Raising Meat Rabbits, by Pam N.

Planning for our extended family’s provision in the event of TEOTWAWKI turned out to require much more time and thoughtfulness than a few trips to the big box store. Although we had laid in a good volume of stored food supplies, we were concerned about sustainable sources of food possibly necessary for extended periods of time. During the planning stages, it became clear that the kind of protein we preferred (meat) was the most expensive to purchase and trickiest to preserve and store. After much research and thought we decided to begin raising rabbits. Our reasoning went along these lines:

  • Rabbits are prolific breeders with short, 31 day gestation periods.
  • Large breeds have large litters (6-14) and can be re-bred soon after raising a litter.
  • It takes only 12-14 weeks to obtain butchering weight (6 pounds yielding 3 pounds or more of meat).
  • They have very few health problems and no diseases we could determine were transferable to humans.
  • Care is relatively simple, as they need food and water and little else.
  • Their meat is very low fat and lower in cholesterol than most other meats.
  • And unlike larger animals, an entire rabbit can be consumed by a small family if no refrigeration is available.

We began our rabbit raising adventure 2 years ago. Our thought was to begin raising them before we actually needed to eat them so that we could gain proficiency and do any necessary problem solving before we were dependent on eating them. We have learned a lot; some from books, some from our own experience, but overall, we have found rabbits to be easy to raise and tasty.

RESEARCH: Learn as much as you can before you buy your first rabbit! We read lots online and purchased books. The best book we found was the eighth edition of Rabbit Production by McNitt, Patton, Lukefahr, and Cheeke published by Interstate Publishers, Inc. We found valuable information on the American Rabbit Breeders Association (ARBA) web site. We talked to local rabbit pet/show breeders to get general information, but we did not find anyone locally raising meat rabbits. We also joined the Professional Rabbit Meat Association for the contacts that yielded. Nothing about raising rabbits was hard, but talking to someone who has done it successfully really helps.

BREEDING STOCK: From internet research and talking to local 4H folks at the fair, we learned there were two major breeds of meat rabbits, Californian and New Zealand , both developed for meat production. Meat rabbits are small boned and heavily muscled and are rapid weight gainers. We eventually purchased rabbits from both breeds, but started with one Californian buck (male) and three does (females). We had a hard time finding these rabbits. We purchased them and all the basic equipment from a lady getting out of the business. We raised several litters of kits with these starter rabbits and learned as we went. We kept does and bucks that produced large litters and sold or ate the less productive ones. Our original animals were “inbred”; father bred back to daughter and granddaughter. This made us nervous at first and we later bought “purebred” rabbits from New Zealand stock. Oddly, the inbred rabbits were better producers on average, so we eventually culled many of the purebreds. Go figure. Our current stock of 12 does is mostly interbred Californian/New Zealand crosses. We freely breed to “relatives” and have seen absolutely no ill effect from this practice. We keep a mature buck and a younger up-and-coming one as a replacement in case something happens to the senior buck unexpectedly.

HOUSING/EQUIPMENT: Rabbits are very tolerant to cold, but intolerant to heat. We kept our rabbits in an open shed with walls on two sides only. This provided shade in summer, but little protection from wind in the winter. The rabbits tolerated this arrangement just fine, even in freezing temperatures; however, we did have to thaw water bottles twice a day during freezing weather. This got old fast. We bought several different used cages in the beginning, but soon determined that making our own cages would offer many advantages. Starting with used equipment had allowed us to determine if we would be successful at raising rabbits before we had invested much.

