We recently began raising rabbits once again, something I used to do several years ago. My grandfather used to raise hundreds of rabbits when my mother was young. They both got me into raising rabbits when I was still in junior high school. Because of the great interest by many people, I thought I'd compile some useful information and share it with you. The following information can be helpful if you have been considering raising rabbits or are already raising rabbits and still had some questions about it.
Raising rabbits is a very rewarding thing. It is a very efficient in the cost/production ratio. In other words, you can produce a lot of meat for a very low cost. And this is done in a very short amount of time and in very small places. Rabbit meat is delicious and tastes much like chicken, but better. Rabbit meat is 20.8% protein, 10.2% fat, 27.9% moisture and about 795 calories per pound...a much healthier meat than beef, pork, lamb or chicken.
The following "rabbit facts" were taken from C. Park Romney's book, Raising Rabbits at Home:
1. One doe can produce 70-110 lbs. of dressed meat each year.
2. Rabbits are multipurpose animals. They are used for meat, fur, wool, laboratory experiments, etc.
3. They are raised in all 50 states.
4. There are over 50 known breeds of rabbits.
5. Presently over 200,000 families raise rabbits.
6. Only 500 to 600 does provide full-time employment.
7. There are over 300 different recipes for rabbit.
8. Rabbit wool is lighter and warmer than any other animal wool.
9. After slaughter 93% of the entire carcass is useable.
10. Only about 7% of the rabbit consists of bone.
11. Rabbits have no diseases communicable to humans.
12. Most felt hats are made from rabbit pelts.
13. Rabbit fur can duplicate 85% of all other furs.
14. Rabbit meat helps stomach disorders.
15. The rabbits foot has been a good luck charm for centuries.
16. Gardeners will virtually beg for rabbit manure as plant food.
17. Rabbits are the only edible farm animal abel to produce 1,000% of it's own weight in offspring per year.
18. They are the cleanest of all vegetarians.
19. They can produce a litter in only one month's time.
20. They can breed all year around.
21. Some people claim rabbits are rodents. They aren't; they are lagomorphs.
22. Rabbit manure is almost odor free if kept fairly dry.
23. Rabbit manure will not burn plants even when applied fresh.
24. Rabbits won't crow, bark or howl at the moon at midnight or any other time.
25. Domestic rabbit meat does not have a strong or wild taste.
26. Rabbits can begin reproducing by 4 to 5 months of age.
27. In 1/70 of an acre about 5 tons of rabbit meat can be produced annually.
28. Raising rabbits requires a very low investment.
29. Geologists claim that rabbits are opposums are the oldest known living animals.
30. Rabbits have been reported to weigh up to 26 lbs.
The most popular breed of rabbit for meat production is the New Zealand White. In fact, it is estimated that 90% of rabbit raised for meat are of this breed. The adult is usually between 9-12 pounds. The second most popular is the Californian, which usually weighs around 9-10 pounds. And although these are the most popular meat rabbits, some enjoy raising the smaller breed, the Tan. They generally weigh between 5 to 6 pounds. And although they are much smaller than the New Zealands or Californians, they eat less and take up less space. They are actually better meat producers when you consider space, feed requirements,etc. However, they don't have as many offspring which decreases theirmeat production. My personal preference is the New Zealand White. You may want to start with that and try others after you have learned the basics of raising rabbits.
Where to Begin?
Once you have decided you would like to raise rabbits, it is important that you start the right way. You will want to begin breeding rabbits from good stock and preferably pedigree stock. Find a reputable breeder and start with two bucks and two does. Most preferably have those as two junior bucks, a junior doe and a senior doe. A junior rabbit is under six months old and a senior is over eight months old. Also ask the breeder to breed your senior doe with one of their best bucks. That way you will have a litter on the way from a completely different line. You will do well to start out the right way. Otherwise, start with what you can. I personally started with 2 bucks and 4 does, all from different lines.
