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Anyone can raise rabbits, but then why would you want to?
Raising rabbits is enjoyable – the animals are gentle, and interactive – they often “thump” at you when they hear you come outside if they want attention. If you are actually raising rabbits as opposed to just keeping them as pets then you will have litters of baby rabbits on a regular schedule, and that is also enjoyable.
Rabbits don’t take up much space, and they make almost no noise at all. They don’t smell as long as the rabbit keeper does his or her part.
Raising rabbits is not very expensive to begin – breeding stock can be had for $10 – $20 each or less, and the required equipment can be built from inexpensive or recycled materials by anyone with a modicum of skill.
Rabbit poo – This may be the absolute greatest organic fertilizer that there is – it’s certainly the best that I’ve ever used. In fact we have not quite been able to reproduce the success in the garden that we used to have since we stopped raising rabbits. It would almost be worth the effort just for the manure. Seriously.
Domestic rabbits happily live out their lives in relatively small cages. They need adequate space of course and they seem to like being near one another, but they really do seem pretty content. In fact they no longer have the ability to survive outside of domestication.
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Rabbits are the only practical way to produce meat in a typical city or suburban back yard that I know of. Chickens need much more space – preferably free range – and are a viable option only if you can satisfy that requirement, but you can keep rabbits productively and humanly in as little as 24 square feet.
I’ve seen some articles recently with pictures that might imply that backyard chickens can be successfully raised in a shelter of some kind with just a small connected enclosure – and this might actually be possible. However the adult chickens that I’ve had were kind of mean to each other, and would pick on the lowest ranking individual anyway. When confined – even in a relatively roomy chicken yard – they would mercilessly bully those individuals, sometimes to the point of death. I believe this is typical behavior for confined chickens, and I suspect that the smaller the confinement the worse it probably gets.
I’m not a vegetarian. Over the years I’ve raised and helped to raise several types of livestock for meat. I was also an avid hunter for several years, and I can tell you with great confidence that the most economical way to put meat on your table is to buy it at the grocery store. A small amateur livestock operation is very unlikely to even come close to the efficiency that the agribusiness of today achieves. The average hunter would be many dollars ahead to just buy rib eyes and fillets from a butcher by the time all of the cost of licenses, guns, equipment, and crazy stuff like bottled deer urine (I kid you not – $20 a bottle “hot” doe urine) are accounted for. Raising your own rabbit meat is nowhere near as expensive as all that, but if cost is your only measure of value you should just go shopping. For more information on The Economics of Backyard Rabbit Raising follow this link.
Nonetheless, once the decision is made to be (or remain) an eater of meat there is something to be said for producing some of your own – at least for the experience. It might change your outlook on being an omnivore. You can also be sure that the meat you produce will be from healthy animals, humanely raised and slaughtered, which are free of antibiotics, hormones, steroids, and other nasty chemicals.
Now the downsides – rabbits like most livestock require your attention every single day – twice a day most of the time, maybe more in extreme weather. They don’t require very much time every day, but they have to be fed and watered, and that fertilizer doesn’t spread itself on the garden. In cold weather you have to make sure that they don’t suffer from thirst – they can’t drink ice. In hot weather they can consume 3 or more bottles of water a day.
The big downside of raising any animal for meat is the process whereby cute gentle animals that you’ve known since birth get turned into food. It isn’t pleasant. On the other hand you can make sure that the deed is done humanely and you might gain a new respect for the fact that animals die for your food. It’s probably a bad thing that most of us human omnivores are so completely insulated from these realities. I guarantee that you will gain new insight from the experience, and it won’t harm your children to learn these facts first hand either. It didn’t hurt ours anyway.
You might even consider becoming a vegetarian. I’m pretty sure though that on average meat production was more humane when livestock was mostly raised and slaughtered on family farms than it is now where the animals are just a part of a commercial production system with lives of misery from the day they are born until the day they die. Backyard rabbits also won’t pollute our water like the huge lakes of filth that are excreted by factory “farms” do. Nor will they be the breeding ground of some future drug resistant super disease… But hey, those are just the little compromises that we make for the convenience of being able to get $3-4 whole fryers from the grocery store. Right?
Interesting tidbit that I heard on NPR recently – in some cases chickens are raised and slaughtered in the U.S., frozen, shipped to China, thawed, cut and processed, refrozen, then shipped back to the U.S. – because labor is so much cheaper in China. Makes you wonder where that McNugget has been doesn’t it?
You could also sell live rabbits for pets or breeding stock, but ultimately the most likely and practical reason to raise them is for meat – those other markets are quite limited in most areas – and honestly, selling rabbits for pets is probably not much more humane than raising them for meat.
