Estimation of grass biomass consumed by rabbits housed in movable paddocks
Keywords:Oryctolagus cuniculus, biomass, cage-free housing, grazing, rising plate meter, rabbit
Biomass allowance is a key feature in pasture-based rabbit production systems. It conditions not only the stock density (rabbits/m²) and/or the number of grazing days, it also influences the grazing behaviour of animals. When herbage restriction occurs, pelleted feed and/or cereal intake goes up. Inadequate pasture management may also impair the biomass quantity and quality if overgrazing occurs. To avoid the undesirable effects of overgrazing and better manage pellet and cereal intake, information on both biomass availability and rabbits’ grazing capacity are needed. Here, we present an adaptation of the rising plate meter method (developed for biomass intake measures for ruminants) for use in rabbit. To this end, we designed an experiment where two groups of 12 rabbits each were kept in two different fields: under an apple orchard (AO) or on fallow land (FL). We followed the animals for 5 consecutive weeks (from 45 to 80 d old). Rabbits lived in 25 m² movable paddocks, and every week a new paddock location (called paddock-spot) was made available for them. At each new paddock-spot, we measured the herbage height inside the paddocks and performed samplings of the available biomass (i.e. herbage cut after herbage height measurement) outside the paddocks. From this data we estimated the available biomass inside each paddock-spot by fitting linear regression equations of biomass to herbage height. Overall, rabbits in the AO and FL had access to 1328±65.7 and 1386±58.6 kg of dry matter (DM) per ha, respectively. In every field and paddock-spot, the biomass available was lower than the rabbits’ grazing capacity; overgrazing was the rule. Roughly, and under a restricted herbage allowance, rabbits in the AO ingested 45.2 g DM/d and rabbits in the FL 43.4 g DM/d. In the last week (64 to 80 d old), the biomass intake of rabbits in the AO and AL represented 26.4 and 23.5% of the total DM intake, respectively. These values, however, does not represent the real grazing capacity of growing rabbits. In this study, we provide some advice on the sampling method to obtain reliable biomass estimations and we mention two methods for handling influential observations in linear regression.
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