles I read and re-read as a youth breeder until the edges of the DR were tattered, I hope to share some of these ideas coming from several breeders to perhaps help your Dutch babies during the cold times of the year. For the sake of this article, I'm going to assume the rabbits are house in a building of some sort and not an outdoor free standing hutch.
One easy way of adding heat to the barn is by placing a temporary heating lamp over the pen of the newborn babies. Kevin Hooper said he has found this to work extremely well and helps babies make it through some of the real cold snaps we get during January and February. He secures the lamp approximately 24 inches above the box by attaching it to a hook driven into a 2 x 4 or beam placed at the right height above the pen. The babies can group together closer to the heat if they are chilled, or move away when they are warmed enough to stay comfortable.
With this method of heating, though, it is obviously critical to make sure the light is well secured so there is no chance of it falling or causing a fire. It also would be limited to the pens that were either the top one in a stacking set or to those suspended in a frame or hung from the top of the ceiling. John Milroy from WI has his does kindle in the top pen and tries to have the nest boxes end to end up against the cage sides so a heat lamp can cover two boxes at one time. In a smaller barn, such as one of these kits from a home building center, a heating lamp may be enough to keep the entire set up just above freezing, giving the doe a good chance of raising a live litter. Regardless, heating lamps seem to be a choice that many breeders use to get through the colder months.
Kevin also mentioned he tried something new recently with a sheet of pink insulation material that is easily attainable at any home improvement store. He cut it to fit the outside of the pen and then secured it, and just that extra insulation really helped the litter on the inside of the enclosure stay nice and toasty. I have done this in the past with chicks and actually built a temporary brooder out of this same insulation board. I put it together with the simplest means possible - three inch nails that I pushed into the corners to hold them together - and with the addition of the heat lamp on one open end, the "brooder" worked as good as any expensive contraption with electrically equipment heating elements or bulbs.
Melody Milroy has a newer 1 1/2 stall car garage that she quickly claimed for the rabbit building when she and her husband, Bill, purchased their home in Amherst Junction, WI. The rabbit section has insulation on the inside walls which was then covered with shower board for ease of cleaning. In the middle of her barn is an oil filled heater that has a thermostat. She is able to heat the barn easily in this radiant heat to both take the chill out of the air and keep the ice from freezing. Melody said she keeps her does due to kindle on either the top or middle section of her three tiered stacking pens so litters are away from the colder floor and exposed to more of the heat as it rises.
Another way to combat the cold, albeit a time consuming one, is to bring the nest boxes in the house during the day and take them out to the doe during feeding time. When I have done this myself (have a nestbox in the guest bathroom right now on the "to barn daily" plan), the doe has fed the babies soon after the box is placed back in the cage. I will start feeding on the opposite side of the barn so the doe is pretty much finished nursing the kits by the time she hears the feed being dumped in her dish. After chores are done, the nest boxes come back in and sit until the following evening. Several breeders I have talked with over the last few weeks have been doing this and it has paid off. The litters are strong and are ready to stay in the barn on a continual basis by the time they are 10 days to two 2 weeks old.
Whether or not your barn is heated may not factor in to your ability to raise babies. Several breeders have been able to raise litters in the dead of winter without the added benefit of heat. Some people choose to raise babies from the early spring time through the fall because they have little success when trying to have live litters during the cold winters. Others heat a small room instead of the entire barn. Roger Guetschow from Arlington, WI, has a little nursery with four sets of stacking pens that is heated by a little electric heater. Babies are kept in the nursery for approximately four weeks and then are transferred to the unheated barn until they are ready to be separated. Roger makes sure the weather is not so cold that the babies have trouble adapting to the temperature change.
However your barn is set up, it has to be done to adapt to the climate it is in. Our brethren to the south and west have another set of circumstances that are equally challenging with the heat of the summers. It would be nice at some point to talk with several warm weather Dutch breeders to see what works well with them. The nice thing about our hobby is that when someone has an idea that may work for another person, they are more than willing to share it. If you have a barn that you would like to highlight in a future Dutch Reporter, Consider contacting Dick Gehr for suggestions on how to put your article together. Pictures are always welcome and help when others are planning to build or improve their barn. Perhaps your way of raising rabbits could be one that others would benefit in knowing about. There is something special about being able to have those babies warm and toasty while the snow piles up outside, the temperatures plunge and winter refuses to give way to spring.