Sunday, November 22, 2009

Nutrition and Feed Labels

--another post from the old blog

I took a close look at the nutrition labels on my feed bags the other day, and did a little reading up on what types of information a breeder could expect to glean from the 'Guaranteed Analysis' and 'Ingredients' list.

First of all, different feeds have different formulations depending on what the intended use is. Commercial Meat operations normally require a high protein feed that supports fast growth and an intensive breeding schedule (about 18%), while Wool herds require a high level of protein coupled with high fiber levels to encourage healthy gut motility and maximum wool growth (usually about 17-18%). Pet rabbits or rabbits who are not being bred or stressed in any way generally just require a 'maintenance' formula, which can be lower in both fiber and protein (15-16%). While ingredients and amounts on assorted labels may vary, the essential nutrients can be grouped into the following categories:


These components are listed on feedbags in various orders, usually followed by (min) or (max) to show how much or how little of the ingredient is included. In the book 'Rabbit Production' a clear description of how to read a feed label is included:

"By law, a feed tag must provide certain information, varying somewhat by state or province. Crude protein is usually listed as "minimum" or "min." In other words, the feed manufacturer can provide more protein than listed on the tag. The manufacturer is not likely to consciously do so, as protein is expensive. Similarly, the crude fiber is listed as "maximum" or "max." Again, this is to protect the buyer. Fiber sources are generally cheaper than grains. By stating a maximum fiber level, the manufacturer assures the buyer that cheap, low quality fibrous feedstuffs haven't been added to dilute the feed. If the feed has less than the maximum fiber content listed, it means that higher cost ingredients have been used. As a result, rabbit feeds generally have protein contents very similar to the tag values, whereas crude fiber levels are often lower than listed. This regulation has caused misunderstanding by some rabbit raisers, who may want their feed to contain a particular fiber level. They would prefer that the tag read "minimum" for crude fiber. However, this is not required by feed regulations.
It is impossible to look at a feed tag and say conclusively that the feed is good or bad. The information provided is insufficient to allow a judgment to be made. Crude protein is not a measurement of protein at all, but a measure of nitrogen. There is no indication on the tag of the quality of the protein (its content of essential amino acids). There is no indication of the digestibility of the protein. A crude Protein analysis does not distinguish between soybean meal and shoe leather. There is no information on a feed tag about the energy content of the feed or about the specific level of minerals and vitamins." (pgs. 150-151)

Since we cannot get specific information from the 'guaranteed analysis' itself, it often helps to look beneath at what is contained in the ingredient list. First, the best source of roughage in rabbit feed is generally considered to be Alfalfa meal. While Alfalfa is an excellent source of high fiber, it is also significantly high in a type of protein that is well digested by rabbits. It is also an excellent source of phosphorus, calcium, and potassium, and contains indigestible fiber which is helpful in preventing enteritis. In addition to this, it contains vitamin A and carotene. Considered altogether, the virtues of Alfalfa usually make it the very first ingredient in high quality rabbit feeds.

Significant sources of grain (carbohydrates) are Corn, Wheat, Milo, Barley and Oats. Corn, wheat, and milo are high energy grains, while barley and oats tend to be on the lower end of the spectrum because of their fibrous hulls. Corn (especially) is not recommended for use in hot climates or during the summertime because of the possibility of gut imbalances leading to diarrhea, and barley and oats should be scaled back during the warmer seasons as well. Oats and corn are highest in fat content, while barley is the highest in fiber content. Corn is considered to be the highest energy grain available.

The best and most reliable source of protein in rabbit feed is Soybean meal. Soybeans (heated/roasted, never raw) are palatable to rabbits, have high digestibility, and are well balanced in amino acids. Other supplements for protein found in rabbit feed include Cottonseed meal, Sunflower meal, Rapeseed meal, Safflower meal, Linseed meal, and Peanut meal.

Additional ingredients found in rabbit feed are probiotics (to reduce growth of pathogens in the digestive tract), pellet binders (such as bentonite or lignin sulfonate), flavoring agents such as thyme or molasses, Salt (a necessary ingredient to satisfy sodium chloride and trace mineral requirements), Copper Sulfate (to inhibit growth of pathogenic bacteria in the digestive tract), Yucca Extract (to reduce the release of ammonia into the air and keep odor down in the rabbitry), and enzymes such as those found in pineapple and papaya to break down hairballs in the wool breeds.

A well formulated pellet will ensure that herds are kept healthy and productive in every capacity, but a poorly formulated one can result in a range of health problems, some of which can be fatal. The storage of feed is also very important. Bags must be stored in a dry location that is rodent proof, and pellets must either be kept in the bag or stored in metal or plastic bins. The milling dates of all feeds should be checked upon pickup, and anything older than 3-6 months should likely be discarded due to loss of vitamin content and the increased likelihood of rancidity (mold or toxins developing in the feed). The best feed is a feed that is freshly milled with the highest quality ingredients. If you use your rabbits as a guide, the freshest feed is also the one that is most readily eaten, while older pellets tend to offend a rabbit's sensitive palate and are often left sitting in the dish.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Quick Grooming Note:)

It's a simple thing that might seem obvious but after just having groomed a bunch of bunnies this week it is important to remember that the short hair on Angora faces molts too!! From what I see here it doesn't always seem to molt at the same rate as the body wool---especially if a bunny doesn't fully release to begin with, but it definitely does blow several times a year and it is important at those times to take a slicker and brush their little heads vigorously to get the stuff all off:). I groomed some bucks recently and couldn't get over how much fur was coming off their foreheads, so do make a point of grooming the WHOLE rabbit every time you take your bunnies out for maintenance!

