MANAGEMENT OF RABBITS, BUSINESS TIP AND BUSINESS PLAN PROVIDERS

MANAGEMENT OF RABBITS, BUSINESS TIP AND BUSINESS PLAN PROVIDERS
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The cottontail rabbit is found practically everywhere in Missouri where habitat needs are met. Supplying food and cover for rabbits is relatively simple, and the rabbit, with its rapid reproduction, responds readily.
The average size farm has ample room for rabbit management, because under good conditions the home range of a cottontail is often less than 5 acres. Thus, it is possible to encourage rabbits along with normal operation of the farm by supplying their habitat needs within small areas.


Rabbits need well distributed protective cover, an ample year-round food supply, and a safe place for nesting and development of their young. Although rabbits drink water during hot, dry spells, their water needs are usually met from the succulent plants they eat. Sometimes only one of these needs is lacking, but occasionally two, or even all three, have to be supplied.


Good, well distributed protective cover is the most critical element for the development of a good rabbit population. With modern, intensive farming, cover is the one element that is most often lacking.

Improving Existing Cover

  • Fence pastured woodlots; This increases the value of the woodlot timber and, by letting the grass and shrubs come in naturally, provides cover and food for rabbits and other wildlife. Limbs from firewood and timber harvest should be piled and left to provide additional escape cover.
  • Improve fence rows; Overgrown fence rows are excellent wildlife habitat. Many fence rows can be improved as wildlife habitat by topping larger trees to keep the growth low and dense.
  • Fence rows permit the rabbits to move freely into bordering fields and then return to the safety of the cover. Many fence rows also furnish winter food, valuable during deep snows, because the animals can feed without leaving shelter.
  • Fence gullies; This retards the spread of the gully by preventing stock trampling and grazing of soil-holding vegetation. It improves the value of the gully for rabbits and other wildlife by letting the vegetation grow.
  • Odd areas; Most farms have odd or non-agricultural areas which have been allowed to grow sprouts, briars and brush. These usually provide excellent nesting sites and cover for rabbits, quail and other wildlife. Both loose and dense brush piles can be constructed by topping the larger sprouts.
  • Food plots (both grain and green browse) can be added if the area is suitable. Disked strips on the contour will also allow annual weeds to grow.
  • Pond areas and dams. If fenced from livestock, pond areas can provide good rabbit cover. Travel lanes or dense fence rows which connect the pond area to nearby cover will increase the value to rabbits. Well grassed pond dams and terraces make excellent nesting sites for rabbits.
  • Don't burn bulldozed trees and brush. If clearing is necessary, brush piles can be pushed to the edges of fields or into draws. These make instant, top-notch rabbit cover and allow forage plants to grow beneath their protective structure. However, larger, compacted bulldozer piles can also provide shelter for ground predator species (raccoons, skunks, fox, coyotes, etc.).

