Whether you are planning to survive disasters or simply want to be self-sufficient and less dependent on outside resources, raising your own meat animals is a smart choice. That said, raising farm animals can be tough for those who live in urban areas, small homes or apartments, or under the rule of restrictive homeowners associations. If that sounds like you, consider raising meat rabbits. Rabbits make it possible to produce your own meat without raising an eyebrow!
Why rabbits? Meat rabbits are an excellent way to supplement your family food supply. Rabbit meat is tender and mild, plus rabbit meat is one of the healthiest meat sources, even beating chicken for low calories, high protein, and lower cholesterol levels. Not only that, rabbit meat is also far lower in fat and is higher in calcium and phosphorus than other meats.
Perhaps one of the better reasons for raising rabbits for meat is that they can be raised just about anywhere. If you have a garage, a basement, a porch, a backyard or even a small corner of a living room, you can raise meat rabbits and produce quite a bit of meat for you and your family. Sound interesting? Here are some tips that will help you get started raising rabbits.
Raising Meat Rabbits in Small Spaces
Rabbits are an excellent choice no matter where you live. Meat rabbits are easy to breed and raise. They require very little space. Best of all, since they do not fall under the typical livestock category, they are not subject to zoning laws and restrictions like other types of livestock and small farm animals.
Production wise, a small triple stack of cages kept indoors will house a trio of rabbits that can produce between 30 and 60 kits (baby rabbits) per year. Underneath each of the stacked cages is a catch pan to keep the area clean. The required space is about the same size that would be required to fit an average-sized chest of drawers. Although larger areas can be created to house even more rabbits and more elaborate setups, a triple-stack hutch really does quite nicely.
Should rabbits be kept indoors? Yes, when there is room, keeping your rabbits indoors makes the most sense. It is easier to provide a temperature controlled climate year-round and allows you to maximize your breeding schedule.
The cage size most appropriate for medium-sized meat rabbit breeds is 24 x 30 x 56. There are other sizes available as well, but that would be a perfectly good size.
It is also possible to keep rabbits outdoors in a small yard. All it takes is a few feet of space. Instead of a stack of cages, you will need hutches that have a portion enclosed for the rabbits to get out of the elements. There are a wide variety of types and styles of outdoor hutches available as either ready-made or DIY. For do it yourself types, you can find free building plans online.
Hutches create very good accommodations for your rabbits that will keep them happy and healthy outdoors.
Housing your rabbits outside will cut down on the number of litters that can be bred each year. Does (mamma rabbits) will need winters off, and enough heat would not be possible to keep any resulting litters warm enough when first born. On the other hand, using an outdoor space may give you the ability to house a few more rabbits. This allows you to produce the same amount of meet by having extra litters during the warmer months.
While you keep the adults year-round, baby rabbits are usually slaughtered at 8 to 10 weeks. The gestation period is only 28 to 31 days so the turnaround from breeding to dress out is very short.
Where to Get Meat Rabbits
There are rabbit breeders in all states, but they can be hard to find if you’ve never looked for them. The American Rabbit Breeder’s Association is a good place to start when looking for local breeders. The listing on the ARBA site is limited, however, and many good local breeders do not pay to be listed. You can find more choices on state rabbit breeder club websites like the Illinois Rabbit Breeder’s Association. Some state associations even have listings for neighboring states.
Other great resources are local county or state fairs. Lucky for us, all states and most counties have their own annual fairs. Most, if not all, have rabbit exhibits for both open (adults), junior and 4-H classes. These are fantastic places to mingle with breeders from local and surrounding areas. At a fair, you will find a wide variety of breeds and will be able to familiarize with them in an up close, and personal way.
Selecting Your New Rabbits
Once you have decided on a breed of meat rabbit, and have an area set up to care for them, it’s time to start looking for your own breeding pair or breeding trio. If you can make an appointment with a local breeder, you will get a lot of information and help on how to handle and care for your new rabbits. There are also local swap meets and livestock exhibits that may have rabbits available for sale. These can be good places to find new stock but, you are less likely to get individual attention from sellers and will be on your own in making sure your selections are healthy.
