Are meat rabbits easy to raise? Yes! Raising rabbits for meat requires just a few basic supplies and routine care. Meat rabbits are an excellent animal to teach you about a life of animal husbandry. According to RabbitBreeders.us, a single commercial doe can produce offspring to yield 300 # of meat per year! Rabbits have excellent feed conversion rates, low startup costs, healthy meat and don't require much space. We'll walk you through rabbit hutches, watering and feeding, which breeds make the best meat rabbits and basic rabbit care. Let's get started!
Rabbit Hutches and Rabbit Cages
Think about housing BEFORE you start looking at bunnies. Rabbits are usually raised in metal cages or hutches. This protects them from predators and improves sanitation. You could start with wire and make your own cages, but the commercial cages are well designed, readily available, and an excellent investment that will last you for years. You might even get some secondhand by watching your local resale sources such as craigslist. The wire hutches can cause sore feet, so a plank or a piece of carpet can provide a place for your rabbits to rest.
Rabbitry: A rabbitry is a place where domestic rabbits are kept, or a rabbit farm. This may be a rabbit farm or just a corner of your garage where you keep your rabbits.
Siting your rabbitry is important. Heat is the enemy of rabbits more than cold. Because of their fur, hutches can be placed outside, as long as they are protected from prevailing winds. They must be in the shade, especially in warmer climates.
Here in Wisconsin, it is common for the rabbits to be inside a shed or barn with good ventilation in all seasons. However, we have had them outside in wicked Wisconsin winters as long as they were dry, and could get out of the wind. We also provided them with fresh water several times per day.
Watering and Feeding Your Meat Rabbits
Waterers and feeders are best purchased commercially. The industry has done their homework to find receptacles that resist the constant chewing of rabbits and are designed for rabbits’ anatomy. Ceramic or pottery crocks are easy to clean, and wire feeders have screens at the bottom to get rid of dust from the feed. The feeders are also slightly elevated to keep the feed clean, and the design prevents little bunnies from sitting — and soiling– their feed. Water bottles are excellent when the weather is not freezing because the water stays clean AND they cannot tip it onto the floor. Just like toddlers, spills happen!
In winter, we use tuna cans and other similar cans that were not too deep. These are easy to procure so that you can give them a fresh can filled with warm water rather than trying to thaw them all. This is the one season when you may not want the ceramic or pottery crocks because the freezing and thawing can break them.
What do Rabbits Eat?
What should you feed your rabbit? I recommend that you start with a commercial pellet, readily available, consistent in quality, researched to meet the needs of meat rabbits. Different brands may contain slightly different formulas, and some include herbs or probiotics that are known to be beneficial to the digestive tracts of rabbits. Timothy hay as a treat helps stimulate bunny tummies, and they love treats such as carrots, apples, and whole sunflower seeds. Remember these are supplements, and too much of a good thing can cause digestive problems. (Just like chicken treats are a supplement to a healthy chicken diet.)
As you gain experience, you can add fresh forages like clover or alfalfa. It is critical that anything you add to your meat rabbits diets be given on a trial basis first. This is critical for most livestock. Critters that have systems designed to handle cellulose (plant materials) rely on a balance of beneficial bacteria in their gut, and new material can overwhelm that balance. Sticks such as maple branches can provide something safe for rabbits to work their teeth on–those teeth keep growing throughout their life! Note – rabbit teeth (and claws) are sharp, so always be careful when handling your rabbits.
Which Breeds Make the Best Meat Rabbits?
Now the fun can begin! You get to pick out your foundation rabbits! The most common breeds for meat rabbits are New Zealands (shown at top of post) and Californians. These, and crosses thereof, have a nice litter size, are usually good moms, and produce a fast growing, well-constructed carcass. Breeds such as Flemish giants and the giant chinchilla are impressive in size, but the purebreds put on frame before meat and so take longer to produce a quality meat carcass. We have had excellent results using a Flemish giant as a terminal sire, producing a big, fast growing bunny when the mother is a New Zealand.
I recommend starting with a good quality pair or trio of a standard breed until you get comfortable with the process. Meanwhile you can research some of the ‘fun’ newer breeds such as Creme D’argents or silver fox or a new breed that is being developed such as Altex. I also suggest that you find an experienced breeder at this point, to help you make sure that you pick healthy stock with no defects. Experienced eyes and someone to mentor you are worth their weight in gold.