Providing New Coverro

  • Brush Piles: Located in the right place, brush piles bring the quickest response of all the management tools. Rabbits will often take over a brush pile the night after it is made.
  • Some larger trees such as locusts will remain alive for several years when "lopped over" or hinge cut. If the top is allowed to remain attached to the stump the twigs and limbs will provide both food and cover for rabbits.
  • Practically any brush growth is good material. It is best to pile the brush over large rocks, old culvert pipe or discarded farm equipment. This keeps the brush off the ground and allows rabbits more freedom of movement. The pile should be 12 to 15 feet in diameter and 4 to 5 feet high. The number of piles required will depend on existing conditions. Usually, the more brush piles there are, the better it will be for rabbits.
  • Brush piles have other advantages, too. Groundhogs tend to burrow beneath them rather than out in the open field. This puts the burrows where they aren't as damaging. These burrows make perfect retreats for rabbits during both cold and hot weather. Another benefit is that the piles eventually decay and add humus to the soil. Brush piles in gullies will provide cover while also reducing erosion.
  • It is important to place the brush piles in or very close to other permanent cover, such as briars, fence rows, woods or un-pastured grasslands. A brush pile located in a closely grazed pasture is of little value to rabbits. Here, rabbits are exposed to predators while going to and from such a pile. In most cases they will not use it in winter when they need it most.
  • Artificial Dens: Old culverts, plastic pipes and discarded farm equipment, placed in tall grass or weeds close to permanent cover, make attractive sites for rabbits. Brush placed over the top will improve their usefulness.
  • Nesting Cover: Rabbits nest in grassy locations such as pastures, ditch banks, pond dams, orchards and even lawns. The importance of well drained sites to protect the nest lining materials from becoming dampened cannot be underestimated. On flat land, heavy rains during the breeding season fill the nest depression and either drown the young or force them from the nest. When well grassed, terraces make good nesting sites.
  • In flat areas, well drained nest sites can be made by plowing two back furrows against each other and seeding them to a grass-legume mixture. The chance for survival of the young will be increased by placing these nesting areas near permanent cover and some bare ground. This allows young rabbits to escape dense, dew-covered vegetation, which tends to be a deadly combination during the early period of growth.
  • Seeding banks of gullies, pond dams and bare road cuts will provide ideal nesting cover. A mulch of straw, sawdust or discarded vegetation will also improve these localities for nesting. All nesting sites should be protected from grazing, mowing and burning. Nesting habitat is especially important for the first litter, which is usually produced before most vegetation starts growing in early spring.
  • Native Warm-Season Grasses: The value of native warm-season grasses (e.g., big blue-stem, little blues-tem, Indian grass, switch-grass) for wildlife lies with its structure and the time of the year when new growth occurs. The tall, stiff, upright stems and elevated leaves effectively reduce wind speed, modify humidity and transpiration extremes, as well as soften raindrop impact. To ground-nesting species, these traits provide a more favorable reproduction condition than do most cool season grasses (bluegrass, fescue). The upright stems of native grasses persist throughout the winter months and are able to hold up even under heavy snow and ice.
  • The "clumpiness" of natives allow free movement along travel lanes beneath the protective cover. Young rabbits are able to climb into the clump to escape drowning or chilling rains. This characteristic also allows the germination of other broad-leafed plants, which may be valuable browse for rabbits and other wildlife.

Food


Rabbits eat a wide variety of plant foods, but recent studies show they can be quite selective for certain foods.


Some food items are heavily used during certain seasons of the year while they are used little during other seasons. When it's available, bluegrass comes nearest to being an important year-round food, although even bluegrass is barely touched during the summer.


Wheat as forage, and corn and milo as grain are important foods during the fall and winter. Cheat, an annual grass, is an important food during early spring. The main summer foods are white clover, Korean lespedeza and crabgrass. These foods must be of high quality and located next to good cover in order for them to be beneficial to rabbits.


Soil tests taken in areas where food plantings are to be located will show the amounts of fertilizer and lime the soil needs. As a rule, established pastures will be improved by applications of fertilizers. New plantings will benefit also, if fertility requirements are met.


  • Locating Rabbit Food Plots: Locate new food plots or improved sites adjacent to fenced woodlots, draws and fenced pond areas or around large brush piles that will allow feeding without exposure to predator. A rabbit will pass up a food patch if exposure to predator is a possibility.
  • Size of Food Plots: In most cases, 1/10-acre plots are sufficient if they are managed properly and are well distributed. Strip plantings 20 feet wide by 200 feet long are adequate if other needs are met.
  • Protection: For maximum value to wildlife, plantings must be protected from fire and grazing.
  • Plants for Food Plots: Fertile soils encourage succulent new growth that is palatable and nutritious. Food plants that are predominately too mature and consists of growth that has stagnated usually produces poor rabbit populations. Thus, plantings made to improve rabbit habitat should contain a variety of seasonally palatable, nutritious foods that are grown near permanent cover.
  • The seedbed for a rabbit green browse plot should be prepared in August or early September, working in the fertilizer per soil test recommendations at the same time as you prepare the ground for planting; or 500 pounds per acre of 6-12-12, if no soil test is accomplished. Plant 1/2 bushel per acre of wheat and 2 pounds per acre of orchardgrass after ground is adequately prepared. At the same time, or in early winter, over-seed half of the food plot with 2 pounds each of ladino and red clover. Then, sometime in January-March, over-seed the other half with 10 pounds per acre of annual lespedeza (Korean, Kobe, or Summit, or a mixture of any of these). Clipping once anytime from mid-July to mid-August and top dressing the plot with 100 pounds of phosphate and 100 pounds of potash every other year should add additional years of life to the planting.
For those who want to go one step further and provide plants with the highest monthly use, the following plant list will be helpful:


