Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Best Hay For Your Rabbits




We have had several inquires about the type of, and how much hay we feed our rabbit's here at TAP rabbitry. While I have went into great length about the type and amount of pellets that we feed our rabbits, I have only given hay a cursory mention in two my previous articles: How and What We Feed, and Proper Rabbit Nutrition for your herd. So the focus of this article is about how we supplement our rabbits daily pellet regimen with hay.

We feed timothy hay in the mornings. When we get up to go out and check on the rabbits we water and place a handful of hay into the hay hangers of each rabbits cage. I realize a handful is not a very precise amount of hay, but as it is a supplement to their diet and not the rabbits primary form of nutrition we really do not get anymore specific than a handful. For our grow out cages, I stuff as much hay in the hangers as possible as we usually have many hungry little buns waiting for their morning hay. The grow out cages may get hay a couple times a day depending on the amount, age, and size of young growing rabbits in the cage.


Hay Selection

The three most common hay types that breeders feed their rabbits is timothy, coastal (a.k.a bermuda), and alfalfa. We purchase compressed 50lb bales of timothy hay from our local Tractor Supply for less than $16.00 a bale. I cannot find coastal hay in my area in manageable size bales, but I have to admit I have not pursued it that vigorously. We do not feed our rabbits alfalfa hay as the primary ingredient in the pellets that we feed is alfalfa meal. My research has led me to believe that feeding alfalfa hay in addition to a good pellet that is rich in alfalfa can cause your rabbits to have kidney and urinary problems related to an over abundance of minerals (primarily calcium and phosphorous). See my article on Proper Rabbit Nutrition on our blog.

When you purchase or open a compressed bale of hay it should be green in color and have the smell of fresh cut grass. The fresher the hay, the better the nutrient and mineral composition of the hay. This is especially important if you decided to feed your rabbits a diet of hay and miscellaneous greens only. I do not recommend this approach for meat rabbits, but I have several customers who feed all the livestock on their farms nothing but alfalfa hay with some miscellaneous wild greens. It is my own opinion, based on the research that I have done that if you want good, consistent meat yields from your rabbits, hay is better used as a supplement to a good quality pellet rather than as a primary source of dietary nutrition.




Timothy Hay

Sometimes labeled as timothy grass, it is the probably the most common type of hay type fed to cattle and livestock by today's farmers. If you are feeding your rabbits a good quality pellet, then this is the hay that I would use to supplement your rabbits diet with. According to the website 'Feedipedia', “timothy hay has long been recommended to provide fibre, in addition to concentrate feeds, in rabbit diets for small holder rabbit meat production (Cassady et al., 1966; Schlolaut et al., 1995), and more recently for pet rabbit maintenance (McNitt et al., 2013). Contrary to alfalfa hay, timothy hay cannot support maintenance in adults when used as the sole feed (Richards et al., 1962; Uden et al., 1982). However, it has been possible to include timothy hay up to 60 or even 75% in balanced diets without causing health problems (Keener et al., 1958; Uden et al., 1982).”


Alfalfa Hay

If you feed a good quality pellet to your rabbits (one in which the primary ingredient is alfalfa or alfalfa meal) then I would avoid feeding your rabbits alfalfa hay. Alfalfa hay has 3.36 times more potassium than timothy hay, and 2.97 times more potassium than coastal (bermuda) hay. Too much calcium can cause your rabbits to develop stones in their kidneys, bladder and ureters which is not only painful but can cause death in an otherwise healthy rabbit. The potential for complications related to too much potassium and calcium when feeding alfalfa hay along with a good quality alfalfa based pellet is to high in my opinion. If you feed a good quality pellet, then timothy or coastal hay is a much better choice.

Can rabbits live on alfalfa hay alone? Well yes, we have a few customers who swear that they only feed their rabbits alfalfa hay and miscellaneous weeds. However, a diet primarily based on alfalfa hay alone is not sufficient for good quality meat rabbit production. According to the website 'Feedipedia', “As a source of energy, alfalfa cannot fully meet the growth requirements of commercial rabbits, mainly because of its physiological limitation in ingestion (Fernandez-Carmona et al., 1998). Alfalfa hay is also a valuable source of protein (25% of the dietary protein) though its nutritive value varies greatly, depending on several factors such as the harvesting and drying process or plant maturity at harvest. Though alfalfa protein content is sufficient to meet rabbit requirements, the low digestibility of alfalfa protein makes it unsuitable for sustaining high growth rates (Fernandez-Carmona et al., 1998). The apparent digestibility of faecal protein of alfalfa hay is about 21% that of soybean meal value and its methionine content is 42% that of soybean meal one (Villamide et al., 2010). In tropical regions, where alfalfa is not readily grown, other protein sources such as bambara groundnut can be used instead (Aganga et al., 2005). Due to heavy fertilizer applications, feeding alfalfa to rabbits may result in excess K (Mateos et al., 2010). Alfalfa hay is rich in calcium: this may be an advantage during the growth period but it should be limited or avoided in adult rabbits (Lowe, 2010).”