One good thing with rabbits is that while they certainly can get sick, or be diseased, in general, they are incredibly hardy animals. When selecting your rabbits, the first thing you want to look for is clear, clean eyes and noses. The ears should also be free of any accumulation that could signal infection or mites. They should never have an offensive odor or look like they have been sitting in wet conditions. The anus should be clean and the vent should be clean and dry. Naturally, the animal’s coat should be clean and unstained. These are not just aesthetic aspects. They are indicators of good care and good health.
The next part of checking out your rabbits for purchase can get a little trickier because you are going to need to grasp and turn the rabbit over. If you are new to handling rabbits, it would be best to try and find a breeder who can help you so you don’t harm yourself or the animal.
Keep in mind that when handling a rabbit, always grasp them around the ears with thumb and forefinger on either side of the head. Do not lift them by the ears. This can be especially harmful to the heavier adult meat rabbits, but it can damage even small, light rabbit ears. Grasping the ears with the remaining fingers only helps you steady the head and keep control if the rabbit gets scared and tries to get away.
While holding the head, gently run your free hand over the loin and down the hips. This will give you a good feel for the meat on the back of the rabbit. The animal should feel firm and rounded. While maintaining your grip on the head, and the other hand on the rear, scoop the hips under and turn the rabbit over, keeping them close to the body.
You should quickly move the hand under the rear of the bunny up to grasp the hind legs when dealing with skittish rabbits, or those you are unfamiliar with. Those hind feet can be quite powerful. With the rabbit in this position, check the nails to see if they are overgrown. You should also use the hand not holding the rabbits head to lift the upper lip and pull down the lower lip gently and look at the front teeth of the rabbit. They should not overlap, be buck-toothed, or be crooked and over-grown.
Rabbit Care and Breeding
First of all, let’s start with some definitions. Female rabbits are referred to as does. Males are bucks. Baby rabbits are kits. Now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about caring for and breeding your rabbits.
Rabbits do not have a lot of fancy requirements. You will need a food bowl and a drip water bottle similar to what is used for hamsters and gerbils and the cages. In addition, when breeding, you will need a nesting box for each doe you are breeding.
The breeding process itself is amazingly simple. You take the doe out of her cage and put her in with the buck. That’s it. Watch and wait. If the doe is receptive, the breeding will take place immediately and be over quickly. Do not be alarmed when the buck does a backflip off and looks like he had a stroke. That’s normal, and he will get up immediately.
If the female runs around the cage and does not let the buck near enough to mount, remove her and try again in a day or two. Never, under any circumstances take the buck to the doe’s cage. The does are extremely territorial and will attack the buck even if they are ready to breed. When put in the buck’s cage they will not be as aggressive. Also, it is a good idea not to leave the pair alone. If she is not ready to breed she may fight off his advances if you don’t take her out of the cage. Bucks are persistent and do not take no for an answer well.
Once you witness a coupling, remove the doe and place her back in her cage. That’s all there is to it. In 28 to 31 days you will likely have babies. While there are times when the breeding isn’t successful, they don’t say ‘breeding like rabbits’ for nothing. They are very prolific.
One to two weeks before the doe is due, place a clean nesting box in the cage with her. Place some straw inside so she can make a nest. A few days before she delivers, she will also pull out fur to add to the nest.
If your cages are in a garage or other unheated area, and you are breeding during the winter, a heat lamp placed above the cage will help keep the area warm enough.
Rabbits can be weaned as soon as they are eating solid food, at about 4 weeks. Some breeders prefer to place those kits in grow pens to go on to slaughter age at 8 to 10 weeks, so they can get the mother back in condition to breed again quickly. If space for a grow-out cage is at a premium, however, keeping the babies with their mother the full 8 to 10 weeks is fine.
Dressing out Meat Rabbits
Rabbits are one of the easiest and most pleasant animals to butcher. If you have ever slaughtered chickens, sheep, or goats, you will find that rabbits take far less time and space. They are great for people who have never dressed out their own meat animals before because the learning curve is very modest.