1. January: Bluegrass, corn, timothy, cheat, wheat, sumac2. February: Bluegrass, sorghum, wheat, poison ivy3. March: Bluegrass, cheat, wheat, timothy4. April: Bluegrass, cheat, wheat, dandelion5. May: Bluegrass, white clover, wheat, red clover6. June: Korean lespedeza, white clover, knotweed, wheat7. July: White clover, Korean lespedeza, timothy, crabgrass8. August: Crabgrass, white and red clover, Korean lespedeza, wheat9. September: Crabgrass, Korean lespedeza, white clover, wheat10. October: Crabgrass, wheat, white clover, Korean lespedeza11. November: Wheat, white clover, bluegrass, timothy12. December: Wheat, cheat, bluegrass, meadow fescue


  • Cattle Grazing and Rabbit Management: The impact that grazing has on rabbits varies considerably with cattle stocking densities, time of year, rainfall and availability of "cattle-proof" cover. Grazing cattle will compete directly with rabbits for both food and cover
  • However, under conditions of over-mature forage, grazing can be beneficial by reducing the amount of dense vegetation. "Free movement" is essential for rabbits to escape predation. Rabbits avoid areas of dense, wet vegetation and some grazing will produce both openings for movement and some bare ground for sunning. It should be emphasized that the key to rabbit abundance is cover.
The Monoculture vs. Rabbits: A monoculture (extensive areas of one type of vegetation) is not conducive to the production of a variety of wildlife species, particularly upland wildlife.


Old fields which have grown into dense, stagnant stands of grass are about as uninviting to rabbits as are the large fields of cool-season grasses. It should be noted that perennial grasses, even bluegrass, are used very little by rabbits during their summer dormant season. During this period, both the young and adult rabbits rely heavily on white clover, red clover, lespedeza and annual grasses when these are available.


Fescue, a cool-season grass, has the capacity to control and eliminate other plants by producing toxins. This principle (called allelopathy) is not uncommon among plants and is best demonstrated by the black walnut. The walnut produces a toxin (juglone) which inhibits plant growth. For example, studies in Illinois have shown that fescue has this same capacity and can kill sweet gum trees. It is this control of plant species diversity that makes fescue so undesirable for wildlife, especially rabbits.


Recently, some rabbit research pens at the Green Area near Columbia, Mo., had to be abandoned. It was found that despite brush piles and an artificial feeding program to make all research compartments comparable, there was a consistent difference in rabbit production and survival between bluegrass pens and pens which had been invaded by fescue. During two years of research, four fescue-dominated (approximately 75 percent) pens produced a total of 42 rabbits compared with 112 rabbits in the four bluegrass pens. During the following years, solid stands of fescue developed, and it became increasingly difficult to keep rabbits alive in them. These pens were ultimately abandoned. The evidence seemed to unmistakably point to a negative relationship between fescue and rabbit abundance. The explanation probably lies in the high stem density of a typical stand of fescue and the virtual elimination of other food species.


Summary

Important Management Practices


If rabbit numbers are to be maintained or increased, high plant diversity must be encouraged along with heavy cover. A rabbit management plan should include as many of the following "tools" as is practical:


1. Dense brush piles - cattle-proof cover2. Small grains - oats, wheat, rye, barley3. Row crops - corn, milo, grain sorghum, soybeans4. Green browse - clovers, bluegrass5. Native warm-season grasses6. Some bare ground for "sunning"7. Weeds - crabgrass, foxtail, ragweed, etc.8. Fenced woodlots - ungrazed areas


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