Most people can readily acknowledge that livestock such as chickens, pigs, cattle, and sheep are commonly consumed by the general public. One source of protein, however, seems to be a bit more taboo than most others. I receive a lot of judgement about raising meat rabbits. Too many people believe they are “too cute” or “should only be pets” or “should run wild.” *eye roll*
I started into meat rabbits after some lengthy amount of research in the summer of 2014 after I graduated from undergrad. A good friend and I built a 3-hole hutch and I acquired my first rabbit, a black Flemish giant named Delilah.
We had rabbits constantly when I was growing up, most notably BunBun, some sort of mutt lop that I found in a McDonald’s parking lot when I was 6 or 7, who ended up living until I was in 10th grade. I had a friend in middle school who’s family raised harlequins for show and meat, and I fell in love with the operation and all of the adorable babies.
When I finally made the decision to delve into meat rabbits, it was pushed because of my love for the environment and my idea that I could do something to provide for myself in order to rely less on the flawed commercial food system. I decided that I could raise a source of meat for myself and my dog sustainably and ethically. Rabbits were the obvious choice because they require very little space (I lived in a town-home with a shared yard with the three other town-homes we were attached to) and were prolific breeders.
After Delilah, I also acquired my herd buck, some sort of ugly mutt, as well as a purebred silver fox doe (who I had bought bred to a purebred silver fox buck). I had my breeding trio, and the breeding began.
There was always a sense of joy going out to the hutches and lifting the lid to see a furry nest of squirming naked babies. I soon built a grow-out pen in the corner of the yard where I would combine like-aged litters and allow them to grow until butchering day. I had a fabulous operation going, which only got bigger and better with my move to Georgia.
I have come a long way since the summer that I started with rabbits. I learned a lot of things along the way. I tweaked my operation to fit my own personal needs.
Choosing Breeding Stock –> Now a days, I do not choose stock all willy-nilly as I did when I made the dive into meat rabbits. These days, I go for purebred, pedigreed stock. This choice allows me to sell offspring to other breeders for top dollar, rather than the $10-$15/rabbit prices for mutts. Regardless of breed, I choose stock that have very few to no major conformation flaws (see ARBA SOPs for more info). I choose stock that have colors that I desire (I personally enjoy blacks & chocolates and their dilute and broken forms [lilac & blue] – color genetics descriptions here). I, personally, breed for larger stock, so I choose larger rabbits. I also keep my own personal set of qualities (PDF here – RR) that I find preferable in breeding animals, and if after 3 litters, a rabbit isn’t meeting my minimum qualifications, they are removed from my breeding herd.
Breeding –> Since I am located in the south, I breed September through March for my first litters in early to mid October and my last litters in early to mid April. This gives the does time off in the hottest months, which improves their overall condition as well as reduces chances of losses due to heat. Does have 3 to 4 litters per season, and I try to breed at least two does at a time to maximize chances of litter survival if they were to need fostering to another doe. I will breed a doe, she gestates for a month (usually 32 days), gives birth, then I keep kits on her a minimum of 4, maximum of 6 weeks. Once ready, I wean the kits and feed the doe raspberry and mint leaves to help dry up her milk. Usually after the kits are weaned, the doe is re-bred, unless there is an issue preventing this (ie. her body condition has greatly deteriorated due to a large litter, etc.). This gives her a month without kits (during gestation) to relax until her next litter is born.
Grow Outs –> I generally wean my grow outs at 4.5-5 weeks to give my does some time to themselves. I will wean at 4 weeks if a doe’s condition has drastically decreased or if she has a large amount of kits to prevent her from being “overwhelmed.” I will wean later, around 6 weeks, if the doe is handling the kits well and if I am low on grow out space. I wean my grow-outs from their cage with mom into a tractor on the ground that is moved 1x daily. I will occasionally use stationary cages on the ground if I have a lot of grow outs. Once they have been off of mom for about a week, I evaluate each one for type, temper, etc. Any grow outs who I feel have exceptional conformation or overall quality I will keep as breeders. All other grow outs will continue to grow in their pens from weaning to between 10-14 weeks. I will butcher around 10 weeks if I am low on cage space and/or tired of dealing with a lot of rabbits. I will wait a little later to wean if I am busy and/or want a better quality of fur.