Meat Rabbit Care
Males and females must be housed in different cages. The female’s cage must be large enough to hold a nest box or must have an attached hutch. We started with hutches that served us well when the rabbits were outside. Once we moved them into a building, we went to the nest boxes. The lip on the nest boxes kept the babies from accidentally ending up on the cage floor, and the nest boxes were much easier to clean. When breeding, bring your doe to the buck. Does are territorial and can become aggressive towards the buck, even injuring him.
Making Baby Rabbits
Breeding is straightforward. The male will mount, quickly mate, and fall off. Don’t be alarmed at this! If the doe runs away from him, remove her and try again in 12 hours. She is not ready for breeding. Keep a calendar in your rabbitry to always write breeding dates down! If a doe is pregnant, she will vigorously avoid the buck. Don’t ever try to force them!
How long is a rabbit pregnancy?
Pregnancy is from 28 to 32 days for does. Place the nest box into the cage about a week in advance. At that same time, you will want to give her some straw for nest building. Momma rabbits will gather mouthfuls of materials to take back to the box to make a nest that they line with fur just before kindling.
If the doe fails to pull fur, you may hold her by the scruff of the neck and pluck from her dewlap, below her chin and on her chest, to get the fur to put in with the babies. Because of the hairlessness of the kits, they need that fur to keep warm. Old wives tails say that you must not handle the babies because the mother's will reject them. This is not true for any rabbits, domestic or wild.
Kindling: Kindling refers to a rabbit giving birth.
Once born, we usually leave the nest alone for a few days. After that, we generally gently check the box for any dead babies and to check the condition of the litter. A doe with babies should get free choice feed. Making milk is hard work. Milk is mostly water, so always provide a good source of water for mama rabbits. Rabbits have extremely nutritious milk and only nurse two to three times per day. Within a few hours, they will not be in the nest box, but this does not mean that they are rejecting the babies. This is a carryover from the wild state– staying away from the babies prevents attention from predators.
What do baby rabbits look like?
Baby rabbits are known as kits, which is short for kittens. The babies will be born in an extremely vulnerable state, hairless and blind. Nature has provided for them well, so let your doe do her job. See Rabbit Breeds, Basic Rabbit Care and Interesting Rabbit Facts for a photo of young rabbits in the nest.
The rabbit kits will quickly grow, opening their eyes at about 11 days, give or take a few days. Sometime in the third week, the kits will begin coming out with mom and nibbling on pellets. We have weaned babies as early as 30 days, but an extra week or two of milk will give them a boost. If a doe consistently produces less than at least six babies or does a poor job mothering, it is time to cull her and give another doe her ‘job’. Sometimes a first time doe will accidentally kill her babies while trying to clean them after birthing. This is always a sad thing, but we move on, giving her one more chance.
How frequently can rabbit does be bred?
Does can be bred back four weeks after kindling. This takes aggressive feeding, and we would usually wait until six weeks to try. One note on weaning is that we found that gradual drying off of the doe was easier on the doe. We would take away about half of the babies, and leave a few to continue nursing. Lactation is about supply in response to demand, and by gradually taking away the babies over a week or so, the supply can gradually reduce. By this time, the nest box can be removed and cleaned to ready for the next litter. A decent commercial doe, well managed, can produce 6 to 8 litters per year, consisting of nine or more kits. However, be aware that the stress of continual breeding to achieve more than six litters per year may shorten the life of your does.
When to Process the Rabbits
The babies — now growing rabbits– can then be sold as pets or grown out. Feed them the same pellets free choice and make sure to keep the supply of clean water adequate. At this point, we separate the males from the females. Telling one from the other is tricky and is done by examination of the genitals. Even experienced owners have some difficulty with this, so expect some mistakes. Rabbits may potentially begin breeding before three months of age. If you prefer to raise them for a larger carcass and do not separate them, you will undoubtedly find some surprise pregnancies, either at slaughter or with unexpected litters.
We would routinely butcher by 12 weeks, getting about a 3 # dressed rabbit. A fryer rabbit is up to five pounds live weight, while a roaster is between five and eight pounds. Beyond this, a rabbit is considered a stewer. You can discern the type of cooking by their names! Butchering can be intimidating, and I will leave that for other posts. Again, a mentor can help you there or you may even hire someone experienced to harvest them for you.