Have a great week:-)

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Stess, Timing, and Routine

---another post from the old blog

I have been thinking quite a bit lately about Stress in rabbits. I have always been a strong proponent of routine and consistency with animals, and I believe this idea translates to every other thing that we do in our lives. When I first got into bunnies I realized that the calmer the surroundings of the herd were and the more consistent their daily routine, the less health problems they seemed to have. I often heard (and continue to hear today) stories of problems people are having with their bunnies' health: breeding problems, conditioning problems, woolblock problems, eating problems, weight problems, etc. etc. etc. When you question them further about the details, it almost always comes out that some sort of inconsistency in management is taking place that the person often has no idea is having any effect on their herds. What exactly does 'inconsistency' mean? Let's use feed as an example. Say you buy a certain feed for your bunnies that is considered a 'quality pellet' for angoras, and begin feeding it. After a certain period of time you notice that the condition of your rabbits has not improved despite the fact that you have switched from a standard pellet to one that contains more protein to sustain and grow a wool coat, and you were told by breeders with excellent stock that you would get results. All other things being equal, it is now time to go beyond your feed and take a look at your feed routine. Begin by asking yourself these simple questions:

1) Do you feed your bunnies at the same time every day?

2) Do you feed your bunnies the same amount every day (measured)?

3) Do you continue to feed the same brand without switching to other feeds when you run out--substituting cheaper pellets to stretch the expensive stuff, let the bunnies go several days on hay and grain before picking up the next batch of feed, and so on and so forth?

4) Do you add lots of treats to the bunnies' diets that are not technically 'bunny approved'? For ex, do you allow 'human' foods such as processed foods or foods that contain sugar, artificial ingredients, and other additives? Are treats given often?

5) Do you supply fresh water daily?

6) Are parts of the bunnies' individual days unpredictable as a rule?

The point I am trying to make is that simply buying good products won't do the job in producing high quality show bunnies and excellent woolers. The ingredient that is much more important (that we neglect to mention or think about) is the importance of routine. Rabbits are flight animals, which dictates that they live in a constant state of alertness and experience chronic levels of stress. In Nature this is beneficial because it enhances survival, but in domestic rabbits it can pose serious problems in terms of achieving maximum growth, optimal weight, and most of all, good condition. In human beings Stress is at the root of serious health problems, and in children it has been connected with learning difficulties, psychological problems, and interference with physical growth in some cases. Rabbits are even more susceptible to stress than people, so in order to raise good stock we need an environment that is healthy and a routine that is consistent and regular.

Pick one time of day to feed your bunnies and stick with it. Try aligning your feed schedule with the time rabbits normally eat in the wild, (near or around dusk), and fill their dishes in the late afternoon or early evening. Feeding on a schedule decreases stress by allowing the herd to know exactly when it can expect to be fed. A regular schedule also leads to improved eating and more predictable weight gain.

Always feed your bunnies the same amount each day. Keep an old measuring cup in your feed bucket and bring it out with you religiously to measure feed for every rabbit every day. If you need to increase feed for whatever reason (wintertime, does with litters, etc.), do so slowly, at an amount of no more than 1/8 cup extra feed per day until you reach the desired ration. Erratic feeding leads to upset stomachs, and upset stomachs lead to bunnies who won't eat or drink properly and lose condition.

Pick the best brand of feed you can afford and feed it day in and day out no matter what. This is not to say that emergencies don't happen and feed supplies at stores don't run out unexpectedly (because they do), but always do your part to have the same fresh feed on hand, enough bags in storage to last you through the month, and (ideally) more than one source for the same brand of feed should one location run out at the last minute. I have an agreement worked out with my own feed store so that they order enough of what I need each month in addition to the normal feed order and put it aside for me to pick up the same week. Keeping the feed brand consistent in your herd is important for obvious reasons---again---less digestive upset and a better chance for the feed you're using to pass on it's benefits over time.

Human treats for bunnies are never a good idea. Rabbits are herbivores, which means that they have NO REQUIREMENT for deli meat, bacon, dried fruit with sugar added, or sweetened human cereal. Certain herbs and greens will do no harm and can even be beneficial in small amounts, but even they should not be dietary staples, and overuse will accustom your rabbits to foods that cannot possibly sustain them or keep them healthy in the long run.

Fresh water is critical to good condition because bunnies with no access to water will not eat. The best Conditioners are usually the rabbits who drink the most, and these also tend to have the fewest problems with woolblock.