Building Appropriate Housing
The housing issue is critical for disease prevention, maximum breeding and overall healthy conditions. You will want to keep your rabbits in individual hutches made of wire. They should measure 30" deep x 36" wide x 18" high (30" x 30" x 18" will work, but larger is better... bucks can use smaller at 30" deep x 24" wide x 18" high). For the front, back, top and sides, use 14-gauge galvanized wire in 1" x 2" welded rectangles. The floor should be 14-gauge galvanized wire in 1/2" x 1" welded rectangles. You can also get wire for the sides that has 1/2" x 1" for the first 4 to 6 inches, which then becomes 1"x2". This will keep the babies from falling out of the side of the cage if the new mother births them outside of the nest box for some reason.
To build the cage, cut an 11 foot piece of the 1" x 2" welded wire and bend into four corners by hammering the wire against a 2x4. They can be clamped together using J-clips or C-rings (I personally like c-rings the best). This will make up the front, back and sides. Then cut out the roof from the same sized wire measuring 30" x 36". For the floor, cut out a piece the same size as the roof except from the 1/2" x 1" wire. Wire them together.
For the door, cut out a 1' square out of the front left side. Cut another piece from the remaining wire larger than the 1' square so that it overlaps. Use the J-clips or C-rings to connect the door to the cage on the left side, on the inside so it swings inside. Attach a door latch to keep the door secure when closed. Having the door swing in will keep the rabbits from being able to escape if you accidentally leave the door unlatched.
You can also make the cages in sets of 3 so that one piece of wire wraps across all three cages, one piece makes up the roof, one piece makes up the floor and individual pieces are cut to separate the 3 sections.
You will also want to install feeders to the fronts of the cages. These allow you to feed the rabbits from outside the cages and keeps them from tipping over a feeding bowl. A watering system is also installed from outside the cage, with the nozzle poking into the cage. These can be purchased from a supply store. Or you can make one by using a dew drop valve attached to the bottom corner of a soda bottle or other plastic container. You can also build a watering system by installing water nipples to pvc or other tubes. These can be either pressurized or gravity fed. There are many options available, both inexpensive and very expensive, depending on how high-tech you're wanting your system. Water is critical, so make sure it is always plentiful, clean and a manageable temperature.
What to Feed?
Today's manufactured rabbit pellets make feeding easy. They are complete with all the nutrition necessary for the rabbits to stay healthy. Some feel that the 18-20% protein level feed is the optimal feed for the nursing does, growing litter and breeding bucks if you would like to keep the feeding simple, giving them all the same feed. They will grow faster on the 18-20% ratio than on a 16% protein diet.
Rabbits only need to be fed once a day, preferably at the same time every day. The evening is the optimal time because they are more active in the evenings. Bucks and dry does should always be fed 4 to 5 ounces of feed daily (roughly a tuna fish can). When a doe has a litter, feed them all they can eat for about 8 weeks, or until the litter has been weaned (6 to 8 weeks). Overfed bucks and does will not breed properly, thus limiting your production.
Remember to never feed greens to young rabbits. It could give them diarrhea and even kill them.
You can begin breeding does when they reach four months old and the bucks are five months old. Breed them by taking the doe to the buck's cage. When mating is complete, the buck usually gives a grunt and falls over. For optimal results, I will make sure the buck has 3 successful breedings. If this doesn't happen, I'll remove the doe from the buck for a few hours and then put them back together to finish the process. The gestation period is about 31 days. If the doe is not receptive to the buck, you may need to force mate them. To do this, hold the doe by the neck with one hand (just to keep her still) and with the other hand under her lower stomach, gently push back and upward, raising her tail in the air and allowing the buck to mate. Most bucks with not have any problems with forced mating. Once they have done this, they usually jump right on. The first time you do this is usually the hardest.