Butchering –> As stated above, I usually butcher grow outs between 10-14 weeks. Occasionally some kits are butchered at 8 weeks, but no earlier. The latest I butcher as far as grow-outs go is 16 weeks. Any earlier than 8 weeks and the amount of meat you get is drastically low. Any later than 16 weeks and you forego good meat for a better pelt. I try to breed rabbits that dress out around 65% by 10 weeks of age. My fryers go up to 12 weeks. Anything from 12-16 weeks old is generally a broiler or slow-cooker. Any older rabbits that need to be butchered are generally used for dog food.
When it comes to butchering, I am entirely self taught. Being a hunter has helped me with this immensely. I can butcher a rabbit in about 7-10 minutes as long as I have a sharp knife and don’t cut myself. I dispatch via the cervical dislocation method using my “rabbit wringer/hopper popper” that a friend made for me. You slide the head into the V shape, then pull the back legs until the neck has been dislocated and the rabbit is dead. I immediately hang inverted via bailing twine around the two back feet and remove the head to allow to bleed out. Severed heads and feet are frozen for dog treats. Once bled, I make incisions around the back legs down and across the anus and pull the pelt off like removing a t-shirt. I then cut the stomach open (carefully as to not puncture any internal organs) and remove all internal organs. I save the heart, liver (remove gall bladder), lungs, and kidneys. All other organs go to the chickens/compost pile. Once this is done, I remove front and back feet with hedge trimmers and the freshly butchered carcass is placed into a salt water bath to soak overnight before being frozen. I also salt and freeze the pelts for use later.
Nutrition –> My rabbits are all free-fed Manna Pro pellets via J-feeders. They have access to fresh water (with apple cider vinegar) from their watering system. They also have free choice hay, as hay is, in my opinion, the most important part of their diet. I also feed kitchen scraps for supplemental nutrition/as treats. Additionally, my rabbits are supplemented with calf manna (~1 tsp/day), oats (~2 Tbsp/day), and BOSS [black oil sunflower seeds] (~2 Tbsp/day). These help with keeping their overall condition excellent and are also fabulous for nursing/gestating does. I do let my breeders down to graze on occasion, in a small tractor for a few hours, so that they can dig (this helps cut down on nail maintenance) and relax in the grass/weeds. Grow-out nutrition is the same as for my breeders except that I ration their pellet access which forces them to eat more hay/grass. This may make them grow slightly slower, however I have found that I have far less illnesses/losses feeding them this way.
Things I Have Learned:
- Rabbits can get pregnant immediately after giving birth. Yes. This is possible and it happens when you leave your buck with your doe whom you don’t think is pregnant and then she kindles; and then kindles again 4 weeks later.
- Cocci is real. It is common, and it is near impossible to get rid of. My advice is to keep breeders off the ground unless you have areas that are not accessible by fowl (chickens, ducks, etc.) or designated rabbit-only areas for them to graze.
- Rabbits are adorable but they are animals, and WILL scratch/bite/fling piss on you. Proceed with caution.
- Rabbit manure is prized fertilizer. Sell it if you can. It’ll go for a pretty penny.
- I never let anyone come to my rabbitry. You don’t know who you’re inviting over when you get interested clients from the web. I always meet in public to buy/sell rabbits. Wouldn’t want PETA or any other radical knowing where I live.
- Rabbits don’t always breed like rabbits. I’ve had a lot of luck, however it can be tricky and difficult. A lot of factors can influence fertility, including temperature, weight of the rabbit, etc. Don’t give up if your does aren’t taking the first time.
- Rabbits WILL escape if given the chance. Make sure your cages are VERY secure. Additionally, predators think rabbits are tasty and WILL get into your cages if they can (be it weasels, hawks, dogs, cats, possums, etc.).
- Rabbits can succumb to a number of diseases. Educate yourself, especially on the common illnesses, and know signs and symptoms.
- Have a little apothecary/first aid kit ready. I keep electrolytes, syringes and needles, iodine, rubber gloves, “Blue Kote,” tums, and many herbs for use when I need them.
- You DO get attached. It would be inaccurate to think otherwise. I love all of my rabbits, so butchering is a day to show them respect and honor them for providing us with sustenance.
- Handling your kits once they’re born won’t cause the mother to abandon/kill them. This is an old wives tale.
- A grow-out can knock-up his mother/sister. If you’re planning on keeping some for breeding, best to separate them out from the others ASAP. A doe being bred too early can stunt her growth.
- Just because a method works for someone doesn’t meat it will work for you. And vice versa. Develop your own methods and when you find something that works well for you, stick with it!
- Don’t give up. 🙂 If at first you don’t succeed, try try again.