Proper levels of vitamins and minerals are key to a meat rabbits’ health. Minerals, including calcium and phosphorous, are necessary for proper bone and teeth development and adequate milk production. Iodine is another mineral that rabbits require to promote the growth of quality fur and pelts. Vitamins are essential in the conversion of carbohydrates into energy. Certain vitamins activate catalysts, the catalysts activate the enzymes which release the stored energy in carbohydrates.
One way meat rabbits can process more vitamins from their food is by eating their droppings. Rabbits are one of a few animals that consume its’ own droppings. This is called coprophagy and is normal and necessary in rabbits. Rabbits produce two different kinds of droppings. Hard ones that are generally produced during the daytime are not consumed. The second, a much softer and smaller version, is produced in the evenings or early mornings and are consumed directly from the rabbits’ posterior. These soft ones are higher in B complex vitamins and protein than the harder ones and help the rabbit absorb a greater percentage of the available vitamins and protein in their feed.
Rabbits are monogastric (single stomach) and herbivorous (eat only plants). This means that they can digest plant proteins very well. Their diets should consist primarily of fresh, green plants, primarily grasses and leguminous plants. Most meat rabbit raisers choose to feed a pelletized feed for reasons of simplicity or practicality. Pellets are usually balanced to meet a rabbits’ nutritional needs but should be supplemented with hay daily. Some rabbit raisers are striving to feed their rabbits a more natural and inexpensive diet by raising them on pasture and feeding nutritious fruit and vegetables and their byproducts. This can significantly reduce your feed bill but must be watched carefully and balanced nutritionally.
Protein needs vary by the rabbits’ age and state of pregnancy. Crude protein levels will vary from 14-17%. Protein is a key component for muscle development and cannot be ignored by someone feeding meat rabbits. Rabbits are very efficient at utilizing proteins, converting up to 80% of protein available in alfalfa hay which is why most rabbit pellets are composed primarily of alfalfa meal.
Energy is primarily provided through carbohydrates and fats. A major ingredient in rabbit pellets are grains and grain byproducts which are high in starch. Starch is easily converted by the rabbit into glucose and glucose is a simple carbohydrate. Fats contain more than twice as much energy by weight than carbohydrates. Be cautious with fat in the diet because rabbits eat to their energy requirements and may not receive enough total feed to meet vitamin and mineral needs if they meet their energy needs to quickly.
Fiber promotes the passage of food through the gut. Rabbits digest fiber poorly, digesting only 14%. The large fiber particles proceed rapidly through the rabbit and are excreted. Fiber is also a starch but its’ chemical structure prevents it from being broken down and used as an energy source. The best source of fiber for a rabbit is grass or alfalfa hays. Hay (either alfalfa or grass hays) should be offered daily. Caution should be taken to only feed hay that is dry and mold-free. Try to avoid hay that is too stemy as this is a sign that it may be high in fiber and low in digestibility. A simple, unscientific test is to try to twist the hay between your hands like you’re wringing out a towel. If it is very tough to break it may be too fibrous. Most pellets include high levels of alfalfa hay but long-stem hay should also be fed separately.
Rabbit nutrition is a large and complex subject. We looked at the fiber, protein and energy needs of the rabbit. Each of these is equally important and may be addressed further in future shows. You can find a great spreadsheet for balancing for rabbit’s diet at World Rabbit Science.