Raising Meat Rabbits: Mistakes and Successes, by JEE

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We currently live on one acre. So finding a protein source that is easy to house, is inexpensive, has a fairly good turn-over rate, and doesn’t require a lot of land, was hard at first. We actually stumbled upon it by accident. We were given two Rex rabbits with a cage shortly after moving into our new house. Three months later, we had babies, lots of them. However, not ever having butchered anything before and not really wanting to, as they were such small animals, we re-homed them. However, it got me thinking and researching. It turns out that there are a lot of different types of rabbits out there, including meat rabbits!

We built two very large cages with an enclosed area for sleeping and having their babies. They are massive cages that are extremely hard to move and were even harder to keep clean. We learned early on that rabbits will poop in their sleeping area if it is too large. We were able to obtain a male and female New Zealand and were even able to get a pretty decent kit that year. That was all it took; we were hooked! Over the last four years, we’ve made lots of mistakes, and we’ve had lots of successes.

Mistakes

  1. Meat rabbits need lots of room.

    Domesticated rabbits do not need a lot of room to survive and thrive. Our original cages were massive structures that were hard to clean and even harder to move. They are 83” x 48”. Part of the original cages we completely enclosed as a nest box, then we covered the top and three sides with wood. It was not a good idea. We discovered that the rabbits would poo in the enclosed area, and it turned into a stinky nasty mess that we had to constantly clean. Also, wood and rabbits don’t mix; they chewed it constantly. One doe even chewed her way out once. We also used chicken wire, but again it was not a good idea. It’s okay for the older rabbits, as their feet are bigger, but it was still not ideal. The openings are too big for the babies’ feet and they can easily break a foot or toe. Through lots of research and good DIY websites, we decided to use ½ “ x 1” 14-gauge welded galvanized wire mesh. It is so much nicer for their feet and still big enough to let the poo fall right through! We still have our original cages, as they cost quite a bit to make, but we use them as “brooders”. We took the nesting areas out, so now it is all opened up and we also removed most of the chicken wire. When the does have their kits, we move them to those cages so the babies have enough room to grow. Our current cages are 36” x 30”, and they are perfect for our rabbits. We even moved the cages into our chicken run. This not only frees up land on our property for gardening and fruit trees, but it also keeps the area under the rabbits cleaner. The chickens scratch at the food and poo they drop, which eliminates all the flies we used to have.

  2. rabbit1

  3. Meat rabbits will eat lots of carrots.

    Meat rabbits have lots of dietary needs, like all other animals, and carrots in abundance are actually not all that good for a rabbit. Carrots have a lot of sugar, so they should only be given in small amounts. We mainly feed our rabbits commercial feed because we have young kids that we homeschool, so I don’t have a lot of extra time to make sure our rabbits are getting the right amounts of everything they need. However, we do supplement their pellets with things we grow in the garden, like lettuce, kale, and yes an occasional carrot. There are many books out there on how to feed rabbits without resorting to pellets, but for us, for now, it’s easier to go with the pellets.

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  5. Rabbits are not compatible with all other animals.

    The second year we had meat rabbits, we got a dog, a beautiful black lab. That summer we couldn’t get our does to take care of their babies. They would have large kits, but within a day or two the babies would die. I finally called a friend who also raised rabbits and he told me it was our dog. The rabbits felt threatened by the dog and would abandon their nest to save themselves over their babies. It’s a natural instinct. So we re-homed the dog and had four good kits before winter set in.

  6. Meat rabbits breed well, like rabbits.

    That’s not entirely true. Sometimes the doe is unwilling to let the buck “do his thing”. Other times, your buck may be too old. Sometimes the doe will abort her pregnancy, and you won’t even know it until the 30 days is past and you have an empty nesting box. We have gone through some “dry” times in the four years we’ve had meat rabbits. We just had one this spring. I was sure all had gone well, but 30 days later we had NO baby rabbits. So we tried again. This time we got two. We’re hopeful this next go around is more “fruitful”.

  7. Bigger doesn’t always mean better.

    Most meat rabbits are about the same size. However, there is one breed out there that is much bigger; it’s the Flemish Giant. As the name suggests, it is a giant rabbit. That sounds great, right? However, it takes an enormous amount of rabbit feed to satisfy their hunger. So, unless you are willing to put out the money for feed or are able to grow your own, stick with the regular sized ones. Also, it is best to have your buck slightly smaller than your does for the following reasons: 1) so you don’t have babies that are too large for the mom to birth and take care of, and 2) so your buck doesn’t hurt your does while breeding.

  8. Rabbits are great for kids to raise.

    If you have older kids, this is true. However, if you have young kids, it is easy for them to get attached to those adorable babies. When you butcher a rabbit, they are not fully grown, nor have they been around for a long time. The first year we butchered, we did our best to keep our kids away from the babies. (That’s not an easy task.) Also, the day of butchering we had to keep them inside. It was a hard day for them, but they got through it. They are older now and are able to handle and understand much better why we butcher and that it’s necessary. However, we still don’t let them handle the babies.

  9. Rabbits need lots of warmth and shelter.

    Rabbits adapt fairly easily to any climate. However, if you live in an area where your summers are extremely hot, you will need ways to keep your rabbits cool. They are very cold-hardy animals, but they do not tolerate extreme heat well. Even here in the Midwest, we’ve had some hot summers, and I’ve had to put out a box fan or a bottle of frozen water to help them keep cool. Putting your rabbit cages in a shady spot is ideal. Put them somewhere where they can get the morning sun but from about 10 a.m. on that they are shaded. It’s nice for them to have that sun in the morning though, especially in the winter. In the winter, we wrap plastic around three sides of our rabbit’s cages– the north, south, and west sides. This keeps the extremely cold winter winds and snow out of their cages, but the front (east side), and bottom of the cages are still open. This allows plenty of air to circulate through the cage to ensure happy, healthy rabbits. If your rabbits are accustomed to being outside, I would not recommend moving them indoors during the winter, as this extreme temperature change can actually kill them. On nights when it is very windy and snowy, or the temperature drops extremely low, we throw some straw in their cages. This not only allows them some added protection from the elements, but also gives them something to munch on to keep their blood pumping.