A nest box will need to be put into the cage about 4 weeks after mating, with a few handfuls of straw or timothy hay in the box. The best type of box is about 18" long, 10" wide and 10" high. Build it using plywood or wire for the sides, with a "V" cut or lowered face in the front for easier access. You may want to line the inside with disposable cardboard to simplify cleaning between uses if built with wire, always if the sides are wire. Use 1/2" x 1" (1/2" x 1/2" is better) wire for the floor. This will allow any urine and moisture to leak out the bottom. But make sure you have enough straw to eliminate any drafts from below. DO NOT use a covered box. The moisture can kill the rabbit. The doe will line the nest box with fur just before giving birth. You can save some of the fur for future litters if needed. I remove the nest box from the cage when the litter are 3 weeks old.
You can breed the does as quickly as 2 weeks after giving birth. If you do this, wean the litter at 5 weeks. This will yield 8 litters a year. Does will bear litters for about 3 years, while bucks will sire for 6 to 9 years. Breeding them 2 weeks after giving birth has no negative effect on the health of the doe and the litter. Many studies have been done on this breeding schedule and all rabbits have done extremely well. In fact, the doe's health is often better when bred often vs. a couple times a year. And you will find that using this accelerated breeding schedule that the doe is more receptive to breeding.
One buck can service up to 30 does total, servicing one or two does every other day, with a 1-day rest period between matings. It is always a good idea to have a backup buck. Having multiple bucks from different genealogy lines also helps replenish breeding stock.
The Butchering Process
At 8 to 10 weeks of age, the rabbit is ready to be butchered. The rabbit will weight 4 to 5 pounds, giving between 2 to 3 pounds of dressed meat.
To kill the rabbit hold it's hind legs with your weak hand and with your other hand, put your thumb behind its neck and your fingers on it throat. Quickly snap the neck by pushing straight down. Another method is to hold the hind legs and with one hand and strike it sharply with a heavy stick at the base of the skull. There are also many tools out there like the Rabbit Wringer that holds the neck in place allowing a quick jerk, instantly breaking the neck and killing the rabbit. This is my prefered method as it is quick and painless for the rabbit and less stressful than hanging it upside down while culling it.
Next hang the rabbit upside down with 2 hooks through the feet or by securing the feet with rope. Cut the head off immediately and let it bleed out into a bucket. Cut off the front feet at the first joints. Then cut the skin around the two hind feet, without cutting through the meat. Cut through the skin, down the inside of the legs to the crotch. Peel the skin downwards off the legs, continuing down until it has peeled off the whole body.
Make a slit just under the muscle, starting near the tail opening, moving downward until reaching the rib cage. Then cut around the anal opening and between the hind legs to remove the bowels. Carefully remove the bowels and entrails, making sure not to rupture the bladder or intestines, which may spoil the meat. Remove the two hind legs at the joints and clean the meat by running water over the carcass, inside and out.
Cut the meat to preference, wrap in freezer paper and place in freezer.
Other Benefits from Rabbits
Fertilizer: Rabbit manure is considered one of the best available. It contains more nitrogen and phosphorus than many other manures and more potash than most. Even when applied fresh, it will not burn plants. Gardens with rabbit fertilizer consistently applied most often yield much better results than without.
Raising Worms: Because of the complimentary nature, many rabbit raisers also raise earthworms (or Red Wigglers). The worms will break down clean the bed just under the rabbit cages, turning the manure into black potting soil. A small profit can even be made from selling the worms to local tackle and bait shops.
Rabbit Pelts: Rabbit pelts can also be sold for a small profit or used to make clothes, toys and other items. It is recommended that if you are planning on selling the pelts that you raise white rabbits because the white pelts can be died to any color desired. Tanning them is not always an easy process, but an exchange may be made with a local tanner in which they get to keep a percentage of the tanned hides for them in exchange for tanning a percentage for you.
Raising rabbits for food is not only very rewarding, but can offer other benefits as well. Not only is the meat healthier than most, but your gardens will yield more fruits and vegetables and you may make a little money on the side selling fishing worms and pelts. If you have children involved they also learn about self-reliance, responsibility, the value of life and where their food comes from.
Hopefully this information has helped answer some questions about raising rabbits at home.
Enjoy the journey!
To see more information about my rabbitry and rabbits, please visit my site at: http://www.AZRabbits.com.