Jun 24, 2013

An Introduction to Raising Rabbits for Meat

Some backyard homesteaders have declared rabbits are the new chickens. It is true that as more people attempt to grow more of their own food in a suburban setting, rabbits make a lot more sense than cows, pigs, or goats. But I don't think it's an either/or option. People who would never raise chickens might want to raise rabbits (and vice versa). And many people will want to raise both. If raising rabbits for meat interests you, here are the basics on getting started - plus cost breakdowns.

Chickens vs. Rabbits

Chickens 

 *Provide continuous food (eggs) for at least 2 or 3 years
* Provide fertilizer (manure- though it must be ages 6 months to a year before being used in the garden)
* Provide meat
* Provide bones for making stock
* Offer weed and bug control

Rabbits

* Provide fertilizer that doesn't need aging before it goes into the garden
* Regularly provides lots of delicious meat. (A single doe can produce 1000% of per body weight in meat per year; a 10lb doe can produce 320lbs of meat in one year.)
* Provides fur pelts
* Don't make noise
* Take up less room than chickens


I should also note that many people who have backyard hens have no intention of butchering their birds. They either treat their chickens as pets, spending quite a lot of money to feed them through their old age, or they give them away to someone else, blindly hoping they won't butcher the birds. Clearly, if you are squeamish about butchering chickens, you aren't going to want to have homestead rabbits, either.

New Zealand rabbits.
How Many Rabbits and What Type?

How many rabbits you need depends upon how much rabbit meat you expect to consume. The meat is akin to chicken, and extremely lean. (So lean, in fact, you won't want to eat it exclusively without other fatty foods, or you'll become very ill.) But the general advice for average sized families is to begin with one male rabbit (buck) and two female (does). Each doe will have 8 - 12 babies at a time and may be bred repeatedly throughout the year - as soon as 2 weeks after giving birth, as long as she is physically doing well. (You don't have to wait for does to come into heat. Bucks are always ready to mate and does become fertile through sexual contact.)

There are three types of rabbits best suited to raising for meat: New Zealand, Californian, Champagne D’Argent. (American is another good meat breed, but also very rare.) Other rabbit breeds don't produce as fine - or as much - meat.

Note that you will probably spend more money buying a pedigreed rabbit - one with papers proving its heritage. But I've found that rabbits without papers are only $10 - $15 cheaper; this may not be a great trade-off if the seller is being dishonest about the rabbit's heritage. Do be sure the rabbits you purchase are not closely related. It is fine, however, to make each rabbit in your trio a different breed. (Although, if you decide to sell some of the baby rabbits you raise, you will probably want to have the mother and father be the same breed.)

Once you have your breeding trio of rabbits, expect them to be productive for up to 4 years. After that, you can give or sell them as pets, or dispatch them and expect them to be a bit tough. You can keep at least one of your baby rabbits to turn into a new breeder, but he or she shouldn't be bred with brothers or sisters.

Cost: About $10 - 25 per rabbit with papers (or $30 - 75 total for three rabbits)


Housing
Hutch


Rabbits can be kept in cages, hutches, or runs. I personally don't think it's kind to keep them in cage for any length of time; here's why: Rabbits are designed to tuck themselves away in a hole whenever they are frightened, having babies (kits), or just want alone time. Cages don't allow for this at all, and can make rabbits feel stress that can affect their health.

Hutches are best - especially for breeding females (does), because they offer the girls a cosy, partially hidden place to raise babies. Each rabbit should have his or her own hutch.

Runs are not infrequently used for bringing weaned babies (5 -7 weeks)  to butchering age (10 -12 weeks). And there are some backyard rabbit breeders who believe strongly that raising rabbits together, in a colony, is a great way to go: The meat is better conditioned, they say, they eat more natural food, and it's just plain easier. The downside is that there may be some fighting (does can be very territorial; they want their own space...which is why does should always be brought to the buck's hutch for breeding - not the other way around) and you cannot control breeding.

Hutches may be purchased new, but this is a pretty costly option. If you're at all handy, you can probably build a hutch, but unless the materials are scrap, this may also cost a tidy sum. Instead, I suggest searching your local Craigslist every day for used rabbit hutches. Look for ones that have a nesting area (or an easy way to install a nest) and a wire bottom. Wooden bottoms make cleaning up far more difficult and mean your rabbits will sit in their toilet. A wire bottom means virtually no cleanup - and makes the collection of valuable fertilizer much easier.

If you look on Pinterest, you can also find many nifty ideas for turning old dressers and such into quite usable rabbit hutches.

