By Dennis Douthart – Rabbits make delicious eating! Plus, raising meat rabbits is relatively easy, and if you shop around for bargains, the materials needed for raising meat rabbits can be inexpensive to purchase. Used cages can be bought at small animal auctions, through newspaper ads, by word of mouth, or they can be constructed from used materials. This past spring, my wife and I gathered a pick-up load of assorted used lumber and wire. Every spring our neighboring community has a clean-up when residents can put their unwanted items on the curbsides to be hauled away. I have used the material we picked up—mainly wood—to construct nesting boxes and repair cages. Gas for hauling was the only cost involved.
The first thing to consider when raising meat rabbits how many rabbits your family can eat in a year’s time. Domestic rabbits reproduce prolifically. Some commercial growers breed their does so many as eight times a year. My advice would be to start out small. Let’s say you begin with two does and one buck, then expand your stock as needed. A realistic goal when raising meat rabbits that are from medium to larger breeds would be four or five litters a year. Expect anywhere from three to maybe as many as 15 babies (kits) in each litter. An optimum number would be seven. Let’s say you hit your optimum, and you manage to get your two does bred five times front early spring to late fall. The result should be approximately 35 growers per doe, times two would equal 70 dressed fryers for the freezer. Depending on the dressed size, one rabbit can easily feed a family of four.
An acquaintance of mine who enjoys raising meat rabbits prefers the live weight of his butchers to be 3 to 2-1/2 pounds. Personally, I like to let my growers get up to around 4-1/2 pounds. Depending on the breed, a live weight of 4-1/2 pounds will generally net you a 2-pound dressed-out rabbit. Keep in mind, large rabbit breeds have more bone mass, which means less meat. If you should choose to bone-out your butchered rabbits, expect between 1 to 1-1/2 pounds of meat from a 4 to 4-1/2 pound rabbit.
Wondering what to feed rabbits? You should know that feeding rabbits can be as expensive as you want to make it. I feed my rabbits commercial feed and whatever else I can find. From spring to fall, clover is plentiful here in America’s heartland. One word of caution: Do not let the little bunnies have any greens. It can kill the young rabbits. Only feed the adults clover or vegetable greens. The babies can have carrots and apples. I raise a lot of vegetables in my garden, especially carrots. The seed is cheap, rabbits love it and the labor growing them can be refreshing. Here are some foods you should consider when raising meat rabbits (all acceptable for them to eat): Lettuce leaves (not too many until they are used to them), potato peelings, beets, rutabagas, parsnips, sweet potatoes, carrots, and turnips. All grains are good, too, if they are thoroughly dried. Leftover breakfast cereal (whole grains, not sugared), dry bread, toast, or stale crackers can also be tasty treats for your bunnies. Avoid feeding anything with mold on it.
Not all vegetables are good for your rabbits. You should not feed them cabbage, broccoli, or brussels sprouts. These foods can cause diarrhea (as can too much lettuce or fresh greens).
Now you’ve bought your breeding stock, made or purchased the needed cages and you have food on hand. What do you use for feeders and waterers without investing too much money? My wife and I go to a lot of garage and yard sales. We are always searching for bargains, whether it be wire, wood, or watering and feed bowls. Crockery, glass, or metal bowls can be purchased for as little as a dime apiece. Store-bought waterers and feeders will cost you anywhere from $10-$20 apiece. Why metal or glass? Rabbits confined in cages tend to become listless and bored and they will chew on anything available, especially wood or plastic.
When constructing your growing cages, be sure the holes in the wire covering the floor are not too large. The baby rabbit’s feet may fall through and become stuck, or even broken. The ideal wire to use would be ½ inch mesh, 19 gauge, galvanized hardware cloth.
Keep your rabbit hutches and the floor or ground beneath them clean of droppings (feces.) Start a compost or manure pile. Use it in your garden in the fall, or offer it to friends, neighbors or maybe advertise it for sale. Excess animal waste (droppings and urine) will draw flies that can become a problem. Rabbits—during hot weather—will sometimes lay in their water bowls. Sour dewlap (the fold of skin under a doe’s chin) can result. The condition dewlap is caused by the constant wetting of the skin when the doe drinks. Maggots can infect a sour dewlap. Using tall water bowls should help eliminate the problem.
Sometimes (especially among the juveniles) the rabbits may fight among themselves. Wounds can result, drawing flies that lay their eggs in them.
Here’s a tip on breeding meat rabbits: Always take the doe to the buck’s hutch, otherwise she can become very territorial and protective of her own cage. In some instances, the doe can turn aggressive and even castrate the buck. Whenever handling or moving rabbits from cage to cage, be sure to wear leather gloves, or be prepared to doctor some nasty scratches. If the doe is aggressive, you may even get bitten. I did once, then I learned to use gloves.
More tips: Keep a calendar diary. Record all breeding. Count the days religiously. On day 27, put a clean nesting box in the doe’s hutch. You can use straw, cedar chips, shredded newspaper, or shredded sugar cane for bedding. The doe should have her young anywhere from day 31 (this is typically when they are born) to day 35. When the young are first born, do not touch them with your bare hands. Use leather gloves to inspect the nesting box. Use a blunt object such as a spatula handle to carefully part the fur covering the young. The doe normally pulls fur from her underside to expose her nipples and to cover her young. Look for dead babies and remove them from the nest. Do this every two or three days to ensure no young have died. Sometimes the doe will refuse to pull any of her fur. A helpful tip would be to keep fur on hand for times like this.
