Neat cages made of timber and stainless weldmesh hosting dozens of animals welcome one to the Ngong National Rabbit Breeding Centre.
On top of the 15 cages there is a 100-litre water tank with pipes running from the container into the facilities that host 50 rabbits, three in each partition.
Not far from the cages is a farm hosting various kinds of vegetables that include sukuma wiki (collard greens), cabbages, sweet potato vines and carrots.
“Successful rabbit farming depends on three things, first is the right structures in terms of houses, cages and pens. Two, a good feeding regime from when the animals are young to maturity and three, prevention and control of diseases,” says Vincent Maritim, the Deputy Officer in-charge of the centre.
The three things can easily be picked at the centre as one walks along.
Maritim says rabbit cages should be put in a house with enough ventilation and spaces that will allow natural light to reach the animals but at the same time shield them from harsh weather and rodents and predators like wild animals.
“A standard cage should measure 80cm in length, 60cm in width and 45cm in height. A wire mesh made of stainless steel should be used for ease of maintenance because it does not rust and most importantly, it offers sufficient ventilation,” he offers, highlighting lessons farmers who visit the facility pick.
Besides the cages, rabbits too need nesting boxes for pregnant does or those with kits.
“The boxes should measure 30cm in length, width and height made of wood and weld mesh for the floor.”
Jamin Chebon, a rabbit husbandry technician at the centre, notes that the weldmesh is the best because it does not rust.
“If you use material that rusts, it will not only make the cages wear out faster, but could also kill the rabbits when they lick it,” he says, adding a weldmesh cage is easy to clean as openings in the mesh ensure that faecal matter and urine drop out curbing odour that may kill the kits.
The feeders should be cleaned every day and water should also be replaced daily, Chebon advises.
“Rabbits should be fed twice a day, in the morning and evening, a schedule that should be strictly adhered to for better management. Giving the animals lots of feeds, more than necessary hoping to make them grow faster does not work.
FEEDING THE RABBITS
Rabbits depend on greens like sukuma wiki, cabbage, sweet potatoes vines, carrots and calliandra and commercial feeds such as the pellets and hay.”
A mature rabbit should only be fed 150g of pellets per day and about 50g for weaners. The quantity, however, depends on the rabbit’s age and body size.
“They may chew on one or two things like hay during the day but we do not consider this to be feeding. Animals get conditioned, so sticking to a specific schedule will be fine because they will get used to it,” says Maritim.
Poor feeding regime and administering fresh green matter, especially those high in protein content, are the main causes of bloating, a major killer of the animals.
“Green matter contains lots of water. It should be wilted before feeding the animals to ensure that there is no production of gas in the digestive system, preventing bloating. Wilting should be done a day before feeding of the animals,” says Maritim.
There are two types of commercial feeds – plant and animal-based pellets. Maritim warns that rabbits should not be fed pellets made from different ingredients as this can also cause bloating.
“A farmer who wants to go commercial should first seek training before using the feeds. A sudden change of diet will cause rabbit to bloat.”
There are diseases that affect the animals, and they mostly arise from housing, feeding and hygiene.
“A common disease is coccidiosis, which also affects poultry. Others are bloat and diarrhoea, which farmers simply call passing loose stool,” says Maritim.
According to him, bloating in rabbits is the leading killer as the swelling of the stomach takes up the space of other organs like lungs, making it difficult for them to breathe.
“You can know a rabbit is healthy when its active, darting from one place to another, its eyes are bright and hair smooth. A sick rabbit looks sleepy, its eyes half-closed and hair unkempt.”
When a rabbit bloats, it should not be given any food until the condition is under control. A farmer should give its tummy massage to ease the pressure of the excess gas in the stomach.
A good rabbit breed, according to Maritim, should have faster growth rate, be resistant to diseases and have good body weight.
GOOD RABBIT BREEDS
The common breeds are New Zealand White, California White and Dutch and they can reach their full body weight potential in four months.
Breeds like Flemish Giant and Checkered Giant, however, take longer time to attain full body weight but have a higher body weight.
“New Zealand White and California White are also disease-resistant but this should not matter much as proper housing structures and their maintenance, and good feeding regime should eliminate this worry,” he says.
Farmers should also keep records so that every breed has a history.
“This makes one be able to trace the animal’s generation to make sure every the offspring have as good genes as its parents. If you want to select a male animal, you are likely to choose the son of that other male animal that was good, meaning history is an important factor in selection,” he says.
Record-keeping will also aid in the prevention of inbreeding as the records will show which male served which doe, the time of serving or mounting, the breed of both the male and the female.
He advises that rabbits should be kept in their own cages when they attain three months.
“A farmer should use mating ability and weight as a criteria to select a male rabbit for breeding while for the female rabbit, mothering ability should be of most importance.”
Further for does, the criteria used should be the amount of hair they shed after giving birth for warmth of kits and also the number of bunnies it is able to raise till the weaning period.
A female rabbit is fully mature for breeding at five months while the males at six months.
“Using underage rabbits for breeding should be discouraged because offspring may be born prematurely making their survival chances low, the doe may never grow from that point onwards and the rabbit may also not give birth as many times as it should have.”
The average number of offspring a rabbit can give birth to is six and a maximum of 12 to 14. The minimum number of offspring a rabbit can give birth to can fall to 1, depending on its viability and sperm count of the male which served it.
Rabbit Keeping on the Rise
There are no payments or registration for farmers when they visit the Ngong Rabbit Centre. Payment is made when there is training, where they part with Sh2,500 for three days.
“This is a breeding and training centre. We train farmers on how to raise rabbits and how to go commercial with rabbit farming. The training should be free, but there are costs that have to be incurred like lunch and stationery,” says Vincent Maritim, the deputy officer at the centre.
They sell rabbits to farmers who come for the breeding stock. They include individuals, institutions, farmers’ associations and farmers from neighbouring countries like Tanzania as well.
“Most farmers buy our rabbits for breeding. We only sell the non-productive rabbits for eating to farmers. We sell weaners at Sh750 and three-month olds at Sh1,500.”
Rabbit farming is fast spreading in the country due to its vast potential and ease of management.
The increasing cost of beef, mutton and poultry have motivated many farmers to rearing rabbits, which they slaughter themselves.
The meat is also sought in niche market.