Once we determined that this was a good fit for us, we knew we wanted to build our own cages, so that we could make them specifically designed to meet our needs. Wire is expensive, but we saved some money by buying wire in 100-foot rolls from local feed stores and, later, from Bass Equipment. Additional supplies were also required. We bought several styles of water bottles and feeders that attach to the cages. We also bought nesting boxes and resting pads. We could have made the nesting boxes out of scrap lumber, but chose to invest in galvanized steel boxes for longevity and ease of cleaning between litters. Everything that goes into a rabbit’s cage must be chew-proof, or edible and replaced when it starts to disappear. Our cages are hung by 2×4 supports and wire, so that they are stabilized but free-hanging for easy cleaning. We placed them high enough to be out of reach of predators, but low enough for easy access for care and cleaning (about chest high). The waste piles up on the ground below and is shoveled into buckets for hauling out to the garden.

Last summer we put up a separate outbuilding for the rabbits and they are now housed in a four-sided structure with power, lights, a water source, windows for cross ventilation in the summer, and a small heater to keep the temperature just above freezing in the winter (for our comfort more than theirs). My husband also designed a system for collecting the waste into 5-gallon buckets. We will market some (as fertilizer) next summer, as many people have expressed an interest in buying it. The building was an extravagance and definitely not a necessity, but we felt it would add to the value of our property and make care of the rabbits easier for us.

FEEDING: Commercial rabbit pellets are designed specifically to put the maximum weight on young rabbits in the least amount of time. We started out raising rabbits solely on this feed, as most sources direct you to do for “best practice” meat production. We bought 50 pound bags from farm and feed stores for awhile until we found we could purchase in 1,500 – 2,000 pound “super sacks“ directly from a feed plant in our county. Over time we learned that rabbits can eat a large variety of things, but do require a high percentage of protein in their diet to allow for rapid weight gain. We have fed leftover garden vegetables, small amounts of fruit from our trees, and clover and dandelion greens from the lawn. You can feed fewer pellets daily if you supplement with high protein hay (clover or alfalfa, minimum 16% protein). Rabbits will not eat stale, moldy or damp feed; unlike many other animals. It became clear to us when we forked over the payment on our second “super sack” that we needed to plan for a sustainable food source for our rabbits. More on this below.

RABBIT TREASURE: What lands below a rabbit cage is valuable. Rabbit urine is more alkaline than most other animal urines. If your soil is too acidic and you are trying to raise the pH, it is easy to collect and supplement with rabbit urine. Rabbit manure is a magnificent “cold” fertilizer! It will not burn plants even when added immediately after leaving the rabbit. (You don’t have to “age” it.) We have been using rabbit manure for 2 years in our garden and greenhouse. Separated from the urine, the pellets are odorless in the greenhouse. I had 12 foot tomato plants last summer that produced like they were on steroids. Out in the garden, we threw manure mixed with urine all over the garden and everything did exceedingly well. We read about people raising worms in the piles of rabbit droppings directly below the cages. We weren’t sure about marketing worms; our county has plenty in every garden, but I suppose you could eat them for protein in a pinch.

STRESS: Rabbits are affected by stress. In the wild they are able to hide, run, or escape into underground burrows. In a cage, rabbits are exposed to the coming and going of humans, their children, and any animals that are in the vicinity, including domestic dogs and cats, or wild raccoons, coyotes, or other animals that may attack them through the wire cages. Meat rabbits are specifically bred to have light bones and heavy muscles. If they panic and stampede while confined in a cage, they frequently injure themselves seriously. The most common injury in this setting is a broken back. If you raise rabbits in the open like most people do, you may go out in the morning to find one or more of your rabbits paralyzed from the midsection down. If this happens, they are permanently unable to control their hind legs or their bladder and must be put out of their misery. Stress can also cause does to deliver their babies or “kits” outside of the nest box (kindling on the wire), fail to care for their young, or to cannibalize them. It is important to keep loud noises, animals and frightening stimuli away from the area that you use for raising rabbits.

BUTCHERING: Rabbits are stunned with a small club, hung upside down and bled. Done properly, they do not suffer or make any noise. They are skinned, eviscerated and packaged either whole or cut into manageable pieces. Each rabbit will yield 3 to 4.5 pounds of meat at 12 to 14 weeks of age. We freeze ours in zip lock bags as soon as they cool. The exact technique for butchering can be found in books and on-line. With practice we are now able to butcher a rabbit in 15 minutes. The skins can be processed, but we haven’t tried that yet.