When do you breed the doe again? I’ve found rebreeding the doe when the young are four to five weeks old works out the best.
During the hot weather months, be sure the rabbits have plenty of ventilation. Keep clean fresh water available. Empty and rinse out any water bowl that becomes contaminated with feces or urine. Fresh water will help keep your rabbits healthy. Overheated rabbits can die. I house my adult does and bucks in a wooden building with hinged doors that open on the north, south and west sides. Using three fans-one located on each side of the building-keeps the air circulating through the hutches on hot days and nights. Again, checking twice a day, I make sure there is plenty of clean drinking water available. It is best to feed and water your rabbits around the same time each day, whether it be morning or evening.
When breeding your does, the process should be done twice. Watch closely, sometimes the breeding is over within seconds after you have closed the hutch door. The buck, upon climax, with typically fall over backward and roll away. He will announce his success with a little foot, thumping. Breeding the doe again four to eight hours later will generally guarantee her to be fertile. During the hottest months, there can be some problems in the breeding process. Older bucks are prone to becoming temporarily sterile. If you decide to purchase more than one buck, be sure one of them is young and virile.
A word on weaning the young. Remove the juveniles from their mother a few at a time. Doing this will allow the doe’s milk to dry up gradually, naturally. When the last baby has been moved to the growing cages, then remove the nesting box. During hot weather, I prefer to use wooden nesting boxes with ¾ inch holes drilled in the sides, front, back, and bottom. The holes allow air to circulate around the young. When the little ones start hopping out of the nest, the box can be turned over onto its side for easier access. This also allows the urine to drain out. Be sure to keep the box clean of feces.
Rabbits can become infected with ear mites. If this should happen, you can make your own medicine using a 50/50 mixture of camphor oil and baby, olive or cooking oil. Squirt or pour a small amount of oil directly into the affected ear and rub in gently. Wait two to three days and repeat if necessary.
There are several ways to process your rabbit. You can either skin, wash, and freeze the rabbits whole for baking in an oven, or you can quarter them for slow frying or cooking in a crockpot. Meat cut off the bones can be used for either frying or stir-frying. The drippings from fried rabbit make a delicious gravy. Pressure canning can be another way to preserve your meat. Canned rabbit can be used in “chicken helpers,” stews, with noodles, or it can be eaten straight out of the jar. The last time I canned, I added ½ teaspoon of Nature’s Seasoning to each pint. It turned out delicious. You can also grind the meat—be sure to trim off all the fat—or make jerky out of it. Four pounds of meat will generally net one pound of jerky. Rabbit meat is very low in cholesterol and high in protein.
Growing your own food, whether it be livestock, vegetable, or fruit, can be very rewarding. In this world we share, it can be satisfying knowing the food we have raised is all natural, and not full of chemicals and growth hormones. If you have never eaten tame rabbit, I suggest you try it. Maybe after discovering how delicious it tastes, you will take an interest in raising meat rabbits.
Good luck raising rabbits for meat!
Originally published in Countryside November/December 2002 and regularly vetted for accuracy.
By Marissa Ames – I’ve raised meat rabbits for five years as an adult, to feed my family, and helped my parents raise them for a decade of my youth. There are definitely different opinions and ways of raising meat rabbits, as well as reasons why. Some people use recycled cages; some people build them to have “hidey holes” and places where rabbits can play. While some feed scraps and treats to their rabbits, others focus on raising meat rabbits using only organic hay and pellets. And butchering techniques differ as well. The two big focuses remain the same, no matter who raises them: Doing the best you can for your rabbits and your family.
Raising meat rabbits economically isn’t just about using the lowest-cost feed and supplies. It’s also about economical reasons to raise them. This is why I do it. I prefer the tastes of lamb and venison, but those are costly and I cannot raise them myself. They also aren’t as healthy. So those meats are considered “luxury” proteins, saved for special occasions. By raising meat rabbits ourselves, we secure a low-cost and incredibly healthy meat source to use as our staple protein. Any other meats we purchase are supplementary. Also, though broilers are cheaper to raise, they aren’t nearly as humane as raising meat rabbits. They are stinkier, dirtier, have worse living conditions, and require much more labor for both raising and butcher. Add in low mortality rates of well-kept rabbits, how often they can healthily give birth, and the usefulness of manure, they jump in value. When you add the time and labor conservation of raising meat rabbits, it then becomes one of the cheapest meat sources. It’s also one you can do on a tiny backyard homestead.
A quick rundown of meat rabbit economics:
|Animal||Time to Slaughter||Feed per Pound of Meat||Feed Price per Pound||Fat Percentage||Protein Percentage|
|Rabbit||8-12 Weeks||2.5 lbs||$0.30-$0.35||8%||21%|
|Broiler||5-7 weeks||1.9 lbs||$0.33-$0.90||12%||19.5%|
|Pork||5-6 months||3.46 lbs||$0.25-$0.30||21-29%||15-17%|
|Lamb||6-9 months||4-5 lbs||$0.15-$0.40||14-31%||15-18%|
|Beef||18-22 Months||4.5-7.5 lbs||$0.68-$1.15||12-35%||15-20%|