Run
Rabbit runs can be just like chicken run - basically a triangle- or rectangle-shaped wooden frame with wire walls. One end should have some sort of roof so the rabbits can get out of the sun and have some protection from the weather. You should also consider just how predator-proof the run is. Even if you live in the suburbs, it's likely racoons, possums, dogs, cats, and perhaps other predators will try to get at your rabbits; make sure they can't.

Cost: Hutches vary from $150 and up new to $10 and up for used. Runs are hard to find new or used, in my experience, but can sometimes chicken runs can be had for $25 -150 used. If building with recycled wood, expect to pay $10-25 for plans and perhaps another $30-50 in appropriate wire, plus $30 and up for hardware.

Food and Water
Bottle waterer


Modern rabbits have been bred to thrive on pellets, not greens. So expect to have to buy at least some pellets and a pellet feeder. That said, a nmber of backyard rabbit breeders have found rabbits can eat more natural foods than many experts suggest. (Indeed, in my neighborhood, there are some domestic rabbits that have either escaped their hutches or were released into the wild. They survive, and thrive, without pellets of any kind.)

Some backyard rabbit owners begin by giving pregnant does more greens - primarily grass, clover, and dandelions - just a little, so their digestive systems don't go bonkers. When their babies (kits) are born, they get both pellets and greens, gradually giving more greens until the kits are weaned from their mothers and go into a run where they are fed no pellets, but mostly graze on grass, clover, and dandelions - and may be given small amounts of other garden greens.

Rabbits are pretty sensitive to heat and cold, and when they become dehydrated, may stop eating altogether. So it's vital to have lots of fresh water available to them. A bottle waterer keeps the water clean, but if you live where the water will freeze in winter, a cup style waterer that attach to the wall of the hutch will make breaking the ice much easier.

Cost of waterer and feeder: $15-25 for both
Feed: $10 - 18 per bag; expect adult rabbits to eat about 1/2 to 1 cup a day; pregnant or nursing does need more and kits should freely feed. Naturally, feeding costs will be lower if you supplement with greens from your yard.

Bedding

All rabbits benefit from having access to hay to nibble on; usually this is offered as bedding at the bottom of the hutch, but it might also be placed in special hay feeders.

Cost: $5 - 8 a bale. One bale will last about 5 months for 3 rabbits.

Is Rabbit Meat Frugal?

Assuming you don't go out and buy expensive hutches and all kinds of gadgets you don't need, backyard raised rabbits are a good deal, costing around $2.20 - $2.60 a pound - much less than most grocery stores sell rabbit meat for. Depending upon your local hunting licenses and fees, they may even be cheaper than eating wild rabbits - plus they won't have gamey flavor, either.

Here's what The Backyard Homestead Guide to Raising Farm Animals says on the subject:

"The average feed conversion ratio for a rabbit is about 4, meaning it gains 1pound of weight for every 4 pounds of feed it eats - assuming, of course, the rabbits eat everything they are fed and don't scratch it out of the hopper onto the ground. Assuming you start with a pair of 4 month old breeders, by the time you have your first litter of fryers they will have eaten a total of about 130 pounds of rabbit pellets...

By the time a rabbit fryer reaches the live weight of 4 pounds it will have eaten at least 16 pounds of pellets. At 50 percent of live weight, a 4 pound rabbit dresses out to approximately 2 pounds. Your break-even cost can be calculated by comparing the purchase price of a rabbit with the cost of rabbit pellets. At current [2011] rates, a whole fryer sells for approximately $6 per pound, or about $12 for a 2 pounder. The current rate for one brand of all-natural rabbit pellets is about 25 cents per pound, or about $4 for 16 pounds, which is one-third the value of the meat. Even if you pay 50 to 100 percent more to purchase certified organic feed, it's still a good deal.

Let's see what happens when we factor in the cost of feeding the breeder buck and doe. By the time the pair is 2 years old they should have produced seven litters averaging eight kits per litter, or 48 fryers weighing about 4 pounds each live or 2 pounds dressed, for a total of 96 pounds of rabbit. At a purchase price of $6 per pound, that comes to a total market value of $576. By that time, you would have fed the 48 fryers plus two breeders approximately 840 pounds of rabbit pellets at a cost of $210. Your total cost of producing 96 pounds of rabbit meat is a little less than one-third its market value., and your cost per pound is about $2.20."


Further Reading:
Backyard Meat Rabbits (The Urban Rabbit Project)
The Urban Rabbit Project website

A - Z Rabbits website
"Naturally Feeding Rabbits"
"Raising Rabbits in Colonies"
Storey's Guide to Raising Rabbits, 4th Edition
Raising Meat Rabbits (free download)

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