Here are the things you need for butchering:
A gambrel is basically a set of hooks that hold the animal up by the hind legs so you can access it easily. You will need it to hang the carcass on while dressing it out. These are available premade, but they are simple to construct on your own as well. A sturdy stick, some rope and a couple of “S” hooks will do the trick.
You will also need a sharp knife. Fish filet knives work well. Even a small paring knife can do the job if it is sharp enough. Place a bucket directly beneath the gambrel so that it will catch the blood and offal. Offal is the term used for the non-edible parts of the inside of a meat animal.
Here are the steps needed to butcher a meat rabbit:
To slaughter the rabbit, grasp the hind legs firmly and place the upper part of the rabbit’s body on a firm surface. With a hammer (or your hand if you are strong enough), hit the rabbit directly behind the ears on the back of the neck. This will knock them out. Using the sharp knife, slit the throat and cut through the neck.
Allow the carcass to bleed out into the bucket for a few minutes, and then make a small incision between the bone and tendon of the rear leg at the hock (knee joint). Hang one leg from the incision on one of the gambrel hooks.
From the incision on each rear leg, insert the knife tip between the meat and the skin. Slice down toward the groin. Repeat with the opposite rear leg. Cut off the tail of the rabbit and connect the slices in the pelt of the rear legs. Cut off the front feet at the knee joint. This is easily done with a quick stroke of the knife.
Peel the pelt off of the legs, then grasp it firmly once it is at the body and pull downwards until it is free of the front legs. It will come off in one solid tube of skin and fur.
Put the pelt aside if you are going to keep it for tanning later.
Gently insert the tip of the knife into the belly at the groin. Be careful not to cut too deep. You just want to cut the thin skin. Slice down toward the breast until you get to the rib cage. With a thumb and forefinger, grasp the anus end of the intestine and pinch it as close to the anal opening as possible to avoid any fecal matter from escaping. Pull down to release it, and let all of the intestines and organs fall forward out of the opening.
Remove the liver, heart, and kidneys if you want to keep them, and place them in a clean dish. Rabbit livers are delicious. They are similar in size and texture to chicken livers, but a little more tender.
Dump all of the offal into a garbage bag and tie up securely.
Rinse the remaining carcass under cool water. Cut up or bag whole for later use. Place in the refrigerator for a day if you are going to freeze the resulting meat or use immediately. If you are not going to use the meat immediately, do not use it for at least 24 hours so it has the time to go through rigor mortis. Once 24 hours in the refrigerator is passed, freeze or use the meat.
Using Rabbit Meat
Rabbit meat is tender, mild meat. It can be used in almost any recipe, replacing other types of meat. However, because it is such a mild meat, it is best in recipes normally containing chicken, or in rabbit specific recipes.
You will find that all young rabbits are excellent simply barbecued, fried, stewed or baked. Older rabbits can also be used for meat once they are no longer up to breeding. If you butcher an older animal, replace it with a rabbit from a resulting litter, or purchase another outside breeding animal. Prepare the older rabbit for eating the same as you would a young rabbit.
There are pros and cons to consuming older rabbit meat. The animals are usually twice the size of the usual slaughter age rabbits, so they produce twice as much meat. On the other hand, the meat is usually a little tougher. Many consider older rabbit suitable only for stews or ground meat. That said, many find that even older rabbits taste fine in any of the ways younger rabbit meat is prepared for the dinner table.
The Final Word
No matter how big or small your rabbit breeding operation, these little livestock animals offer the most bang for the buck. In addition, they are pleasant to have around.
Word of caution: it is a good idea not to allow family members of any age to make pets out of your meat rabbits. This also applies to your breeding rabbits since they, too, may end up on the dinner table at some point in time. That said, for me personally, it would be difficult not to name them. Many of my friends name their chickens that ultimately end up as Sunday dinner.
Finally, in closing, I would like to thank my collegue, Tami P. (you know who you are!), who raises meat rabbits and has provided valuable insight into this article.
Enjoy your next adventure through common sense and thoughtful preparation!