Tractors…For Rabbits


photo12Wire cages are the standard way to house rabbits, but a rabbit tractor is a simple homestead DIY project within the skills of most people. We typically use rabbit tractors both as grow-out pens and for when the kits begin to crowd their mom’s cage.

A secondary purpose, during spring and summer when the grass is lush, is as a mobile enclosure. Rather than break out the lawnmower, I let my little bundles of fur take on some of the yard maintenance responsibilities. The lushness of what’s growing, the size of the tractor, how many rabbits , and their ages will dictate how often the tractor needs to be moved. We average moving it every other day.

It was glorious. All last summer, the rabbits kept the backyard nibbled down sufficiently that only a few strips and patches in the corners had to be mowed.

An added benefit was reducing feed costs. Every dandelion, blade of grass, and bit of clover the rabbits munch from the turf is that much less feed I have to provide. It’s not much when they are young, but as butchering time nears, it gets to be quite a bit less alfalfa pellets and hay that I have to buy.

photo13I’m still not entirely sure about putting them on forage alone because I want to make sure their diet is nutritionally complete, so we give them a reduced daily ration of the all-purpose rabbit feed and some Timothy hay. We estimate the amounts, so there is just a touch of each left over each day. That rule of thumb may not be terribly scientific or as economically efficient as it could be, but we figure they are getting the nutrition they need that way.

Based on the way the rabbits go after the fresh forage growing from the ground, I suspect they wouldn’t put up much of a fuss, if we withdrew the hay and pellets entirely.

Where we do have a real concern is plants that may make the rabbits ill. While rabbit breeders may not have bred every bit of self-preservation instinct out the meat bricks we enjoy so much, a part of me suspects domestic rabbits don’t have enough sense not to eat something that will kill them.

Having said that, I have yet to see any of my rabbits eat something that kills them or makes them ill. I figure give it some time. I’ll kill one of them by accident sooner or later.

What concerned us more at the start was the possibility of pesticide or fertilizer residue that might present a problem. Perhaps, we were being overly cautious, but we waited an entire rainy season before letting the rabbits forage on the ground. Even then, as heartless as it sounds, we picked one to be the Crash Test Dummy for a week or ten days before letting the rest join in.

The perk to being the guinea pig was that he got to the grass first and had the entire enclosure to himself. Not a bad trade-off when you consider their purpose and ultimate fate.

photo8The rabbit tractor I put together isn’t anything revolutionary. A tractor isn’t just for rabbits. The same principle of a mobile confinement device works equally well for chickens or other small livestock.

It’s two square frames separated by upright supports and a cover. The whole project is far from rocket surgery, and I would feel like a turd explaining how to screw boards together. Rather than give a how-to on basic carpentry, I’m going to give some tips and lessons learned.

Size

The first rabbit tractor we constructed was 4×8 feet. We did that not realizing just how heavy it would be when finished. It can by moved by one person, but it’s a whole lot easier with a friend.

Another downside to the eight foot length is the long sides make placement a little more difficult. The earth underneath the bottom rail should be as level as possible. Otherwise, you wind up plugging the chinks with bricks, logs, rocks, scrap lumber…you get the idea.

The lid is also a little cumbersome to raise and lower. It really benefited from a lid stop. A piece of 1/4″ cable run through eye-bolts and secured to itself with crush locks keep the lid falling all the way open and tearing the hinges off. I couldn’t figure out a simple enough hinge arrangement to let the lid open more than ninety degrees.

Were I to build it again, I would have also hinged the other side of the lid because sometimes rabbits don’t feel like being caught and retreat under the side that does not open. You really lose the advantages of being human when down on all fours chasing a rabbit through what is essentially a two-foot-tall tunnel.

It’s enough to induce Vietnam flashbacks.

photo9On the up-side, you can divide it in half pretty easily and segregate your rabbits by sex or whatever criteria you like. That’s the only real advantage to the eight foot length. We scaled back on subsequent versions to 4×4 feet, and every problem associated with the eight foot length disappeared. I think I found the size I want to stick with.

Height

Separate the top and bottom frame by slightly more than two feet. We thought ahead and went with twenty-six inches. That way, a two-foot wide roll of chicken wire had an inch of leeway at the top and bottom. It gave us room to work pulling the wire tight as we unrolled it and didn’t leave any hanging over the edges to snag.

Top material

Use whatever you like for a top. We discovered a product called Tuftex panels. They are a corrugated poly-carbonate sheeting material that blocks UV rays. Think of corrugated tin on the roof of a barn or shed, but nowhere near as hot. We went with opaque, and it keeps everything beneath quite cool. I guess those UV rays are the ones that make the sunshine hot.

The Tuftex is a little pricey, but easy to work with and has held up well. I also used it for the top and sides of the rabbit condo. It will likely outlast the wooden frame and be re-purposed onto another rabbit tractor.

Lumber

I went with untreated lumber, suspecting the rabbits might chew it. Whatever turns treated lumber green probably isn’t good for them. I haven’t seen them chew very much in the year we have been using the tractors, so I don’t see the trouble I would have to go to in order to prevent a few chew marks as worth the effort. These rabbit tractors were intended to be quick and dirty projects without the expectation of them lasting forever. I have been thrilled to get this long out of them and expect another couple of years use, at least.

photoTo make the corners more stiff, I wanted something a little less flexible than a 2×4. Not having any 4x4s on hand and possessed of no desire to make a special trip to the Home Depot, I improvised and used what my wife affectionately calls a Portuguese 4×4. Just remember that a 2×4 is not two inches by four inches. Two put together are only 3 1/2 inches, so select your screws accordingly.

ToolsIMG_0482

Unless you’ve got the hands of a gorilla, any money you spend on a powered stapler will be money well spent. After stapling twenty-four feet of chicken wire for the first rabbit tractor with the old style, ka-thunk version we’ve had for years, my wife was more than willing to spend $30 on an electric stapler. Save yourself the nerve damage in your hand and just get one.

Fasteners

I don’t screw around with nails much anymore. Screws are my fasteners of choice. Just be sure to drill a pilot hole, so you don’t crack the end of the board. Especially, when you have to inevitably screw into the end grain of one them. Take this advice, if nothing else, to avoid a lot of wasted wood, aggravation, and embarrassment from shoddy joinery.

Allow me to pass on another tip I learned years ago that will result in the tightest joints you have ever seen. Measure the shank length of the screw and make sure it passes all the way through the first board. If the threads ride on both pieces of wood, they advance at the same rate and leave gaps in the joint. Alternately, drill a clearance hole. It will allow the screw to spin free in one board, while the threads bite into the other.

A picture explains this better than words.

clearance hole cheat

 

 

 

 

 

 

That’s about all I know on what to avoid doing when you build your own tractor. Oh, and have a good helper. They are invaluable when you need a third hand. So, get out there on a sunny day and build one. Your rabbits will be happier, and so will you from the reduced feed bill.

 

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