You might wonder what rabbit meat is like. It is fairly accurate to say that it tastes like chicken, although in my experience it tends to be a bit dryer, and seems to be lower in fat. You can certainly substitute it in most recipes which call for chicken.
By now we have all heard the claims that meat production is very inefficient and uses far more resources than it would to simply eat the grain ourselves instead of feeding it to livestock. However, this doesn’t completely apply to animals which aren’t fed grain. Rabbits primarily eat grass which isn’t edible by humans, and can be grown on land which is less than ideal for row crops. Actually most rabbit raisers use pelleted feed which is made out of hay and alfalfa, and may also contain soybean and grain products. But you could feed your rabbits hay and other forage and they would do fine – if you know what you are doing. When meat was hard to come by in World War 2 France, breeding rabbits were highly prized and people sometimes cut grass from road sides to use as feed. Thus food for people was produced from inedible grass.
Domestic rabbits are derived from European wild rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) a different genera from wild North American cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus), and have been domesticated at least since Roman times. Wild North American rabbits do not do well in captivity.
Rabbit cages should be large enough for the animals to move about in and tall enough for them to stand up fully without reaching the top – so that they can stretch just like people do, but not so large that they can easily evade being caught. Cages can be built out of whatever material is available but the rabbits will chew on wood and over time it will have to be repaired or replaced. I have kept rabbits in wooden cages and it has never been a problem – they work at it slowly enough to allow you to do something about it first. Wooden hutches actually have the advantage of giving much more shelter than all wire cages, and if you give the rabbits a nice soft block of wood they will largely chew on that instead of their cage. Wire cages are a lot lighter though. Rabbit cages almost always have wire bottoms in order to be mostly self cleaning, although I have used cages that had floors made of 1 1/2″ wooden slats spaced 1/2″ apart and they worked fine, but took more effort to keep clean.
Rabbits need shelter from extreme weather. Locating them in an open shed which is shaded from summer sun, and can be sheltered by hanging tarps or plastic sheets when temperatures fall below zero is ideal. They must be protected from dogs, cats, hawks, and other predators – any carnivore will eat a rabbit. A fenced yard is best. Cages must be elevated above the ground, and waste removal from under the cages should be taken into account – they produce lots of it. It’s best if you can have at least 3 cages in a row, because your rabbits will socialize between cages, and they are less likely to fight when put together to breed. BTW, adult rabbits must be kept in separate cages if you want them to breed. The female is put into the male’s cage for only a few minutes at that time. You will also need extra cages to keep groups of juveniles in after they’ve been weaned.
I recommend that you start your rabbit herd with 2 females and one male of whatever meat breed is popular in your area – New Zealands, and Californians are good – as well as lops. The color doesn’t really matter as far as I’m concerned.
Rabbits can breed at about 6 months age depending upon the breed, and females can bear as many as 5 litters a year each – although 4 would be easier on them. This means that it is entirely possible for your two does to produce over 100 offspring per year – that’s rabbit meat twice a week on average. You can use some of the offspring to increase your herd if you want or to replace female breeders. It’s OK for your buck to be the father of the breeding does, but not to be a brother to them – ideally your breeding stock would all be unrelated individuals to start with. You could also take one of your does to visit another buck when you wish to increase your herd while preserving genetic diversity.
I don’t recommend that you start with long haired rabbits like angoras because they are more difficult to bread successfully, and all of that hair really makes a mess. Almost all of the few failed litters that I’ve experienced were from angora females. I also don’t recommend the smaller breeds unless you have a good reason – their litters are small, and they just aren’t very productive. Mixed breeds are fine as long as they are a good size – they are probably derived from the meat producing breeds anyway. Giant breeds such as Flemish giants are not quite as efficient for meat, and not really desirable for pets (kids like cute little bunnies), but a buck the size of a pit bull sure does look impressive…
IMHO Until you have some experience you shouldn’t spend extra money to buy registered breeding stock – if even then. This is my opinion and It does not agree with what other sources often say – it’s based on my experience and a suspicion that most of those who recommend that beginners buy pedigreed stock probably produce pedigreed rabbits. Even so, I don’t dispute that there are certainly advantages to buying pedigreed stock from a reputable experienced breeder.
I started this article because I thought that some of you might be interested in the subject, but in the course of writing it I’ve nearly talked myself into getting back into rabbit raising. We’ll see.
Before commenting on this article – If you are a Vegan, and would like to leave a reply please begin your comment by telling us how long you have been a vegan. If you are not a Vegan, and you take issue with this article on grounds of animal cruelty, please begin your comment with “I am a hypocrite” … All respectful comments are welcomed and encouraged – disrespectful ones will be swiftly deleted, please be civil.