Raising Rabbits for Meat, by L.L. in Missouri

Would you like to provide a good meal for your family and know where the meat has come from and who has handled it and not have to rely on going to the grocery store to purchase it?  Well that was me a few years ago.  I was concerned about the safe handling practices of store bought meat as well, the cost of the store bought meat.  I really wanted to be able to take pride that I could grow and process my meat and not have to rely on the grocery store.  I already process deer so I thought this couldn’t be much different.  It really isn’t.  The killing is the only part that I truly hate, but that part is extremely quick.  If you live in a suburban neighborhood, then you can most likely still have “pet” rabbits.  We also make raised garden beds from the little pellets that are conveniently deposited into a waiting wheel barrel. We add worms found in the yard to the garden beds and have very nice rich soil the next season once the worms do their job. 

Before obtaining your rabbits, you will need some basic equipment: 1 cage per adult rabbit, 1 feed trough and water dish or bottle per rabbit and then you will also need 1 or more nesting boxes for your does.  If you have just one doe, then one nest box will be fine.  If you have two does, then depending on your breeding routine you might be able to get away with just one box or you could decide on keeping two nest boxes.  Nest boxes can be made or purchased.  When we first got our rabbits we picked up some cages, water bottles and nest boxes from where we got the rabbits at. 

You will need to start off with some good breeding stock of a meat breed.  In rabbits you can line breed (breed siblings) for a few generations before you start seeing genetic problems.  I personally have chosen to start with non related stock.  You can start breeding your doe or does as early as 4-1/2 months of age.  We have found rabbits are extremely easy keepers and have been very healthy for us.  We have purchased our stock from local animal auctions and off craigslist as well. 

We chose on the New Zealand breed of rabbit.  They have a good meat to bone ratio.  They are the typical Easter bunny rabbit, you know the white bunny with red eyes.  Some people like breeds that produce various colors and such.  But for me my bunnies all look the same so I don’t focus on getting attached to one particular rabbit.  My son who is now five thoroughly enjoys them as well.  He knows that what happens to them and where they end up, but he also knows that just two weeks after butchering time a new batch of bunnies will be born to play with.  He is there around us when we are butchering.  When he was younger we would just leave him inside to watch cartoons and we would tell him what we were doing, but after time went on he prefers to be outside watching us during the butchering.  We want our son to know where his food comes from and not to be afraid of it.  Someday his life could depend on it. 

We have one buck and one doe that we regularly breed.  Their names are Max and Ruby. (If you have little ones, you might recognize those names from a cartoon.)  We have Ruby in a larger cage than necessary, but that is just because I choose to keep the litter with the mother until the day of butchering.  During the summer I do not want them crowded and overheating.  We butcher our bunnies at 8 weeks of age.  Some people do it as early as 6 weeks and other wait until 11 or 12 weeks.  We have found that if we allow them to get older then the skin gets tougher to skin out and the meat is a little tougher.  Rabbit meat is a very lean meat.  There is generally some loose fat between the hide and the shoulders and again some between the hide and the belly.  You won’t find any inside the actual meat though.    Rabbit can be utilized in any chicken recipe.

Make sure that you keep your rabbits housed where they will have adequate shade and a roof over their heads to shelter from the sun, rain and other elements.  Rabbits are very easy keepers.  Our rabbits our housed outside with a roof over their heads and we use a privacy fence to block the wind from the west and there is a garage to their north to block the north wind.  During the summer there is a large shade tree that provides them with a cool shady spot and during the winter we will tack up plastic over the remaining sides of their cage.  The plastic can be left up or allowed to cover the cages in times of nasty storms in the winter.  You always take the doe to the bucks cage.  You can just stand around and watch to ensure that your buck has successfully completed his deed.  We usually allow him three times during this visit, then put your doe back in her cage.  Do NOT keep them in the same cage on a permanent basis.  If you do you will never know when to expect a litter.  Then if you want to ensure a larger litter put the doe back in with the buck twelve hours after the first breeding.  Rabbits ovulate based on sexual stimulation and they can ovulate once every twelve hours.  So this is the reason to re-breed your rabbit twelve hours later.  Now is the hard part, just waiting.  The gestation period is 29 to 33 days.  Each doe will have a very regular schedule as to how many days she will go before producing her kits.  My doe goes 30 days exactly.  About five days before you are expecting the kits to arrive place the nest box in her cage.  Depending on the temperatures, I may add hay, straw or pine shavings to her box as well.  If it is very cold, then I will fill the nest box up completely, the doe will make the nest in there and pull out any excess she doesn’t want.  We will check on our doe various times per day when she is due so we know exactly when she has her kits.  The doe we have is very trusting and does not mind if and when I mess with her nest and kits.  We have had other does in the past who have been aggressive in regards to us checking out their babies.  Those does went bye bye very soon as I do not enjoy being scratched or bitten.  Mostly though, New Zealand rabbits are extremely gentle. 

After your babies have arrived you will need to check out the nest box to make sure that there aren’t any dead babies in there or any uneaten afterbirth.  Remove all the nasties and then just check on and count the babies each time you feed and water your doe.  Rabbits cannot pick up their young the way a cat or dog can so if a baby gets out of the box there is no way for the mommy to put it back.  You will have to move them back to the box or they will die.  Also, if you go out one day and you find a dead cold looking kit on the cage, go ahead and put it back in the middle of the nest box with the other kits.  I have found babies like this and thought they were dead, but after placing them back in the nest box, they came back to life.  So do not count a "dead kit" as dead unless it is cold and dead.  Ideally there needs to be at least three kits in the litter for the babies to be stay warm enough together.  Once I did have a litter of only two babies during the fall, they did make it just fine.  When the babies are three weeks old you can remove the nest box and continue to watch them grow. 

When the babies are six weeks old is when I like to breed the doe.  Then two weeks later your babies are 8 weeks old and we butcher.  This routine will allow the mother to keep her young with her and also allow her to have a two week rest period before she kits again.  This routine also keeps you from having to keep a cage just for weaned babies.  I really like this schedule as it keeps me from having to move the babies to another cage.  I keep one buck and one doe at this time.  This schedule allows us to have up to one rabbit per week as I butcher a litter of rabbits every ten weeks.  Rabbits usually have 7-12 bunnies per litter.

When we butcher the rabbits, we prefer to can the meat now, as opposed to freezing it.  We do still freeze some, but the canned rabbit has such a wonderful flavor and it is also extremely tender. 

We have chosen the raw pack method with the meat still on the bones due to it being simpler and more time saving.  Cut up your rabbits so that you have good size pieces.  Add those to your quart jars.  Add one teaspoon of salt to each quart.  Do not add any liquid.  Allow a 1-1/4” headspace per jar, add your lids and bands and process for 75 minutes at 11 pounds of pressure in your pressure canner.  The flavor and texture is completely different from fresh or frozen to canned rabbit.  Yummy!

Having two does and one buck will provide your family with up to two rabbits per week all year long.