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We have been raising meat rabbits for a couple of years now. Like any new venture, it came with a learning curve. I think I can finally say that we’re getting the hang of it! It takes some time to get to know the animals and figure out all their little quirks. While they may “breed like rabbits”, it’s another thing to keep them alive! Rabbits just seem to like dying, so that has been a struggle for us.
Raising meat rabbits may not be for everyone, but it has been a good addition to our little farm. Today I hope to convince you that you should consider raising meat rabbits too!
Rabbits are designed to reproduce and grow very quickly. Since they are a prey animal, nature developed them to reproduce quickly to ensure survival of the species. Rabbits reach breeding age by about 6 months, and their gestation period is only 30 days. They are capable of getting pregnant again right after kindling (giving birth).
Rabbits are a great choice for a meat animal for the small homestead. They don’t take up much space, and they don’t stink if they are managed properly. Rabbits are also very quiet, so they won’t bother your neighbors like chickens sometimes do. You can read my post here about how raising meat rabbits can increase your self-reliance.
Advantages of raising meat rabbits
Good meat conversion
One pair of female rabbits (and one male) are capable of producing up to 600 pounds of meat in a year. Most cows in that amount of time only net about 400 pounds. Their feed-to-meat conversion is excellent.
According to the US Department of Agriculture, a rabbit only needs 4 pounds of feed to make 1 pound of meat. The average beef steer, on the other hand, need 7 pounds of feed to make 1 pound of meat.
If one of your self reliance goals is to raise a years supply of meat, rabbits can definitely help you do that. Especially if you don’t have a lot of land to grow large livestock on.
Rabbit meat is a very healthy, sustainable meat source. It is very high in protein and has less fat than chicken, lamb, beef, or pork. Rabbit meat also has a nearly perfect fatty acid ratio, with a very high amount of Omega 3’s. It is also lower in calories and sodium than most other meat. Rabbit meat has almost zero cholesterol, so it’s ideal for heart patients. And best of all, its taste and texture is quite close to chicken, and you can cook it in nearly all the same ways.
Another plus to raising rabbits is the manure. Yep, that’s right, their poop is actually a plus! It is absolute garden gold. It is high in nitrogen but it’s not a “hot” manure so it won’t burn your plants. Most manures need to be composted prior to putting in the garden, but not rabbit manure. You can put it directly on the garden, either mixing it in with the soil or piling it up around the plants as mulch.
Pelts to tan
If you are raising meat rabbits to butcher anyways, it may be a good idea to learn how to tan their pelts. This can actually be another source of homestead income if you get good at it. Plus, it helps you to use more of the animals that you butcher. Morning Chores has a great post on skinning and tanning rabbit pelts.
Housing meat rabbits
If you are raising meat rabbits in hutches, each cage should be at least 3 feet by 3 feet, and 2 feet tall. Each cage will accommodate one adult rabbit, and her unweaned kits (babies). Stay away from using chicken wire, as it’s just not strong enough. Rabbits have been known to chew through chicken wire.
Also keep in mind that rabbits chew, a lot, and will chew wood and plastic. The kits are very small and can fit through very small holes. Even chain-link size is too big. I suggest using hardware cloth or welded wire, with no more than 1/2 inch holes. Put the wire on the inside, making sure it covers most of the wood.
The bottom of the cage should be left as bare wire, but pregnant does need a nesting box shortly before kindling. It’s also a nice idea to put a ceramic tile on the wire floor. That way the rabbit can rest on the tile if the wire starts to hurt its feet and hocks.
I personally prefer raising my meat rabbits in colonies. For the most part, the rabbits are able to do their own rabbit thing. They seem to be happier and healthier. Your rabbits have more room to jump, run, and play. They also handle extremes in cold and heat better, since they can move to where it’s more comfortable for them. It is a more natural habitat for them, which means less work and effort for us!
There is some variance on the “acceptable” sizes of colonies. A rough, but ample recommendation is 50 square feet for each doe, and 20 square feet for the buck. I find that as long as you are able to keep it clean, there’s not a strong ammonia smell, and they have room to get away from each other, it should be an okay size for your rabbits.
Feeding meat rabbits
Commercial rabbit pellets from the farm store are usually the best basis for your meat rabbit’s diet. But don’t be tricked into buying the “pet rabbit” food from pet supply stores. It just doesn’t have enough of the high-quality nutrients that meat rabbits need to grow quickly.
These rabbit pellets should be alfalfa-based, and be green and uniform in appearance. Each rabbit should have the equivalent of about a tuna can full of rabbit pellets every day.
