A total of 190 rabbit females were used to evaluate five feeding programmes from 9 weeks of age to the first parturition: CAL, fed ad libitum with a control diet (C: 11.0 MJ digestible energy (DE) and 114 g digestible protein (DP)/kg dry matter (DM)) until first parturition; CR, fed ad libitum with C diet until 12 weeks of age and then C diet restricted (140 g/day) until first parturition; F, fed ad libitum with a low-energy, high-fibre diet (F: 8.7 MJ DE and 88 g DP/kg DM) until first parturition; FC, fed with F diet ad libitum until 16 weeks of age, and C diet ad libitum until first parturition; FCF, fed with F diet ad libitum until 16 weeks of age, then C diet ad libitum until 20 weeks and then F diet ad libitum until first parturition. The rabbits were artificially inseminated at 18 weeks of age. CAL group had a higher mortality rate compared with the other groups between 9 and 12 weeks of age (34% v. 3%; P < 0.05) and during the last 3 weeks of first pregnancy (14% v. 3%; P < 0.05). The CAL and FC females presented higher BW and perirenal fat thickness (PFT) than CR females at 11 days of pregnancy (+0.41 kg and +0.6 mm; P < 0.05), with F females showing medium values. The type of feeding procedure did not affect the fertility rate of young females at first artificial insemination. Differences in BW disappeared at parturition, when only CAL females presented a greater PFT than CR and FC females (+0.3 mm; P < 0.05). In comparison with FCF, CAL females had smaller and thinner live born litters (−2.5 kits and −139 g, respectively; P < 0.05), with CR, F and FC females showing medium values. The low number of kits born alive for CAL females was because of their lesser total number of kits born (−1.7 kits; P < 0.05) and the greater mortality of their litters at birth (+13.9%; P < 0.05) compared with FCF females. Non-esterified fatty acid was higher in the blood of females fed C diet (CAL and CR) than in others at partum day (on average +0.15 mmol/l; P < 0.05). In conclusion, the ad libitum use of diets for lactating rabbit does throughout the rearing period could lead young rabbit females to present a higher risk of early death and smaller litter size at first parturition. Feed restriction or earlier use of suitably fibrous diets led females to achieve the critical BW and fat mass at first mating to ensure reproduction.
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