To feed hay, or not to feed hay?
This is a choice every rabbit raiser is faced with once they decide to plunge into the wonderful world of raising rabbits.
So what are some good reasons for feeding hay? How about some good reasons NOT to?
Let's explore the pros and cons of offering hay to your rabbits...
(For our purposes today, we will be discussing the feeding of GRASS hay as a dietary supplement. There are natural feeding methods where LEGUME hay comprises a large part of the diet, but this isn't really recommended as a supplement to pellets, because of the excessive amounts of protein.)
First off, what is hay exactly?
Hay is basically dried grass or herbage that has been cured for the purpose of animal fodder.
It is typically harvested just before the flowers open, when the plants are at their most nutritious.
The trick to curing hay is to dry it in the sun to help preserve its nutrients, but not so much that it leaches nutrients. Hay must be kept in a dry, well ventilated location (like a barn loft) to preserve it.
Good quality hay is green, flexible and sweet smelling. Look for "horse quality" hay, if at all possible.
Poorer quality hay (typically marketed for cows and goats) is usually yellow and brittle, and sometimes dusty and full of weeds. (If this is all you can find, don't sweat it. Yellow, stemmy hay still provides necessary roughage.)
BAD hay is moldy and full of trash. Do NOT feed moldy hay to anything. Use that as compost or mulch.
Rabbits are what are known as hindgut ruminants. Their intestines, and especially their enlarged cecum. are colonized by a menagerie of bacteria that are designed to ferment and break down low energy plant matter into usable calories for their host. This takes the form of a soft fecal pellet known as a cecotrope, which they ingest a second time. So rabbits, like true ruminants, aren't feeding themselves so much as feeding the bacteria in their gut.
Making hay available whenever a rabbit is going through a transition is a great way to prevent digestive upset. It is especially useful when weaning baby bunnies, or when introducing rabbits to a new feed.
2. Alleviates Boredom
Let's face it, caged rabbits don't exactly live an exciting life. If they're lucky, they get to get out every day, run around and do rabbit things. But that's not always realistic. So munching on hay gives them an energy outlet, and can help prevent unwanted behaviors.
3. Satisfies the Need to Chew
|Just LOOK at those chompers!|
(*Side note: it is a common misconception that rabbits must have things to gnaw on to keep their teeth worn down. As long as their teeth align properly, they will stay worn through the simple act of chewing. If their teeth are misaligned, this is a disorder known as malocclusion, and is caused either by poor genetics or injury to the jaw.)
4. Emergency Backup
Sometimes, life happens. We are in a car accident, or we have to rush somebody to the hospital. Or there may be other things that prevent us from getting home to feed our rabbits. If their hay feeders are kept full, they will always have something to eat if we can't make it home for a feeding.
Now, that's certainly not to say we should go on vacation and leave them with a full hay feeder, expecting them to survive, but you get the idea.
5. Double Duty
Some rabbit raisers keep other livestock that also eat hay: horses, goats, sheep, alapacas, etc. You may already purchase hay year-round, and can set a side a few bales for the buns. Hay is good for other things besides just a dietary supplement, however.
You can also use it to stuff nest boxes for kindling. It isn't really the preferred material for nest boxes, but if you can't find straw (like I couldn't last month), it makes a satisfactory substitute.
Be warned though - hungry preggars rabbits tend to EAT their nest box full of hay as fast as you can re-fill it, so be sure to supply them with plenty of hay on the side as well.
Hay can also be used to line the rabbits' cages on those really cold nights. Again, straw is really better for this (large, hollow stems are better at insulating), but hay will certainly work in a pinch.
|A box of hay helps keep these babies toasty warm on cold nights - and doubles as a snack|
Lastly, a wad of hay can also double as a broom or a scrub brush in the bunny barn, if needed.
In a perfect world, rabbits would eat every stem of that beautiful hay you provide for them, but unfortunately that's not the case. Sometimes when I walk out to the rabbit shed, I stand there and wonder if any of that hay actually makes it into the rabbits' mouths.
Of course, how much is wasted depends largely on the quality of the hay and your method of feeding it to them. They tend to waste less if it is fed in a rack of some sort, rather than just tossed on the cage floor.
However, there is an excellent by-product of all this wastage: COMPOST!