Supplementing with hay is also very beneficial. Alfalfa hay is great, but not necessary if they have the commercial rabbit pellets as the main part of their diet. Orchard grass or bermuda grass hay will give you the best bang for your buck. You can even give them grass clippings from your lawn, provided they aren’t treated. Give grass clippings either very fresh (right after cutting), or ensure they are fully dried.
Rabbits can also be fed without commercial pellets, using techniques like “tree hay” or regular hay with supplements. Piwakawaka Valley has an excellent post on feeding meat rabbits without buying pellets. I give my rabbits lots of tree trimmings and weeds that I pull from the garden.
If you are growing a garden, use those weeds to your advantage! There are lots of garden weeds that your rabbits would really appreciate. My meat rabbits love lambsquarters, mallow, and purslane, so I regularly give them those when I pull them from the garden. And if you grow root vegetables like radishes and turnips, but don’t eat the greens from them, your rabbits will thoroughly enjoy them.
While it is true that rabbits enjoy carrots and lettuce, don’t overdo it with these. Carrots, lettuce, and other fresh vegetables should be given more as a treat. Lettuce especially doesn’t have a lot of nutritional value for your rabbits.
Rabbits can be VERY sensitive to feed changes, especially the kits. When you add a new food or treat, give very small amounts at first, then work your way up to larger amounts. I am very hesitant to even give nursing does new foods (or even new brands), as I have lost a few litters to sudden feed changes.
Average harvest age
For fryer rabbits, you should be able to harvest at 8-12 weeks, and these rabbits will be 3-4 pounds. To get a bigger roaster, the rabbits should reach a 5-8 pound harvest weight within 10 weeks to 6 months. You can plan on an average of 50% dress out rate.
Dress out weight is the weight after the rabbit is skinned, gutted, and cleaned. So if you have an 8 pound rabbit, you’ll typically end up with about 4 pounds of meat and bones.
Best meat rabbit breeds
The most popular meat rabbit breeds are New Zealand and Californian. The “runners up” are Silver Fox, Standard Rex, Satin, and Champagne D’Argent. Less common are Chinchilla and Flemish Giant.
Surprisingly, even though Flemish Giants are huge (up to 20 pounds!), they don’t make the best meat rabbit. They have bigger bones, so the amount of meat on them is lower. They are also slower to grow to butcher weight, so your cost per rabbit will be more.
New Zealands and Californians are the most commonly used commercial meat rabbit. They are nicely proportioned and typically weigh between 8 1/2 and 12 pounds. They are usually pretty fast-growing, and their pelts are very soft and desirable due to their typically solid colors.
There are several things to consider in raising meat rabbits. First, rabbits can be pretty good escape artists! If you have them in a colony on the ground, there is a good chance that they will dig out. Chain link fencing has holes that are too big for baby rabbits. They will get out, constantly, unless you have smaller-gauge wire on the bottom section.
The colony also needs to have a cover over it to protect from aerial predators and cats, whether it’s a roof or netting. Some people use tarps, but I find that they get weighed down by rain and end up getting ripped. Netting has worked good for us, with a small pop-up awning so they can get out of the rain.
While it’s perfectly fine to have your grow-outs (rabbits younger than butcher/breeding age) in the colony, you can’t keep more than one breeding buck per colony. They will fight and will most likely kill each other. Bucks are usually fine with babies, and most even help take care of them.
Cold and heat
Rabbits do better in cold temperatures than they do in heat. While it may go against common rationale, it’s perfectly fine for rabbits to kindle in bitter cold winters. As long as they can stay out of the rain and snow, they will do just fine in the cold.
In extreme heat, however, many rabbits succumb to heat exhaustion. Many rabbits won’t breed when it’s too hot, and bucks can actually go sterile during the very hot summer months. Make sure you provide plenty of shade, or even fans or misters to keep your rabbits cooler.
Allowing them to dig and burrow keeps them cooler as well. It’s a more steady temperature underground, so if they can dig into the ground and have their babies there, it’s better for them during hot weather.
Young, inexperienced does have a hard time with kindling at first. It is not at all uncommon for a first-time doe to lose her whole litter. It can be so disheartening to get a nice first litter and lose every one.
Even so, it is very, very difficult to keep rabbit kits alive without their mom. Bottle feeding MAY work, but it usually doesn’t. But don’t give up! About 30 days later she will probably have another litter if she has been with the buck.
Raising meat rabbits can be a challenging but fun addition to any small homestead. I suggest you and your family try some rabbit meat, and determine if it’s something you’d like to do. I know it may be difficult for many to consider eating such a cute, cuddly animal, but if being more self reliant is a goal of yours, it might be worth it to try. For us, it was just a natural addition to our self-reliance goals. Have you considered raising meat rabbits?
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