Is Rabbit Meat Healthy?
Incredibly so; the protein content is 21% — and the meat is highly digestible. Only very rarely would there be any issues with allergies. Is rabbit meat flavorful? Yes, it tastes like chicken (dark meat)! It may be a cliche, but it's true. Rabbit meat has a very clean, mild taste. It is highly prized by chefs, and excellent used in any recipes calling for chicken or pork. Rabbit meat has very little fat so takes a delicate touch not to overcook the delectable meat. It is a favorite meat of the French.
Rabbit Poop – What to do with Rabbit Droppings
Rabbits produce another product besides meat – rabbit droppings. Rabbit manure is considered a ‘cold’ manure, and can be placed directly onto a growing garden. I prefer to compost the manure a bit first, but the nitrogen levels are lower than other types of manure and will not burn plant roots.
The areas under the rabbit cages can be cleaned weekly to keep the rabbitry fresh. For ease of cleaning, build troughs from 55 gallon plastic barrels cut in half to hold both the droppings and urine, or you could use a shovel, rake and wheelbarrow to clean the floor under the cages. Some people raise worms under rabbit cages, providing another source of income by selling worm castings. Eventually, the manure may be one of the most surprising benefits of your rabbitry.
Why Rabbits Eat Their Droppings
One very strange adaptation of rabbits has to do with their droppings. Unlike ruminants, which chew their cud as part of processing their high fiber diets, rabbits utilize a process called caprophagy.
Rabbits produce two types of droppings, soft ‘night' droppings and dry droppings (which is what we typically recognize as normal rabbit poop). Rabbits ingest the soft droppings, and in this way get the B vitamins and more of the protein that they need. A more detailed explanation can be found at Michigan State University Extension.
This sounds gross, but is something need to understand if you want healthy rabbits! It's okay (and healthy) for your rabbits to eat their droppings. (Side note – if you have issues with your own poop looking like rabbit droppings, please see “What's a healthy bowel movement?“)
What is a rabbit colony? A rabbit colony is where rabbits are raised in groups, sometimes on pasture, with all the rabbits, including the males, living together. Only one adult male should be in any particular colony to prevent aggression towards the offspring of the other male. (For those looking for “rabbit colony crossword clue”, they're also known as a “warren”.)
Homesteaders like to experiment with EVERYthing. Some have had success with rabbit colonies. Please don’t start with that type of arrangement. Leave it, if it appeals to you, till you have experience and know ‘normal’ for rabbits. One of the reasons that wire cages are so common in rabbitries is because of a disease called coccidiosis.
The severity of coccidiosis depends on the number of ingested oocytes. Clinical signs are reduced appetite, depression, abdominal pain and pale watery mucous membranes, but they can be absent in older rabbits. Inspection of the feces often reveals blood and threads of mucus. Young rabbits present a retarded growth, due to side effects on the kidney and the liver in particular.
As you can see, coccidiosis can be a very serious rabbit disease.
Rabbits naturally dig into the ground. Any outside pens must have wire bottoms, even if placed directly on the ground. Alternatively, in more permanent colony pens, hardware cloth can be buried straight down on the sides of the pen to prevent the rabbits from digging out or predators from digging in.
Are Meat Rabbits Right for You?
Research, plan, and establish your housing BEFORE you get your rabbits. Start with basic commercial rabbits and feeds until you learn about the rhythms of your rabbitry. If you decide that you really do not like rabbits, after all, you do not have an overwhelming investment. Find a mentor and get a good resource book such as Raising Rabbits by Ann Kanable. As you gain experience, you can find information from breed registries and commercial sources such as Dean’s All American Rabbits.
Have more rabbit questions? Please leave a comment below and let us know.
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This post is by Debra Ahrens. Debra lives with her family on a five acre hobby farm in northeastern Wisconsin which she often describes as ‘short on hobby, long on farm'. Besides the School of Hard Knocks (Life), she attended UW-River Falls, majoring in Dairy Science. Along with her husband Jerry and their three youngest daughters, they raise every kind of domestic poultry known to man, and maybe a few that shouldn't be known. Their furry animal family includes a flock of Suffolk sheep, dairy goats, a few rabbits, their dog and a lone beef heifer, Thelma. In her spare time, Debra is a poultry and sheep project leader for Kewaunee County 4-H.