MARKETING: There are pros and cons to selling your excess rabbit meat. The lady who sold us our original rabbits gave us a customer list of folks who were hoping we would continue to sell. Local regulations allow the sale of up to 1,000 rabbits a year without the interference of health officials. Check your state laws. Selling rabbits means people know you have them. If TSHTF, conceivably people might come looking to take them away from you. For us, a good arsenal and frequent target practice is the answer to many such problems. We decided to go ahead and sell locally because we live in an area with many ranchers and farmers and didn’t feel we would have very many people after our food. Additionally, selling the rabbits helped us offset feed prices. We sell for $3.50 pound at the present time and figure we about break even.

TROUBLESHOOTING: We lost lots of rabbit kits the first winter. Although we put plywood bottoms in the nesting boxes and plenty of hay, they seemed to be dying of the cold. Temperatures were in the freezing range at night when most young are born. We tried placing more nesting material at the disposal of the does, but they always “dug” down to the bottom of the material and delivered their kits on the bare plywood. They would be covered with a nice pile of hay and straw but cold as ice when we found them. We discovered nothing in the literature to help us; however, my husband hit on the idea of placing a narrow sheet of Styrofoam between the plywood and the bottom of the nesting box. This stopped the loss of frozen kits.

We had an eye infection in one litter which spread to all the kits. I used a canine eye ointment I had on hand and it cleared up nicely. I went back to the rabbit books and noted that eye infections can happen if the bunnies are in unsanitary conditions. We had been leaving the nesting boxes in the cages longer than recommended because it was cold outside. The kits were using the nesting box for a litter box (not all litters do this) and so it needed to be removed. The kits do just fine even in cold weather once they are old enough to start jumping out of the next box deliberately.

We also lost babies now and then for reasons we couldn’t figure out at first. We would find a baby out of the nest (dead) and it always seemed to be the biggest, healthiest ones. Kits are sometimes pulled from the nesting box holding the teat of the mother. Once out on the wire, they are unable to get back in the box themselves, and rabbit mothers are not capable of picking them up in their mouths to do so either. Since rabbits usually nurse just once a day in the middle of the night, we would never find these babies until it was too late. We may have hit on a plan to try to stop this problem; we’ll see how it works.

CUISINE: Rabbit is wonderful cooked a variety of ways. Domestic rabbit meat is mild. It can be fried, baked, or slow cooked in a crock-pot. Our favorite recipe so far is rabbit slow-cooked in Marsala wine. You can find many delicious recipes online for rabbit.

FUTURE DEVELOPMENTS: We are currently working on “dropped” nesting boxes that are suspended below the wire cage. These are supposed to decrease the amount of young accidentally misplaced outside the nesting box. We were interested in these from the start, but were concerned about them being within reach of predators. Now that we are in enclosed housing, it is safe to try. Our biggest future planning involves replacing commercial rabbit feed with a crop we grow ourselves. We have no experience “farming” other than a large vegetable garden. We plan to dedicate part of our 5 acres to growing a high protein alfalfa or clover crop. We have contacted the county extension program for help. We built the rabbit building bigger than needed so that we could also have a place to dry the hay/clover well enough to store. Again, rabbits won’t eat moldy feed, so it must be dried thoroughly. If we can figure out how to plant, grow, and harvest our own rabbit feed, we can produce meat indefinitely and stop writing checks to the feed company.

All in all, this has been a very good experience and we are feeling more in control of our food supply. Rabbits are easy to handle and care for. At any given time, we have about 40 rabbits, although the number ranges a bit higher when we have several litters nearing butchering. It takes us no more than 30 minutes every evening to feed, water and tend to them.