Coastal Bermuda Hay (Coastal/Orchard Mix)

Coastal hay is a pretty broad term that is loosely tossed around as a generic label by many growers. In general, 'coastal hay' is a mix of 'coastal bermuda grass and orchard grass' in which the primary component is bermuda grass. The USDA in Texas classifies this combination simply as 'coastal bermuda hay'. Of the three (timothy, alfalfa, and coastal) coastal hay has the least amount of crude protein. As with timothy hay, coastal hay should not be your meat rabbits primary dietary source of protein, fiber, and carbohydrates if you want to maximize your growth and meat yields. According to the website 'Feedipedia', “Bermuda grass used as a sole feed did not support maintenance in adult rabbits (Deshmukh et al., 1989).” So coastal hay may be a good supplement, but you should not use it as your rabbits primary source of nutrition.



Proper Hay Storage

Storing your hay is important, after all you have spent good hard earned money and your really do not want to waste it by letting your hay get moldy or infested with rodents. When it comes to hay, water is not your friend. If your hay gets damp and begins to mold it is essentially a waste. You can throw it in your compost pile or if you live on a big enough farm give it to your goats and cattle, but do not feed it to your rabbits. Rabbits have a pretty unique digestive system and moldy hay is very likely to upset that balance and make them sick. While our rabbits are voracious eaters, I am not sure if they would even eat moldy hay, but we would not give them the option.

So make sure you store your hay in a container that will keep it dry and rodent free. When we open a bale of timothy hay, we place it in two 50 gallon aluminum trashcans with lids that we bought just for this purpose. The trashcans are stored in a closed shed to keep any rain or other moisture out the hay so that it stays dry and keeps it from getting moldy. In addition, a closed container helps keep field mice and rats from making burrows and or nests in the hay. We really have no desire to feed out rabbits hay that has mice or rat urine and feces in it, and neither should you.


TAP's Tips For Purchasing Hay:

1) Do not purchase hay in those cute little bags you see at your local pet store, Walmart, or feed store. The cost for some of this small 'convienance' bags is almost the same price as you would pay for a 50lb bale. As an example: a 40oz bag of Oxbow Western Timothy Hay at Petsmart is $12.99, whereas a 50lb compressed bale of Standlee 'Grab & Go' Timothy Hay at Tractor Supply is $15.99.

2) Purchase the freshest hay you can. When purchasing hay it should be green of color and smell of fresh cut grass when you open the bale. The greener hay is, the fresher it is. Fresh hay has better nutritional value than older hay. Try and stay away from hay that is more pale or brown than green. The browner the hay the more dust it will have, and while it will still have plenty of fibre, it is not as nutritious as fresh hay as the nutrients in the grass begin to breakdown as they hay gets older.

3) If you are purchasing hay from a local farmer or rancher. Try and make sure the hay you are buying is fresh cut, or has been stored less than 6 months in a covered area. Damp hay is a haven for mold which is not good for your rabbits, and the longer hay is sitting in the barn, the greater the chance it will have large amounts of rodent feces and urine in it which is also not so good for your rabbits.

4) Do not purchase hay that has additives in it such as molasses. This may be good for horses, goats and cattle, but it could upset your rabbits digestive system making them sick. I realize that Texas A&M University performed studies in 2000 in which rabbits were fed alfalfa and molasses blocks which they made at their facility with out any apparent problems. However for small farm use, hay which has molasses in it has a tendency to mold quicker than other types of hay. Because mold has the potential to cause you to have unexpected deaths in your herd, we encourage you to check the label and not purchase hay with molasses or other additives.


Conclusion

We feed our adult rabbits timothy hay every morning (about a handful per rabbit). When the kits begin to wean they also begin to eat the hay we have left for momma, although it is usually in a hay hanger and they can only get to it when the can reach up for it. This allows the kits to focus on eating pellets until the are able to stretch up and reach the hay basket. We recommend that you not feed your rabbits any hay that has additives such as molasses. This may be good for horses, cattle or goats, but not so good for your rabbit.

Whether you purchase your hay from a local farm, ranch, or local retail outlet, it should be green of color and smell of fresh cut grass when you open the bale. Whether you give your rabbits full access to hay all day, or only feed them a measured amount once a day, it is our recommendation that for meat rabbit production, that hay be used as a supplement, not a primary source of nutrition. In addition, if you feed your rabbits a good pellet (one based on alfalfa or alfalfa meal), then you should feed either timothy or coastal hay and not alfalfa.

While your rabbits can live on grasses alone, for best growth and meat production you should use a good quality pellet feed. Having said that, if you wish to raise your rabbits solely on hay, then I would recommend using alfalfa. As always, we ask that if you find this information interesting that you please share it with your friends on Facebook and Google+. Don't forget to send us a friend request on Facebook and Google+. You can also subscribe to our blog so that you do not miss any of our new articles or our notices regarding new rabbit's that are for sale.


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Resources:

M. E. Ensminger, J. E. Oldfield, and W. W. Heinemann, Feeds & Nutrition by M. E. Ensminger, J. E., (Second Edition 1990).

Linga S.S., Lukefahr S.D., Feeding Of Alfalfa Hay With Molasses Blocks Or Crumbles To Growing Rabbit Fryers. Deparetment of Animal Science & Wildlife Sciences, Texas A&M University. http://www.lrrd.org/lrrd12/4/ling124.htm

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