Hay mixed with bunny berries and urine is great tossed onto the garden, or thrown into the chicken coop for the chickens to process further (adding their own poop to it, in the process, of course). Or you can just heave it straight onto your compost pile. Damp hay tends to make a pretty hot compost, which breaks down quickly, and also leads me to the next rather unexpected benefit...
7. Supplemental Heat
I decided to perform a little experiment this winter.
Instead of forking the wasted hay onto the compost heap, I decided to let it pile up and compost right under the rabbits. I wanted to see how much the pile would heat the rabbitry.
We placed a remote temp/humidity gauge in there, and have watched it closely. It tends to remain at least 2-3 degrees warmer inside the shed than it is on the outside. Now, I'm sure part of this is from the heat given off by the rabbits themselves, but I'm convinced the composting hay is also contributing to the higher temperatures. 2-3 degrees may not seem like much, but it makes a world of difference when it stays above freezing while there is frost on the ground outside. Freezing water is the bane of any rabbit raiser's existence. It's a pleasant surprise to walk out to the rabbitry when it's 30 degrees, expecting to have water bottles to thaw, and then find it won't be needed. (I make sure to check the water is till flowing through the spout, as well.)
Another added benefit of letting the hay pile up under the cages, is the lack of SMELL. All of that carbonaceous material is excellent for absorbing all of the nitrogen in rabbit urine.
So, while there are some excellent reasons to feed hay to rabbits, there are also some good reasons NOT to...
This tends to be the deal breaker for most rabbit raisers who decide to forego hay feeding; and I must admit, I've thought about ditching the hay for this very reason.
Like I mentioned before, rabbits tend to waste a LOT, even if it is the finest, greenest, sweetest hay you can find. And it gets EVERYWHERE.
This can be especially annoying if you house your rabbits indoors. It isn't the easiest thing to suck up with a shop vac, and can be frustrating to sweep up, as well.
The presence of hay on the floors and in the racks may encourage the presence of rodents, who like to nibble on the little seeds.
Another big downside to all of that wasted hay is separating out the bunny berries, for those of us who sell them to gardeners. It's much easier to rake up the manure, dry it and bag it, without the presence of hay. Otherwise, you will have to spend a great deal of time shaking it through a screen to filter it out. Even if you take the time to do that, the grass and weed seeds in the manure will make it less desirable for gardeners, who won't really appreciate all of those little weed seedling popping up in their flower beds.
To sum up, MORE MESS = MORE WORK.
Hay isn't always easy to find. Good hay can be even harder to find. Availability will vary widely depending on the time of year and the region in which you live. The farmer you got it from last month may not have any left, or it may just be a bad season for hay - too wet or too dry. Even if you do find a great farm to source it from, they may decide to stop growing hay, for whatever reason. Then you are left needing to find another source.
Prices can also fluctuate quite a bit for the same reasons. While it may be cheaper to buy directly from the farmer, a lot of us can only use or store a few bales at a time. Some farmers would rather not take the time to deal with customers who will take less than a truckload.
3. Quality Can Vary
It's great to find a farmer or feed store that carries great quality hay all of the time, but more often than not that isn't the case. The person you sourced those beautiful, sweet-smelling bales from last time, may only have stemmy, dusty, yellow hay this time around.
4. Risk of Contaminants
Along those same lines, you can sometimes get hay that is hiding mold, trash or poisonous plants. If we fail to notice these things, we may risk losing rabbits to a bad batch of hay.
Pesticides can also be a concern. Most farmers spray herbicide to help deter weeds in their hay. Rabbits can be especially sensitive to these chemicals. Organic hay will probably cost you more, and may be very difficult or impossible to find.
This has been a big problem for me, and can be an issue for a lot of backyard rabbit breeders. The only outbuilding we have at our house right now is a metal storage shed. Unfortunately, it stays far too damp in there to store hay successfully. Hay requires a very dry and well-ventilated storage space in order for it to stay fresh. Keeping wild birds and rodents out of your stored hay can also be a headache.
As a side note, this is the solution I came up with for now:
I got this storage bin with a locking lid at Walmart. I was really looking for a big garbage can, but decided this would work for now. It can hold about 3/4 of a square bale, and does an excellent job of keeping it dry (it also doubles as a table!).
When it comes down to it, whether or not to feed hay is just a matter of choice.
I, for one, am an avid hay feeder. I feel that the health benefits far outweigh the mess and other challenges hay can provide.
Do you feed hay to your rabbits? Why or why not?