  10. Having a good ratio.

    When we first started out, we had one doe and one buck. We quickly figured out this would not be enough. One doe can be bred about every 10-12 weeks; that would give you four kits per year, however I would not recommend this, as it is very hard on your does. We currently have one buck and three does, and this works great for us. I breed my does twice a year, once in the early spring and once in the late summer. A doe can have anywhere from 1 to 12 babies, and most meat rabbits only have 6-8 teats, so a kit of 8 to 9 is ideal. We figure an average of 6 babies per kit, with each doe having two kits per year that gives us approximately 24 rabbits to butcher each year. This works for us, but for a collapse scenario, you may want to consider having some backups. Ideally, having at least two bucks and five or six does is what we are striving for, as sometimes things don’t always work out as you planned. For example, last summer our buck decided he was just too old to do his job, so we were stuck with finding a new buck. It’s not an easy task to find a buck that is of breedable age. Most rabbits for sale are between eight and ten weeks old, so we had to either buy a young one and wait till he was old enough, or continue searching. Through word of mouth we were able to eventually find one that was old enough to use right away. It was a good lesson for us.

  11. Supplies

    Rabbits don’t need a lot of supplies, but what they do need must be good. With our first set of rabbits, we used whatever we had lying around the house. That worked for a few weeks, but anything made of plastic they will chew to bits in no time. Anything that isn’t heavy they will knock over while they are jumping around. We found that for feeding, the metal hopper feeders are the best. We do have some plastic bowls that hook to the side of the cage that we use during those last few weeks the babies are really putting on the weight. It’s easier than having to refill the hopper three times a day. Also for watering, ideally using the nipple system is the best way to go. If you search for DIY ideas, it is the best, however, we haven’t had the time or the funds to invest in such a thing, so we use black rubber bowls. They are thick and heavy enough that the rabbits can’t knock them over, and in the winter when the water freezes, the ice pops right out.

Successes

  1. Meat in the freezer

    Once we finally started working the kinks out of our system, we ended up with 30+ rabbits in the freezer! We cooked those suckers every way you can think of. We decided the next year to not have whole rabbits in the freezer (because I’m really bad at frying rabbit). So we pressure can or grind the rabbit meat. It’s easier to store ground rabbit in the freezer, because it takes up a lot less space than a whole one, and the canned meat is so quick and easy to use! One of our favorite things to do with the ground rabbit is to make pizza. Cook it up with some Italian seasoning and add to your favorite homemade crust! It’s also a great way to introduce people to rabbit meat. We have also made rabbit sausage patties; it’s great for our son, who has food allergies. In the winter, having canned rabbit is so wonderful, especially with a large family. Just pop open a can of pre-cooked rabbit meat and you can make great stews, chili, casseroles, et cetera. Wherever you would use chicken meat, use your canned rabbit. We love rabbit chili in the winter, and you can use either the ground or canned meat.

  2. Poo

    Rabbit poo is AMAZING! We discovered it is one of the few poos that can be put directly on your plants. We have been using their poo since we got rabbits. Even if you don’t use them for meat or are unable to get them to breed for a time, they are still useful because of their waste. Our soil has gone from normal to amazing in the few years we’ve had rabbits.

  3. Use for excess garden produce

    Our garden produces more produce than we can eat, especially the stuff you can’t save, like kale, lettuce, beet greens, carrots and their tops, even rhubarb (red stalks only!). Also things like cucumbers, bell peppers, eggplant (purple fruit only), squash and zucchini, and even tomatoes (red fruit only) are edible. There are also many fruits, tree and shrub leaves, twigs, flowers, and herbs that are safe for rabbits to eat.

  4. Companionship

    While we don’t let our kids play with or hold the babies, the does and bucks will be around for many years and trying to breed a rabbit that trusts you and is comfortable with you touching it is much easier than a rabbit that is scared of you or very skittish around humans. Whenever I am outside, which is a lot because of the kids, I talk to my rabbits or pet their noses. I will give them “treats” of garden produce or herbs. They are so used to me and the kids that when I have to move them to breed them or relocate them to clean a cage or to check on their babies, they don’t get nervous or try to bite and scratch me. We find great joy in watching our rabbits be rabbits or see them run to the front of the cage when we come near.

  5. Be a blessing to others

    Having rabbits has allowed us to help others start their journey to rabbit breeding. It can be quite hard to find a good breeder that isn’t selling to show or 4-H quality buyers, and who doesn’t want an arm and a leg for their rabbits. Most of the time, when we need a new rabbit or want to introduce new blood, we have to drive quite a ways to get it. We have also been able to bless others with meat or poo. If you have even just a few rabbits, the poo can easily pile up. Be generous with your gardening friends. Maybe they’ll reward you with excess produce for your rabbits.

When we decided to get into rabbit breeding and butchering, we had very little knowledge and even less know-how. We also had no one to turn to when problems arose. Everything we know we learned by trial and error, the Internet, and books. Raising rabbits is a very rewarding adventure, but it’s not one to take lightly and not something you can easily accomplish in a collapse scenario. If rabbit meat is something you plan to rely on, start now!

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