Paying attention to wool cycles and removing coats promptly when a molt begins is also important for maintaining condition, since a woolblocked bunny obviously won't eat at all. Timing is a critical issue. Bunnies who are fed good quality feed on a timely schedule thrive---bunnies who are maintained on a regular harvest schedule thrive, also. In other words, WHEN and HOW you do a thing is almost always more important than WHAT you do to your bunnies to develop a quality line. Keep rabbit schedules as boring and regimented as possible so that stressful surprises do not occur. Handle your bunnies only as much as necessary to avoid excessive self grooming and added stress. Provide the best quality feed and care possible and do not change it without a very, very good reason.

So anyway, that is the bunny philosophy for tonight:). I realize that there are people out there who claim rabbits should be 'bombproofed' to make them 'cope' better with the stresses of life and showing , but there really are physical limits to how much any rabbit can tolerate by nature, and a stressed rabbit will NEVER condition as well or look as good as a rabbit in a solid, regular management program at the end of the day. Quality and consistency are key and the most important ingredients in any endeavor, particularly bunny raising!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Pluckers and Shearers

There has been a great deal of discussion lately on the lists regarding French Angoras who are raised to be plucked vs. those that are bred to be sheared. While grooming last weekend I took a doe out of the barn that I had been experimenting with to see how far she would go into 'total molt', and she definitely delivered:).

To back up a little, the majority of rabbits in my breeding program do not molt. What I mean by this is that most do not ever get to the point where their wool is released totally, making it possible to pluck their coats. Most go into a long drawn-out slipping stage where their wool declines in quality and has to be removed by clipping. Many of them will drop bits of wool here and there in the cage pan when the time for a harvest is near, but none ever blow their coats completely to the point where it is falling off and the fluff is flying around 24/7, LOL. This is acceptable and exactly what I prefer my rabbits to do because they are bred for show before anything else, but it is different from what the original French Angoras were bred to do, and different from what many fiber breeders at the present time prefer their animals to do. My own feeling is that a rabbit that is sheared is healthier than one that is plucked, but this is my personal opinion.

When I first got into FAs, the first bunnies I had were serious pluckers. I was told to comb their wool out when they began to molt so I did, but later on I acquired different stock that did NOT molt easily, and the rabbits had to be clipped in order to harvest their wool. Clipping worked better for my management needs than combing/plucking because the rabbits could be bred to molt (or 'slip') on a schedule that coincided with the spring/fall show schedules. The wool could be removed all at once with no delay and less strain on my hands, and there were far fewer issues with woolblock in my herd. I began breeding more rabbits who did not 'molt' and I crossed those who did into the ones that didn't so the offspring gradually grew even coats as well. For several years I had 'tweens' in my herd who seemed to both molt and need clipping (if that makes sense), but most eventually evened out with several babies still cropping up with non-synchronized senior coats a couple times a year. At present, 95% of my herd are clipping rabbits (not counting the NZ crosses), but there is still a tiny core in the barn that leans more toward the plucking-style coats.

This rabbit shown below is one of my 'pluckers:)'. Her name is Althea which means 'Black Night', and she is an old line rabbit that I kept exclusively because of her excellent color. She was born dark with no white hairs, snips, or faded color, and she managed to keep this color throughout her 2 years, throwing it onto a beautifully colored litter that was kindled last spring. She is not a show rabbit as she does not have good type and can never grow wool densely enough to compete with the buns that are sheared, but I keep her in an effort to pass her color to the rest of the herd.

After reading a discussion on the FA List about plucking and clipping, I decided to let Althea revert back to her natural molt cycle to see how long it would last and whether she would really release her coat to the point where it could be harvested without any pull or resistance. In the past I have clipped her even though she grows back unevenly because her function has been solely as a breeder (I did not want her to go off feed or shed multiple coats, etc). This time I let her go for a period of 5 months during which I was able to see two distinct coats coming in. At the end of the 5th month there were two coats of two different ages present (one new and one just coming into molt), and at this point Althea began to consume less feed and drink less water. She continued to look healthy and move normally, but instead of 1 mounded cup of feed she scaled back to 3/4 cup. Soon thereafter the water consumption fell off, so I decided to remove both coats and give her a break before the next breeding.

This first picture below shows Althea after she came in and I set her on the grooming table. You can see the various lengths of different coats growing in here. The newer growth is much darker than the old.

I picked up a slicker brush and began brushing out her old coat. Within a few minutes of grooming the old growth COMPLETELY and totally released with no resistance whatsoever (I mean completely off and onto the floor!). I am convinced that Althea is indeed a full-fledged 'plucker' of the sort that was described in our FA list discussion:-).

Here is a picture of her back after I had brushed out most of the old coat, leaving a patch of new growth in the middle:

After brushing for awhile I then clipped her down completely, and you can still see the pattern of growth coming up beneath her skin.

Anyway, so this was an interesting demonstration of a true plucking-style FA that develops a coat in stark contrast to the shearing rabbits on the other end of the spectrum. Plucking vs. shearing makes for an interesting comparison that every FA breeder should have the chance to observe sometime. I have always said (and very strongly feel) that it is important for every person to know what they have in their breeding programs so that they do not wind up clipping rabbits that should be plucked, and vice versa. Every FA is different (especially nowadays), so it is vital to know what you have in your herd so your goals can be aligned with your functions.

Have a great week!:-)